I had a gay friend. Wait, describing him as “gay” pretty much discounts our friendship; I should say I had a friend who just happened to be gay. We met at a point in our lives when simplicity lost its way to the complications of dorm life and we were on our own, trying to find our way. College was about freedom, exploration, growing and changing in ways we didn’t believe possible. It was in this atmosphere that he decided he would come out.
I didn’t cringe when he told me he was a homosexual; I didn’t run, nor did I curse or swing at him, I simply nodded my head and listened. He told me about his private pain and his public shame, how his decision would humiliate his father and hurt his mother, but how he felt free from the shackles that restrained him for so long. He wasn’t abused as a child or did he think he was born gay, he just realized his preference for men as an early teen, but had to hide because as he told me in a particularly vulnerable moment, “I’m not supposed to be gay”.
He walked away after he said that and left his words lingering in the air like an apostrophe, but I knew exactly what those five words meant. I wasn’t supposed to be gay either. I’m not, but I’m not supposed to be either. I grew up in a community that found a way to praise just about everything except homosexuality. Acknowledgement and kudos were tossed around to the finest athletes and scholars, the prettiest girls and coolest guys, even the drug dealers and lowlife criminals earned a bit of respect, but homosexuals were treated vile and inhumane. Black boys were to grow into Black men and that meant we did things that men did and Black men don’t like other men. That was the prevailing attitude on the blocks I stood, proving my manhood at every turn, fighting to be considered the Alpha male long before Psych 101 gave it a name.
It was a violation to do anything out of the norm of manhood coming up, we were all learning to be so hard and so aggressive, we didn’t realize that no one ever taught us how to be men. Most of the cats I stood next to on hot summer nights and cold winter afternoons didn’t have fathers at home to model themselves after, so we were figuring it out for ourselves, following in the footsteps of the older dudes. None of us knew better; so we mocked the guys who didn’t play sports or seemed a little effeminate, others even resorted to violence against those who seemingly weren’t “acting manly enough” for their taste. The insults were hurled with malice, intended to puncture the core of the target; I guess the thought is calling someone a “faggot” will instantly make him like women.
All of these things ran through my mind when my friend told me he was gay. I thought about all of the times I teased guys that would rather jump double dutch than play football. I thought about one particular guy that I watched being chased home almost daily, because of his penchant to do girl’s hair and dye his own. All of those things I had put behind me were now at the front of my mind, but I had grown, so I looked my friend in the eye and said, “Cool”.
His orientation had no impact on our friendship, didn’t change who he was, didn’t change who we were. By the time of his admission, we had already done battle side-by-side athletically and fought back-to-back like gladiators, so nothing could change how I felt about him. That was my man! But a funny thing happened along the way, his things never made their way back to campus the next fall, he was nowhere to be found. Seven years later, the toothpaste aisle in Walmart witnessed our reunion of hugs and cuss words.
He joined the military, they didn’t ask, so he didn’t tell and saw the world. He had been stationed in Africa and South America, did a tour in Iraq, seen a little battle, but nothing prepared him for the battle he was now facing. Over dinner and drinks my friend told me that he was HIV positive; he learned his status during a physical upon his return from Iraq and six months later was still in a state of shock. There was no walking away after this statement, just a rush of tears before assurance that he was going to take care of himself, he was going to live his life. We joked about Magic Johnson having a cure, we talked about raising awareness in our communities, we made plans to hang out in a few weeks, life didn’t seem so short when we were sitting at that table.
I never saw my friend again. Less than a week after our conversation, he committed suicide, no note, no goodbye. His funeral was the day before I found out about his death, no goodbye, just tears. I tell this story because the pain I felt is the pain of millions who live in the shadow of a dimly lit light that knows no understanding and harbors fear.