By the time I got tested for HIV, I had no question about the results. It had been six years since that Memorial Day morning when I woke up with walnut-sized lumps under my chin. I was 25 years old. Cloudy white patches coated my tongue by Pride weekend. By the time I got tested for HIV I was 32. I had fallen in love with a man who would confide years later that he committed to staying with me until I died. He persuaded me to take the test anyway even though we expected only one outcome. Most of the details have withered. I do remember coming back for my results and having the tester open the lobby door, point her finger, and blurt out, “You the one who’s positive, right?” I was not prepared to feel much since I already knew. As much as her words, it was her gesture that flattened my lungs. Like when my parents called Uncle Alfred perverted and at 11, I knew I shared his position. Like when my neighborhood doctor asked me if I were “homosexual or normal.” I said nothing. But I knew better. And I needed to make it better for me and my kind.
In the quarter-century that unfolded, I invested my life in black, queer liberation as an end rather than a means to stop AIDS. There were angels who left rainbow signs for me to decipher. Within weeks of my hire at AID Atlanta, Dazon Dixon Diallo clarified, “I’m not helping you because I like you. This job is important and you cannot fail.” African-American Outreach committee member James Dewberry stopped me in a hallway to impart, “God laid it on my heart on tonight to tell you that you are gonna do great things on behalf of our people.”
I fancied myself as answering the calling laid before me. But there were other motives embedded beneath that calling which I did not want to own — these motives were not selfless … they were not “pure.” I was no more devoted to saving my community than I was to rescuing Craig from the closets that enfolded him at 15 and at 25 years of age. In the wake of all who were much braver, I needed to prove myself worthy of surviving them. And while I could not admit it to myself, I was yearning to “hear God say, well done my child.”*
In order to make room for today, I struggle to release regrets and lay down resentments. I tell myself that there is freedom in the forgiving. So I will start with myself and let my best be good enough for me if for no one else. Last month, three men in their 50s, 30s, and 20s each claimed me as a mentor. What does that say about the life I have lived? I have received several community awards over the years. I have to remind myself that each one was deserved. I cannot believe that unless I let go of all I tell myself I should have done but did not do.
Recent turnings in my personal and professional paths mark a third chapter. Last year, I left AID Atlanta and will never work for another AIDS service organization again. I have lost faith in the model which has largely failed black, queer men particularly in the South. I am still working to reconcile my long-term association with the field. I ask myself if I paid too much for all I was given. I now have a partner who cautions me not to undersell my time. He believes that I should work less and rest more at this stage. I understand but I will not fully acquiesce. I must ask myself not only how do I contribute; now I ask, “How do I feed my belly and my soul?” What will be my measure for success? When I am interviewing a narrator about their club experience and they present quotes that raise goosebumps, I know that work is purposeful. When I encounter a random barista who tells me they look forward to the Rustin Lorde Breakfast every year, I receive the rainbow sign. I come to terms with who I am and the work that I’ve done. I choose to believe the good in it all.
*From “I’m Looking to Jesus” by Marion Williams