“The black gay male experience is profoundly alienating,” says Charles Stephens in front of a packed audience. The founder of the Counter Narrative Project was at the 18th Annual United States Conference on AIDS and once again trying to explain what it’s truly like — as opposed to how the media portrays it — to be black and gay and HIV-positive.
Later, Stephens elaborates, telling HIV Plus, “As black gay men, more often than not, we are denied a history, denied a culture, and often represented in the most narrow and simplistic forms. We are robbed of our lovely complexity far too often in mainstream culture, and that is in itself a form of violence. To strip someone of their complexity is to strip them of their humanity.”
While LGBT folks celebrate the newfound acceptance they feel with the progress of marriage equality, others aren’t experiencing the same euphoria. Several of the remaining anti–marriage equality holdouts are states in the Deep South, where many black LGBT people still find themselves ostracized by both their spiritual communities and biological families.
Even when they couldn’t rely on the government or society as a whole, black folks had always been able to count on their churches and their families. Leo Moore, MD, an internal medicine resident at the Yale University School of Medicine, spoke at the conference about the pain black gay men experience when “our families — our biological families — abandon us.”
Then there’s the broader LGBT population: “Imagine being a black gay man and coming ‘home’ into a place where you assume that you will be accepted,” Stephens says, and instead, you’re left “enduring deliberate marginalization, silencing, and dismissal. We think about these spaces — Castro, Chelsea, Midtown Atlanta — as being revolutionary and almost utopian. But we forget, for many black gay men, particularly in the ’70s and early ’80s, the racism they experienced, being denied entry into clubs and bars, for example, [and] the minimization of black gay art and literature.”
Although things have gotten better through the years, Stephens acknowledges, “I’m also very aware of the racism that exists today within LGBT institutions. It’s a conversation we must be courageous enough to keep having.”
The alienation many black gay men feel after being rejected by multiple communities often leaves them with only each other to rely on — especially if they also have HIV.
Keith Green, a well-known spoken word artist, HIV activist, and former director of federal affairs for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, echoes that sentiment: “This is who we are. These are our own lives we are saving.”
That oft-repeated phrase — “saving ourselves” — is used by black gay men involved in HIV work as well as part of a new annual Tennessee-based symposium dedicated to bringing leaders in various disciplines together to address the health and wellness of black LGBT people living in the South.
It is both this need for self-reliance and the feeling of running out of time that leads activists like Stephens to talk about the importance of gay black men remembering “our legacy” around HIV and AIDS.
“Our stories matter,” Stephens explains. “We can’t just leave it up to white gay men to tell the story of the ’80s, we must put forth our own narratives. One of the worst things AIDS took from us, as black gay men, has been our stories. Which is why we must keep telling them and keep remembering them. Where there is memory there is resilience.”