One night in November 2014, Charles Stephens listened intently as black gay men rose to recount their stories — some heartbreaking, some inspiring — about homophobia, racism, HIV and other issues at an event called the Blueprint Dialogue.
There was the Morehouse college senior who expressed a need for unconditional love. Small acts of affirmation, he said, would go a long way toward healing the hurt many of them felt.
The 61-year-old recently retired newcomer to Atlanta, said he felt a sense of loss and had been struggling to find community in this city too busy to hate. Do I have a future here? he wanted to know.
And the man in his 40s who didn’t feel he had adquate time to heal “because we’re so busy trying to make things happen and because so much was going on, especially during the height of the AIDS epidemic.”
Nearly 100 of them, ages 18 to 61, filled the room that cold November night under the auspices of the Equality Foundation of Georgia and the newly formed Counter Narrative Project.
“I’d never seen anything like it before, and I thought this is exactly what we need to be doing, creating a space where we can tell our stories,” Stephens said. “It felt like magic in the room. You could look in people’s eyes and see them engaged.”
Stephens certainly was. Despite bearing the brunt of this country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, gay black men and their stories had been lost in the statistical discourse.
Not only have they been forgotten, the disproportionate share of the U.S. epidemic that they comprise in the black community and the U.S. overall continues to get overlooked.
Charles Stephens, who’d long been involved in the work important to Atlanta’s black gay community, was sure he could change that.
But he didn’t want to just share men’s stories. He wanted to stop the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its impact on the lives of black gay men like him and address the economic and policy issues related to poverty, homelessness and lack of health care — issues that exacerbated the spread of the disease.
Born in Atlanta in 1980, Stephens came of age in late 1990s, when black gay men were already disproportionately represented in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Like many black gay men, he said, he struggled with a profound sense of self-loathing stemming from the homophobic taunts he received as a child.
His saving grace was his parents, now deceased, who provided a loving home for him and who rejected the fire and brimstone concept of a vengeful God in favor of a Christian love, demonstrated by service, support and compassion.
By age 11, Stephens was starting to accept the fact that he was gay. By 15, he had his first kiss and had somehow worked through the shame he’d felt, the fear and the terror of who he was. He accepted what so many had said about him. He was gay, and he was OK with that.
“I felt an amazing freedom,” he said.
At Therrell High School, Stephens established himself as a leader, becoming editor of the school newspaper, junior class vice president and founding a chapter of Black Teens for Advancement. He discovered the writings of James Baldwin, and later Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam.
For most of his life, he’d grown up listening to black radio and stories of his parents’ struggles for racial justice. There would be no more of that. Charles Stephens was about to join another struggle, this one for social justice for homosexuals.
Up until then, he believed homophobia was something one endured.
“It had never occurred to me that one could be an activist around fighting homophobia,” he said. “But it was through this period of intense reflection, reading and my own experiences, what I was bearing witness to, that I realized you could. You don’t choose whether you’re black first or gay first, no more than you choose which oppression you fight. You love all the parts of yourself, and you fight for all the parts of yourself.”
Stephens graduated from Georgia State with a degree in women’s studies and started work at AID Atlanta, becoming the African-American gay outreach coordinator. In 2011 he left to become southern regional organizer of AIDS United, a national policy advocacy and grant-making organization.
But by 2013, Stephens had become increasingly frustrated by what he was witnessing in his community.
His friends were dying of AIDS. He knew black gay men struggling with depression and suicide. He read stories about acts of homophobic violence and murder committed against black gay men, with very little national attention.
“There needed to be an organization that could respond to these things,” Stephens said. “I wanted to create an organization that could offer something that could inspire, affirm and empower.’’
Raising the visibility of gay black men in the community was an important first step toward making sure their concerns were represented in policy decisions. He was reminded of that when he was invited to be one of the grand marshals of the Atlanta Pride parade in 2013. He hesitated at first.
“I couldn’t picture myself riding atop a convertible, waving my hand at the crowd,” Stephens said. “But then I thought, being from Atlanta, being someone who had experienced so much homophobia in my life, being called a faggot nearly every day of my life when I was a kid — what an amazing opportunity to be able to be visible in that way. Because there may be other black gay boys going through the same things I went through, I felt it was important for them to know that there are other black gay men in the world fighting for them. That they have a community standing behind them.”
Riding atop the float that day was one way he could continue the fight.
“Even today it is far too easy to talk about HIV in the black community and not talk about black gay men with any empathy or concern, let alone political urgency,” he said.
That’s why he believes the Counter Narrative Project is so important.
Once an aspiring journalist, Stephens believes telling personal stories has the power to change hearts and minds and, in turn, change society. And that translates into shifting how policies are created and how funding is allocated.
That night at the Counter Narrative Project’s inaugural event he got a glimpse of the faces behind the statistics that say if you were to follow a group of black men from age 20 to 40, one in four would be living with HIV by age 25, more than two by age 40.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than half - 59 percent - of African Americans diagnosed with HIV in 2015 were gay or bisexual men; and of those, 38 percent were young men ages 13 to 24.
“Whenever I come across statistics around black gay men and HIV, I have to admit it is a lot to take in,” Stephens said.
But he’s trying. His challenge is to counter the narrative — that black gay men are a monolith — by sharing the stories of the community’s leaders, activists and ordinary citizens going about their daily lives, thereby uncovering the rich diversity and power of the community.
When he started a Google group asking his friends what they considered the major issues facing black gay men in Atlanta, more than a dozen people chimed in: unemployment, housing instability, the need for a place to gather and “the importance of self-love when so many forces try to make you hate yourself for being black and gay.”
That inspired Stephens to found the non-profit Counter Narrative Project and weeks later, host the Blueprint Dialogue.
But the organization isn’t just about telling stories. It’s about effecting change, too.
To that end, Counter Narrative Project has hosted a community forum on how voter suppression impacts the black LGBTQ community, organized a meeting with the Atlanta Board of Education in response to alleged hate crimes against students, and advocating for more equitable funding distribution for HIV prevention from the CDC and Fulton County Board of Health.
Looking toward the future, Stephens said he’s advocating for someone to represent the black LGBTQ community on the new mayor’s transition team and the appointment of a special advisor who can champion those causes.
In addition, he’d like to see a street named for Commissioner Joan Garner, a gay rights advocate who died earlier this year, and to partner with local leaders to ensure more is done to support the work he and others black LGBTQ community leaders are doing.
As for the Counter Narrative Project, Stephens plans to stage a reading of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy,” a play that deals with the impact of homophobia on the lives of black gay boys.
“I’m so proud and grateful to be able to do the work that I do here,” Stephens said. “I’m proud of this city. It has nurtured and inspired me. But we have a long way to go. Because I believe in this city, I know much is possible.”
Either way, one thing is for sure: we will never end the HIV epidemic in the U.S. if we continue to neglect this population.
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