Charles Stephens: On the cruelty of our elders

I’ve been organizing for as long as I’ve been breathing. It’s been mostly good, but not all the time. I got involved in this work never thinking it would be something I would do for this long. What was supposed to be a sort of gap year, the period between college and graduate school, became a gap decade. I never actually ended up going to graduate school. This work, which has always felt more like a calling, ended up being my classroom, and it has been a pretty amazing one at that.

Early on, maybe the second year or so that I worked in HIV prevention professionally, I had a pretty hard time. I didn’t use the word “ageism,” or maybe more accurately “adultism,” to describe what I was experiencing, but looking back, that’s exactly what was happening.

I was opinionated, self-assured (at least some ways), and was very good at what I did. I kissed no rings, was rarely submissive, avoided the “nonprofit casting couch,” and sought impact more than positional power. This was how I embodied “black queer young adulthood.”

And though most of my community supported me and was quite kind (I will forever be grateful to ZAMI and ADODI Muse, for example) there were others, a small group, who made it their business to put me in check every chance they got. This happened to many of us in my generation, my cohort of early 2000s young black queer activists. Our hearts were broken one too many times. Or we were betrayed. Or abused. Or taken for granted. Some of our elders were compassionate. Others were not. This, I believe, made the difference. I still think I was one of the luckier ones; this is why I remained long enough to tell the story. And yet, maybe I wasn’t that lucky, certainly not all the time.

At the first retreat I coordinated, a participant, twice my age or more, became so angry that I didn’t call on him (which wasn’t intentional; we ran out of time, and I apologized) that he expressed his anger right up in my face. He finally spat on me. I would like to think it was unintentional, but he certainly did not apologize, even as I wiped his saliva off my face. Then there was an email—someone made it their business to call me stupid (and misspelled the word “stupid” in the email), simply because he disagreed with something I said in a workshop.

There have been a few malcontents who would run into my then-bosses’ office every chance they got to express whatever frustrations they had with me. Of course this never worked, and I always triumphed, always, but the desire to tear me down was no less hurtful. There have been times when I was cursed out and attacked just because I didn’t conform to the model of “young black gay activist,” which basically boiled down to being seen and not heard. Those were the days!

For many of my peers, those of us of my generation who co-founded college organizations, got started in nonprofits, did amazing organizing and cultural work, wrote brilliant blogs, and so forth, these kinds of aggressions were overwhelming and painful. So we fled. And yet, as I approach many milestones next year, both personal and professional, I am lonely for my friends and comrades who started out with me, but ended up fleeing movement work for their sanity and well-being.