I Missed You

More than these bodies
Connects us

Words seem inadequate
To capture
What is
Between us

Somehow I miss you
Even though
We never met
We never were
We are nonetheless

In between
Lies the distance between
Life and death
Black and white
Queer and trans
One generation
And another

For something more
Than words
To tell us
How different we are
How much the same

Our lives have been woven together
From a distance
Through the body of another
Through the echoes of love
And of loss

Enduring connection
Shared hope
Community emerging
From beyond either
Of us

What did you miss?
You missed me
Missing you
But I will remember
With gratitude

© Chris Paige 2019

Mx Chris Paige
Mx Chris Paige

Mx Chris Paige is an OtherWise-identified writer, educator, organizer, and coach, who authored OtherWise Christian: A Guidebook for Transgender Liberation. Chris was founding executive director of Transfaith (http://www.transfaith.info), a multi-tradition, multi-racial, multi-gender advocacy organization by and for people of transgender experience. Chris continues as operations director for Transfaith and Dean of the Transfaith Institute. They have also launched OtherWise Engaged Publishing, where they provide a platform for prophetic, transgender, intersex, and OtherWise voices. Chris has been a catalyst and/or contributor to several other ground-breaking projects for and by transgender faith leaders. Previously, Chris had been publisher and co-director of the (now defunct) award-winning progressive Christian magazine, The Other Side. Photo: Dezjorn Gauthier

With Whom Will I Teach The Children?

For Bertram Michael Hunter: Teacher, Colleague, Brother

I keep thinking I hear your voice in this place —
Not words, exactly, but the resonance that is exclusively yours here.
I always know when you’re around a corner or on the next flight of stairs,
Because I can hear your bass booming in conversation.
It doesn’t matter how quietly you think you’re speaking,
I always know you’re there …

But now you’re not
And I miss you indescribably.
The kids miss you, too;
they ask for you every day.

Because you respect them
Because you challenge them
Because you listen to them
Because you won’t take their nonsense.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

Grading the history tests made me cry.
Everyone thought it was because our students did so poorly.
It was that, too, but really, I was missing you.
Your humor
Your honor
Your power
Your integrity in the face of a system that totally lacks it.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back…
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

I keep thinking I hear you calling me, “Ummi, is that you?”
Reading me, “Don’t even try it, Miss Honey-One.”
Encouraging me, “OK, Miss-get-her-Masters-go-right-back-to-school-with-a-baby-to-take-care-of-and-gotta-get-all-A’s!”
Teasing me, “G’head and work that second job, girl.”

Again and again, the students say,
“I’m doing this because Bert told me to, that’s why.”
‘Nuff said.
They quote you like World Book, Wikipedia and their favorite rap artists.
They look to you for guidance and a reflection of themselves.
They see you as hope for what they might become.

I understand why you can’t come back/shouldn’t come back/mustn’t come back …
But your empty chair, clean desk, quiet phone make my heart ache.
With whom will I teach the children?

R. Ummi Modeste

© R. Ummi Modeste 2019

<strong>Rhea Ummi Modeste</strong>
Rhea Ummi Modeste

R. Ummi Modeste is proud to be both a native of Brooklyn, New York, and a graduate of the same New York City public school system in which she now teaches. Ummi is a college advisor and teacher at City-As-School High School, a unique alternative high school. She is an alumna of LaGuardia High School for Music and the Arts, Performing Arts Division, where she majored in Drama. Ummi earned her BA from Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY, her MSEd from Hunter College in Manhattan and completed the American Sign Language/English Interpreter Education Program at LaGuardia Community College with a 4.0 GPA. Ever the student, Ummi recently earned a second Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services/American Sign Language Interpreting from Empire State College of the State University of New York, where she is also an adjunct professor of educational studies.

In addition to her full-time job at City-As-School, Ummi is an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network, an international group of teachers who strive to provide innovative and engaging ways for their students to become stronger readers and writers. Every summer, she is one of the facilitators of the Andover Breadloaf Writing Workshop (ABL), a two-week professional development workshop held in Andover, MA, that focuses on social justice work through literacy. The program helps urban teachers find the writers within themselves, in order to do the same for their students. Concurrent with the teachers’ workshop, ABL also hosts a workshop for students from the neighboring school district in Lawrence, MA, where the majority of ABL teachers are based. ABL teachers are proud to have breathed new life into that struggling school district. ABL provides professional development for teachers and workshops for students in cities all over the US and has also held international conferences for teachers and students in Karachi, Pakistan; Nairobi, Kenya; and most recently, in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. 

A founding member of the group, East Brooklyn Poets (EBP), Ummi seeks to create opportunities for herself and her friends to grow in their own creativity and share it with others. EBP has performed in Brooklyn, Harlem, Lawrence and Andover. Its members are always looking for a chance to facilitate workshops, coach other performers and work with young writers. She gives honor to the memory of fellow founding members and dear friends, Tray Jackson and Keith “Just Sayin” Richards.

During the solitary time created by the COVID shutdown, Ummi published her first book, Because I Knew, an anthology of poems written over the course of many years. In it she reflects on her identity as a Black woman, a mother and a child of the Diaspora. Because I Knew is published by Muse City Press, and is available through The Book Patch Bookstore.

Ummi is the last of four children; her sister Wendi Alexis Modeste was an internationally recognized speaker on behalf of People Living With AIDS/HIV; her brother Keith is a retired stagehand and gifted photographer; brother Leon Adrian is a veteran coach, teacher and recently retired athletic director at Phillips Academy in Andover. Ummi’s mother, Daisy R. Modeste, was also an educator until the day she died, and her father, Leon E. Modeste, MSW, became a college professor at Albany State University (ASU) in Albany, GA, after retiring from many years of social justice work at The New York Diocese of the Episcopal Church, Manpower Foundation and The Urban League. He retired from ASU in 2009 at age 83, but continued to be a voice for social justice reform in Albany until his illness and death in 2017 at age 91.

Ummi is proud to be the mom of her daughter, Adunni, second mom to her “bonus baby”, her son, Tarence, loving mother-in-law of Jean Marie and Grammie to Nasir and Skyler. Photo: Melissa Beech

The Doors that Many Friends Opened Long Ago

Dear Bert,

It really is hard to believe that almost seventeen years have passed since you left us. Since you’ve asked: “What I miss?” I’ll give you an update on some of the changes that have happened in Harlem, and the ups and downs of our writing collective, Other Countries. You may remember that the last time we got together was in the fall of 2000 to go to an afternoon screening of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled at the Magic Johnson Theater on 125th Street. You had finally moved into a new townhouse just a few blocks from the theater. I know it was years in the planning, and I remember hoping that your health would improve once you were settled so you would have an opportunity to enjoy living in your own place in Central Harlem.

The Magic Johnson Theater was probably half full. I thought the movie, a satire of race seen through the lens of a contemporary blackface game show, was pretty funny. I don’t remember if we went out to eat afterward, but when we spoke by telephone a few days later, you said the movie gave you nightmares. I felt guilty since I knew that the HIV medication you had begun taking was having a range of effects on you, and I hadn’t thought about how the imagery in the movie would have affected you. I think I had invited you to the movie as a kind of formal “Welcome to Harlem!” gesture, and I guess I thought what better movie to see than one by a Black filmmaker riffing on the history of blackface? I guess in reality there really is a lot more pain than laughs in that history.


We now know that, at the time you left us in 2001, Harlem was entering what might be called a final phase in the decades long process of gentrification. By the time of our movie outing I had opened Harlemade Styleshop on Lenox Avenue between 118th and 119th Streets, with two partners, Patricia and Murphy. It was a gift shop featuring tee shirts designed by Murphy, knicknacks designed by Pat and her niece Toya, and books and posters I selected.  We had signed our lease in the fall of 2000 under the Old Harlem economy, but pretty soon, the cost of housing, that had been increasing gradually in previous years, began to climb dramatically. Lower crime rates, and better city services, meant that white people were no longer afraid of Harlem. Besides, as they were getting priced out of the Upper West Side and parts of Brooklyn, for a while Harlem was still seen as relatively affordable. A range of new restaurants opened on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Blvd) in the 2000s, becoming Harlem restaurant rows. People began to talk about the New Harlem.  

By 2008, the owner of the building where our store was located, was well underway in renovating the apartments above, and in the process Harlemade Styleshop, the only commercial tenant remaining, was squeezed out. We were told that we needed to close for a month while they worked on the water line. Over a year later they were still working on it when our lease expired. We tried to argue that our lease should be extended for the time the store was closed, but we were only given the opportunity to remove our things. The three of us had all moved on to other things and we didn’t have the interest, energy or money to fight the City. A couple of years later a hardware store took over all of the first floor space in the building. 

If you were to walk through the streets of Harlem today, you would notice many of the new stores and restaurants I’ve mentioned. Contrary to the impression given by some newspaper stories on gentrification in Harlem, the pedestrians are overwhelmingly Black with a somewhat greater sprinkling of white and Latino people. I moved to New York in 1982 and to Harlem in 1985. Once I was there, I loved the people, the history, and the culture so much that I assumed I would never leave. But I did, in 2012, to take a job teaching History at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 3,500. The transition has been surprisingly smooth. I’ve found a community of Black people with a rich history, and am drawing back on my Ohio roots since I was born in Toledo, where my parents, sister and nieces live. But when I think back to Harlem, I’m reminded of the last line of the poem “Mr. Flood’s Party”. As Mr. Flood looked down on the city where he had lived for so long “where strangers would have shut the very doors that many friends had opened long ago.” 

