Reflecting On My Experience at the 2014 YBGLI Policy & Advocacy Summit and National Youth HIV/AIDS Day

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. 

Your Thugs (A Poem To America)

Websters dictionary.

Thug:

  1. A violent criminal
  2. A brutal ruffian or assassin

America

Thug:

  1. Young
  2. Skin tone darker than the ones we call our founding “fathers”
  3. Usually didn’t have a father
  4. Usually is a dead beat father
  5. Violent
  6. Male

Your thugs are dedicated fathers caring for the next Trayvon Martin for you while you cultivate more jail cells for the black and brown boys lucky enough to survive your bullets

While you hide behind laws

No one is standing their ground here but us

But God forbid we do that, we all know you’re not allowed to stand your ground when you look like me

Your thugs are Stanford and Harvard undergrads,

High school students from Brownsville to Detroit getting into Ivy, after Ivy, after Ivy. Making Brown, browner than you could believe

Fixtures in the libraries and step shows at Howard, FAMU, Spellman and Morehouse, while you argue affirmative action is discriminatory for little Abigail who didn’t get into the University of Texas

Your thugs are running businesses; Fortune 500 companies while you stare at the hands in my hoodie as I walk around the convenient store, but I wont make the same mistake of buying an Arizona Ice Tea or Skittles

Your thugs are celebrating their greatness and championships, while you say Tom Brady is humble and just passionate about the game

Your thugs make music that talks about their honest and true experience, but you deem it as a reason to gun us down, because you didn’t like.

Because you deem it and by virtue of it, us, threatening

Your thugs wear the same uniform you do and serve this country-

The same one that enslaved us not too long ago, that built plantations as shrines to greed built on the whipped backs of dark skinned men and their children and wives. As we sit in the White House today, those white houses still stand to try to overshadow a presidential seal home to Barack Hussein Obama’s feet, shackles at the ankles need not apply.

Your thugs rule stages at TED, yet when I open my mouth to speak, or take a seat in an honors class you look surprised and tell me how “articulate” I am the first time I utter a word and you discover you’re not the only one with a fucking vocabulary or that can read.

Your thugs are always carrying a weapon. Whether it’s a cell phone, a bag of candy, headphones, a pencil-you better shoot first America, think about what would happen if black people started their own NRA or joined in the masses and cried 2nd Amendment rights.

Your thugs are your “I have a black friend” so you can try to erase your racism and white privilege, from a board that is very much white and dry erase, because we know you don’t write on a chalkboard-its too black for you and the chalk would leave your hands stained, so they would know you were here

Your thugs stand in front of classrooms teaching, the same classrooms that historically erase the likes of Byard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, W.E.B. Du Bois, but god forbid we have school on Christopher Columbus day and every student in America could tell you who he was or what he did, but not what he really did.

After school, those same students will make there way down a path of liquor stores, fast food joints, and smoke shops, down sidewalks made up of cigarette butts, broken glass and litter, quite literally living next to landfills, walking through deserts to just find some water.

Your thugs have been marked, and targeted and put into your database since birth.

And you’re right-we are armed and dangerous

Plaster the neighborhood and the news with our faces and our wanted posters;

Offer a reward for our capture

Come after us because you should be scared. I know its dangerous, I know you’re afraid of the power.

Of what this country could be if intelligent, young black men rose up.

So I don’t blame you for try’n to keep us down but you should know how this joke goes, you’re always telling it: black people are good at running, shooting, stealing and jumping.

So watch me run from your bias, and shoot the most powerful weapon in the world, my mind, not the glock you try to put in my hand to paint me as something that I’m not.

Watch out before I pickpocket your preconceived notions about black masculinity and watch me jump over your boundaries.

The same walls your private prisons build, adorned with barbed wire made from the razors of your politically correct rhetoric

Thug:

  1. Richard Sherman
  2. Michael Sam
  3. Jordan Davis
  4. Jay Z
  5. Kwasi Enin
  6. Akintude Ahmad

 

Thug:

  1. Intelligent
  2. Driven
  3. Used to overcoming adversity
  4. Perseverant
  5. Strong
  6. Young
  7. Gifted
  8. Male

And Black.

