By Charles Stephens and Andrew Spieldenner

Two African American gay men have died in one white gay man’s home in West Hollywood in just over a year. Crystal meth and sex were involved in the relationships.

The response of the HIV community will be critical to what happens next.

Despite the HIV movement being on the vanguard of addressing the needs of people who use crystal meth, we have been less successful in supporting people who engage in sex work. The movement has continued to fail black gay men, especially those who engage in sex work and/or use crystal meth. How do we have a conversation about crystal meth, sex, power and racial/sexual trauma without problematizing the drug use or sex? Is it possible to consider that drug use is a sane response to managing institutionalized trauma? Can we talk about how these African American men got to be in this environment—where a white gay man controlled their access to drugs and sex? Can we discuss crystal meth use in the context of race, sex, and power, and other forms of control and domination?

The deaths of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean have brought about an unspeakable rage and pain for many of us. Rage and pain toward a system that refused to charge and prosecute Ed Buck. Rage and pain toward a mainstream media that resists covering this horror as extensively as it deserves. And rage and pain toward an LGBTQ community that still barely lifts a finger to address the white supremacy wedged into its institutions. However, as we grieve, we continue to fight, because as we see time and time again, our lives depend on it.

This is what we know so far: both Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean were found dead at the home of Ed Buck, a 64 year-old, prominent Democratic donor, ex-model and businessman, who once ran for the West Hollywood City Council. Gemmel Moore was found first, back in 2017. His body was discovered on a mattress in Buck’s living room, naked. The coroner's report said it was methamphetamine overdose that killed him. There was an investigation, however the District Attorney’s office declined to file charges against Ed Buck: not murder, not voluntary manslaughter, not furnishing Moore drugs, not even drug possession. Apparently Ed Buck knew the right people to make sure he wasn’t charged.

We must understand that harm reduction is not just about protecting people who use drugs from the harms that may arise from substance abuse, but also creating systems and structures to protect people who use drugs from structural violence. Crystal meth exposes vulnerabilities in our communities, institutions and personal lives. For those of us who have been active in the crystal meth community, we know how power dynamics can be exacerbated by who supplies the drug and how it’s distributed. Whatever happened in Ed Buck’s home is not an isolated incident. We have to hold the Ed Bucks accountable to move forward as a community.

The HIV community has done extensive work with crystal meth use. Many large HIV organizations in the United States have initiatives to understand, support and provide services to people using crystal meth—especially gay men. But we also live in a community where it’s easier to isolate people or ignore people when they develop serious challenges due to substance use. We turn away without providing resources. In this society, it’s so easy to dismiss people with substance use issues as weak or evil, as somehow “less than” for not being able to “handle it.”

There is a violence committed to people, even after death, when narratives surrounding them further stigmatize who they were. The things many of us do to cope with structural violence and trauma, the things we do for survival, or even the things we do for pleasure, once discovered, can fuel narratives about us, that become weaponized. Yes, drugs and sex were involved in the deaths of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean. Yes, there was some kind of exchange involved with Ed Buck. We need to have community discussions that acknowledge and do not vilify or sensationalize these facts. In the HIV community we must continue to uplift, elevate, and support our artists and storytellers to create our own narratives. For those of us who work at the intersection of HIV justice and harm reduction this can be a powerful means to proliferate more complicated narratives of who we are, as a way to inspire greater public empathy and shift structures. As we see with the already waning public attention being paid to what happened to Gemmel Moore and TImothy Dean, we can not always depend on the mainstream media to tell our stories. Thus, the HIV community could play an important role in supporting storytellers from citizen journalists to screenwriters, in creating our own narratives. Journalists, writers, and cultural workers like Jasmyne Cannick, whose courageous journalism and advocacy has kept pressure on the powers that be and has been the leading media voice going after Ed Buck. Filmmaker Michael Rice and writer and activist George M. Johnson, just to name two, have played a critical role in this discussion, and have been models of activist journalism.

HIV funders can also play a critical role in pushing LGBTQ funders to support efforts seeking justice for Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean. Funders could support grassroots efforts, invest in citizen journalism, and resource coalition building efforts, particularly on the ground in Los Angeles. Most critically funders at the intersections of HIV, LGBTQ community and harm reduction should collaborate on convening, resourcing, and supporting research and action around people who use crystal meth and anti-black racism and white supremacy.

As we mourn the deaths of two black men, at least, we also gear up for what will likely be a long arduous fight. A fight to ensure justice is done in the names of the dead, dignity is restored and reforms are made in the institutions that previously failed. The HIV justice movement must be a part of this work. We must hold each other responsible, even through the discomfort and pain.

Charles Stephens is the Founder and Executive Director of The Counter Narrative Project.

Andrew Spieldenner is an Assistant Professor of Health Communication at California State University, San Marcos, and Chair of the US People Living with HIV Caucus.