Sunday, July 03, 2005

Help Me, I Think I’m Falling: Finding A Way Out of Despair When You're Black and Gay

By Max Gordon
Sapience Magazine
July 2005

It’s a story I won’t soon forget: after my closest friend had come out as a lesbian and left her marriage, she went back home to the city in Michigan where she grew up. There, she began to map out her future, trying to make sense of the whirlwind of changes and possibilities she now faced. She anticipated a move that would eventually bring her “someplace else”. In the meantime, however, she took a much needed break to try and figure out what precisely had happened to her. She had fallen in love with a woman for the first time and it hadn’t exactly worked out. Her marriage was over. She had driven a moving-van from New York to Detroit with the last eight years of her life packed in boxes, while I sat on the passenger’s side, unsuccessfully reading road-maps, changing the static from fading radio stations, and sitting across from her in roadside diners. We made feeble jokes and moved greasy food around on our plates, using humor to make sense of what still felt to both of us like a strange dream. We arrived at her mother’s house and loaded boxes into a storage basement. The next day she waved goodbye to me at the airport as I went back to the City, leaving her and our mutual bewilderment behind.

It might have been too many afternoons sitting at a kitchen table and emptying pots of coffee, too many mind-numbing talk-shows that bled into even more mind-numbing soap-operas and endless hours of guilty relief and nagging regret that finally prompted my friend to discard her self-pity and firmly walk out of the house. One day she called me, and I heard a vitality in her voice that had been missing for months. She gave me the news: she’d decided to start a group for black lesbians, called SPICE. They’d already had the first meeting, and the response had reassured her that she’d been right: although groups had existed before, there was still a great need, and SPICE, she was determined, would be different - not just social, but political as well. She laughed with restored enthusiasm, promising to keep me posted. When we ended our conversation, I shook my head and smiled with amazement at my friend who had been out of the closet for only five minutes and was already distinguishing herself as a prominent gay activist in Detroit. In the weeks that followed, I got reports of SPICE’s progress, the women who were finding support and hope, the impassioned discussions about the group’s direction, mission and guidelines. It had been in existence less than a month, but every time I spoke with my friend, I could hear her elation and love, her great pride at its increasing membership; as one woman told my friend who’d been told by her friend who overheard someone say, “SPICE? Wouldn’t miss it for the world, child. I look forward to it all week.”

It was the following month that my friend called one night, speaking in hushed tones about a woman I will call Evelyn Edwards. Evelyn was black, lesbian and an artist. She wrote poetry. She had been struggling with depression for years and some of her friends knew about it, but didn’t know exactly how to support her. She had isolated herself and there were rumors of a break-up that had left her deeply bitter and dislocated. Someone had invited her to a SPICE meeting and she’d said vaguely that she would try to make the next one if she could.

Obviously, there was no way she could be forced to come, and whether or not she felt she belonged or would stay for the entire meeting when she got there was beyond anyone’s control. The strategy might have been that if they could just get her to come for one night, however grudgingly, once her coat was taken off and something warm to drink was placed in her hands, once she was guided to her chair in the circle, the group could pour some much-needed love and attention into her and she would be fine. People like Evelyn, with voracious, greedy depressions, were often too much for any one person to handle, or even three or four for that matter, but a group of ten or twenty other black lesbians might just be able to break her trance of gloom, might nudge her a couple of times into a reluctant smile despite herself, might coax out of her the sludgy, jammed up tears or place knowing hands on her shoulders until the sobs came, or laughs, howls of pain, gas and whatever else she needed to express. And if everything else failed, they would shove some homemade food in her mouth. Someone would say, “It’s going to be okay, girl,” and someone else would tell her, “I’ve been depressed before too, and there is help out there,” and at the end of the meeting, as everyone began to depart amidst the relaxed and amiable chatter, a phone number would be placed in her hand or there would be an offer of a ride home. Evelyn might remember her pride at that moment and say, “No thanks, I’ll walk”, suddenly self-conscious about how much fun she’d had and how she’d been so distracted by her good time that she’d forgotten to be enraged at her life. At the door, someone would say the words that everyone new to a group longed to hear: “Good night, Evelyn. I’m glad you came. See you next week.”

She never made that first meeting. Evelyn Edwards killed herself the week before the SPICE gathering she promised to attend. My friend went to the morning service of the predominantly gay church Evelyn infrequently attended. The word clearly hadn’t gotten around yet about what happened; when the pastor began the service by saying, “And we say our final goodbye to our dearly departed sister Evelyn Joyce Edwards, who took her own life earlier this week,” a woman in the back of the church screamed her surprise.

Prior to Evelyn’s death, my friend had been asked on several occasions by the gay and lesbian organization that had offered SPICE’s first meeting space to justify the need for a group created specifically and exclusively for black lesbians. Couldn’t it be expanded to include “everyone”? What about black women who were in relationships with white lesbians, were their partners to be excluded too? Wasn’t that discrimination of a different kind?

