Someone You Should Know: An interview of Dr. David Malebranche

David J. Malebranche, MD, MPH, is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician, public health activist with expertise in HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention and treatment and racial disparities research. The Schenectady, New York, native is known to go beyond routine care to fight for better support and empowerment for Black same-gender-loving men. 

In 1996, Dr. Malebranche received his medical degree from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. He has additional training from New York-Presbyterian Hospital (1996-1999) and completed a preventive medicine residency at the New York City Department of Health (1999-2001).

He is known as a dynamic speaker and has shared his expertise on HIV in the African American community for news organizations such as ABC, BET, CNN, and TV One. Dr. Malebranche also served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) from 2006 – 2008.

Dr. Malebranche has worked for the who’s who medical organizations such as; Emory University’s Department of General Medicine, University of Pennsylvania’s Student Health Center, WellStar Health Services, Cobb County Adult Detention Center, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the AIDS Foundation of Atlanta.

He has published several articles for public health and medical publications. Malebranche contributed to the anthology For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out, and Coming Home.” In 2015 he self-published, Standing on His Shoulders: What I Learned about Race, Life, and High Expectations from My Haitian Superman Father the story of Malebranche and his love for his father. The title comes from a phrase his dad used to say his children. “That’s why me and your mother worked so hard. Because we want you to stand on our shoulders and see farther than we ever did.” Malebranche shared his journey to becoming a physician, how he came out and why activism is essential. 

PrideIndex (PI): Good morning and welcome, Dr. David Malebranche. I want to thank you for agreeing to do this early morning interview with me for PrideIndex. The first things I would like to ask are, Where are you from? Could you describe the journey that has brought you to the point you are today?

David Malebranche (DM): I was born in Schenectady, New York. I attended Princeton in New Jersey. It was during my junior year in college when I started to explore my attraction to other men. It was at an old school club called Tracks in New York City. We’d take the train from Princeton Junction to New York City, and I met this brother who was an undergrad at Morehouse at the time. We hit it off, and he invited me to Atlanta. 

The first time I went, it was probably in 1989 or 1990. I was so amazed because I went to see this brother in December. It was 70+ degrees, and I was like, “Wow, it’s so warm down here, it’s beautiful,” and it was so green. Being from upstate New York, the Schenectady-Albany area, it’s not warm that time of year. You have like six months of winter. I was so amazed that it was warm. In Schenectady, where I lived, there weren’t too many black people. Visiting Atlanta was utterly different than what I had experienced in upstate New York and at Princeton. Seeing all the black people that spoke back when you said “hello,” was excellent. 

I became attracted to Atlanta in general that when I started to apply to medical schools, I went to Emory. I actually got rejected and waitlisted and later found out it was a clerical error. I enrolled at Michigan State and then applied for a transfer halfway through my medical school in Michigan and got into Emory. That started my journey in Atlanta, and after I finished residency in New York City, I immediately came back down to Atlanta and started as faculty at Emory in 2001. I also worked in Philly for three years because I needed a change. A bunch of other stuff was going on, but for the better part of the past two decades; 17 years, I’ve lived in Atlanta. 

PI: Did you always want to be a physician growing up?

DM: My father was a physician. He was born and raised in Haiti. I’m a first-generation Haitian-American. He was a surgeon, but he practiced more like a family medicine old school doctor. You could say he was like a Marcus Welby, for the people that would remember that far back. Surgeons nowadays tend to be kind of cold. They just want to cut it out and then move on. They don’t focus on the personal aspect of the relationship with their patients. My dad was different, and he spent a lot of time talking to his patients. He knew members of their families; what they did, remembered things about them, then did the surgical stuff. On a certain level, he was kind of a transcendent figure for me. Seeing him growing up, he was kind of like a Superman. Watching him, I got inspired to get into the medical profession. 

As I got older, I started to question whether I wanted to get into medicine just to appease him or whether I wanted to do it myself. My dad was very hardcore about success, good grades, and doing well, kind of that typical Caribbean immigrant mentality. I was always interested in entertainment. I was interested in music and the arts, and I used to DJ for club parties. I used to do radio at college and medical school. I used to do skits and performances with different friends about life at Ivy League institutions. I still had to write like an English major. So, I was interested in all those things. 