 

 

Coming out Again: My Story Being a brown Boi Struggling With Mental Illness

Coming out Again

 I’m a writer, and many writers (myself included) write to tell stories, often times stories that are secret, untold and unheard of. Well, I have a story to tell. It’s a story of being queer, brown, trans and struggling with my own mental health since I could remember.

 I grew up in a less than ideal environment.  Please don’t confuse this with me saying my mother was a bad mother when I was growing up because she wasn’t. I grew up in a household of alcoholism, constant financial problems, heated disputes, domestic violence, and at times abuse: mental, emotional and physical.  Around the age of 8 the cycle began for me, I was tagged, and labeled like so many young people today. I was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Attention deficit disorder (ADD), and with a learning disability. I was put on medication to deal with it, and bounced back and fourth between Ritalin, Strattera and Adderall until age 14 when I stopped taking medication, because nothing was really working anymore.  Also around that time I incurred a whole new set of problems, high school came.

 My life at home was rapidly deteriorating and so was I.  I went to four high schools in three years between two different states (no you didn’t read that wrong), me and my mothers fights became more heated, to the point that the police had to be called from time to time and I spent nights sleeping at friends houses. I started self harming, attempted suicide for the first time at age 15, quit basketball after being recruited by Division I colleges, and slowly but surely became completely withdrawn. In the midst of all this I came out at age 16 as “lesbian” in my small town in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina. I was scared, confused, lost and lonely and had very few people to talk to. My mother was not accepting of my sexuality and let it be done often and loud. To make matters worse I was very involved in my conservative Southern Baptist Church where I faced rejection from my youth group members and a few adult leaders.

 It got to the point where I was self harming at church, in the bathroom at school, all the time. Eventually my mother found out. She found a note I had wrote laying out all the reasons why I was self-harming, what had led to it and how I felt so desperate and trapped. I’ll never forget her reaction, she cried for hours and hours. She sat me down at the kitchen table and we talked about it, she asked me “Why?”, she blamed herself and let me know that she loved me. She also set me up to see a counselor, at our church.  I went to counseling three times, and then no more. Not because of me, it wasn’t my choice, it was my mothers.  We were in the car headed home and my mom turned to me and said “are you still cutting?” I shook my head and responded “No”, the sigh of relief she let out was grand. “Ok then, you’re all better then”, she replied, and I never went back to that therapist again. That’s the problem, she thought I was “all-better”, everyone always thinks your better or at least wants to think you are so they don’t have to talk about it anymore, so it all just goes away, but for me nothing went away.

 I finished high school with arms that resembled railroad tracks with little dots of ash and burn scars mixed in, with three suicide attempts under my belt and no clue where I was headed next or how to cope with things.  The fall before I started college (I started college in the Spring because of military training) something else happened to me. I came out as transgender. I decided to transition from female to male and start living my life authentically. I had never felt “female” or comfortable being a “girl” and my struggles with my sexuality and my gender had gotten to the point where I couldn’t hide my true self anymore. I started college as Bryce Celotto, as He, as Him, as a guy, a new true me.

 The beginning of my transition was all too familiar to me. I felt alone, my mother again had a hard time accepting my gender identity, similar to when she first started dealing with my sexuality, and I didn’t know anyone else that was transgender and had very little resources. During my semester of college I made friends, I did good advocacy work, I even played college sports, but I also got back to a very dark place. I started cutting again and demons that had been dormant for a year or so came back with a vengeance. One night I found myself in the college woods, in the pitch black, contemplating which tree would be best to hang myself from.

 My semester of college came to an end and I came to Washington, DC, to pursue my dreams of working in the LGBT advocacy community for a living. I’ve been doing LGBT work for 2 years now and the conversation of mental health is one that comes up rarely. Recently, mental health in general has been more “In the spotlight” because of tragic events such as Newtown and The Aurora theater shooting, but where is this discussion in the community that I love and call my own?

