On the cru­elty of our el­ders

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

GA Voice - - Outspoken - By Charles Stephens

I’ve been or­ga­niz­ing for as long as I’ve been breath­ing. It’s been mostly good, but not all the time. I got in­volved in this work never think­ing it would be some­thing I would do for this long. What was sup­posed to be a sort of gap year, the pe­riod be­tween col­lege and grad­u­ate school, be­came a gap decade. I never ac­tu­ally ended up go­ing to grad­u­ate school. This work, which has al­ways felt more like a call­ing, ended up be­ing my class­room, and it has been a pretty amaz­ing one at that.

Early on, maybe the sec­ond year or so that I worked in HIV preven­tion pro­fes­sion­ally, I had a pretty hard time. I didn’t use the word “ageism,” or maybe more ac­cu­rately “adul­tism,” to de­scribe what I was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, but look­ing back, that’s ex­actly what was hap­pen­ing.

I was opin­ion­ated, self-as­sured (at least some ways), and was very good at what I did. I kissed no rings, was rarely sub­mis­sive, avoided the “non­profit cast­ing couch,” and sought im­pact more than po­si­tional power. This was how I em­bod­ied “black queer young adult­hood.”

And though most of my com­mu­nity sup­ported me and was quite kind (I will for­ever be grate­ful to ZAMI and ADODI Muse, for ex­am­ple) there were oth­ers, a small group, who made it their busi­ness to put me in check ev­ery chance they got. This hap­pened to many of us in my gen­er­a­tion, my co­hort of early 2000s young black queer ac­tivists. Our hearts were bro­ken one too many times. Or we were be­trayed. Or abused. Or taken for granted. Some of our el­ders were com­pas­sion­ate. Oth­ers were not. This, I be­lieve, made the dif­fer­ence. I still think I was one of the luck­ier ones; this is why I re­mained long enough to tell the story. And yet, maybe I wasn’t that lucky, cer­tainly not all the time.

At the first re­treat I co­or­di­nated, a par­tic­i­pant, twice my age or more, be­came so an­gry that I didn’t call on him (which wasn’t in­ten­tional; we ran out of time, and I apol­o­gized) that he ex­pressed his anger right up in my face. He fi­nally spat on me. I would like to think it was un­in­ten­tional, but he cer­tainly did not apol­o­gize, even as I wiped his saliva off my face. Then there was an email—some­one made it their busi­ness to call me stupid (and mis­spelled the word “stupid” in the email), sim­ply be­cause he dis­agreed with some­thing I said in a work­shop.

There have been a few mal­con­tents who would run into my then-bosses’ of­fice ev­ery chance they got to ex­press what­ever frus­tra­tions they had with me. Of course this never worked, and I al­ways tri­umphed, al­ways, but the de­sire to tear me down was no less hurt­ful. There have been times when I was cursed out and at­tacked just be­cause I didn’t con­form to the model of “young black gay ac­tivist,” which ba­si­cally boiled down to be­ing seen and not heard. Those were the days!

For many of my peers, those of us of my gen­er­a­tion who co-founded col­lege or­ga­ni­za­tions, got started in non­prof­its, did amaz­ing or­ga­niz­ing and cul­tural work, wrote bril­liant blogs, and so forth, these kinds of ag­gres­sions were over­whelm­ing and painful. So we fled.

And yet, as I ap­proach many mile­stones next year, both per­sonal and pro­fes­sional, I am lonely for my friends and com­rades who started out with me, but ended up flee­ing move­ment work for their san­ity and well-be­ing.

“This hap­pened to many of us in my gen­er­a­tion, my co­hort of early 2000s young black queer ac­tivists. Our hearts were bro­ken one too many times. Or we were be­trayed. Or abused. Or taken for granted. Some of our el­ders were com­pas­sion­ate. Oth­ers were not. This, I be­lieve, made the dif­fer­ence.”

Oc­to­ber 16, 2015

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