Craig Washington

Craig Washington: For LGBTQ elders of color, we are our own greatest legacy

We watched our bravest, our brightest fall and not get up again. The gap between what we hoped for and what we expected widened along with the obituary pages. We risked taking the conventional drugs if we could get them, believing it was worth the havoc they wreaked on our bowels. Or we refused, opting instead for homeopathic methods like acupuncture and homebrewed Karboochi tea, braving the righteous ire of perplexed friends. We prayed that we would be spared the inevitable fate, the indelible curse upon our kind. We opened our hearts to circles far wider than custom obligated. Our compassion was not solely reserved for family and close friends. We visited ex-lovers on their deathbed, fed our neighbor’s cat when they were in hospice. We gave the nation that abandoned us much more than safer sex education. We crafted new models of home health care, patients’ rights and self-advocacy. In loss, we found the loving divinities we knew were always there, the ones our oppressors hid from us and replaced with narcissists erected in the madness of their own image. We went to hear Adodi Muse and got our tea leaves read, lit up the floor at the Paradise Garage, the Delta, Lorettas and Catch One. We nestled in the arms of lovers and friends if we were so lucky. We settled in to greet the uninvited like a Lady Day song.

Every day, the same fear would visit. When would this cough, that blemish bloom into pneumonia or lesions? I suffered grief thickened by guilt, useless in my inability to revive our sick or avenge our dead. I heard the most popular black comedian of the day perform skits about catching AIDS from his girlfriend who was always kissing “faggots.” I watched those in the audience laughing and wondered for what gain did my people once again sell their own down the river.

We who crossed over that river Jordan still carry burdens we have not been able to lay down nor exchange for new threats acquired through our unexpected aging. While we may have elevated our T-cell counts and lowered viral loads, we are not necessarily in the clear. As noted in Matt Sharp’s paper “The Unintended Consequences of AIDS Survival,” research on older HIV-positive adults shows more geriatric morbidities including immune system deterioration as compared to HIV-negative counterparts. We suffer higher rates of kidney and liver damage, certain cancers, insulin resistance and diabetes. Our mental and emotional health may be compromised by trauma related to HIV diagnosis and stigma.

While AIDS media has recently expanded coverage on HIV and aging, overlaying disparities demand a broader intersectional focus. Given the pervasive effects discrimination associated with race, gender and sexual orientation, we know that black and brown people living with HIV do not fare as well as our white, male, cisgender or heterosexual counterparts. As LGBTQ elders of color are largely relegated to the margins of advocacy for black, brown and queer communities, our heightened attention on HIV-positive elders must draw us beyond HIV-centered frameworks. How then should we consider the health matters of older LGBTQ people of color? How do the aging paths of transgender people,and black and brown queer men affect the quality of life for those living with HIV for 20 or more years? Intersectional models like the Diverse Elders Coalition offer pathways to identify collective goals that will prioritize these concerns. In his article “The Diverse Elders Coalition and LGBT Aging,” Robert Espinoza of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) emphasizes the need for LGBT, black, Latino and Asian elder advocacy groups to work in tandem for the benefit of all marginalized elders.

As social beings, our connection with others influences our ability to thrive. As older black gay men age out of gay-centered environments, our vulnerability to isolation increases, which in turn threatens well-being. Two years ago, in a Counter Narrative Project forum, one participant revealed “all my friends are gone. I don’t know anybody. I don’t have a community.” His testimony is far from unique. Black gay men aged 50 and over are more likely to suffer such isolation, as our communities have less infrastructure designed to meet our needs. Outside of the ball community, there are few social organizations that hold a place for older black gay men regardless of HIV status. When those networks naturally thin out from advancing age, declining health and death, we may be left on our own. Having outlived or otherwise lost friends who functioned as family, we may come to rely on original families who refused to recognize us.

With each birthday, this lack of placement for men of a certain age looms with greater urgency. I am blessed with a handful of vigilant friends. This past fall, I met the man with whom I intend to share the rest of my life. My heart sings with the promise of a future with him, with my best friends, my families of origin and choice. I know that today I am loved and I am not alone.

Still there is the onset of age, a path I cannot predict. My 60s and 70s are just around the bend. I have no children. My oldest nephew regards homosexuality as a sinful condition and my youngest nephew’s views remain unspoken between us. Pondering the loss of ability to manage my own needs, should my partner depart by choice or circumstance, who will take care of me? What quality of healthcare will be available? Whether they be hired staff or kin, will my caretakers respect or disregard my culture when I no longer can fight for its recognition? Are there assisted living residences that acknowledge transgender or genderqueer identities and respect our differences? Will I have a community that I can claim, one that fully claims me?

In the face of so many uncertainties, more than ever before I look to my peers. Across our differences we share perspective because we were there, fighting back and “weeping mighty tears.” We have communion every month on the dance floor at a club known as Mixx Atlanta. Every year, we vacation together at the SGL Family Cruise where we set a place for ourselves. When we celebrate, we show gratitude for making another year, seeing another day “in the life.”

Unmet needs and unanswered questions call us to band with sobering purpose. I think of my contemporary Duncan Teague, a veteran activist, artist and ordained minister who signs his letters with “Love and Courage.” Love and courage must be summoned by the survivors of this generation to take responsibility for our own lives and resist dependency on AIDS institutions. During the ’90s, it was this generation who innovated several AIDS service entities as well as community organizations that served black queer folk beyond disease prevention. Today, we must work across generations to revive black LGBT cultural production that can highlight the histories overlooked in heterocentric black and white gay narratives. Our future rests on the faith we invest in our own abilities. We are our own greatest legacy.