Charles Stephens: Black gay boys and dreams of a future

Black gay boys are forbidden to dream and forbidden to desire. Our dreams and desires, the source of our magic, are beaten out of us or stolen away. I am reminded of this as I think about my own black gay boyhood and other black gay boys who shaped my life during that period; particularly in my senior year of high school. Our support system forged a collective resilience among us that got us through that year.

We were from Adamsville, Cascade, Campbellton Road, Stone Mountain, Columbia Drive, Lithonia and Dixie Hills. We went to Southside, Redan, Stephenson, Southwest DeKalb, Druid Hills, Grady and Therrell high schools.

We were from working-class families that had middle-class dreams for us. So we were good boys: science nerds, church boys, bookworms, school newspaper writers, artsy types, student leaders, and choirboys. We made our parents’ and teachers’ ambitions for us our own. We thought that if they could be proud of us, then they could love us.

At school we did the morning announcements, sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” at assembly programs, ran for student government, and ran for homecoming court. During awards programs, when we got up from our seats after our names were called (and our names were frequently called), other students rolled their eyes and sucked their teeth. The straight boys smirked or said “oh hell naah,” and taunted us with gay slurs just loud enough for us to hear and just low enough for the teachers to ignore. So we walked down the aisle to collect our trophies. We never looked back. We learned then never to look back.

This is how we met each other: We saw in each other what others had seen in us. Except we weren’t disgusted by it; we were intrigued. We would then start up a random conversation and pepper it with references that you would only know if you were gay: E. Lynn Harris novels and clubs like the Marquette. Or we’d suggest other gay people we knew, just to start the conversation. At some point we would give each other a mutual look of acknowledgement and instantly become best friends.

By the end of our senior year we each faced consequences, each in our own way, for being a little too dreamy and free. Free, not because we were unconcerned about homophobia and racism, but because we hadn’t yet come to understand it as a significant barrier for us. We would each in different ways learn the extent and the persistence of those forces in our lives. Three of my friends were kicked out of their homes by their parents. It was never for being gay, per se. Their parents (mothers, really) usually attributed it to their being disrespectful or talking back.

Two other friends spent most of that year contemplating suicide. One friend ran away from home. These were the kinds of choices we were faced with. Graduation Day took on a meaning of triumph that no one but us could comprehend.

I was also punished that year for being a little too dreamy and a little too free. I was gay bashed on the final day of my senior year. The perpetrators had probably been waiting all year to do it. I didn’t even realize they were coming up on me until the first fist was thrown and connected. I recognized half of them. Looked one of them in the face. He didn’t even look away. I hated myself for a long time for that happening to me, and I was ashamed. On some level I’m still ashamed. I knew then, as I know now, that they were doing it because I was different. This experience was like the experiences of many of my friends—another kind of structural violence manifested as physical violence, crashing down around me.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the Director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology ‘Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.’