Other Countries

Bert, another thing you missed, but directly influenced, was the revival of our writing collective Other Countries. I know you were there in the early years following the 1986 founding of the writing workshop where Black gay men in New York City met weekly to share and critique each other’s work. By the early 1990s, when I joined, Other Countries had already published an anthology (Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, 1988), and was accepting work for a second, (Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, 1993, that you edited). The Other Countries performance program was thriving with workshop members traveling to college campuses and other venues to perform work based on material from workshop members. Just as important as the workshop sessions were the after-sessions. Each week after the workshop we went out to dinner at an area restaurant, traded gossip, laughed, and got to know each other, a critical component in building a community of writers. Twice a year, at the Summer Solstice and the Winter Solstice, we hosted open readings at what was then called the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center.

You probably remember that by the late 1990s, the energy of the Other Countries workshop had declined. Attendance dwindled, and we reserved smaller meeting rooms at the Center. Challenged by the onslaught of deaths from HIV and AIDS, aging of the members, personal disagreements, and decisions by some to seek inspiration elsewhere, we were losing momentum. You and I were both serving as Other Countries Board members when we as a Board agreed to fold Other Countries into Gay Men of African Descent. GMAD had started the same year as Other Countries, by some of the same people, and was in an expansion mode, receiving fairly substantial grants to provide HIV prevention services. I was executive director of GMAD at the time, and we thought that the workshop could continue under the guidance of a GMAD staff person and that we could make the case that the writing of the workshop could be an important component to an HIV prevention toolkit. I think there were a few meetings under this arrangement, but things weren’t the same. The old guard of Other Countries members weren’t interested since the structure was so different from the self-facilitated workshop that they knew. There was also nothing to attract new members, since those interested in writing were not necessarily interested in going to a workshop as part of an HIV prevention program. For the most part the workshop stopped meeting.  

From what I remember, around 2003 or 2004, Chris Adams, a former workshop participant put out a call regarding reviving the workshop. I think around the same time, we were made aware that in your will you had left a bequest to Other Countries. A small group of those interested in reviving Other Countries came together for several planning sessions, I believe facilitated by the Community Resource Exchange. We came out of the sessions with the understanding that there was a need and interest in the writing workshop and that we were also interested in reviving the publishing arm of Other Countries. We approached Tokes Osubu, then executive director of GMAD, with the request that Other Countries regain its independence and also recover the balance of funds that Other Countries had obtained from your bequest for a future anthology that had been given to GMAD when Other Countries was subsumed by GMAD. Tokes and the GMAD Board agreed to the change. Once more independent, the Other Countries funds were placed in a separate bank account. The workshop began meeting again, probably around 2004 or 2005, but rather than meet weekly at the Center, as we had in the past, I believe we met twice a month, with facilitation rotating among those present. 

A small group also began meeting to plan the third Other Countries Anthology, the printing of which would be made possible by your bequest. An editor was selected, and a Call for Submissions was issued. The book, Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Writing was published in 2007 and a launch party was held in Brooklyn. The anthology, a good book, was much larger than the planning group had approved, and there was frustration and disappointment that the editor had not informed the group of the changes that had been made to the original concept.  

The workshop continued to meet regularly, but sometime after 2010 with attendance declining again, and some longtime participants moving out of New York, we decided to shift to meeting digitally through Google Hangouts twice a month. We continue to do this today maintaining the continuity of the workshop, and usually spending some time at the end of the session for general conversation and updates.  

Although I no longer live in New York, I suspect that there is still a need as well for a face-to-face workshop, particularly for new writers, both for feedback on their work, and also for community building aspects that a digital workshop just can’t provide. I hope in the future that Other Countries can make this happen. In the meantime, I really appreciate the tremendous contribution you made, even in your absence, to reviving the publishing aspect of the workshop, and really the workshop itself, through your bequest. Thank you Bert.


December 28, 2017

© Kevin McGruder 2017

Kevin McGruder
Kevin McGruder

Kevin McGruder is Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of History at Antioch College. He has a B.A. in Economics from Harvard University, and an M.B.A. in Real Estate Finance from Columbia University. His interest in community formation led to a career in nonprofit community development that included work as Director of Real Estate Development with the Abyssinian Development Corporation, and Executive Director of Gay Men of African Descent. After receiving a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the Graduate Center of City University of New York, now as an academic, his research interests include African American institutions, urban history, and LGBTQ history. He is co-author of Emancipation Proclamation: Forever Free (Urban Ministries, Inc, 2013) and of Witness: Two Hundred Years of African-American Faith and Practice in the Abyssinian Baptist Church of Harlem (W.B. Eerdmans, 2013), and is author of Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920 (Columbia University Press, 2015). Photo: Dennie Eagleson

Dear BNoSpace/Uncle Michael

Dear BNoSpace/Uncle Michael,

We know you’ve been here all along and haven’t really missed anything, but we’ve missed your physical presence.

From Ummi:

Remember when you noticed Adunni was left-handed like you? I kept that secret until you could witness it for yourself, just so I could see the joy on your face when the realization hit you. My goodness, was it ever worth the wait!

Adunni’s been spared dangers that I know you and her other guardian angels averted:

  • remember when she got separated from her Daddy and the neighbor scooped her up?
  • or the time the school bus let her off at the wrong place and time and another neighbor kept her safe for us?
  • and all the times she didn’t get in a car full of teens or DID volunteer to be the designated driver to get everyone home safely? We know you were in all of that!

And I often remember your prophetic words when I was waiting to have a baby until I finished grad school. Without your little nudge, I might never have had that little lefty who fills my life with more meaning, love and absolute joy than I could have ever dreamed. You said, “Miss Honey One, Hunter College will always be there, but those eggs of yours will not!” Thank you, BNoSpace!

From Adunni:

Lefty to lefty (you know, Mom’s favorite thing about us lol), here are some of my accomplishments with you watching over me.

  • After my freshman year in high school, I traveled to Europe for three weeks without either one of my parents and had a great time. I had an allergic reaction to something (really, I got bit by a spider but let’s go with the allergic reaction) and the chaperones had to call home, on top of taking me to the French urgent care. It was an interesting experience and it’s now safe to say I am TERRIFIED of any spider I see.
  • In my second high school, El Puente Academy, I got to participate in a documentary entitled, I’m Not Racist, Am I?. It was really cool and it’s even cooler to see myself in an actual movie and have friends text me when their schools/jobs use the movie.
  • I danced all through college (and high school, of course) where I joined Onyx Dance Troupe. I became secretary sophomore year and by senior year I was president! A lot of work but definitely worth all the stress it came with at times. I would 100% do it again!
  • Even though Mom really wanted me to go to Ithaca College like she did, I chose Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, the first degree-granting HBCU. It took me some time but I graduated May 5, 2019, at 10am with my BS in Business Management. Everybody was there–and I know you were too!
  • I finally got my license this summer. You know Mom was over the moon with excitement and I was too. Hopefully I’ll get a car soon.

We’re doing pretty well down here; don’t worry, you’re still the best Godfather. I love you always.

Ummi & Adunni
Brooklyn, NY

© R. Ummi Modeste & Adunni Hall-Modeste 2019

Adunni & her Godfather Michael, Circa 2000
Adunni AA Hall-Modeste
Adunni AA Hall-Modeste

Adunni AA Hall-Modeste was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. At 22, Adunni successfully obtained her BS in business management from The Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, with motives of starting her own beauty businesses. Despite being a Brooklyn native, Adunni currently resides in Maryland where she enjoys spending time with family and friends when she isn’t working towards her dreams and goals. Photo: Jada Davis

58 Minutes

I arrive early and take a seat on the bench that overlooks the East River, on the Brooklyn side, the only concession you would make in order for us to meet. It’s fall but feels like the last days of summer. The air is clear, and there are boats on the water. The bridge traffic creates a dull hum. Background music.

Students in uniform, just out of school, pass by in twos and fours. They are laughing, oblivious to me and my anxiety about what the next hour will bring. They have a right to their joy, still too young to know that the dead can visit you. They eat potato chips and sip sky blue and fuchsia drinks, unaware that you will visit me and we will talk and laugh, and I will cry.

I check my phone for the fourth or fifth time. You’re late: Dead or alive, colored people time is a thing.

As I lean forward to slide my phone in my back pocket, I see you standing at the far end of the bench. You are smiling and so am I. As I make my way to you, I start to cry. I blurt, “Gurl, you are still so gorgeous!”

Your smile broadens. As I raise my hands to touch your shoulders, you shake one of your pianist-long fingers to remind me of the most important rule: no touching. I wipe my tears and gesture for us to sit down. You speak for the first time, “Miss Honey, you look fabulous.”

Your voice still sounds the same, not a minute of age on that joy. In fact, you look exactly as you did before your death in 2001. No gray hairs, no disfigurement, not even a pimple on your almond-colored skin.

I am excited and nervous and emotional. My body has been buzzing with anticipation ever since we agreed to meet. “Oh my gosh, Bert, I can’t believe we are sitting here, together. How? And why . . . ?”

Bert jumps in, “Jacquie, we must do this quickly. Once I explain to you some of the how and why, we’ll only have 58 minutes to talk. So we’ll ki, but we won’t be able to kiki.” His playfulness makes me smile.

