We say “coming out” even still—well, some of us do—to describe the naming of one’s sexual identity, publicly, outside of heterosexuality. In this sense, “coming out” is a step, a process, a series of self-realizations.

The rest of us know better, recognizing that sexual identity development is far from linear. The process is more like an always unraveling gift and by no means a solo journey. Place and people, time and feeling, the accumulation of good and bad experiences, factor as much into this process of self-awareness, as the utterance of the words “I’m gay.” For me, the self-awareness part, though significant, was not as substantial, and certainly not separate from, the community of people that affirmed, shaped and inspired me.

Two of those people, Reggie and Charles, shaped my journey very much and early on. They both identified themselves as “gay mothers” to me; that is black gay men that mentored me in the years I needed it the most.

Reggie was maybe the second or third person I actually told I was gay, outside of any kind of sexual pursuit. Let me be clear, I didn’t actually say to him, “I’m gay,” as much as I acknowledged it through gestures and references.

In those years, naming my sexual identity always involved elaborated and stylized verbal and nonverbal cues. Strategic smiles and intentional glances, deliberate references and body language. I think we all used those tools. As black boys that liked other boys, we were so accustomed to being surveilled and scrutinized that everything was high drama, all the time. We felt like we were always on stage, so we performed.

Reggie was a junior psychology major at Morehouse College. We met through a summer program I was a part of for college bound high school students, another rite of passage in the endless series of programs that animated my existence. I discerned, I guess you could say, that he was gay and gathered the courage to approach him. I made some awkward E. Lynn Harris reference, his eyes grew huge, and we both laughed about it. On a Friday he agreed to introduce me to his other friends and brought me over to his house where we all met. They, like him, were all Morehouse students. He introduced me as his new “gay child,” and that was that. His two closest friends were Vincent and Keiron. From them I learned about house and ball culture, the importance of snapping, the difference between a “butch queen” and “trade.” Or, if I thought a boy was cute, to say things like “he is the baby’s fathuh.” Most importantly I learned from Reggie that if you were being harassed for being gay you could actually fight back.

When I was 17 I met Charles through my friend Ryan. There was this always expanding network of black gay men I met early on. Each relationship brought you two or three additional relationships. I wanted to know everyone. Charles was the first black gay man I met that shared my interest in literature and art. After school during my senior year I would go to his house and we would talk for hours. He saw things in me that I could not yet see in myself. I don’t think I saw myself as being particularly thoughtful or aware of the world until those conversations with Charles. He wanted me to apply to Amherst College, where he had attended. I insisted upon going to a Historically Black College. We argued about it, our only arguments really, but still laughed at the end.

These men each played an important part of my development, and entered my life at important stages. These relationships gave me created experiences for me, joyful experiences, that I still draw strength from to this day.

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

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