LGBTQ&A: Abdul-Aliy Muhammad

We chat with the queer social-justice activist on the rationale behind his direct-action tactics and how to strengthen HIV/AIDS advocacy in Philadelphia.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad. Photography by Louie Ortiz-Fonseca.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad. Photography by Louie Ortiz-Fonseca.

Abdul-Aliy Muhammad is a black queer social-justice activist and member of the Black and Brown Workers Collective, a coalition of LGBTQ protestors of color who have been consistently targeting Gayborhood racism. We chatted with the community leader about his direct-action tactics and passion for HIV/AIDS advocacy.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am from Philadelphia. I grew up mostly in West Philadelphia with my mother, Ummi, and three of my siblings. My mother and I were extremely close — most people that know me can tell you how much her presence and love have left an indelible mark on my life.

I was born into a Muslim home and therefore had been given an Arabic name. Growing up, I mostly was into books and writing. I would compose short stories, mostly about witches or imaginative creatures, until when in middle school a teacher read an essay I had done and encouraged me to enter a poetry contest. This awakened the poet within, which is still present today.

In terms of work, it has been centered mostly in the field of HIV prevention. I’ve worked as an HIV prevention counselor and program coordinator, and I have done research-based work as well. Currently I spend my time organizing and facilitating anti-oppression workshops. Outside of prevention, I’m passionate about cooperative economies and collective visioning. I sit on the board of Mariposa Food Cooperative in West Philly, and was newly elected to the board of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA).

You are a member of the Black and Brown Workers Collective, a social-justice activism group for LGBTQ people of color that has led direct actions addressing racism in the Gayborhood. Can you explain the reasoning behind your organization’s unconventional tactics, such as disrupting award ceremonies and the mayor’s press conferences?
Resistance or liberatory work is an absolute necessity and a practice that moves trauma to something actionable. It isn’t happenstance or reactionary. The work of the collective has always been and will continue to be strategic. Direct action is our primary praxis for creating, as founder Shani Akilah puts it often, “a crisis of consciousness” for people within the power structure. The mission of our collective is to address and disrupt pervasive whiteness within nonprofits and other work spaces. The reason for this disparity is because of institutional and systemic racism. To be equitable would mean that government and nonprofits alike would have representation that reflects Philadelphia’s population. Lastly, this is survival work. People who’ve said that this is for self-aggrandizement don’t understand that putting your body on the ground to respond to anti-Blackness in the Gayborhood is resistive and necessary work. This is work that’s not applauded, but remains integral to liberation.

You recently started a petition calling for Mayor Kenney to replace Nellie Fitzpatrick as LGBT Affairs liaison. The Mayor’s Office responded by referring to the over 150 signatures the petition garnered as “a small core of activists” and saying that the “LGBT community is by and large pleased with Nellie’s performance.” What do you make of the office’s apparent pushback on community concerns surrounding Fitzpatrick’s leadership?
The posture of city government is incongruent with the current realities of Black and Brown communities that are within the city’s confines. To pretend that there wasn’t/isn’t obstruction from governmental bodies with regard to addressing incidents of racial bias in the Gayborhood is not factual and speaks to the anti-Blackness within institutions of power. To reduce the failure of leadership within the office of LGBT Affairs and the Mayor’s Office to frustrations of a supposed “small core of activists” shows that these institutions are unable to actively listen and respond to challenges facing Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC). Within the context of anti-Black racism, these institutions either choose to ignore or reduce the trauma of Black and Brown community members.

As the petition posits, there are alternatives to what we see currently. It proves that there are people who are reflective of communities most impacted by policies and practices of municipal government and nonprofits who are able to lead us forward. There are clearly legitimate concerns with the current director and her ability to represent the community as a whole.

World AIDS Day was on December 1st, and you’re a very vocal about the improvements that need to happen pertaining to HIV/AIDS advocacy in Philadelphia. As a poz activist, what can nonprofits in the Gayborhood do better to improve treatment and awareness disparities here in the city?
Listening to poz community would be a start. Too often seronegative people are at the forefront of conversations about policy and or implementation of programs and initiatives. Especially those that surveil and police the intimacy of people with HIV/AIDS. What I know from working in the context of nonprofits that specialized in HIV programming is that people are often seen from the standpoint of deliverables and not as fully human.

What we know about HIV/AIDS is that QTPOC are most impacted by the epidemic currently, and that the concentration of new infections is in youth between the ages of 13 and 24. The latest lifetime projections for Black and Latinx MSM (men who have sex with men) are 1 in 2 and 2 in 4. This is beyond alarming and speaks to the need to include strategies that address race and class as markers for HIV vulnerability — biomedical strategies alone won’t suffice in eradicating HIV.

Reflecting on the prevalent stigma facing poz individuals that targets them as “at fault” for becoming HIV positive is overwhelmingly felt in nonprofit spaces. This narrative leads to the normalization of policing intimacy, surveillance of one’s medical data, and moralism in the work to end this epidemic.

What are five major changes in the city’s LGBTQ community you hope will happen next year?
1. Conversation spaces that center youth, sex workers, and poz community members.
2. The creation of safe(r) spaces for QTPOC in and outside of the Gayborhood.
3. See nonprofits in the Gayborhood become more inclusive and equitable in leadership positions and on the board level.
4. Change the director of the office of LGBT Affairs to someone with an intersectional lens.
5. Put pressure on Darryl DePiano to sell ICandy to send a clear message.