“I know this is complicated, but I – actually, we – need your help,” he says. “And this is the only way we could figure out how to talk to you. Can you do this?”

Still unsure of what I’m agreeing to, I reply, “Yes, Bert, I can do this.”

We both smile, and begin the work. You tell me that there are things the dead are able to do, like walk through a room, leaving their scent, and visit the living through their dreams. But there is more. Some things would remain secret, but this meeting one-on-one would be the most ambitious experiment yet.

“Experiment?” I ask.

“Jacq, I could try to explain, or you can trust me so we can spend as much time as possible talking about the main point.”

Reluctantly I nod in agreement. “OK, I get it. Let’s start.”

“Jacq, I will speak in shorthand to try and squeeze in as much as possible. If you have a question, ask me. OK?”

Again, all I can do is nod.

“I am sitting here because you still care. It was decided.” And before I can ask him by whom, he lifts that finger again, tilts his head, and says, “Some of the other guys and a few women too thought that you’d be a good person to start with.”

I listen though my smile is dimming and there is gurgling in my stomach.

“Jacq, you still call our names and we hear you. I came to you because, while we could always laugh together and shared many a stage, we were casual friends. We knew that if one of the other guys came to you, neither would get past the kiki to get to the Q&A.”

My stomach calms down. I want to touch his hands and feel his warmth but that is against the rules. It’s late afternoon and the sun is lowering. He is wearing sunglasses and taking them off is also against the rules. I’m startled when a woman with a small child sits next to me.

“Don’t worry,” Bert says. “They can see a person sitting next to you and hear their voice, but they can’t see me or hear my voice. Do you get it?”

I am somber and, beyond reason, whisper a yes. “OK, Miss Thing,” I say, trying to lighten my state of being. “What is the what?”

“The 1980s and 1990s were difficult. Men and some women died so young. Their bodies were ravaged by disease. Too many of us died before we could figure out what we were truly meant to do.” I nod, listening intently.

“Those we left behind – friends, family, a next generation not even born …” His voice drops just a bit. Is it sadness? Regret? I wish I could read his eyes. “Jacq, you took care of a lot of people in different ways. As each person transitioned, you noted it in ways that went beyond your initial grief.”

I am crying again. So many years of lifting bodies too weak to carry their own weight. In this moment I have no words.

Bert continues, “We wonder if we made a difference. Did our deaths, our work, our way of loving, make a difference in how our communities move today?”

I rub my forehead back and forth searching for some profound words or images. But all I come up with is, “Yes, you made a difference, and we have more work to do.”

I elaborate: “So much was taken with each death. Bert, you were on the first board of directors for GMAD. They held meetings every Friday so Black men in need and desiring the company of other Black men could come together, talk, politicize, affirm their racial and sexual identities. You helped GMAD collaborate with other organizations to help strengthen the support and love and care for our people. Well, GMAD’s Friday night weekly community meetings went the way of the dodo bird. Because of online dating apps and social media, people can meet each other without ever leaving their homes. In fact, without ever building community or mutually beneficial friendships. So where does the next Craig Harris* take his art to perform for the community? Where does the lonely confused kid who just came out go after their parents have kicked them out? The Center is still there, but many of our organizations have grown and now have their own offices throughout the city. That is good. But there is no central place, there is no …”

My voice trails off. I take a deep breath and continue, “They are like other social groups that got funded as nonprofits and had to professionalize. It’s just sad. I have no suggestions that haven’t been made: cross-generational programming, focus on housing, youth street teams, stay-in-school initiatives, collaborating with the House Ball communities, etc.”

It’s Bert’s turn to take a deep breath. He audibly exhales as he leans back against the park bench. His forehead crinkles. I can tell he’s listening.

“In so many ways, it’s easier to be gay today than when we were younger. Online services make it easier to talk to kids. There are campaigns to help those coming out. Laws have changed to protect us instead of criminalizing us. You were a proper, well-educated lawyer who gave that up to teach. Imagine what it would have meant for you and the students if you were a teacher today – loving kids, educating them, opening their minds to possibilities, you as an out Black gay man? Damn, we have drag queens doing storybook time at libraries!”

Bert laughs out loud and hollers, “Alrighty Miss Thing!” with his finger snap for emphasis. His perfect, crisp, Black mother getting the attention of her child ’cause the ass whipping can’t happen in public kind of snap. I’ve so missed that.

I turn my body toward him and fold my left leg under me and say, “Yes, Miss Honey, you and the others made a difference. But there is more work, more yungins’ who don’t, to quote a line from a song, know what it’s like to have a graveyard as a friend, and how that motivates those of us left behind. HIV/AIDS is still a scourge and we have lost our urgency. Because of the meds, folks are not dropping dead in the street as they once did, but it’s still a hard way to live with that virus flowing through their veins.” Bert is nodding, but stays quiet.

“You guys, each in different ways, were my big brothas. You allowed me to hang and, by doing so, learn. That your okayness with your sexuality and your willingness to teach me about it helped me learn about my own and pass that knowledge onto others. I have worked with teen mothers who did not know where their clitoris was. I have worked with women who have never had an orgasm.”

He raises one of his thick full eyebrows as he says, “Gurl?” He snaps but, this time, to mean, “Really?”

“And some organizations are doing better than others in reaching our kids and maybe even our elders. So you wanna know if you made a difference? Yes, you laid the groundwork!” A half-smile crosses his face.

At that moment, more kids, a little older and louder, walk past our cocoon.

When we arranged to meet, I wanted to throw a party and invite those of us left behind. I’m not the only one who calls your name or is motivated by the trauma we continue to feel in our freaking bones. I’m not the only one who would want a visit and a chance to hear your voices and see your bodies, healthy and strong. George and I would cook, someone would bring cards and play music, and we would tell stories punctuated by laughter and questions and mis-remembrances and more finger snapping. We would be together again. But that would be against the rules. Strictly one-on-one.

My phone alarm goes off. I pull it out of my pocket and notice I have just 25 more minutes with you. “Damn,” I mutter. I turn toward the water again and take a deep breath. A towboat blows its horn as it passes under the bridge. The park is busier with passersby. The mother who is sitting just arm’s length away from me is bent over the baby carriage. I wonder what she sees or overhears. Does she see that I am crying? Angry? Loving you and this opportunity?

“Bert, the way Essex spoke about Black masculinity – Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act – has inspired legions of men to understand that being gentle is affirming, not emasculating. There are Black gay and trans people on television in positive affirming roles. The way you all, we all, worked to demonstrate that Blackness and gayness is a singular and intertwining identity that we don’t have to choose one over the other. Yes, that is your legacy. Black male actors, straight or gay, can kiss on television and hug and have a sex scene. Black male writers in newspapers and magazines can come out and have careers and speak about their partners and about our communities. And yes, there will always be some who will shake their heads and suck their teeth and note the shame of it all. They are the same ones who cannot tell a sissy from a punk so I ain’t worried. If they don’t or can’t see me or you as an individual and representative of our diverse community then … ” I end with the universal Brooklyn Italian gesture for “Eff ‘em!”

My phone buzzes again. Ten minutes left. I go over a list of accomplishments that we as a community have achieved: Black president, transwomen elected officials, gay marriage, and more. But now I have questions.

“How were you able to contact me?”

“Jacq, I can’t answer that one. We worry that someone else will try to figure out how to contact us in ways that would be dangerous. Sorry.”

“I’m not even sure how to phrase this . . . Is everyone together? Are you OK? Who’s holding court? Something, give me something,” I’m pleading now. I know the next time my phone buzzes he will stand to go.

“Miss Honey,” he offers to calm me down.

I peek at the water from the corner of my eye and notice that the din on the bridge is getting louder.

“Yes, we are all OK. We are neither in a heaven or a hell, unless that’s how you’d like to think of it. In which case,” he flashes his pearly whites, rocks his head a bit, and gestures skyward, “the party’s up there!” quoting a popular refrain. We break out into laughter.

Bert thanks me. He tells me our conversation was very important, helpful. He knows I am unsatisfied. I want more details. I want more time. I want to tell him how the survivors have aged. I want to share that we caregivers live with PTSD and how it manifests in our relationships, our choices of work, our own bodies. I want to say that I quote them, I quote him. A poem he wrote more than 25 years ago still haunts me, even though he couldn’t have known that he was writing about me and my own mother, about how we kids always had to be quiet because Mommie was always sad. Yeah, there is so much more.

“Jacquie, your phone will buzz in a minute.”

I am overwhelmed by emotions. My stomach gurgles and my eyes well up. I grip the bench’s metal armrest a bit tighter.

“Gurl, we know how hard it was, and is, for you and the others. We were all so young and unprepared for that time. And yet …”  His voice trails off. He rises from the bench while I stay seated not trusting that my legs will support me. Bert bends down to whisper in my ear, “Jacquie, thank you, SistaGurl.”

On cue, my phone buzzes. I don’t bother to check it. I know what it means. As he walks away, the city noises rise to their normal levels.

*Craig G. Harris was an Afrofemcentric griot, community health educator, AIDS activist, and staff member of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who died on November 26, 1991, at St. Luke’s Hospital of HIV-related complications. He was 33 years old. Mr. Harris’ articles, essays, and poetry have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Advocate, The New York Native, OutWeek, and Art & Understanding, and in the following anthologies: The Road Before Us, Tongues Untied, and Brother to Brother.