 Today I am a 21 year old adult, with a full time job at a great organization doing work I love. I have a stable place to live, after not having one for a very long time, great housemates, friends and chosen family who I know love me. Yet sometimes I feel like that is not enough. Last night I didn’t feel like it was enough. Last night was one of the scariest moments of my life, was as bad it has ever gotten. I honestly didn’t think I could make it, and didn’t know if I wanted to at the time. I contemplated ending my life, and had it not been for a few people probably would have.

 My struggle with my mental health is very real and happens everyday. I probably have been living with undiagnosed depression for 7 years now. Besides the many aspects of my identity that put me at high risk for mental health problems including being a person of color, queer, transgender, having a predisposition to alcoholism, exposure to domestic violence, surviving abuse, etc. it also runs in my family. The thing is, my story is one that is probably more common than you would like to believe.

 Many LGBTQ* identified people struggle with mental illness and their mental health; this has been well documented not only anecdotally but also statistically.  In 2011 the National Center For Transgender Equality, alongside the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released ‘Injustice at Every Turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey’, what the survey found was unprecedented.  41% of transgender respondents had reported attempting suicide, while 49% of respondents who identified as transgender and black/African-American reported attempting suicide. While among youth populations who identify as LGBT, suicide is the leading cause of death.

 We just don’t talk about it. Because who wants to talk about depression, suicide, self harm, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and a myriad of other issues? No one. Until you loose someone, or the next mass shooting happens. We can change that and quite frankly we have too. Many people in the LGBT community are predisposed to mental health issues because of circumstances such homelessness, abuse, rejection from family and friends and discrimination in the workplace and in housing to name a few factors. LGBT people also often times can not get the mental health care they need because of the many barriers that they with accessing affordable, reliable, culturally competent healthcare.

 I’m lucky. I have health insurance, I have a good job and more and more I’m realizing I have people who care.  A lot of the circumstances in my household growing up were out of anyone’s control; a lot of my experience being a brown, trans, and queer person were out of my control. However the course of action that was taken after those circumstances occurred were something that could have been changed and controlled. Looking back I probably should have been in intensive counseling since high school, I should have been in some sort of program for children of alcoholics, maybe even on medication for various disorders, who knows.  Why wasn’t I? Because that’s all scary and foreign to folks, because we, as a nation and society, have made it that way and said that it’s ok for it to be foreign and scary. All I know is that I wish this conversation was happening more often. As a queer, trans person of color I often feel stigmatized enough already simply for being who I am, adding on a layer of mental illness just makes it worse, and I know others feel that way. The stigma on mental illness cant go on if anything is going to change, and in the LGBTQ community we need to accept the fact that LGBTQ people struggle with these issues just as much if not more than the non LGBTQ community.

 A lot of me feeling the need to share my story is for my own healing purposes. A lot of major life changing events have happened to me the past few months; I’ve gotten a job, I now I have insurance for the first time in years, I moved into a stable, healthy living situation and am currently going through a major breakup. I’m taking this time to heal and focus on me, and this is part of it. I’m looking into starting therapy as soon as possible, and working towards kicking unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve developed like smoking and drinking to dull the pain.

 This is me coming out, again. They always say the third time is the charm, after coming out as queer, and transgender I’m going to take a chance and do it again. My name is Bryce Jordan Celotto and I am brown, queer, transgender, and I struggle with mental illness, I’m unashamed and just another human being trying to figure myself out and enjoy this journey we call life.

 

Free Write (1-3-13)

You know what our relationship is?

