It was 1982 at Howard University in Washington, DC, and like so many other students, I admired a beautiful young black couple that appeared to be deeply in love. The couple, who I will call—Michelle and Michael—were often seen together walking across campus smiling hand in hand. The pair represented for many the ideal couple. They were both from “well to do” families, highly intelligent, fashionable and popular. While the bourgeoisie attitude was rampant across campus—they were also refreshingly down-to-earth.
I don’t recall when I first heard that Michael was gravely ill. I vaguely remember being with a group of girls in the dorm. Everyone expressed sorrow for Michael and Michelle. Gossiped about how they heard he had mono, pneumonia and even cancer. But soon after our convening, I began to hear deeper speculation about Michael’s illness. Word began to spread that Michael had caught the “gay disease.” That’s how students referred to HIV/AIDS in the eighties at Howard. I remember going back and forth in my mind over the probability that Michael could have the “gay disease”—and might actually die. We were all so innocent and believed that nothing could harm our young lives. But sadly that was far from the case. Michael did not complete his sophomore year. Michael died in the hospital. It was difficult to comprehend this. Actually, I didn’t try to process what I heard. It was too disturbing. But a year or two later, it was confirmed how Michael died. During his relationship with Michelle—Michael had unprotected sex with other young men and he contracted HIV.
After his death, there was an outpouring of grief and lots of questions amongst the students. I couldn’t help but think of my high school boyfriend. While we were no longer together, we were connected, and I imagined the pain that Michelle suffered. What none of us anticipated was that the disease would take more lives from our insular world. A year later, I heard that Michelle died as well. I remember a dark chill running through my veins. The death didn’t stop there. The disease snatched the lives of more students and alumni. By the late eighties, I was now out of college and working in D.C., and I expected to hear about someone else that I knew who was sick. My circle of friends was wide and diverse—and so I mourned the loss of many young Black men who never lived to see twenty-five.
It wasn’t until I was twenty-five myself that I made the connection that I needed to protect myself. I was dating two men. And my oldest and dearest friend questioned me. She asked whether I was using protection. I answered that I was using “the pill.” It hadn’t occurred to me that she was asking whether I was “protecting” myself from HIV. I blurted out—“what does that have to do with me?” She slightly laughed at me. But she was concerned that I was so clueless.
Over the next five years, I thought of her question often as I exclusively dated men. I was always quite social. Meeting all kinds of people. Typically drawn to people who were adventurous and free. I encountered countless Black men who lived double lives. Whether they were having sexual flings or relationships with the same-sex. I discovered this way before the “down low” phenomena—Black men with wives and girlfriends and secretly having sex with men. I began to understand that this behavior has gone on for generations. Since the beginning of time. As I became more aware of the vast layers and complexity of sexuality—my compassion grew for Black men living these double lives. Not that I condone dishonesty. But the fact is, the Black community is rooted in deep sexual oppression. We don’t have a history of sitting at the table openly discussing controversial issues. Much less talking about sexuality. For the most part, we have fixed stereotypical impressions of what a gay man looks like. You know the character—the tokenized gay male friend in movies and television who does hair in the beauty salon and/or sings in the church choir. You simply do not see Black gay men in other roles. They’re usually the brunt of jokes. They behave catty—spewing silly cracks to everyone that cross their path. Sadly, society has taught us not to equate “masculinity” with this type of characterization. We have been taught that gay men are “less than” a “real man.” And most disturbing, we’ve been taught that if you have sex with the same-sex you are going to hell.
And so, Black men have not felt safe to come out. What has made their plight even more challenging is the tension coming from Black straight women. Increasingly outraged that they can’t always tell when a man is gay. Of course, Black gay people have always lived amongst the straight community. The Black community has just been in denial. Not willing to accept that within our families, circles of friends and society at large—the construction worker, the police officer, the football player and your mailman are all gay. It was safer to believe a gay person could simply be picked out of a crowd. After all, if a gay person can look “straight”—what does that mean for everything we’ve been taught to believe? Our misplaced fear has prevented us from dealing with the realities of sexuality. And as result, the Black community continues to live in a sea of lies and deception. We ignore what we know is true. We don’t talk about it. We marry into the lie and deception. We create mistruths in our hope to feel safe. But are we safe when we don’t protect ourselves from HIV? Are we safe when we lie to everyone in our lives, including telling lies to ourselves?
It’s time to start talking openly about sexuality in the Black community. It’s time for acceptance. It’s time to create safe spaces to bring our full selves to the table. To talk enthusiastically about the issue of sexuality amongst straight people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, to help heal our community. To bridge the gap that stagnates us from loving and embracing the fullness of our existence.
About the Author
Sonya Shields is the director of development for the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice in New York City, and serves on the board of the National Black Justice Coalition. Sonya has also held senior posts with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the New York City Anti-Violence Project. Sonya is the author of Spiraling Out, a book of poetry and prose. She lives in New York City.