© Jacquie Bishop 2019

Jacquie Bishop
Jacquie Bishop

Jacquie Bishop is a native New Yorker living in Boston. She is a published writer and works in public health.
Photo: Craig Bailey, Perspective Photo


What are we truly here for?

We work
we create
we bond
we multiply
we survive

I try to understand the sadness in me
but can’t figure out why

I am giving
and fun

I have a wife who really loves me
               and fights for me
                              and stands beside me

Yet I cry

I have debt and still no job of my own
I have children that choose not to talk to me
friends that see me when it’s convenient
as everyone is so busy
but busy doing what?

Yet I cry

Is it a fear of getting old
or realizing I can’t do the things I used to
or feel the way I used to feel about life?

Is it all based on work
interacting with people who are mean and selfish
people opposite of me
or am I just too sensitive?

Why can’t I say leave it be?
Or shrug my shoulders and say your opinion means nothing to me?

But yet I cry

I have to find a way to smile again
I have to stop living on the clock
I have to stop crying

© Alexander J. Alvarez 2019

Alexander J. Alvarez
Alexander J. Alvarez

Alexander J. Alvarez is one of B.Michael’s many cousins. He is back in college working on a degree in Accounting, but continues to write poetry whenever he can.

“Once in a blue moon, Michael would babysit my brothers and I in Astoria, Queens. Whenever he did, it was always fun as he would read stories and play with us. He was impartial, a great person to talk to about anything, and made me feel like I could do anything. He called me ‘Alexander’ (whereas my other cousins call me ‘Alex’ ). I miss him. Thank you, Michael, for empowering me.”


We Are Worth Remembering

Colin Robinson interviewed by Nadia Wynter on 23 August 2019 via Zoom

Nadia Wynter: So I’m Nadia. I’m a New Yorker now living out in California. Wynter is my last name. I’m born to a Jamaican mother and an Antiguan father. They met in the ‘60s in New York, had my brother and I, split up, etc. . . . I identify as a bisexual woman, Black woman, currently in a relationship with a lovely woman whose family is from Haiti, so we have a lot of Caribbean culture going on in our relationship, for better or for worse. (laughter) We’re both strong-willed people. It’s a gift, really, all of it . . . . I met Sheilah [Mabry] through my aunt. My father’s brother is married to a woman named Paula. And they love to host at the table, breakfast, and things, and one time, when I [was] living in New York, Sheilah was there.

Colin Robinson: I’m Colin Robinson. I was born and grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, though I spent two years in Yorkshire, England, while my father was at university. My grandparents are from Grenada on one side, and [on the other side] my great-grandmother’s from Venezuela, and another great-grandmother’s from Martinique. So a little bit of a cocktail going on.

I came to the U.S. in 1980 to go to school. That did not work out very well. Ended up in New York at the beginning of ’81 and found these communities of black gay men and lesbians who were doing this exciting thing with words and with politics and with building community, and that became the center of my life at one point.

In 1986, [two] significant organizations formed in New York, one of which was Gay Men of African Descent, one of which was Other Countries, and I worked with Bert in both of them. More closely in Other Countries, which was this writing community that started as a writing workshop and then began to do print publications, and also, cross-cuttting both of those, to take both the written word and the performance of work into different kinds of community spaces: gay bars, elite university spaces, a giving the book away to LGBTI kids, various things like that. Other Countries was this amazing space. Fought a lot with different people over the years and stuff. 

Met John [Manzon-Santos], and I know him through my HIV work, which I started doing after I left school. He did some amazing kind of pioneering work, as a very young man, with Asian and Pacific Islander HIV organizations in New York. And we worked together at the Audre Lorde Project. We were both co-founders I guess. We’ve remained in touch. And he’s tried to get me to take much more leadership around What I Miss? and I made all these promises, none of which I’ve kept.  

N: I get it. But yet, here you are, right now!

C: Yes, the shame! (laughter)

N: Promise is kept! Sometimes it takes a while, that’s all.  . . . The time is right because it’s happening right now. Is there anything that led to this pulling you back a little bit, or anything you’d like to share? 

C: There are other things that have been going on, in life, for me. I do quite a lot of organizing work in Trinidad and Tobago. Well, have been. When I first talked to John about the project, I thought the concept was really brilliant and I definitely wanted to commit. I was in the U.S. at the time, because I’ve been spending more and more time here for healthcare. The part I didn’t tell was, since 2007, I’ve been spending most of my time back in Trinidad and Tobago doing leadership work in the LGBTI movement, and writing a newspaper column on a weekly basis. So just the demands of doing that, I kept foot-dragging. 

I was thinking, today, that I hadn’t thought about what I wanted to tell Bert that he missed — and wondering what that was about. 

So Steven [Fullwood] and Charles [Stephens] co-edited this volume called Black Gay Genius, which was a memory project for Joseph Beam, who edited In the Life and began Brother to Brother, and was a friend of mine. 

I wrote a piece called, An archaeology of grief: the fear of remembering Joe Beam. And that’s how I billed the story because Steven gave me the call [for submissions] and I went back to my apartment and I began just pouring out this stuff [and] wrote with the windows closed for probably a day and a bit: 

I don’t remember Joe Beam. I had put him away, with all the unmourned AIDS grief of the 1980s and ’90s, with all the trauma of working for black gay groups and networks, swimming at the bottom somewhere of so many daily drinks. In one of my most poignant poems, where I write about the community of imagination and language the New York City writers’ group Other Countries provided for me in a new land, I reminisced about a childhood schoolmate whose Caribbean language I was afraid of forgetting. In the case of Joe, I am afraid of remembering.

I guess there is on one hand the fear of remembering the beloved community we, young, employed, educated, urban, knew we were creating in those heady years of the mid-’80s. Fear of slipping into the hopefulness my therapist now counsels against with the words of Alice Walker: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” And then the fear of having to face its betrayal, to relive the loss. To account for the places of toxicity and narrowness and failure that most black gay organizations led by people of my generation ended up. To become revictimized by my own unhealed trauma of being robbed and lied about and demeaned and unrecognized. To confront the role in this violence of my own character, my too bright West Indian smugness, my capacity for emotional treachery . . . And, ultimately, to confront . . . a bitterness that I am alive minus so many of the men of that era, and waking with the same demons that killed them.

I do not look back with nostalgia. To remember Joe Beam is to unpack a nested grief. At our failure to connect. At our failure to save each other. At our failure to be enough . . . The next part is a reference to a piece that Joe wrote about the idea of us being worth wanting each other . . . At our failure to be worth wanting. That, as Marvin White . . . Marvin’s an amazing poet, and preacher these days, who’s published a number of books and who lived in New York for a period, he was at one point part of Pomo Afro Homos . . . has captured, we aren’t the ones we’ve been waiting for.

A lot of that stuff still swirls around . . . 

N: Tell me, in that time where you met Bert in the ‘80s and ‘90s, what was in the air? What connected you two, not just the art? How would you describe your initial connection? 

C: I think both Bert and I found Other Countries at different times. I remember that more than I remember how we connected through GMAD, or when he connected to GMAD. I was at the initial meeting of Other Countries, [which] was founded by Daniel Garrett, a man who I had a very complicated and messy relationship with, but with whom I’ve worked in other writing-based frameworks.

And I think Other Countries had been going for a little bit and had begun to do performance work when Bert showed up at the workshop, which was this quite magical space in the 1980s for young, mainly younger — and some older — black gay men in their 20s and 30s living in New York at a certain point in the HIV epidemic that I think was catalyzing public discourse about sexuality and sexual diversity and a certain kind of fear at the same time. Our friends had begun to die.

It was a moment, post that Stonewall-into-’70s [period], where there was this kind of renaissance of queer organizing in general, but specifically queer people of color organizing. In the wake of the March on Washington in ’79, there was all this intersectional organizing that was happening in cities. And some of it was about language, some of it was about publishing, some of it was journalism, some of it was creative work. 

Daniel started Other Countries as a workshop, with a call to people and a very specific and literary and, for me, politically problematic vision of what writing and writing community were and meant. That’s one thing we struggled around.

But it was this peer workshop that met every Saturday in a public space and there was this ritual of going out to dinner afterwards. And it became the center of this amazing community of black gay men who ended up in friendships, in some cases in sexual relationships, but in these relationships of support and tenderness and creation in relationship to each other. Y’know, it wasn’t all sweetness and light. There were struggles, particularly when we decided to do a publication. There were struggles around whether to do it separate from the workshop or not. And people decided that it would ruin the workshop and it needed to go do itself somewhere else. And then there were struggles within the publication around roles people would have. Even within the workshop itself, there were struggles around aesthetics, some struggles around how democratic things were, and so on. 

Bert landed in that space, in some ways, like me, not as a writer. My relationship to language, I think, may have been a little different than his in that I had been a technical writer in different roles in my young career. Writing was part of my cultural tradition, not necessarily creative writing, but literacy in a different kind of way. I’m not sure how that worked for Bert. 

But he came as a businessman to this space at a point where, after a year in the workshop, I had begun to see myself as a writer and to develop a practice as a poet. And I was producing work, some of which has been amazingly enduring.

And so Bert and I came into this space at the same time. He came, I remember, with a certain kind of masculine and brash energy that I’m not sure always worked well. But I remember a particular event. It was some upstairs space on Fifth Avenue. It was 1987, I think. I remember the poem that I read. I remember his presence, and I think he also read there as well. That’s what I remember most about meeting, coming into Bert’s orbit. I remember being immediately attracted and, you know, I wasn’t the only one. (smile)

N: I’ve seen pictures. You’re definitely not the only one. (smile)

C: I remember that we shared certain kinds of closeness, but i don’t remember anything particularly distinct or special about it. 

