Charles Stephens: On loving the work

Community organizing is nothing if not humbling. You have to have nerves of steel. I mean, it’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also humbling. It requires vulnerability on so many levels.

In the moments leading up to an event, the hours and minutes before, the self-doubts and second-guessing can be pretty intense. One might compare it to the fear of romantic rejection, which may be mortifying, but political rejection is downright heartbreaking. When you pour your heart into an event, send countless emails, schedule endless conference calls, beg for money, and at the appointed moment, the possibility that no one may show up is a deep fear. It feels like dismissal. How does one not take that personally?

Of course these feelings are irrational. What I’ve found is that if you work hard on the front end, the people will come and the event will work out. That’s what I found when I co-organized “Love and Justice,” our community dialogue around HIV criminalization, one of the best events I’ve ever helped organize.

The conversation was on the Saturday of this year’s Labor Day weekend. We wanted to host our event during the annual Atlanta Black LGBT Pride festivities. A group of us came together to make the conversation happen: Robert Suttle of Sero Project, Randevyn Piérre of the Center for Black Equity, and me.

The idea to host a community conversation about HIV criminalization was born from a number of sources; the letter 116 of us sent to Michael L. Johnson (who was imprisoned under Missouri’s HIV criminalization law) was a large part. As I worked with my colleagues, I was also very aware, extremely aware, of the history of black gay and bisexual men resisting the broader context of criminalization, including everyone from Langston Hughes, who in his 1951 poem “Café: 3 A.M.” depicted the police harassment of a black gay bar, to Joseph Beam’s critique of state violence in his anthology “In the Life,” to Essex Hemphill, who in his poem, “Occupied Territories,” wrote: “You are not to touch other flesh/without a police permit.” These are the shoulders we stood upon and the tradition we invoked through our work; the ancestral energy we called forth.

More about the conversation: The gathering was intimate, maybe 13 or so of us, but we felt like an army. There was magic present. The magic that happens when you’re able to co-create a space for black gay and bisexual men where we can just “be.”

I will admit I was worried the conversation would be combative and volatile. The topic is often a divisive one. These discussions about whether or not someone should be imprisoned for not disclosing their HIV status (or being unable to prove they did), inspires very passionate, often personal, responses. But it didn’t feel volatile at all. During the conversation, we talked about the implications of sexand intimacy for black gay men. We talked about healing. We shared personal stories and experiences. We discussed race and homophobia. We had the kind of conversation black gay and bisexual men have when the space is created for us to express ourselves. If we are ever to effectively build power among black gay and bisexual men to resist HIV criminalization, it begins with base-building through community conversations, storytelling, and sharing. This is the path forward.

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