Your LGBT heroes, that is. Dana, of Mombian, posed the question in honor of GLBT History month, and a lot of names came to mind for me. Some of them are people who, in some small way, gave a little bit of hope to a skinny, effeminate, non-athletic, black, gay boy growing up in Augusta, GA, during the Reagan era. Some of them are people who helped that same kid hold on to (as my mama would say) “a portion of my right mind” through college and into adulthood.
All of them are people whose lives or work gave me three clear messages: You’re not alone. Everything will be alright. Anything is possible.
These are a few of them.
When I was in college, Marlon Riggs documentary on black gay life — Tongues Untied — aired on PBS, with all the expected controversy, including Jesse Helms wagging his jowls and threatening to yank funding from PBS and the NEA. (He didn’t, but he might have won anyway, since I seriously doubt that Tongues Untied or anything like it would ever get aired on PBS now). I took the phone off the hood and stationed myself in front of the television that night, with VCR remote in hand. (I still have the videotape, though I wonder if it’s even viewable now.) I’d already read Brother to Brother: New Writing by Black Gay Men after buying a copy that summer at Atlanta Pride, and my copy was already dog-eared from frequent readings. For all the times I’d had to “read between the lines,” and maybe even squint a little, to see my life or anything like it portrayed anywhere, reading that book was like finding in the dessert. Actually seeing some aspect of my life portrayed on screen a first. That Riggs had apparently lived in the neighborhood I also grew up in, and preceded me as the “little black gay boy” at Hephzibah Elementary School, only made the resonation stronger. Seeing part of my own experienced portrayed in the media didn’t mean that it suddenly mattered. It always mattered, if only to me. But it did mean that it was a little less invisible. And, thus, so was I.
I don’t remember when I first read Essex Hemphill’s poetry, but it was long before I picked up Brother to Brother, which Hemphill had edited after Joseph Beam’s passing. I know that even though I first heard his voice in Tongues Untied, it reached me long before then in poems like “Commitments” and “For My Own Protection.” But I think one of the greatest things he accomplished was picking up where Joseph Beam left off, editing Brother to Brother and getting it published, if only so that I could see teh cover out of the corner of my eye, on a table in Piedmont Park during Atlanta Pride, take it back to Athens, GA, and sit under a tree on UGA’s north campus and read it nearly from cover to cover; saving my sanity, one page at a time.
On of the most valuable thing given to me while growing up as an African American was the realization that I had a historyit was something that was given to most all the kids I grew up with. If we didn’t get it at school, we got it at home or at church. It was the first inkling that were were not invisible in history, that we were part of something. and at times served to encourage us to strive and achieve. But the biggest impact was knowing that, despite what we might have assumed from looking at the world around us, and what we weren’t taught and didn’t read in school. It wasn’t until much later that I got the same as a gay man, and even later as a black gay man. That changed when I picked up a copy of In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, a labor of love, edited by Joseph Beam. It was Beam’s essay, “Brother to Brother: Words from the heart” that gave me words I didn’t have before, to describe my experience: “I, too, know anger. My body contains as much anger as water. … I am angry because of the treatment I am afforded as a black man. That fiery anger is stoked additionally with the fuels of contempt and despisal shown my by my community because I am gay. I cannot go home as who I am.
If books like In the Life and Brother to Brother helped me hold on to what remained of my sanity many years ago, then it’s at it’s in no small part because Barbara Smith helped create the recipe for doing so as co-founder of Kitchen Table Press and in helping to define and establish a black lesbian literary tradition that eventually inspired and informed the efforts of Joe Beam and others. If part of personhood is simply believing that you have a story, that it matters, and ought to be told and head, then learning how to tell it is the first step towards empowerment. (There is a reason some of us shout “Tell it!” and “Tell the story!” in church.) Back when I was assistant editor of the Lambda Book Report, I had the pleasure of interviewing Smith for a cover story, and I’m glad I saved a copy of that issue, because I was so nervous that I forgot most of what we talked about. But I did at least get to say to her what I said above, more or less.
If books like Tongues Untied saved my sanity, going to the library saved my life. Or, I should say, learning how to use a the library saved my life. It might have started with being a library assistant in middle school, as a way to get myself off the playground (and away from the other boys) during recess, but it was also the key that unlocked the door to understanding myself, accepting myself, and realizing the possibilities that lay beyond the small town where I grew up and came out. I stumbled across one book — A Way of Love, A Way of Life: A Young Person’s Introduction to What It Means to Be Gay — that first turned on the light. But it was when I read about Harvey Milk in The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk that turned on the light at the end of the tunnel, and gave some assurance that the light wasn’t an oncoming train, but a way out. My two favorite Harvey Milk quote are: “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door.” and “You’ve gotta give them hope.” Hope? Yeah. He did. I’ll definitely turn out to see Sean Penn portray Harvey Milk if the book finally gets made into a movie.
Speaking of books that should be made into movies, there’s one by James Baldwin that I’d like to see on the big screen, if I could just convince myself I can write the screen play. It’s not a small thing, as a writer, to even dream of touching any of Baldwin’s works. It requires a confidence that I probably had more of when I was younger, and ballsy enough to write my own epilogue to Giovanni’s Room, as a final assignment for my comparative literature class. The novel is from David’s point of view, but I wanted to write a “final chapter” from Giovanni’s point of view, as he sits in prison, awaiting his execution. I guess it was inevitable. Baldwin was then and is now one of those writers whose gifts inspire me. I guess it was because he was one of the first writers to become a part of my life. Growing up, I remember coming across some of his books at home. I don’t know where they came from, but I read Blues for Mister Charlie: A Play after finding it on a shelf at home. I read Go Tell It on the Mountain after choosing it for a book report and then recorded the American Playhouse version off PBS. I even played the role of David in The Amen Corner: A Play, my stage role before heading off to college. I don’t know to this day how the book found its way into my parents house, but I found it, and Just Above My Head that caught my attention and fired my imagination. It still does.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I discovered the works of Audre Lorde, and it was many years later before I understood or at last thought I understood. Phrases like “Your silence will not protect you,” and “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” seemed easy enough to understand when I read them and discussed them in class, but I think it was more than a decade later before I began to know what they meant. On the other hand, I knew well what was meant by “I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.” Now I’m working on figuring out “When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Who are your?