As I started to think about what I wanted to do, I also began modeling back in the day. While I was in medical school at Michigan State, I had an opportunity to go to Japan to sign a modeling contract. I decided to turn it down. I thought that I could be very successful doing that for a short period, but the Haitian in me was like, take the more secure road. If you put that effort into the medical school, you’re going to get it, and then you’ll have the MD when you get out, and then you can do what you want to. So, I stayed in school, and I didn’t regret that I almost failed out of medical school. 

By the time I was in medical school at Emory, I had started to realize and crystallized what specialty I wanted. I wasn’t so much interested in surgery. I was good at it, but I wasn’t interested in it. That was the mid-90s, and HIV was a big thing here in Atlanta. {XYZ} Hospital had a lot of patients living with HIV. I observed how poorly medical staff would treat the people living with HIV. They really treated them like shit. They would double, triple glove. They would ignore a patient if they had shit on themselves and had a diarrheal illness related to their HIV infection. I remember watching the way that people treated folks living with HIV like lepers. I said to myself, and I could do this better than them. That inspired me to get involved in internal medicine and then sub-specialize in HIV, which I began to explore during residency and in New York City and later when I returned as faculty in Atlanta in 2001.

PI: Wow. Good for you. That is so good and commendable to hear the journey that led you into HIV medicine.

DM: Yeah. That was on the professional tip. It wasn’t directly affecting many close friends but affecting some people in my periphery, and my social networks were becoming exposed to HIV. I was finding out about people who were living with HIV. A very good friend of mine tested positive in 1993-94, which shook me as well. It was a combination of a professional journey, seeing this, and then a personal journey, seeing it up close, that got me on board with making that a part of what I wanted to do with not just a job or work, but what I call my career or ministry.

PI: Why is activism so important to you?

DM: It’s important to me; I started to realize and still realize to this day, there aren’t a lot of black, same-gender-loving physicians out there who, one, work in the HIV field, and two, can speak to certain things. You start to realize over time and this is just a kind of evolutionary journey. As I was doing my work and growing as a faculty member into young adulthood and middle age, I’ve been afforded many privileges. It was great to have both of my parents around to raise me. My father was very concerned about me doing well in school and placed high expectations on me. And a mother who nurtured and supported me. Chances and opportunities that I know not all of us get. It is great to be bestowed with a certain amount of knowledge, speak authoritatively on certain things. To have the training, expertise and, experience of over two decades doing this work is something that I don’t take lightly. 

I’ve always been that one, particularly when it comes to racial issues to speak up. When shit would happen, and someone would be like, David, did you see that? Nobody else would speak up; I would be the one to say, “Hey, this is wrong,” or bring it to the administration, vocalize it, or bring it to the course director. When it comes to the work I do now as a physician, public health activist, black, same-gender-loving man; I can’t neatly extract all those components of who I am. 

PI: You’re very open when it comes to revealing your status in terms of being a same-gender-loving person. Why are you so honest about that?

DM: It’s a journey. I knew I was attracted to men from high school into college; I started messing around with guys in college. I still had girlfriends at the time and was trying to play like I was with girlfriends, but I knew what I was attracted to. You can’t fake an attraction to someone; it just felt different with a man than it did with a woman for me. It felt more organic and felt more natural. In my early 20s, while I was in medical school, I told my mother about what was going on. I just had a heated exchange with my friend over the phone and was pissed off. My mother looked at me and said, “What’s wrong?” I was so upset; I couldn’t fake it with her. I couldn’t lie. I said, “I just fought with my boyfriend,” and then I just told her. She knew; she had a sense. Then we figured out how to tell my father about a year later. Because, you know, embracing same-gender-love and having a Caribbean background doesn’t necessarily always mix well. 

