On lov­ing the work

Charles Stephens is the Di­rec­tor of Counter Nar­ra­tive and co-editor of ‘Black Gay Ge­nius: An­swer­ing Joseph Beam’s Call.’

GA Voice - - Out Spoken - By Charles Stephens

Com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing is noth­ing if not hum­bling. You have to have nerves of steel. I mean, it’s beau­ti­ful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also hum­bling. It re­quires vul­ner­a­bil­ity on so many lev­els.

In the mo­ments lead­ing up to an event, the hours and min­utes be­fore, the self-doubts and sec­ond-guess­ing can be pretty in­tense. One might com­pare it to the fear of ro­man­tic rejection, which may be mor­ti­fy­ing, but po­lit­i­cal rejection is down­right heart­break­ing. When you pour your heart into an event, send count­less emails, sched­ule end­less con­fer­ence calls, beg for money, and at the ap­pointed mo­ment, the pos­si­bil­ity that no one may show up is a deep fear. It feels like dis­missal. How does one not take that per­son­ally?

Of course these feel­ings are ir­ra­tional. What I’ve found is that if you work hard on the front end, the peo­ple will come and the event will work out. That’s what I found when I co-or­ga­nized “Love and Jus­tice,” our com­mu­nity di­a­logue around HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion, one of the best events I’ve ever helped or­ga­nize.

The con­ver­sa­tion was on the Satur­day of this year’s La­bor Day week­end. We wanted to host our event dur­ing the an­nual At­lanta Black LGBT Pride fes­tiv­i­ties. A group of us came to­gether to make the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen: Robert Sut­tle of Sero Pro­ject, Ran­de­vyn Piérre of the Cen­ter for Black Eq­uity, and me.

The idea to host a com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tion about HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion was born from a num­ber of sources; the let­ter 116 of us sent to Michael L. John­son (who was im­pris­oned un­der Mis­souri’s HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion law) was a large part. As I worked with my col­leagues, I was also very aware, ex­tremely aware, of the history of black gay and bi­sex­ual men re­sist­ing the broader con­text of crim­i­nal­iza­tion, in­clud­ing ev­ery­one from Langston Hughes, who in his 1951 poem “Café: 3 A.M.” de­picted the po­lice ha­rass­ment of a black gay bar, to Joseph Beam’s cri­tique of state vi­o­lence in his an­thol­ogy “In the Life,” to Es­sex Hem­phill, who in his poem, “Oc­cu­pied Ter­ri­to­ries,” wrote: “You are not to touch other flesh/with­out a po­lice per­mit.” These are the shoul­ders we stood upon and the tra­di­tion we in­voked through our work; the an­ces­tral energy we called forth.

More about the con­ver­sa­tion: The gath­er­ing was in­ti­mate, maybe 13 or so of us, but we felt like an army. There was magic present. The magic that hap­pens when you’re able to co-cre­ate a space for black gay and bi­sex­ual men where we can just “be.”

I will ad­mit I was wor­ried the con­ver­sa­tion would be com­bat­ive and volatile. The topic is of­ten a di­vi­sive one. These dis­cus­sions about whether or not some­one should be im­pris­oned for not dis­clos­ing their HIV sta­tus (or be­ing un­able to prove they did), inspires very pas­sion­ate, of­ten per­sonal, re­sponses. But it didn’t feel volatile at all. Dur­ing the con­ver­sa­tion, we talked about the im­pli­ca­tions of sex and in­ti­macy for black gay men. We talked about heal­ing. We shared per­sonal sto­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences. We dis­cussed race and ho­mo­pho­bia. We had the kind of con­ver­sa­tion black gay and bi­sex­ual men have when the space is cre­ated for us to ex­press our­selves. If we are ever to ef­fec­tively build power among black gay and bi­sex­ual men to re­sist HIV crim­i­nal­iza­tion, it be­gins with base-build­ing through com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tions, sto­ry­telling, and shar­ing. This is the path for­ward.

“In the mo­ments lead­ing up to an event, the hours and min­utes be­fore, the self-doubts and sec­ond-guess­ing can be pretty in­tense. One might com­pare it to the fear of ro­man­tic rejection, which may be mor­ti­fy­ing, but po­lit­i­cal rejection is down­right heart­break­ing.”

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