GUEST POST: Because our stories are also our weapons

Charles Stephens is the Director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call. He has over 10 years experience developing innovative community engagement initiatives, piloting programs, and mobilizing black gay men. Most recently he was the conference coordinator for the 2014 “Whose Beloved Community? Black Civil and LGBT Rights Conference” hosted by Emory University, and in 2013 served as a Grand Marshall for the Atlanta LGBT Pride Parade. Follow him on Twitter: @CharlesStephen2

The Counter Narrative was founded out of a commitment to amplifying the voices of black gay men. By amplifying the voices of our brothers we hope to both build political power in our communities and simultaneously disrupt problematic narratives around black gay men.  Narratives that far too often reinforce and perpetuate the stigma we endure.

We build upon the work and tradition of our ancestors and elders: black gay men such as the writer and editor Joseph Beam, the poet and essayist Essex Hemphill, the filmmaker Marlon Riggs, and the history of black gay men’s cultural organizing and HIV activism. Though much of our movement history has been erased by historical amnesia, collective trauma, death, and institutional racism, the stories of our movement have remained resilient and these are the shoulders we stand upon. This is where we find our inspiration and find our courage. We also take significant inspiration and courage in the unwavering commitment of these black gay men, our movement ancestors and elders, to intersectional politics. They saw their struggle, as we see our struggle now, as being linked to the broader movement for social justice being fought by people of color, queer and trans communities of color, and working class and poor people everywhere. We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters fighting for social justice.

In our current moment the most pervasive articulation of “black gay man” is through HIV statistics or in popular culture as uncomplicated accessories for privileged straight women.  The most devastating part of this, is that “black gay man,” was very much, in our movement history, a political location, a point of power and self-determination, and has become synonymous with public health failure or pop culture punchline. Counter Narrative seeks to snatch our stories back from these narrow, superficial representations of our experiences and advance a far more complex and ultimately far more human picture of who we are and what we stand for.  

Through amplifying our stories we hope to not only counter the dominant narrative about black gay men, but proliferate and advance new narratives. We believe that black gay men are the authors of our own stories. And we believe that with these stories, we can wield them, harness the full power of them, and use them to inspire and facilitate social change. Cultural change precedes policy change.

To do that we rely on three strategies: (1) Political Education. We provide movement history, cultural context, skills building, and issue awareness. (2) We are also committed to mobilization. We believe that black gay men have to be mobilized not only around crisis and catastrophe but also around meaningful and transformative experiences. We believe in creating sacred spaces. There is a magic to community organizing. A zone. (3) Messaging. Counter Narrative is committed to messaging that elevates and affirms the lives of black gay men. We believe that the messaging seeking to reach our brothers has to speak to our deepest desires. This messaging has to have an interest in our psychic lives and not only and singularly our social realities. Empowering messaging is not just about saying “gay is good,” and slogans, but about articulating the specificity of our experiences.

Taken together, the commitment to our strategies: (1) Political education (2) Mobilization and (3) Messaging in the service of amplifying the voices of black gay men, we believe that we can build power in our communities. We are resilient through our culture and certainly through our stories. As the poet Essex Hemphill reminds us “if we believe our lives are priceless we can’t be conquered.” 

Photos are courtesy of Equality Georgia