This time last Wednesday, April 2nd I was on my way to Bradley International Airport to fly to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the 2014 Young Black Gay Mens Leadership Initiative Policy & Advocacy Summit. I had the honor and privilege of being selected to attend such a conference after I applied in the winter, at the urging of a good friend of mine who attended last year and thought the experience could benefit me. In the days leading up to the conference, and during my car ride and entire flight I must admit I was beyond nervous. As someone who has worked in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) movement for the past three years I had been in plenty of queer spaces, from conferences to weekly meetings, to happy hours-that part was nothing new. What was new though was being in a space defined as a space souly for gay/bisexual/queer/same gender loving men, let alone black men. Coming to terms with my blackness has been an ongoing process the past 3-4 years since transitioning, because of my family makeup/dynamic, my non-existent relationship with my father (who is black) and being raised in very much a white working-middle class community in the South the majority of my life. Also, lets be honest: few things are more frightening then being a black man in America, especially when growing up you weren’t seen or socialized as such. What’s more terrifying then being a black man in America? Well for me: being a black queer man in America. I knew this conference would push me outside my comfort zone, which is one of the reasons I was eager to attend, I also knew this conference would allow me the opportunity to do something I had never done before but yearned for: the ability to build a black queer community and a true brotherhood. Additionally HIV/AIDS policy was, and still is not, my area of expertise and I slowly but surely wanted to change that, realizing the disparate impact it has on my community as a young, multi-racial/black, queer person.
I landed in Atlanta still a bit nervous and not quite knowing what to expect. I met a participant at the airport, immediately identifying him because of his rainbow flag Tufts University pin on his backpack and his sharply dressed frame. Even that first night I walked on eggshells a bit as the anxiety continued. The anxiety was more than just about being in a black, queer space, with fabulously talented, intelligent and good-looking people, it also had to do with my gender-identity and my own sexual orientation. I was unsure how I would be received as a transgender identified person. As someone who prefers the term “boi” be tagged to my identity more so than “man”-because I really don’t feel the word “man” fits me in most contexts’ or spaces but yet I still very much identify as male, masculine, as a guy. As someone with a gender presentation and identity that has never been my body. I was also worried about how my sexual orientation would be perceived and accepted (or not accepted) by others. Most of my serious relationships in my adult life have been with women, I haven’t seriously dated a guy since I started transitioning at 18 (I am now 22), and was worried that because of that my queerness wouldn’t be seen. I am very much attracted to men, would very much date the right guy if he came along and have casually spent time with men since transitioning but was unsure if I would fit into a “gay” space.
I remember the moment where some of the nerves dissipated. We were at a community center in Atlanta that is geared toward the black LGBTQ community known as Evolution. A speaker was talking about expectations for the conference and keeping and open mind to other people’s experiences, and that’s when I raised my hand and threw into the room for people to also keep an open mind regarding others sexuality and gender identity. I felt some eyes look at me, mostly in surprise I think, and although I could still feel my chest on fire I felt a little better. Another key moment in me becoming more comfortable in the space also came on the first night, at a bar of all places, from just talking to my roommate. Rooming was another source of my mind spinning before the conferences. I wanted to feel safe and comfortable to change, to be ok with my body and to have a roommate that would also feel safe, and comfortable with my gender, my body and me. That first night at the bar me and my roommate started talking, and found ourselves outside the main circle of everyone else but didn’t’ really notice it or care at first because we were so lost in conversation. Turns out we had a lot in common: from areas we had lived/were from, our love of soccer, and our love of John Legend’s crooning soulful voice and dashing good looks among other things. I knew then I’d be ok. This would be ok. I could just let go.
The days went on and slowly but surely- I let go. Anyone who knows me also knows I am not always at the best at socializing with my peers-I have always been the person who was friends with the teacher, the librarian, my boss or older co-workers versus people my own age, sharing my experiences, living out and dealing with similar issues, which is another reason this conference was so important to me and my personal growth. I dove into conversations and topics I never thought I would be having, especially in a space that felt safe and was filled with people who got it. I learned an immense amount about HIV/AIDS, from different medications, to policies to just people opening up. I will be honest: the conference was full of firsts, one of them being the first time I had ever met anyone, let alone several people who were living openly, unashamed and unafraid with HIV. Everyone who shared their stories about their battle with HIV inspired me and lit a fire within me to do better, and be better on the issue. They opened my eyes up to a whole new world that I knew was there, but honestly was not paying enough attention too.
It wasn’t just HIV/AIDS though, it was discussions around feminism, about how to better professionals and network with others in a greater society that tries to tell us as a community on an almost daily basis that we are “less then” and wont make it simply because of our multiple complex identities, especially surrounding our blackness and “gayness”.By the end I found myself bonded to so many people I would of never had the chance of meeting was it not for the conference. I found myself sad to leave a place and a group I now consider family. Even more surprising was the number of participants who came up to me and thanked me, for just being their and sharing my story as a transguy, talking about my transition openly and discussing why these issues mattered to me.
I wanted to write this reflection on this day specifically for several reasons. One being that it is National Youth HIV & AIDS day today. On this day several of my brothers from the Young Black Gay Mens Leadership Initiative (YBGLI) are traveling to the White House to have a high-level meeting with the newly appointed Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, Mr. Douglas Brooks, who himself is a black gay men living with HIV. The fact that this meeting is taking place and my fellow YBGLI brothers are taking the lead and charge on this is a truly incredible and phenomenal accomplishment and feat. Others from the YBGLI conference group will also be working harder today than most days, advocating for and raising the voices of Young Black gay/bi/queer/same gender loving men. From meetings in Boston, HuffPost Live chats where they will be sharing their stories, to their college campuses, workplaces and communities from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and everywhere in between.
I know I have been forever changed by the experience I was afforded to be a part of at the YBGLI 2014 Policy & Advocacy summit. I feel more confident in my queer identity and male identity, I feel connected to a community I have been a part of the past 3-4 years but didn’t know what to do really with that in the past. I feel like I walked away from it with friends, brothers, mentors, colleagues and a new knowledge base that I hope to continue to build with the help of everyone involved. It has allowed me to have conversation with my peers at my community college here in Western Massachusetts, a campus and area that while very open and accepting of the general LGBTQ community has not historically heard or seen the voices of black queer folks, at least in my experience thus far.
We can do better. Not just today as we celebrate the victories we have made as a community, and continue to strategize and discuss what’s next, but everyday.We will end the epidemic. Not just the HIV/AIDS epidemic but the epidemic of homophobia and transphobia, even in our own communities as black LGBT people. We will continue working towards socio-economic justice, making education equity/accessibility a reality for everyone, discussing feminism and why its important in our community, we will continue learning from those who came before us and raising our voices.
I learned more than anything over the three days I spent in Atlanta with 50 other brilliant, talented, inspiring, smart men to not be silent. To take a stand and together we will and can accomplish anything, as a community and individuals.
So I conclude this by saying thank you. To everyone who was there in the room, who participated in such open, brave discussions, who was unafraid, unapologetic for their identity and brought all of their identities to the table. Thank you to those who organized planned and provided financial support to make the conference happen. Thank you everyone for being the leaders, young men and people we all need.