You sending me pictures of delicious food and etsy crafts

magical escapades through Brooklyn and a few in DC while you were here still

Really here still

cryptic feelings

even more cryptic conversations

Gchat sessions to get us both through the workday

lost memories

broken violin strings

late night bus trips

subway lines going in opposite directions

too many feelings

moments of perfection

mixed with moments of immense heartbreak

snapping tounges

those grey sheets

2 enchanted cities

discovering each other as individuals and as a couple

my clinginess

your inablility to communicate or figure out what you want

puppet strings

kite strings

me thinking of you everytime I’m on the metro and we go by Smithsonian

or on that street

by that one building

hell all of the fucking buildings

Brooklyn Blackout

this is all a muther fucking blackout

blackout drunk

throwing up over your toilet at 2am after a failed drunchy run at Fast Gourmet

a New Years day pizza lunch after knowing each other less than 24 hours

Starting 2012 with you

Not thinking you’d be around for 2013

sticking around

trying to just stick around

being pushed but not breaking

Lorimer St L trains

Discovering Cheerwine in Brooklyn

candles glowing in mason jars

Night Bazzars

we are very fucking Bizzare

homemade chocolaty peanut butter treats and no babe I’m not talking about me

a million songs that have about 2 million new meanings

that drunken phonecall that September night in Wyoming

holding you

you holding me

running my hands across your body, up and down your back

surprising you with flowers

your favorite ones, every time

loving you

like I didnt know was possible

deep

hard

violently.

Our relationship is wine to water, water to wine

depending on the time, the day, the way the sun creeps through your bedroom window as you grace me with the permission to lie there next to you

Our relationship is constant turmoil

like an engine or a transmission where the gears are just grinding and grinding

and eventually it has to break, has to slow down, has to drop out from underneath you

and maybe you know its coming

baby ya maybe you do

but you dont listen to all the warning sounds that are sirens, and you ignore the sparks as the gears grind one another and grind one another

because you’ve heard that miracles happen

and that Jesus is coming back.

And you think he’s coming back through this and through us because you are my redemtion, my hearts song, and my what my soul thirsts. This bed our altar, these streets an aisle and I’m running so far. I haven’t decided whether to you or away, but I believe in miracles, and the mircale of us finding our way. Now our relationship isn’t what most would say is good but to me its great because hell your great

in bed

at dinner

in the kitchen

on a couch watching some dreaded TV show

out dancing

trying to make me laugh

rocking me to sleep

in the way your chest rises and falls as you sleep

you are great

we are growing

this all one big god damn miracle

so our relationship may not be built on much to people on the outside look’n in but to me its build on fire and trust with a pinch of lust and I’m gonna wipe off all this dust off these records and play you the sweetest tune. On that record player. That I’m gonna buy for you one day. Thats gonna sit on your window sill overlooking a deck with potted plants and a view that cant be described simply on this page. Our relationship is a fucking mess

but good thing I have enough rags to wipe more than just dust off those records, good thing miracles happen more than once and good thing we’re here. Right here. In this moment, in this struggle, because I dont know what I would do if I wasn’t struggling with you.

Hard (written about a month ago)

Loving you is hard

but often times the best things in life are

a hard snowfall on a crisp winter night

the relaxing, coma inducing sounds of raindrops bouncing hard off a window in the middle of the night or a tin roof in the summer time with every drop that bounces off a shingle making you think God is a percussionist playing his cymbals for the whole world to hear

hard like a tootsie pop, now baby tell me how many licks it takes to get to the center of you, I know I couldn’t tell you how many licks you’ve handed me and how many it takes to knock me down and how many more it will take till I stop getting back up

hard like that diamond I wanted to give you, the one I had picked out, been saving money away in a mason jar that adorned my dusty dresser for so long now

hard like the first time I uttered “i love you”, as my lips trembled, I shook with the fear of not being loved back inside of my bones

hard like an airport goodbye

like the timber of our cabin on the lake in the woods

hard like 2,000 miles says you cant make it.

Ya baby loving you is hard

hard like the pavement thats paving this long windy road ahead of us

a road with potholes, downed power lines with live wires that have shocked both of us a time or two

hard like the armor you wear around your heart.

now baby you say loving is you is as hard as that steel that you’ve erected your sword of words out of

but not as hard as living without you.

not as hard as thinking about who I would become without you

Hard as the icecaps between us that the global warming of your heart just hasn’t seem to be affected by yet

maybe thats cuz nothings warming

maybe thats cuz these ice caps wont melt

maybe thats because the hard concrete that walls that you’ve erected aren’t meant to come down

now baby

ya baby I know its hard to love you ya say

and I know it aint easy

but dont tell me what hard is.

until you’ve tried to live without yourself by your side.