One of my favorite quotes is from Atlanta poet and community organizer Tony Daniels, from his work, “We Are Here.” The first line goes, “We are proud black gay men standing tall with our heads held high.”
I often return to this quote for inspiration and courage. This line conveys an important truth about black gay men in Atlanta and our city’s diverse and beautiful social movement history: Black gay men were and are here. This is at the core of much of my activism, elevating these stories. And though I never got to meet Tony — he died when I was in high school — his work lives on.
In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an incredible surge of creative and political output among black gay men across the country, even in Atlanta. Organizations, programs, collectives and institutions emerged like My Brothers Keeper, ADODI Muse, Black Ink and Second Sunday. Daniels was indispensable to much of this community building. These groups harnessed the creative power of black gay men in the city.
Unfortunately, when I was growing up and coming of age in southwest Atlanta in the 1990s, I didn’t have access to this information. I wasn’t even sure if you could be both black and gay. I did not know that outside my very door, in the city I called home, there was a renaissance of black gay men creating art, engaging in activism, fighting for my right to exist. Had I access to that information in middle school and high school, it might have lessened my suffering.
Even now, the pervasiveness of simplistic caricatures of black gay men in popular culture, and the lack of historical memory, have conspired to produce in the public imagination a notion of black gay men in the simplest terms. Black gay men are presented far too often without a culture, history or soul.
Many contributions of this generation of black gay men are still relevant today. Some of the most important critiques of anti-black violence at the hands of American institutions have been offered by black activists engaged in HIV work and particularly, but not singularly, black gay men. Many of them saw, and still see today, the lack of investment in resources for black communities grappling with the epidemic as a form of violence.
These ideas have to be put in conversation with current struggles against anti-black violence representative of #blacklivesmatter organizing. Another important contribution of that generation of black gay men is that one cannot talk about the black bohemian paradise of 1990s Atlanta, the Southern capital of the black creative class, without talking about the contributions of black gay men to the cultural landscape of this city. Where there is art and culture, there are black gay men. We should have learned this from the Harlem Renaissance.
I have been inspired by this legacy, this tradition. This is what called me to my work. Two years ago, when I was founding Counter Narrative, I had in mind an organization that could elevate history and culture as a way to present alternative narratives of black gay men and promote civic engagement.
Most recently, I worked with Georgia Equality to use black gay men’s history and culture as a community engagement strategy. We produced The Blueprint Dialogue, an intergenerational conversation between black gay men. The event was very successful.
Atlanta may be a city that has demonstrated considerable resilience, but we must also demonstrate an equal commitment to remembrance. It’s part of who we are.
Charles Stephens is founder of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology, “Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.”