I remember him joining the Other Countries board at one point. I remember giving up my role as editor of Sojourner, which was this publication we decided to focus on HIV, in a bit of a huff and I think I wrote some famous epistle in response to that, that was grand and dramatic. And Bert stepped into those shoes and edited the publication. I don’t think I had necessarily full confidence in him in doing that . . . 

N: Why not, you think?

C: I think I still saw him as not a creative. But it was interesting to witness his process. I think around that time he learned and began to disclose his HIV [positive] status to those of us in the group. But again, my memories of the period are so faded. They’re marked by these stories that have been retold.

GMAD has a different history. It was started by Charles Angell and I was his co-chair — but he was the founder — in July of ‘86, weeks after Other Countries, as an activist organization. It didn’t last. About a year after that, it was revived as a social support entity. And then, kind of in its third, and not final, incarnation, it attracted the attention of an ambitious, Ivy [League]-educated lawyer, Elbert Gates, who sought to transform it into a poltical platform for Black and Latino gay men.

Bert and El entered the space around the time and were in quite a bit of conflict. And so [I] was also witnessing the masculine struggles and the plotting (laughter). So that was another experience that I had of Bert of being in the minority within this organization where people had different visions of where it ought to go. And he and I were part of a team that swept El from office in an election. So that was another interesting history.

I was thinking today, if Bert did sidle and sit down next to me, there are so, so many things that have happened in the two decades that I’d have to account for. Some of the things are personal. I’d want to share my own evolution as a writer, as a particular voice. I have a book now and thirty years of poems. The work I’ve kind of carved out, the leadership role that I’ve made for myself in the Trinidad and Tobago and Caribbean LGBTI movement, and the kinds of stubborn politics that he would admire that I’ve brought to that. 

And I thought of all these things, and I actually made a list of all the things: social media, smartphones, cybersecurity, bitcoin, Wikipedia, Airbnb, Uber, Obama, Obamacare, marijuana legalization, ISIS, Boko Haram, Katrina, GMOs, climate change, the Mars rover, the African American Museumthat he would want to know about!

Then things in the Caribbean, globally, politically: Chavez, Fidel’s death, the new pope, Mandela’s death, Usain Bolt, Rachel Dolezal! (laughter) . . . 

N: Can you imagine? (laughter)

C: . . . Black Lives Matter

Two of the things I thought would interest him most were the Obergefell decision and the Supreme Court work on marriage. But also because it’s been one of the most contentious things in my own activism outside of the U.S. and the way in which marriage has undermined some of the other goals that Global South movements have had, and the way in which it has inflamed culture wars and made what might have ordinarily been domestic struggles. . . . It’s prevented the domestication in some ways of queer struggles because they now exist in this globalized queer framework that has to account with this demon of marriage. Yeah, it’s a conversation I’m not able to have with a whole lot of people. And I was at Bert and John’s commitment ceremony

But I think one of the most interesting things Bert would want to learn about was PrEP. The idea of, not just HIV medication being available for HIV-positive people, but the way in which it’s saving the lives, and also complicating the lives in some ways, of HIV-negative men.

I think I’d want to tell him about my turning my back, in some ways, on the movement we were both part of. My sense that my work with other black gay men in the U.S. had ended, and that it ended with a sense of frustration and failure. And that I’m excited that I found spaces where the work has been reinvigorated. I mean it’s had some of the same challenges, but it’s had different kinds of successes that I would want him to experience.  

I would want to tell him a story. John was doing this thing of sending different people his ashes to take different places. So when I went home to Trinidad in, I want to say 2002, but I’m not sure if the date is right. John gave me this cologne bottle — I’m not sure the story of the cologne bottle — with Bert’s ashes in it. I took them in to the sea at Maracas Beach which is the, not too great, but best beach [on the] North coast of Trinidad. So I went into the water with Bert’s ashes and my brand new glasses on from the Korean optical store in Midtown [Manhattan], where I got them for this fabulous price. They were rimless and a wave came and they disappeared. I always wondered if he had something to do with it. (laughter) 

Bert would’ve wanted to see Children of God and Play the Devil, two films by queer Bahamaian filmmakers that have gotten a lot of attention. They’re deeply problematic, both of them, but they’re also groundbreaking in different ways. Talking about them would have been interesting. Some fascinating things that are happening with the Bahamas. The referendum that got politicized, again around cultural wars, when it was supposed to be about Bahamian women being able to pass on nationality to their children. 

Yeah, I think those are some of the things. But again, what I struggle with, more than anything else, is this idea of forgetting, this idea of less than firm hold on this swath of my life where so much happened, and some of the memory is quite dim.

N: I was thinking about that earlier today, Colin, just the distortion of memory, the fading of it, but it feels like we have some choice about what sticks and often, for me, it’s tied to emotion. Highs and lows, those kind of stand out more than the stuff in the middle.

C: Yeah, I think all our storytelling is a fiction in some way, even when it’s history. It’s how we create significance and meaning that is unique and is different from others’ stories. And I realize how much the histories that we think we remember are subject to our work as practitioners of fiction. That the ways in which I remember, and am deeply convinced of remembering, the stories that I have told over and over, I keep discovering are legends. Yeah. They’re the legends that I have. (laughter)

N: Where have we progressed in terms of what it means to be gay and love oneself? How Bert might see it? How do you see it? 

That’s a very hard question. Because the meaning is so very different for people in very different spaces. At least two or three things are going on at the same time. On the one hand, there are these young people who are coming of age, or entering puberty, without the sense that who they are and how they want to express themselves is impossible. In earlier generations, we struggled with the idea that who we were and what we wanted to do was taboo, or difficult, or challenging, and they’re not constrained by that negative imagination in the least. And that’s just been amazing to watch. It’s also true of non-LGBTI young people who don’t have to imagine homophobia as part of who they are. 

On the other hand, it’s tough to watch — I don’t have good language for it — the ways in which what I call the resilience that generations like mine had. And I’m not an advocate of “beat children and they’ll grow up strong” or any of that crap. There was abuse, there was horror, I’m not minimizing any of that. But I think, on balance, I think our generations had so much more resilience in dealing with adversity than I see young people able to muster. That’s a very, very complicated thing. I’m sure people have explained it and I just need to read what they wrote. That struggle for self-love, the rise of certain forms of self-harm. The challenges of social media that young people face where they’re unable to retreat from spaces that are consistently evaluating them. I think those are all really, really difficult challenges at arriving at self-love. I think the different kinds of challenges that working families face in parenting so that certain kinds of quality time loving kids, it’s shrinking in some ways. But we’ve created the tools, Bert and I and so many other people have created the words that new generations can read that make those acts of self-love easier. 

I think that we’ve created different kinds of spaces, institutionally. But, again, we’ve invested so little in queer youth compared to the other issues that the movement has prioritized for resources.

N: Thinking about his life and how his presence is no longer in New York City schools. What are the children missing by [Bert] not being there?

C: It’s not a question I can answer. I know very little about New York City classrooms. I have spent very little time in New York since 2010. I have too many ghosts there. But I want to imagine that there are more teachers like him in the system. I want to believe that the school system in New York is a safer and more generous place for LGBTI kids. I don’t know that.

N: Well anything else you want to say about what he’s missing and anything in your heart that’s a burning desire that you’d like to share, Colin? 

C: I would want to ask him, “What’s up with [him]?” (laughter) There’s this idea when we create this fiction of Bert sitting next to us, that he’s not witnessed what we’ve witnessed. I think maybe the missing part is more our own transitions and developments that he may not have been able to see, or we may not have been able to share with him.

I would also tell him how much I miss Donald. He became close with somebody who was, at one point, my best friend Donald Woods and there are many stories I can tell of the three of us . . . .

N: I was wondering about personal transformations and progressions that you would share with him.

C: Well, I’d tell him I have cancer and how that sucks! I would tell him how proud I am of John, and how proud I am of John’s attentiveness to his memory. Yeah.

N: Great. This has been a pleasure. (smile) I want to go on about some things . . . I’m thinking about my own heart right now, which has its own scars. Why, especially as a survivor of the 80s and 90s, a lot of trauma, as many of us are, especially Black people in the world. Why do we love if it inevitably can cause some pain?

C: I think we’re just wired to love. There’s got to be something good about that, some sort of intelligent design or evolutionary purpose to that. But I think that the reward of the loving, on balance, as I look back, outweighs the pain. Not for everyone, not in every instance. But on balance. I think our challenge is how to love better. There’s always risk in loving. It’s also about finding different ways to love. Different as in plural ways to love, so that we experience love with different people differently. So it doesn’t become just one thing. So as love threads through our lives, that some of those threads may burn, some of those threads may pop, but there are other threads that are strong and weave together. 

N: It’s true. I feel like we don’t break completely. We may crack and come together as a new form. It’s not just love of people. There’s love of art, love of . . .

C: animals! 

N: And the question isn’t so much, is it pointless? I believe in what you said too. Life is joy and pain and hopefully we end up with a little more love and joy than we have pain. That’s a good life, I think. We can’t avoid these things, but we can reflect. And that’s what this piece, What I Miss? is inspiring. It’s inspiring the reflection of people’s connection, which I think is key to life, and the connections that Bert made. Reflecting also on how his work still connects to today. I think with these reflections, and even what you said, we get better. And that’s subjective, it’s not always neat, but we expand, I think.