Once my parents knew, I had zero fucks to give about who else knew or who else cared. For the better part of 30 years now, very open and honest about myself to the point of nonchalance. That’s a journey. I don’t embrace the whole motif of coming out of the closet. For some reason, that never resonated with me. I know that it resonates with many people, but it never resonated with me; I never felt trapped inside something. I’ve always embraced this thing about letting and inviting people into my life. My journey was just an evolution into fully accepting who I was. 

PI: Are you currently seeing anyone, or are you single?

DM: I’m single, but I tried to do something earlier this year, but it just didn’t pan out.

PI: You’re an educator, author, activist, internal medicine physician; how could you possibly have time to meet people? 

DM: You have to make time to meet people who understand that they may not always be the top priority. I’ve had relationships where the other person wanted me to drop everything and prioritize them. I won’t say I can’t do that. But it’s challenging. 

People make wrong assumptions about me based on my occupation as a physician. They think I have a particular social life, date “that” kind of guy, or have sure finances. I can guarantee you; it’s wrong. 

My father died in January 2020; it threw me for a loop; he had been on and off ill from 2013 until he died; I had put my life on pause. I was kind of in a holding pattern when it came to relationships. 

PI: Are you searching for Mr. Right and having a family and a white picket fence? (Well, a lavender picket fence)

DM: I’m 52-years-old, and I used to have dreams of having biological children. I kept pushing that off. In my 20s, I was focusing on school and my residency. In my 30s, I was trying to hustle and get my career, and I kept putting it off. I thought maybe I’ll start a family by age 35 or 40. Then when I reached 45, and thought, “You know what, I’m too old.” It’s not a priority for me. I won’t completely rule it out. I know that I’m capable of being in a loving relationship when Mr. Right comes along. 

I’m a big proponent of open communication; as long as he is open and honest with me about his wants and desires, I think it could happen. 

PI: Besides your first book, do you have any other writings in the works?

DM: I’ve published academic research articles and medical narrative stuff in JAMA, Annals of Internal Medicine, and journals like that. That’s been fun. I want to write a book on more close to my heart, an instruction manual on what caretaking means. There’s no how-to manual to handle it. I don’t see many stories talking about what that does to you or how you grow and evolve during that whole time. As Toni Morrison said, “If you don’t see a book that tells your story, then write it.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

The book will be retelling some of the stories and interactions with my dad that helped shape me. It will start in 2019 when I found out he needed surgery. I’m about halfway to three quarters through in the process of writing the first draft. With my first book, I was so worried that my dad would die at any moment that I self-published the book on Amazon. I knew going the traditional route could mean a lot of back and forth that could take a year or two. But this time, I think I will go more of the traditional route with a publishing house. 

PI: What about going into television? Have you ever thought about doing a regular TV show? Are you open to it if someone were to approach you?

DM: Yeah, I would consider doing that. I’ve become comfortable, over time, sitting in front of the camera and talking to people. I’ve appeared on television before. I’m open to considering it on a regular basis, even if it were to be a nontraditional thing. 

I did something with the Counter Narrative Project called Revolutionary Health but stepped back as my father started to get sick. This wonderful brother, Michael Ward, took it over as the host. He’s been doing a lot of stuff with Revolutionary Health. After my father’s passing, I was a different person. I didn’t have the energy to put into that anymore. I continued to appear as a guest every once in a while on that show. 

I’ve also been doing stuff with the Kaiser Family Foundation. I’ve worked on the HIV PSA campaign with them. THE CONVERSATION about COVID-19 with W. Kamau Bell. Those kinds of things are fun to do.

PI: What are your long-term goals? What’s next for you on the horizon? 

DM: I’m 52. I don’t want to work all my life. My dad was doing surgeries up until he was 68. My mom was working right alongside him until he had a stroke before he was supposed to go to work one morning. They worked together, so she retired with him. I don’t want to keep pounding the pavement until that. I can see myself working in an academic institution, seeing patients, teaching young physicians, physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, or public health personnel. I could still see myself doing some research. I could see myself working, possibly for the CDC, a pharmaceutical company, I could see myself doing all those things on a professional level.