Charles Stephens: The language of trauma is silence: Part 1

Over the past week I’ve been furiously emailing every public health official I can think of, every agency, every friend connected to the world of research, concerning mortality data for black gay men who have been diagnosed with HIV. This has been in part due to my desire to see how the data, specifically in the last decade—the “Aughts,” if you will, match my own experience, as someone who can’t seem to tell a story from my earlier activist years without ending it with, “but he passed away.”

The other piece is that though there has been serious discussion around the rates of black gay men getting tested for HIV, being diagnosed with HIV, getting linked to care, getting into treatment, and becoming virally suppressed; there has not been as much elevated discussion around our deaths.

I know that black gay men in 2015 are still dying. Deaths that absolutely suggest a level of systematic negligence and failure of the health care system and evidence of government bodies that create and defend policies that harm us.

I think about my own circle of friends, of black gay artists and activists in Atlanta, and even along the East Coast, through the 2000s. Our small network that has been devastated by the deaths of our brothers. It’s a conversation we have among ourselves.

But back to the mortality data. I’ve been searching for numbers, mortality data for black gay men diagnosed with HIV, not so much to learn something I don’t know but to confirm what I do. I think about three friends in particular whose lives impact my own.

Keiron was my first close friend to die and my first friend to die before turning 30. My last memory of him was at Black Pride 2002. This was such a consequential weekend, but of course it didn’t seem that way at the time, except when you look back; you can see the order of events that casts an eerie vibe. And after seeing Keiron, hanging out with him, breaking bread with him, laughing with him, spending time with him, for him to die just shy of what would have been his 28th birthday shook us all.

There was also Lawrence, whom we called “L,” who died in 2007. When he died, activist Monte Evans said of him, “good, bad, or indifferent, he was our brother.” And if you knew L, you would know that was the perfect thing to say about him and his life.

When Charles died back in 2011 I was not speaking to him. He had decided a few years earlier that he no longer wanted to be gay, announced it on the listserv that I managed, and angrily expressed that black gay men had failed him. His words cut me deeply. Not even a year passed before he shifted his feelings on his sexual identity, and though he was never fully “out,” I suppose, he continued to date other men and engage the community. I still refused to speak to him. He died before we made up. I still remember his sister telling me over the phone that Charles was in the hospital for a “rare blood condition.”

Through the Aughts and even this decade there have been many deaths in my circle. I was often the one to announce their deaths; to gather people together or not; to hold the memories and hold the space. And it’s in this space that I became politicized.