C: Yeah, there’s this idea that joy ends and pain lasts. Joy can also be enduring, and pain can end.

Colin Robinson
Colin Robinson

Colin Robinson (1961-2021) was a writer and LGBTI activist from Trinidad & Tobago (T&T) who lived in New York, as part of the 1980s Black Gay Renaissance, and for over a decade illegally. He has a 2016 poetry collection You Have You Father Hard Head, is featured in Marlon Riggs’s Anthem, author of the 2012 Commonwealth Opinion “Decolonising Sexual Citizenship,” co-editor of Think Again, a 2003 collection of essays rethinking HIV prevention, New York field producer for the film Tongues Untied, and wrote a newspaper opinion column from 2014 to 2020, most recently in Sunday Newsday in T&T. He served as Director of Imagination of CAISO: Sex & Gender Justice in T&T, and in management roles at the Caribbean Forum for Liberation & Acceptance of Genders & Sexualities, Gay Men of African Descent, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, T&T Ministry of Labour HIV Advocacy & Sustainability Center, New York State Black Gay Network, T&T Health Training Centre; and on the boards of the Audre Lorde Project, Out|Right International, Other Countries and the PanCaribbean Partnership against HIV & AIDSPhoto: Rashmi Mathur

The Sidewalk of Michael’s Dream

Interview of Sheilah Mabry by Johnny Manzon-Santos on 13 July 2019 via Zoom 

Johnny Manzon-Santos: How are you connected to Michael, first of all?

Sheilah Mabry: How am I connected to B.Michael Hunter? I. Am. His. Favorite. Cousin. Until he died.

J: So if we were to interview him somehow, in the Black Gay Beyond, and we asked him, “Who was your favorite cousin?” he would say you [are]?

S: Without a doubt, it would be me. And there might be some people jealous, but they would know it’s true! (laughter)

I am outside the house that he so proudly bought. [He] died less than a year of having it, but this was a very significant place for him. He [would] take pictures as they broke the ground and as they built it.

The day of the opening for this block of houses, Malcolm Shabazz [Gardens], 117th between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell, my sister Kimmi was with me. [Then Manhattan Borough President] C. Virginia Fields was here, and Aunt Sheila was here. We took a picture.

Sheila Sorden (Sheilah’s namesake and B.Michael’s mother), B.Michael, C. Virginia Fields
The Rev. Kimberly Wright (Sheilah’s sister and B.Michael’s cousin), B.Michael, C. Virginia Fields, Sheilah

J: Who was Aunt Sheila?

S: Aunt Sheila was his mother, and my aunt, and my mother Frieda’s favorite sister. And that’s why I was named after her.

J: You’re standing in front of the house where he lived and died on the 23rd minute of the 23rd hour of the 23rd day of January. 1/23, right? And what’s the address of the house?

S: 123 West 117th Street. He specifically chose this house because of its number. He was really into numerology and he chose the 1-2-3 for that reason. I think it’s kind of cra-cra that all of that happened with the numbers when he died.

And that also was a memory of mine. How a lot of us were with him when he died, when he took his last breath. His home attendant was a very religious Christian woman and she “got him ready,” in her language. I waited until they came and picked him up and I watched the car drive him away. They took him to the morgue before he went to the funeral parlor.

J: This project is partly to honor Michael, the writer, and also to invite voices of people who knew him, or were impacted by him. If he were to walk out the door of his house right now after 18 years, and he would say, “Hey Sheilah, my favorite cousin, what I miss?” What would you want to tell him about the life you’ve been living for the last 18 years?

S: Well, it’s really weird to think about him in terms of what he missed because, a lot of times, I actually feel that he’s with me, watching what’s going on. And yet, if I think about what he missed, in my life at least? He missed breakups, and he missed a marriage, and of course, relationship before breakup. He would definitely have been at every kind of transitional graduation type of event that I was in. He was at my graduate school graduation. He was gone by my post-graduate training in 2002. He missed my car accident that I had at the end of 2001. I think he would have missed a lot of my struggles to achieve the things that I achieved because sometimes I have a lot of anxiety doing different things. He would be very proud of my “success” in terms of what I put into it and what has come of it.

I have a way of seeing my responsibility to gift money to causes that matter to me. He missed the National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network that was created by Erica Woodland, which is a really wonderful resource that I’m sure he would have been proud of and he would have given money to. He would miss the changes in the Audre Lorde Project. He’d miss the changes in The Center, the changes in Callen-Lorde over time. There’s all these places that we spent time in or utilized. I think of the Community Health Project² when it was at The Center and what that meant. And how there’s [now] some big building that he never set foot in, that I know of. SO many things . . . .

He missed [my nephew] Little Kevin being married to Jillian, and now they have two girls and then they have a boy on the way. He missed [nephew] Darryl’s wedding to Liz. He’d be very happy that Darryl found someone that he loves a lot, that loves him like a real partner in life. And he’d miss my sister Kimmi, [her son] and his godson Travis. And his godson Anthony, and Anthony’s children he’s raising with Sunshine. He’d miss . . . Joey died after Michael, right? . . . I don’t remember the year Joey died. I know he missed Uncle Bert, his dad’s death. He missed the very loving way his dad went out. So many deaths and losses. And also a lot of successes in the family. But I don’t know why I want to name everybody who’s died! It’s terrible. Oh, he missed Obama’s presidency.

J: What would’ve he been like knowing that Obama was president, twice?

S: I think that would have been something special to him. But I also think that the things [Obama] had done around immigration that weren’t good, I don’t think he would have been happy. He would feel it was fabulous that we had a Black president and he would appreciate all the things that he did, that his Administration did, that was good, but I don’t think he would be happy with anything that wasn’t OK. And definitely immigration policies that started then and before, he wouldn’t be happy with.

Because he was someone who not only marched. He loved and taught history, and he wanted the students that he had to be civically-minded. He also put his money in causes that he felt was important. He just cared, he really cared a lot about a lot of things. He was very smart. He would’ve been involved in things that weren’t OK, to try to make a difference.

Oh, I think that he would think it was really special that you had [your goddaughter] Mimi and that you all still have a relationship with her. I think he would love, love, love, LOVE Andrés! I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever. I do know he would appreciate, possibly be a little jealous but manage it, that you have Mickey. He would think it was funny that you went with two Michaels after him.

J: Yeah, prolly. (Sigh) You mentioned Andrés, our son, who’s 7. I see Michael in him.

S: Me too.

J: One thing I’m curious about: Talk about Sheilah, the Artist.

S: Oh my god. That is crazy. I think that he would appreciate that I’ve always been an artist in the sense of enjoying writing, and then later, you know, I performed with him, “Cousins,” that we wrote together. And have been in places reading that he got to watch me in. At The Center [for] “A Page from a Black Child’s Diary” that we were a part of, that Sapphire was a part of and a lot of other writers. That was a wonderful night of writing, of reading, of Black Queer folks.

And later that I liked to do collaging. But, this crazy twist thing that happened in my brain, that I am drawing, when I never learned how before, and producing such beautiful pieces. I think that would blow him away, and he would want one of them. He would be somebody I would give it to without reservation. And I have given some things to people and I’ve only created something specifically for one person in the family. But I haven’t really given away a lot of the work I’ve produced. I think that, in the physical realm, he’s missing it, but then, on some level in the spiritual realm, I feel like he’s getting it.

Because some of the images that come to me feel very African. That was another thing. He encouraged me to go to Operations Crossroads Africa [in] ‘89 and he had gone to Kenya prior. That was such a turning point in my life. I feel that travel, that kind of travel, has made me more sensitive to people who come to the U.S. because I know what it is to be a foreigner in another country and to try to manage through language and all that other kind of stuff. I just think he would appreciate my art, he would appreciate how much I’ve traveled. And he would appreciate that, you and I together, went and dropped [his] ashes in Bondi Beach in the water, and that dog was screaming when we let them go, in [Sydney,] Australia.

J: What’s important to you about the art you’re doing?

S: Well, one thing is, on some level, the art tells me that I can trust myself, because through the process, I don’t always know what I’m gonna end up with. And throughout the process, sometimes, I’m like, What did you do that for? Oh, no, I can’t believe you used that color! Oh, no, I gotta fix that! Oh, no . . . . At a certain point, I’m in a groove and I know it’s going to be wonderful. And there’s something about that perspective. There’s also something about that I appreciate because there are people coming through me. I mean, I rarely draw white people. They don’t come up for me. I think I might have done one person that’s white, maybe a couple. But I’ve even done a South Asian person and I didn’t know that that was gonna come. I’ve done East Asian folks. I don’t know how it happens, because I’m not going, I’m gonna draw this-color person.

There’s something about how I start with the mouth. You know Michael had nice, beautiful, juicy lips (smile), and I loved his nose, and I’m fascinated by our noses. People’s noses in general. I’m definitely fascinated by the noses of people of color, which is a range. And so I start the mouth and the nose generally, and maybe the eyes, and then work my way to a body thing. And I don’t know, it’s just kind of incredible, the stuff coming out of this. So I’m just kind of flowing.

