The lan­guage of trauma is si­lence: Part 1

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

Over the past week I’ve been fu­ri­ously email­ing ev­ery pub­lic health of­fi­cial I can think of, ev­ery agency, ev­ery friend con­nected to the world of re­search, con­cern­ing mor­tal­ity data for black gay men who have been di­ag­nosed with HIV. This has been in part due to my de­sire to see how the data, specif­i­cally in the last decade—the “Aughts,” if you will, match my own ex­pe­ri­ence, as some­one who can’t seem to tell a story from my ear­lier ac­tivist years with­out end­ing it with, “but he passed away.”

The other piece is that though there has been se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion around the rates of black gay men get­ting tested for HIV, be­ing di­ag­nosed with HIV, get­ting linked to care, get­ting into treat­ment, and be­com­ing vi­rally sup­pressed; there has not been as much el­e­vated dis­cus­sion around our deaths.

I know that black gay men in 2015 are still dy­ing. Deaths that ab­so­lutely sug­gest a level of sys­tem­atic neg­li­gence and fail­ure of the health care sys­tem and ev­i­dence of gov­ern­ment bod­ies that cre­ate and de­fend poli­cies that harm us.

I think about my own cir­cle of friends, of black gay artists and ac­tivists in At­lanta, and even along the East Coast, through the 2000s. Our small net­work that has been dev­as­tated by the deaths of our broth­ers. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion we have among our­selves.

But back to the mor­tal­ity data. I’ve been search­ing for num­bers, mor­tal­ity data for black gay men di­ag­nosed with HIV, not so much to learn some­thing I don’t know but to con­firm what I do. I think about three friends in par­tic­u­lar whose lives im­pact my own.

Keiron was my first close friend to die and my first friend to die be­fore turn­ing 30. My last mem­ory of him was at Black Pride 2002. This was such a con­se­quen­tial week­end, but of course it didn’t seem that way at the time, ex­cept when you look back; you can see the or­der of events that casts an eerie vibe. And af­ter see­ing Keiron, hang­ing out with him, break­ing bread with him, laugh­ing with him, spend­ing time with him, for him to die just shy of what would have been his 28th birth­day shook us all.

There was also Lawrence, whom we called “L,” who died in 2007. When he died, ac­tivist Monte Evans said of him, “good, bad, or in­dif­fer­ent, he was our brother.” And if you knew L, you would know that was the per­fect thing to say about him and his life.

When Charles died back in 2011 I was not speak­ing to him. He had de­cided a few years ear­lier that he no longer wanted to be gay, an­nounced it on the list­serv that I man­aged, and an­grily ex­pressed that black gay men had failed him. His words cut me deeply. Not even a year passed be­fore he shifted his feel­ings on his sex­ual iden­tity, and though he was never fully “out,” I sup­pose, he con­tin­ued to date other men and en­gage the com­mu­nity. I still re­fused to speak to him. He died be­fore we made up. I still re­mem­ber his sis­ter telling me over the phone that Charles was in the hospi­tal for a “rare blood con­di­tion.”

Through the Aughts and even this decade there have been many deaths in my cir­cle. I was of­ten the one to an­nounce their deaths; to gather peo­ple to­gether or not; to hold the mem­o­ries and hold the space. And it’s in this space that I be­came politi­cized.

Oc­to­ber 30, 2015

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