Coming out as gay to your momat 13 is tough for many kids, but not for Cyon Flare. The 43-year-old performer says, “She knew, probably because I was walking around in cha-cha heels by the time I was 5 years old. In my family it was not labeled as a masculine or feminine thing…my mama didn’t play that!” It didn’t hurt that Flare’s mother, Ida, is also gay.
“She came out when I was around 4 years old,” he recalls. “I think she had just grown tired of living a lie. I have multiple siblings, some with different fathers…and then one day I noticed that there were no men coming over anymore and the next day I noticed that women were coming over. I had a normal life growing up; I had the same growing pains that everybody else had. For me, the shock wasn’t my family’s reaction to my mom, because they were very accepting of her. What was shocking to me was the outside world and how they reacted to her.”
Of course, this was Detroit in the 1970s. Still, Flare brags, “She is an out and proud lesbian that raised four boys, two girls, and several other children from past lovers/partners. The rule of the house was to live how you want to live as long as you aren’t hurting anybody or yourself. So I grew up in a household without judgment, without shame; simply put, I grew up in a house of equality.” (For the record, Flare has two aunts — Terrell and Minnie — who are also gay. “Yes, half of the adults in my family are lesbians.”)
Flare, who has been living with HIV for 14 years, blossomed with that early encouragement. He started performing in Detroit in the early ‘90s, just as “AIDS made itself very present in the black community, and it was because of the death of so many performers, friends, and family who brought such color and radiance to the community that I really got inspired/moved to creating costumes/headdresses and wearing glitter — all that and a pair of heels helped me to make a statement with a purpose.”
He says he was “born out of the loss of so many artists, performers, drag queens — people who brought happiness and joy to our communities.”
With star DJs and nightclub owners backing him, Flare grew into a musician as well, with two Billboard dance chart hits, including “Everybody Everybody.” Today he’s one of Chicago’s most beloved performers, showing up at clubs, festivals, and even International Mr. Leather competitions.
“I’m trying to be everywhere and anywhere that embraces my art and message,” Flare says, blushing. And part of that message is about HIV. “I have chosen to believe that HIV has not changed my life so much as it has illuminated it. HIV has helped me to recognize the ‘I’ in me. Being HIV-positive has helped me to see the value of who and what I say I am. Somehow the greatest struggle for me, and many others, has been learning how to love myself. No one can just wake up and decide to love oneself. I have found that it’s a lifelong process and not a onetime event.”
He says the judgment and rejection he felt after he contracted HIV helped him discover that HIV did not need to define him, and having his mom’s support that helped him embrace life after HIV. “It didn’t stop me from dreaming; in fact it pushed me to dream bigger but add some glitter pumps and feathers for the long haul,” he says. “The light of HIV has changed my life; no shame, no shade.”
Today he says he’s “doing my best to be out there on the front lines fighting the stigma of HIV. I feel that our community has grown too comfortable with embracing the current HIV meds as a way to deal with it and make it ‘manageable,’ yet ignoring that HIV has always been more than just about a virus.”
He says we need to admit that “HIV is very mentally, emotionally, and spiritually damaging. Fighting the stigma of HIV, for me, is like trying to find a cure. It’s my belief that stigma is largely responsible for the increasing rate of HIV infections in the black community. As a black gay man I feel that it is my duty to use all of my energies to try and help make a difference in all communities dealing with the stigma of HIV. I don’t want to be known for just being fabulous; that’s like being a broken one-of-a-kind lamp meant to light up a room, beautifully built and useless.”
It’s not just in the world of performance that Flare has had an impact. He was until recently a program outreach coordinator for Chicago’s Center on Halsted, creating safe spaces for young gay and bi men of color to deal with HIV and other wellness issues. Many of his clients were high school students, some “homeless, jobless, rejected by their families” for being gay. “I love working with young people and helping to empower them to recognize their own voice,” he says, which is why he plans to start his own nonprofit, United House, to focus on “uniting and igniting the community through performance art, HIV awareness education, and building community partnerships.”
Flare is also caring for his aging mother, who is battling heart disease and has had a stroke. Now a full-time caregiver and part-time performer, Flare admits, “Yes, taking care of myself can be very hard work. Many times I’ve placed my health second to last because I’ve put my mother’s life before mine. But this is another kind of expression of love for me. Taking care of Mom, for me, means taking care of me too! Mom will yell at me, ‘When is your ass going to the damn doctor?’ Trust me, I need my reminders as well. She keeps me grounded and helps me to remember that no matter what the world calls me, I’m still her baby.”
He’s also back in the studio, recording a new song called “Friendly Love,” dedicated to an anti-stigma campaign that’s dear to his heart, called Mr. Friendly. “I’m best friends/spiritual brothers with Dave Watt, the creator and founder of Mr. Friendly, and his message mirrors my own. Fighting stigma means talking about it; in my case, I’m gonna sing about it too!”
And while he’s talking and singing about all this, he says he’s encouraging others to learn the facts, not the myths, of HIV. “Many times when I’m onstage performing or facilitating a youth group, in or out of drag, people are still shocked when I say, ‘I’m HIV-positive, living positively.’ They gasp because I don’t look like whatever is in their heads when they think of HIV as a death sentence. We cannot over emphasize the facts about how the virus is transmitted, but we must also do this while displaying an authenticity that people can feel. Real talk is something my mother would have with me and my brothers; she kept shit real, no filters, just raw, dirty truth, unapologetically. She served us that every day of our lives and still does to this day.”