My friend had entertained these questions in the past with as much goodwill as possible, as she patiently tried to explain the challenges of racism, sexism and homophobia, and that yes, black and white lesbians definitely had similar struggles, but occasionally the black ones needed space or protection from the white ones; that a meeting, if it wasn’t fully and exclusively committed to the needs of black women, could easily be hijacked (and had been in the past) into being about something else. Black gay women surely didn’t need another meeting where they spent half the time explaining themselves and the other half caretaking and apologizing for being angry at white people, or for not being interested in them at all.

The justification for these conversations was always presented as “logistical concerns”, and so my friend tolerated them for as long as she could; but as they occurred with a tiresome and insistent regularity, she found herself exhausted defending the group, which was now more than thriving. It became clear that they were trying to find a friendly way to say that black lesbians, when solely by themselves and for themselves, weren’t worth using funding resources or taking up precious space. With the event of the past week not fully absorbed into her mind, and still devastated by its impact, she sat dumbstruck before her familiar row of inquisitors. When a question came up yet again about why black lesbians choose to isolate, she could find only two words, which she repeated mantra-like until the meeting’s abrupt conclusion.

“But don’t you think a group for all women would increase your membership significantly?”

“Evelyn Edwards.”

“Surely, as the group expands you will need to broaden its focus.”

“Evelyn Edwards.”

“We are all gay, we all know what it’s like to deal with oppression. What concerns do black lesbians have that are different from anyone else’s?”

“Evelyn Edwards.”

I didn’t know Evelyn Edwards any more than my friend did. But not knowing her didn’t change the fact that five years later I am still thinking about her, still speculating. I am relieved, in a way, that I didn’t know her; it is easier to project my fantasies onto her and make her tragedy less mine. I considered once what she might have looked like and meditated on the possibilities of black faces that might have been hers; light-skinned, dark, peach, beige, dusky, brown, black, pretty, ugly, plain, beautiful, brilliant, sad - I knew that whatever she looked like, some traces of her face could be found in my sister’s, or in my mother’s, or in mine. All black faces share the same look at some point during the course of a life, even if it is only for an instant before being immediately discarded. It is after the world has worked on you, and worked you over, when you touch your flesh as you stare into the mirror, just to make sure that you are still there. Your experience in a racist world says you definitely do not exist, or shouldn’t exist, and you’ve become convinced they may be right. You press your hands to your cheeks and wait for your face to fold up like an accordion, or a road map – compact and unobtrusive. You either aggressively snap out of it in that moment and decide to live the rest of your life in angry defiance, or you disappear.

Something in me itched to say that Evelyn was dead because she was a loser who should have fought harder, and deserved what she got. In typical macho American style, my arrogance protected me in the end from her vulnerability and mine. It’s the social Darwinism that Adolf Hitler espoused, and the men who provided the leadership of Enron: the idea that the stronger will always survive, and that those who don’t probably deserved to die. This paradigm never asks questions about morality, nor is there a conversation about whether or not the “strong” have a responsibility to help the “weaker” ones. If Evelyn Edwards deserved to die because of bad choices, then I don’t have to consider that some days it feels like too much being black and gay and male, dealing with racism and homophobia. And that having to fight white people over equal pay, discrimination and basic civil rights, and then turn around and fight black family and community over their homophobic hatred masked by religious convictions, often leads to overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, to visions of a bleak future of further humiliations and harassment with no imaginable relief in sight.

Evelyn is me, of course, with fewer kind words said, fewer offerings of support. She is me, with one day less of hope. We are so good at taking credit for the success of our lives in the daytime, and inversely judging those who we decide have failed. But at night, when the socks come off and we stare at the ceiling and contemplate the day, a different truth emerges: our series of “successes” is sometimes just a chain of narrowly escaped mishaps and elaborate cover-ups. To be sure, I wasn’t a suicide like Evelyn, but how many times had I put myself at risk sexually, or with drugs and alcohol? My own low point came when I smoked crack for the first time on a sex-date. For those who would pass judgment on me to gain a little extra footing on their precarious climb to their mountain tops, I should have known better, I should have been stronger, I should have “just said no.” But the emotional pain I was in was excruciating, and as I didn’t see any way out of it I found tiny, subversive ways to kill myself, trying to disappear from my life in sections– a set of lungs and a heart here, some brain cells there. I was angry at my mother for dying too young, and at my myself for disappointing her by being gay, and the only way I knew how to express those feelings was with grand schemes of violence against myself.

I’d stumbled through streets drunk or high and incoherent and was grateful that I had made it home at all without being intercepted by men who might want to do me more harm than the ones I often chose to date. I thought about the black gay men who found themselves in the fatal hands of Jeffrey Dahmer, and whether anyone really grieved the loss of black gay male life on the planet. At the time, I prided myself on being someone who would have known better than to go home with a Dahmer, even though I’d slept with white guys who looked a hell of a lot scarier than his mugshot. I’d have been able to overpower Dahmer and escape, I decided, the others were just weak. And there it was again, that same lie I had to tell myself to keep from feeling victimized and powerless. When I was honest with myself I could admit that although anyone who watched a gay parade might think that gay life was one long summertime, sometimes the living wasn’t easy, and there were aspects of being black and gay that were unspeakably painful. Rashawn Brazell, a 19-year-old black gay man, was found dismembered on a subway track in Brooklyn in April of this year. An investigation was going on, somewhere, the newspaper said, but days later the story was dropped; I never heard his name again and wondered whether anyone was still looking for his killer or was eager for a resolution to his story. The brutality of his murder recalled Steen Fenrich, 19 years of age also, black and gay, dismembered by his stepfather and found in March of 2000. What was our responsibility to each other to keep these stories and their memories alive, how could we account for and keep an eye on one another, and not let anyone slip through the cracks or fall away? If no one else valued these gay lives, and in some cases even family or friends turned their backs or were the perpetrators, could we have the dignity to remember and claim our own?

