Daniel J. Downer builds capacity through his Bros in Convo Initiative

Interview and photography by Sean Black

After the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in his hometown of Orlando, Daniel J. Downer turned grief and exasperation into action.

“Pulse was a unique and sacred space in Orlando for individuals to find joy. It was also a space for individuals to find community,” Downer says. He understands the importance of fellowship. “Spaces like Pulse offered Black and Brown folk opportunities to open up and share with one another community resources like where to go for [STI] testing, where to access PrEP or where to get linked to HIV care.”

In 2017, Downer founded The Bros in Convo Initiative to help educate and empower gay and queer individuals of color like himself, offering an LGBTQ drop-in space at the Stafford House operated in partnership with Miracle of Love, Inc., Central Florida’s oldest and largest minority non-profit organization. The Bros in Convo Initiative is strategically situated in the Parramore Heritage area, one of Orlando’s oldest and historically Black neighborhoods. It’s a rich downtown enclave in close proximity to the LBGTQ+ districts of Thornton Park and Lake Eola.

“I was noticing a lot of gaps, specifically when it came to educating, empowering and connecting bisexual, gay and queer men of color to services,” says Downer. “I wanted to create a space where these individuals could come together to find community; where we could share our struggles, our challenges and our pain and most importantly where we could share resources that really would help us be our healthiest selves.”

A close friend of Downer’s turned him on to the HIV 360 Fellowship Program sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign, and he was accepted.

“It was an amazing, beautiful six months of learning from [HRC], but also learning from my cohort members, and really beginning to take what was my dream and build it out,” he says. “I received activation grant funds. And that’s really how it was birthed.

“One of the things that makes The Bros in Convo Initiative unique is that we are 100% community driven; everything from our marketing to our programming services, all of our initiatives, are driven by community,” he adds. “We try to think about all the various tenets that comprise the Black and Brown experience within our LGBTQ community; we talk about transportation and how we can make transportation equitable to all of the individuals who [need and] want to access our programs and services.”

Last year Bros in Convo was featured in HIV.gov’s continuing series #NHASEverywhere, spotlighting the work being done in communities across the nation to help reach the goals of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS). Bros in Convo’s programming aligns with NHAS objective 3.3: Engage, employ, and provide public leadership opportunities at all levels for people with or who experience risk for HIV. They have adapted and expanded their capacity-building programming to include ELEVATE, a leadership development training program for people of color living with HIV in collaboration with the Florida Department of Health. The program provided participants with mentorship, skills and tools to become actively engaged in planning bodies and other efforts to address the goals of the NHAS.

After eighteen years of dogma and teaching… there were things I had to unlearn. Part of this unlearning  gave me the confidence to begin to accept who I was,  as a queer person, and not to feel like I had  to cover or hide.

Growing up in a conservative Christian and Southern household, the majority of Downer’s early childhood and adolescent years were spent as a minister’s kid, heavily involved in various church activities, in particular leading the music and youth ministries.

“My very first job was working at a homeless shelter in Atlanta called Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless [known locally] as Peachtree and Pine,” he says. “The shelter had such a high number of bisexual, gay, queer and trans individuals as well as guys on the down-low. I came from a conservative household where all of my friends were preachers’ kids. So, I didn’t know anyone who was gay, queer or trans. And so, I [began] this journey of checking my own internalized homophobia and toxic masculinity—up to that point, all I had been taught about gay, queer and trans individuals was that it was a sin. I was trying to figure out my feelings, my attraction, my affection. And in this space in Atlanta, [I saw] that these people are the complete opposite of everything that I’ve ever been told. I realized they are human beings, and they actually treat me better than how I was treated [growing up] in a Christian household.

“After eighteen years of dogma and teaching… there were things I had to unlearn. Part of this unlearning gave me the confidence to begin to accept who I was, as a queer person, and not to feel like I had to cover or hide.”

Using this experience, Downer also helps his LGBTQ peers address the high rates of HIV in the South, one of the hardest hit areas in the United States. AIDSvu.org reports that in 2019, 474,786 people were living with HIV in the South while 19,100 people were newly diagnosed with HIV. Black people comprise 50.4% of new HIV diagnoses, more than double that of Hispanics/Latinx (24.4%) and White people (21.6%). Additionally, Black people made up 14% of PrEP users in 2021, but 42% of new HIV diagnoses in 2020, while White people made up 65% of PrEP users in 2021 and 25% of new HIV diagnoses in 2020.

“We know that PrEP is highly effective in reducing HIV transmission when taken as prescribed,” says Downer. “But I think it is important for public health officials to intentionally create sociocultural appropriate messaging around pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) when it comes to gay and queer individuals of color but also to intentionally build a public health infrastructure that is low barrier when it comes to access of PrEP and positively supports gay and queer individuals of color that are on PrEP.”

‘I always like to point out and stress that they need to put their health first.’

Downer’s mission centers on building and developing the organization’s capacity and leadership through implementation and evaluation of targeted programming with a focus on rapid response to the community’s needs. He also leads the formation of new strategic partnerships and is part of the organization’s procurement and securing of resources and funding.

Downer is a COMPASS Initiative grantee and has been recognized in 2018 by GLAAD and in 2019 by The Red Door Foundation. He has been awarded the Demetrick Brown Humanitarian Award, Watermark’s Most Remarkable Persons in Central Florida (both 2020) and the Orlando Trailblazer Award presented 2021 at the annual Harvey Milk Breakfast & LGBT+ Center Diversity Awards.

“I always describe to people that the work we do is complementary to existing programs [geared toward] ending the HIV epidemic,” he says. “We’re not really trying to duplicate the great work that community partners are already doing. I think where the magic happens for us, what’s really special about us, is that we have the ability to fill in those unique gaps that maybe our community partners are not able to. Our vision, even our identity as an organization, has always been centered around expanding programming and services, as the needs of the community expand or retract, or even pivot and shift with the community’s needs. I also think it’s very reflective of how deeply connected we are to the community, how intentional we are when it comes to making the community the primary stakeholder in our organization, and just what I think the future of ending the HIV epidemic looks like.”

To learn more about The Bros in Convo Initiative, GO TO brosinconvo.org.