I just think he would appreciate it, because I think that’s how he wrote. All the pieces that you found of his, some started and some finished. When I first started with my art, I had to start and finish pieces. But I’m learning how to leave a piece alone, when it can’t be completed yet, and I think that’s special. And also the expression, using art to deal with what’s good and what’s challenging and also to deal with passion. There’s something about the ways that my art goes through my body, in all parts of my body, depending on the piece. Why I am creating you and who I’m thinking of and how I want to connect and what comes back to me in it. That I think he would appreciate a lot.

Because he was all about the body. He was an artist, he was a writer, he was a lawyer who didn’t pass the bar but, for him, he understood the law a certain kind of way. And he was a dancer. He was a communication kind of person. He chose accounting in undergrad for stability or whatever, right? Just like he chose teaching at a certain point for stability and for tenure and because he loved to teach young people. But if he could do whatever he wanted to do and not worry about money, I think he would have been a dancer. He was a runner. But he had an incredible body and he loved to dance.

He loved to sing too. He wasn’t very good at that (smile). That’s the other thing I learned from him — and it didn’t stick until years later. Basically I was telling him he sounded terrible one time he was singing and he said, “I like singing, Sheilah, it makes me feel good.” Like, “Eff you!” And he was right! He was right because everybody can sing and everybody can do art. So even my process of doing the art has taken me to bring it to team-building exercises in organizations.

J: Like how?

S: Like how they can think about something that’s important to them over the course of their work in a year. And think of the values of what they learned in training, or in their work, or from their community, or what they love or appreciate about community, to be in process about that as individuals and then, collectively, talk about it, and then create pieces of art individually that get put together as a group. They share in what that means, to their respective program or team. For some people who didn’t see themselves as artists, that they can articulate what’s important to them and put it on a panel, on a 4” by 4”, but that becomes a collective thing because it’s in the name of a team. And they’re talking about what’s important to them as a team together and then sharing that in the larger organization with several teams . . . .

I went to a leadership training [and] there was a thing called the Story of My Purpose. To come up with symbols and ideas or phrases that speak to that, and to then narrow it down to one phrase. Then to give them a panel and have them write their purpose — create their purpose panel, their purpose tile. And I’ve done that with coaching clients and with therapy clients, to ground them around their purpose, to be able to bring the art into that. And see how people who say they’re not artists, or they don’t like to draw, and to encourage them to put whatever they need on there and that’s what matters. [It] is really special.

How do you use the things that I have found to be helpful to me, but also see each person, a group that I’m working with, unique to making something that’s their own [and] whatever comes of it is what’s important . . . .

And that’s the other thing. I think he would be really proud of how I’ve taken on leadership in a particular way. How I know there’s a difference between leadership and management and how, through years of experience, but also experience with Leadership that Works with folks primarily from Oakland, and how I learned about power, privilege, rank, and culture a particular kind of way, and how I learned, even though as a social worker and a therapist, I have to deal with clients’ strengths, that I learned in coaching that I must always trust that the person I am working with will collaborate, and that they have what they need. We’re on a journey together, but I’m helping them facilitate a process. But that it’s theirs, not mine, you know? And even being able to do this other leadership training, which is where my art came after working through a trigger, Rockwood. See, this is the thing: Oakland be doin’ it! Even doing that training and working on a trigger, and I think that that is, in fact, what allowed the art to be able to come, because it wasn’t coming before that.

And it’s like I can’t stop! There’s sometimes when I am working with people, or I’m on a train and I’m looking at their faces very intensely, their nose, their eyes. I want to capture that in my soul so that it comes out at some point somewhere. I think he would be really proud of me that I love helping people develop, be the best people they can be, that I can be in a process with people like that and that I appreciate how I grow from it, so I even understand him a little bit more.

J: How so?

S: Because he was a very encouraging person and he was actually impatient, but he was more patient than impatient. He could see the best in people and he could see what struggle was. I think he struggled himself, and I don’t think he always reached out for help. He wanted to be a helper, but he didn’t always take help himself. He would let me help him with certain things, but not just everybody, right? There’s a way he wanted to be seen . . . .

I appreciate about him how he helped in the family. And how he helped people outside the family. How he helped as a leader in community, like with Other Countries and with Gay Men of African Descent. All the places that he showed up for things that were meaningful to him . . . .

Because I see a lot of people who achieve things, but they’re very self-centered and they’re not trying to give anything back. Everything is about what they can get. But most of the people that I am in contact with, that I’m close to, they’re give-back people. And so I just appreciate him more now . . . .

I remember when he got sick, and he was impacted mentally, he said to me one time, [when] we were getting on a train. He lived over here, and the train was at 116th and Lenox, and what comes through there is the number 2 train or the 3, and the 3 is coming pretty much close from the yard, whereas the 2 is coming far from the Bronx. So we were at the station and we were going downtown — I believe he had a medical appointment — and he wanted the 2 train to pass and he wanted to wait for the 3 because there’d be less people on at the time we would get on the train. And I said, “Why don’t you wanna get on another train?”

“Sheilah, you know I don’t like people; you know I don’t really like people.”

As he was losing his mind, the intensity of how he made himself available to so many people in so many ways was weighing on him. And he had no filter for it, but I know in his best mind, he loved people. But with his mind closing in on him, people became too much.

So that’s something I kind of appreciate because I’m in my right mind (and not so my right mind sometimes) in a different way. This self-care piece, the importance of having time and being still — that’s something that he used to do that was very incredible. I remember at one time in his apartment at 528 [East 11th Street, Manhattan], he had yellow sticky notes that said “FOCUS” all over the house. I didn’t really appreciate it then. I thought he was crazy! But as I got older, I’m like, “Wow, he was really centering himself in his way.” (laughter)

I remember one time he told me. You know how you analyze all the movies. You see things with it. He’s like, “You know, sometimes you just gotta go to the movies and watch the movie. You ain’t got time to . . . . (laughter)” [He would] go see some dumb movie that, you know, is so internalized, racially oppressive shit and sexist, and even homophobic, to some degree. I guess because he felt he was doing the work, he could do that. But like, for him, sometimes something like that could have been a relief. “Chill out. People need to chill out with that.” But that’s not how he lived, in terms of causes and stuff. He was like, “I could do that, and this is wrong, and I’m gonna watch this show!”

J: What would you say is your purpose on that 4” x 4” tile, Sheilah?

S: Well, I did one, and it is a little Black person with a little flat belly, arms outstretched, that says over it, “Endless Possibilities,” and sunlight coming in. It had “Family, Blood and Chosen,” on it. It had “Abundance.” I think it had “Health.” But if I think about it now, like if I were to make one right in this moment as you ask that, I would say, “My purpose is to live healthily, to have flexibility, to show love, to be seen in the fullest of who I am and to see others in that way, to never forget the people here and gone who have given me so much, to never think I have to do anything alone, and to gift myself with alone time, something that I need.”

J: Sheilah, is there anything else?

S: The world is not the same without him, but I know people got to go. But my greatest gift from him, besides him and what he gave me, is you. And I know that without a doubt. And I think he would be happy that we love each other the way we do. And that he gave us to each other. Because you’re the only person that really knows the range of who he was to me, and who he was, period. Not just all the fabulousness, but also the challenges, the things he struggled with, but we have a love that he’d have us laugh at those things. Just like he laughed at us too! Loved us and laughed at us too. And was frustrated with us. I miss him really a lot. But he really is a part of who I am, and a lot of what I give is the part that he gave me.

And to not forget what it was like for him to be a Black Gay man in his family, and in our family, and in the world. And to do his best, to bring the best. And to get as much as he could.

He left a legacy to many, and different people have done different things with that. There’s a whole lot of people and probably people we don’t even know ….

Sheilah Mabry
Sheilah Mabry

Sheilah Mabry, LCSW-R, CPC (she/her/hers) is a consultant, facilitator, leadership coach, licensed clinical social worker, writer, artist, and B.Michael Hunter’s favorite cousin.

Grounded in curiosity, creativity, and joy, Sheilah believes in the inner resourcefulness and resilience of people to work collectively to transform systems. As a bisexual woman of color, she centers equity and anti-racism in all of her work.

Sheilah received her professional coach certification from Leadership that Works, and is a past board member of the National Association of Social Workers-New York City Chapter. She is a proud member of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network.

Sheilah is a graduate of the Ackerman Institute for the Family’s Foundations of Family Therapy and Gender & Family Project. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and a Master’s degree from the Hunter College School of Social Work.

Love and marriage, not the same thing

There’s … a lot of freedom and mobility in being gay. And choosing not to raise children. Without the status of children, we’re not validated in society. My point is less wanting to get validation from someone else. It’s more important to be self-fulfilled. It’s a point of empowerment. You’re not trapping yourself by convention, buying into status-quo. I still think working toward self-fulfillment will gain the same financial rewards or benefits that “selling yourself to a corporation” would buy.

Having been in a different situation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to use others’ measuring sticks of how I should view myself in the world. This automatically sets you up for failure. Everyone has a little bit more, someone else is a little bit taller. Ranking is dangerous. Some status that you fall short of makes you self-hating, self-destroying.

B.Michael Hunter in “Windows & Water Towers”, an essay written with John Manzon-Santos and published in Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write about Class (South End Press: 1995, ed. Susan Raffo).

