A few weeks ago, I was standing in line at the grocery store with my family when I saw the cover of Ebony magazine, which had been a constant presence in our home when I was growing up. (I’m pretty sure that my mom still subscribes today.) It was the cover story, “The New Black Father” that caught my attention. I wondered, perhaps even hoped, that maybe the article would include or at least mention black gay men who are fathers. Since I couldn’t read the article and keep our four-year-old son reasonably quiet while we waited in line, I grabbed a copy and tossed it on the belt, with the intention of reading it when I got home.
I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. But, as I pretty much expected, I was. I wrote an open letter to Ebony, emailed it to them, and posted it on my blog. To date, I’ve heard nothing from Ebony except the all-to-familiar silence that seems to accompany any discussion of gay issues in African American communities and institutions. I wasn’t surprised. I didn’t expect a response, and many of the people to whom I mentioned my open letter counseled me not to expect much. But what was most disappointing in Ebony’s non-response was the confirmation that most of the time that familiar silence is still the best black LGBTs can expect in our communities.
I guess this father’s day was especially significant to me. Probably because it was the second I’ve faced without my father, who passed away in April of last year. Dad and I never quite saw eye-to-eye on my being gay or building a family with another man. In fact we struggled over it right up until our last moments together. But on Father’s Day, I’m reminded of the myriad ways my father’s presence benefited me and helped make me the kind of husband and father I am today. I wrote about that in my letter to Ebony.
I know that including our families might upset some of your readers, who will undoubtedly ask what kind father someone like me could possibly be.
I can only answer that I am the kind of father I learned how to be from my father, whom I was blessed to have in my life for 38 years, and in our home during the entire time I was growing up. He was a loving and faithful husband to my mother for 50 years, and a good father to me and my siblings. I learned from him that being a father means being a man. I learned that being a man means taking responsibility and being there for my family. It means showing up. Every day, in every way. I learned that being a man has as much to do with gentleness as it does with strength, and that sometimes it means being unashamed to cry openly. I learned that being a man has as much to do with kindness as it does with courage; as much to do with compassion as it does with discipline and resolve. That’s the kind of father my dad taught me to be, and the kind of father I am trying to be to my son.
I am a black gay father raising a black son whom my partner and I adopted at four days old. We chose to adopt an African American infant for several reasons, and among them was the knowledge that African American infants and children are less often adopted than their white counterparts. We were chosen by his birth mother, who felt that we would raise him with unconditional love and —being an interracial couple as well as a same-sex couple — could empower him to face the prejudices he will almost certainly encounter, both as a black man and a son with same-sex parents. We are raising a black son whose birth father ran away from the responsibility to care for him and raise him. Where he said “no,” we said “yes.”
The gift of fatherhood, for me, is that every day I see more and more evidence that maybe I’m at least as positive an influence in my son’s life as my father was in mine. I see it in his willingness to come to me and talk about his feelings. I see it in his gentleness and his generosity when he plays with children younger than him. And seeing that I know that my daily task as a parent will continue to be modeling for him how to be the best person he can be, and how to “be in the world” with integrity, empathy and compassion as his strengths. Fortunately, I had a good model from which to learn the same.
There are thousands more like me. Black gay men who have taken the best of what was passed on to us by our fathers and by the men in our families and communities, and are putting it to use in raising another generation of African American boys and girls. This, even as the most recent black presidential candidate calls on fathers to be responsible.
“It’s about to be Father’s Day,” he said. “Let’s admit to ourselves that there are a lot of men out there that need to stop acting like boys; who need to realize that responsibility does not end at conception; who need to know that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child but the courage to raise a child.”
…The Illinois senator said he would invest $50 million in programs to help people find transitional jobs and get training for permanent employment. That is needed, he said, to help men – especially black men – find work to replace hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs they’ve lost in the last six years.
We say “yes” to the responsibility and the gift of fatherhood every single day; who say “yes,” because we can do no other, to the task of raising our children to thrive in a world that will (still) judge them negatively because of the color of their skin; we say “yes,” again because we can do no other, to empowering our children to hold their heads up even in their own communities where they will likely face negative judgments because of who their parents are.
Our children are not served by silence. Neither are our families or our communities.
Senator Obama would do well to remember that, when he talks about the needs of families and fathers, that our families are not served by silence; that the programs he talks about as candidate Obama will stop short of helping all families (as the Fatherhood Initiative stops short of helping all fathers) if our families are excluded or rendered invisible (and thus ineligible) by that familiar silence. Privately, Senator Obama may well believe that our families should be included and treated like any other families, but as candidate Obama he seems to believe that to say so would imperil his oval office ambitions. This, despite the example of Massachusetts Governor Devall Patrick’s stand in support of marriage equality, for which Keith rightly calls him a “true hero.” So he’s silent, and his silence is familiar.
It’s a silence that’s familiar because it’s what man of us were raised with, in families and communities where we learned that we might be “tolerated” if we kept quiet about who were are and whom we love. It’s a silence that’s familiar because sometimes we so absorb it into our beings that we go to family gatherings and pretend to be single, “roomates” or “just good friends,” in order to keep the peace for everyone but ourselves, or we go to churches where homophobia and heterosexism are preached from the pulpit and not only do we stay put in our pews but sometimes we take part.
It’s a silence that becomes so familiar that we start to believe that we should be silent; because we were taught early on not to “act-up.” Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase from ACT-UP, silence can equal death in our own communities.
In New York, officials filed a hate crimes charge against a 17-year-old charged in the stabbing death of a black gay man from Brooklyn. And in England, another 17-year-old pleaded guilty to “racially aggravated assault and disorderly behavior” against a black gay man there.
The Brooklyn teenager was indicted on murder charges for fatally stabbing 20-year-old Roberto Duncanson (pictured above left) because he was gay, according to Kings County prosecutors. The alleged killer, Omar Willock, faces 25 years to life if convicted. Meanwhile, in England, a 17-year-old pleaded guilty of attacking 27-year-old Alex Juin (pictured above right) because he is black and gay.
…Roberto Duncanson “had the heart of a lion,” said his mother, Karen Sterling-Palmer. He managed the photo department of a Manhattan CVS drugstore and wanted to go to school to become an X-ray technician. “Roberto was a respectful kid, but if you offended him, he would retaliate,” the mother said. She also said her son never told her he was gay and that she did not believe that he was. But co-workers at the Chelsea CVS said Duncanson’s homosexuality was common knowledge and he did not try to hide it, the New York Daily News reported.
That too is a sad tragedy of homosexuality in our communities. Far too often our families don’t know about our lives and our sexual orientation but our friends and associates do. Now it’s time to create a world where young men like Roberto Duncanson don’t have to hide who they are from their families in order to gain acceptance.
We are, none of us, served by silence. Not Ebony’s. Not Obama’s. Not our own. That’s why I wrote my open letter to Ebony, and why I’d write it again even if they never responded.
When I look at my family and at my own son, I know I can do no less if I am going to model for him how best not just to “be a man,” but to be the best person he can be in this world by standing up for himself and others, because it is the right thing to do.
That’s not something anyone can do in silence.