When I went into recovery and therapy in 2002, my attitude about getting help was akin to tossing croutons on a salad, or getting a fresh paint-job on a car: it’s nice when it’s there, but it’s not going to change anything important. One of the first things I had to admit when recovering from my addiction to drugs and alcohol was absolutely powerlessness; as a black gay man dealing with the effects of societal oppression, I didn't feel I had any leftover power to spare. I fell apart in one therapy session after another and realized that I’d been psychologically bleeding to death for years from childhood trauma I hadn’t faced, and a few new adult traumas I’d picked up since then. I’d learned from my parents that no matter how much pain you were in, everything was fine if you could answer the phone without crying, get to work on time, and still use your American Express card. In my head was the message that I shouldn’t be asking for help, that as a black man I should be able to handle everything, and if I was “fierce” enough, things would eventually work out on their own. Black people didn’t go to therapists, we only needed church and prayer (even though sometimes after a good prayer session God’s voice seemed to implore, “I hear you loud and clear. Now, will you please get your ass to a therapist?”)

I’m not a doctor, or therapist, or minister – my authority is that I am an American man who is black and gay and who has struggled with depression, addiction and despair. There is always the risk that an article of this nature will be considered dreary and a downer for those who want to party: “We interrupt your house music to bring you the following news bulletin; gay life isn’t always gay.” It is a necessary conversation, however, as there are still too many of us killing ourselves because of shame, isolation and undigested pain.

The decision to save our lives has a magnetic force that attracts the things we need from unexpected places: we can’t afford therapy right now but a friend suggests a free lecture or workshop and we happen to be available that night; a book on healing and recovery is given as a gift; a relative opens up during the holidays for the first time to talk about depression or abuse in the family; a sign at a gay community center advertises free counseling for those in need; a church welcomes all its congregants, straight and gay; we run into someone we used to party with, and after admitting that we can’t stop using coke, she invites us to a 12-step meeting; a support group we create meets every week, even if the only space we can find at first is our own living-room. What we are searching for is that sacred place in ourselves that we can honor, that no substances, or charge cards, or lovers, can ever fill. There are a million possibilities of health once we go into that quiet corner inside and say distinctly and clearly, “My life is worth saving.”

Whenever I hear that voice in my head - the one I hear at least a hundred times a day that says I’m an overreacting drama-queen, that time heals all wounds, that black people don’t commit suicide or get professional help, I think about the rise in crystal meth addictions in the gay community and its links to HIV and AIDS, the increasing number of heterosexual black women who are contracting HIV from intravenous drug use and unprotected sex, the forces in this country that are more active than ever before to convince gay people and people of color that we are unworthy and should be dead, or at least disenfranchised and silent. What a challenge and invitation to all of us right now to live fully and to take good gay care of our lives! There has never been a better time, nor a greater need for us to save ourselves and each other. Why? Two words: Evelyn Edwards.

copyright Max Gordon

This article can be read at Sapience magazine:


Blogger jaywriter said...

Good article. I'm glad there are multiple voices out there positively commenting on the black non-heterosexual community. I have added your blog to my links. Keep up the good work and I look fordward in reading more from you, my brother.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous MaryAnne der Esel said...

Someday, maybe someday soon you're going to have to answer to God. Now don't think God hates you because you're gay. He doesn't! Not at all! In fact, he loves you! He knows who you are and he knows you can come to him for salvation, regardless of whatever sins tou have commited. Being gay does not in any way bar you from entering Heaven - the only way to keep out is to refuse to pray to Jesus asking him to wash away your sins and save you. I would suggest praying to God and asking Jesus to save you immediately - tomorrow could be too late. Listen to me, there is going to be a day (some say on or before October 4th) when the Rapture is going to happen. All of us Christians are going to be lifted off of this Earth, and Satan's Anti-Christ is going to rule the Earth for 7 long and terrible years. I know you think that's crazy, but believe me it is coming! Will you promise me that even if you don't turn to Jesus now, that if you turn on CNN sometime in the coming weeks and hear that millions of people have disappeared, that you will realize that God is real? Will you remember these words and ask Jesus to save you? is a great site to learn about it. Check out the FAQ on the rapture for more info. email me at if you'd like to talk more - I care about your eternal soul! There are only two places it can spend the rest of forever, and I sure don't want it to be the fiery one. In Christ's love, MaryAnne.

6:48 PM  

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