Charles Stephens: Black gay men and mental health justice

Being a black gay man in this culture can feel like being constantly at war: at war with yourself, at war with other black gay men, at war with the dominant culture. Walking out the door can feel like walking out onto the battlefield. And so, we often endure an almost violent kind of loneliness at times; depression, anxiety, and other forms of despair. But what is the source of these feelings?

Consider the following: a constant internalization of systematic and interpersonal racial and heterosexual oppression (what we ultimately call stigma). The trauma that many of us still carry from our black gay boyhoods. Poverty. The collective trauma many of us still suffer, and others of us inherit, from the 1980s, and the deaths of so many of our brothers and elders from AIDS. The trauma we ourselves may carry from being an HIV positive black gay man in a culture that despises all the parts of ourselves, and even among our brothers, we may hear messages like “you must be disease free.”

There is joy of course. There’s an indescribable joy in being a black man who loves other men. It’s not all doom and gloom; not even close. I have had some absolutely transformative experiences, beautiful memories, among black gay men. There are painful memories too, but I believe for us to have more resilience in our movement work, we have to name the beautiful parts and the difficult parts. We have to create a language to describe the trauma so we can develop a language to better map out a path toward greater resilience.

Our tribe of artists, poets, actors, organizers, nonprofit workers, academics, and cultural workers is particularly vulnerable to depression and other poor mental health outcomes. Being on the frontline fighting injustice is brutal. In the nonprofit and academic world where most of us find ourselves, we are often faced with severe institutional violence that contributes to our despair.

You get it from the senior and executive leaders. There is always pressure to assimilate and make your beautiful parts blander.

You also get it from the communities you serve. If a meeting starts a little late, or if you forget to call on someone in a discussion group. If the free food isn’t to the liking of the people you are assembling. If they don’t understand the point you are trying to make. Or if you are fat or fem or otherwise don’t measure up to the ideal of how a black gay leader should look, you may be antagonized.

So we get fed up. We may say things like “I am no longer going to work with black gay men ever again.” When we arrive to the belief that freedom is not among our brothers, but apart from them, we enter a very dangerous path.

A few ideas for a path forward:

• Stakeholders must come together to develop a research and advocacy agenda for black gay men’s mental health justice.

• HIV funders should convene learning communities that can help us better understand the impact of mental health on HIV prevention, treatment and care.

• LGBT funders must better understand mental health outcomes among black gay men in the larger context of LGBT health.

• A national summit of diverse stakeholders from across the country must be held to grapple with these issues.

• A movement committed to mental health justice has to be built on our collective assets, and our greatest asset is our culture. We must use our culture in the service of our healing.

Taken together, these goals may not completely rid us of the multiple ways oppression impacts our mental heath and emotional wellness, but it at least will begin moving us in that direction.
(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‘)