In our book, you wrote about love. This is what you and Johnny decided to share. You wrote about love and relationship but not in that starry-eyed, soften all-the-edges way. Instead, the two of you argued, you disagreed, you rubbed up against each other, and you showed in a hundred small ways the depth of your commitment. You wrote about what it means to pay attention to your relationship, about the ways you are gay and the ways you are different from each other, how these differences are the core of your relationship, the things that make you disagree, and what strengthens your commitment.

For the last six years our relationship, perhaps like any other, has been in search of anchorage. We have learned how commitment, trust and yes, intimacy, can ebb and flow over time. What grounds us is when we attempt to break our familiar Catholic patterns of silence, especially when it feels most risky. In this case, we hope that our talking through issues together (and sharing them via a transcribed dialogue) – seams and all – will demonstrate some of the ways in which we struggle to understand how class is braided with other factors in our relationship.

Windows & Water Towers, 1995

You died, my friend, just at the turning point for how gay – and all kinds of queer – relationships would be understood. You died on the edge of a lot of change and oh, my friend, you’ve missed some things. You’ve missed this moment when love turned from something generative and unapologetic, the radical compost of having to find it deep within ourselves to fierce-claim our love of another person, to something that has the necessary legal support needed to make its revolutionary nuances disappear. I am talking about marriage. I am talking about the capstone on a struggle for acceptance and safety that started when AIDS became, not a crisis that brought care and compassion, but an excuse for making our queerness disappear.

You are now on the other side, Bert. An ancestor. I am telling you about what you have missed but I also know that you know much of this already.

In the essay in Queerly Classed, you wrote about being on the founding board for the Audre Lorde Project, about organizing the People of Color contingent for the 1990 Lesbian & Gay Pride March. The two of you list a who’s who of radical queer New York POC organizations, most of which don’t exist anymore. While we were talking about the book and your essay in it, the March on Washington was getting ready. In 1993, an estimated 1 million people attended the March on Washington for LGB Equal Rights and Liberation. Were you there? I was there with my partner at the time and thought it was amazing. The march platform focused on reproductive justice, racial and economic justice and universal health care.

At the 1993 March on Washington, not a single part of the platform included gay marriage in any form. We said things like “family liberation,” saying, just as you said in the book, that family is not about having or not having children. It’s not about getting married. It’s about deep commitments to each other’s well-being. Like universal health care, we were demanding that those things traditionally accessed through marriage become available outside of that traditional institution, like shared health care, economic safety and the right to have our children no matter the shape of our families.

It was also in 1993 that organizers on the Right started to gather around the idea of “traditional family values.” This was brilliant, right? A coalition of religious fundamentalists and economic conservatives began to build a base that would have enough power to push back the love and rights based work of the Left. Their fundraising and mobilization work called out AIDS as a threat to the traditional American family. They mobilized fear. They began to design their new enemy, using our bodies and their terror to justify all kinds of things from disappearing manufacturing jobs to earthquakes and floods. You know this, Bert. You were in those conversations while you were organizing in New York.

1993 was the year they passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was the year when the film Gay Rights, Special Rights went viral. This was a new kind of film, one that was designed to drive a wedge between LGBT and Black communities by positioning gay folks as privileged white rich people who just wanted to have everything our way, to operate outside of morality. Again, you remember this. We all talked about this, pushed against this, struggled with this.

In 1993, few of us were interested in or advocating for legalized relationships. Gay marriage was not a mainstream or even much of a marginalized LGBT issue. Prior to 1993, there were only 8 attempts to either enable OR prevent same-sex marriage through some form of legislative or court decision. Each was an isolated individual initiative, not connected to a broader movement. But between 1993 and 2000, right before you died, there were suddenly 26 attempts to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming legalized. Each of those 26 were organized by these Right coalition groups like Focus on the Family and others. Between 1993 and 2000, there were 6 pro-same-sex marriage campaigns and 4 of those were in 1999. Let me spell that out more clearly – the coalition Right created gay marriage as an issue. They spent seven years getting it into the national imagination as a threat that had to be stopped. It wasn’t a threat. Us queers weren’t talking about marriage. We were loving each other, surviving AIDS and talking about healthcare. The opposition named same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional family values, they raised lots of money and we started to fight back.

You were already sick in 2000 and so you might have been watching this happen or you might have just ignored it as your world got smaller. Things always get smaller when we are preparing to pass. Almost everything shifted and reversed right around the time of your passing. Starting in 2000 and 2001, there were twice as many attempts by the LGBT community to legalize same-sex marriage as efforts to prevent it. It took the Right seven years to ramp us up but then, starting just as you were dying, we reached down and picked up the rope and starting pulling hard against them.

What do we do when someone wants to pick a fight? Evolution tells us we are hard wired to either run, freeze up or turn around and fight back. What is hardest to do, even when the lion is running straight at us, is stop and take a deep breath and determine the best course of action. Liberation is about choice. About stopping and breathing and noticing, rather than responding to this fight that we didn’t pick. What would happen if we just ignored them? Turned our backs on their fear and refused to engage?

The National Millenium March in 2000, an incredibly white and professionalized march, focused their platform on hate crimes legislation, the right to marry, employment non-discrimination and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In addition, they had a range of soft goals that said things like LGBT People of Color exist and need to be more visible! Liberation politics, Bert, had turned to inclusion politics in only 7 years. The specificity of our experience, the foundational leadership of Trans and queer people of color, and the beauty of our sex that had been branded as diseased by the US mainstream: all of this was disappeared into a platform focused on being included in middle class US rights. By the 2009 National Equality March, there weren’t even any soft goals related to the breadth of our experience. By 2009, 16 years after the March on Washington, the platform was simply a call for equal protection under civil law. Inclusion. Inclusion. Inclusion.

Your essay in Queerly Classed refuses to define your selves or your relationship by comparison with any external standard of success. Instead, you choose to spend time deeply inquiring over the histories and experiences that have led you to make the class-based choices you have made. You died, Bert, before we had internalized their stories about us; before we believed that our right to marry is part of what legitimizes our right to exist.

Bert, they used our greatest vulnerability against us. You write in this essay about what it felt like to be young-old, someone who had seen so many of your people die as a result of AIDS. You and John both write about what it is to be in relationship when one of you is positive and one is not. You talked about how you navigated this. John noticed when things shifted so that AIDS no longer felt like it was ready to pounce from just around the corner. And it was still there, the truth of it, there in your home as you talked about family and race and the differences in calling a cab in New York when you are Black or Filipino.

They used our greatest vulnerability as a weapon to further destroy our belief in our own lives. And we helped them. We were not immune from the wounds of this country: white supremacy and its dance with capitalism being the base that brought the concept of land ownership and the ownership of human beings to the oak savannah and prairie where I live. The patterns that this violent founding established showed their way into our fabulous queerness just like everywhere else. Like a form of disaster capitalism, the coalition Right used the fear and vulnerability that came from seeing so many lovers die to inflame the mix of internalized oppression and race and class supremacy to move rapid-fire away from our beautiful differences to the death knells of inclusion and assimilation.

In the midst of the marriage fight here in Minnesota, a friend reminded me that all legalized discrimination needs to end. And this is true. Yet in its ending we lost so many other things. Some of us are very safe now, Bert. There are gays and lesbians and bi folks with legally recognized relationships and protected retirement funds and no need to do what we did: get all of the legal papers needed so that we could tend our lovers when they died. Just like before, the queerer you are, the Blacker or more Native or undocumented you are, the less those legal rights guarantee a difference in your living condition. It always comes back to this, doesn’t it? From the beginning of this country, it’s what it comes back to. Those first wounds of attempted genocide and the institution of slavery are the foundational trauma that is not finished. Like all trauma, these wounds and the systems that protect them find a way to come back and recenter themselves again and again.

I don’t know what you would have thought about marriage, Bert. So many folks surprised me by their excitement for this protection. So many others, people our age and older, quietly told me behind the scenes that they hated everything about it but also believed that legalized discrimination should end. We sat and felt frustrated with the steps that had led to marriage as the moment of our supposedly greatest victory.

So this is what I want to tell you, Bert. I want to tell you that as messy as things were before you passed, as much deep grief was (and still is) not healed or integrated from what AIDS did to our communities, still there was clarity. While we described it in lots of different ways, still, there was often a shared sense that as gay or queer people, we had a special insight on sexual liberation, on gender liberation and on family liberation. And together we were struggling to link this truth with the truth of the original wounds of this land. We knew that things were not what we had been raised to believe. Many of us were actively struggling within our identities as lesbians, gay, bisexual and increasingly transgender to more deeply understand and fight-feel for our shared liberation.

Some of us are safer. But many of us are not. It’s just that those who are not safer no longer turn to LGBT organizing as the place of changing that. And that makes me sad. It’s not a good way of memorializing all of you who passed, whose lives were shortened because the U.S. was afraid of our beauty and so refused to show up when we were sick and dying.

© Susan Raffo 2017

Susan Raffo
Susan Raffo

Susan Raffo is a writer, cultural worker and bodyworker. In 1995, she edited the book Queerly Classed which is referred to in this essay. It was here where she met both Johnny and Bert and got to share a stage with them in New York after the book had come out. Since 2000, Susan has had a kid (Luca born in 2002) and has taken her organizing work into the overlap between healing justice and collective liberation. (Source: www.susanraffo.com)

“When Johnny reached out about this book, the first thing that I thought of was marriage. The year Bert died feels like such a turning point in how LGBT community understands itself and its struggle. The marriage debate might or might not be over, depending on politics, but its impact is still felt.”