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.


I knew when I thought it might be a short piece
that you might say, “I don’t do no short pieces”
but then I’d have to remind you
just cause you big and pretty
don’t give you the right to discriminate.
Big and so damn pretty.
Smile that sly smile
just once more
so I can go home
and remember it.
That’s what I be missin baby
That’s what I be missin.

© Bil Wright 2017

Bil Wright
Bil Wright

Bil Wright is a novelist and playwright. His is the author of Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and Sunday You Learn How to Box (New York Public Library Choice for Young Readers and Coretta King Celebrating the Dream List). His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD Media Award nominee and La Mama Playwriting Award). BilWright.com

Psychic Imprints

Tell me a story…
Muvva, tell me some stories.

The sensitive child
Vying for attention
Repeatedly requests

Perched on a kitchen chair
Rusty gold, old and trusted feline
Tapping     tapping
At the spirits in the hem of her robe
Hastily draped over her knee
Unexpected guest
To view the new arrival

The alteration in the pitch and tone of
Her voice tries to bring order to
The chaos of cackling children.

There is joy. JOY!

Marching orders administered:
Don’t mess up that room!
And ignored.

The child offers comfort:
Don’t worry, Muvva, I’ll help you…
I’ll help you clean up…
I’ll buy you a house.

Amused, she chuckles, caringly
Absolves the child in her reply:
That’s OK.

Happily vows
To do it anyway

Conversations between generations
At the kitchen table
Alchemy and affirmations bring
The childless father
To this place
Centered       focused     satisfied
Receiving the Universe’s blessings
Delivered by angels
Nestled on his shoulders
Spirits jump across
Threads of time
This the second decade virus
Once benign at 203
Turns malignant at 189

No cause for alarm
Legacies left in writings on walls
In whispered phrases
Parenting, parenting
All over the place.

The mother: Child, I have secrets to tell.
The son: I’m listening.

Throughout the exchange they realize
They both feel the same way about
Within each is stored secrets
And lessons learned
Life and death and rituals
The irony

We two     the mother     the son
Listen and wait
For the echoes in trees
Gnarled, weather-worn
Branches holding spirits
Let us touch you so you can talk to us

The mother expresses her joy
In watercolors
The son
In poetry

The mother: You’re my angel!
The son: I’m just trying to earn my wings.
Computer screensavers record their mantras:
Sheila, take back your power…

Michael, remember the possibilities…

One spring afternoon the son asks:
How do you bounce back so often? What’s your secret?
The mother replies:
I just love waking up in the morning
Just seeing a new day
Listening to the birds sing and
Looking at the trees.

The son smiles.

© B.Michael Hunter 2000

“Psychic Imprints” was published in Other Countries III: Voices Rising, 2007.

Earlier versions of his poem, with annotations from circa six months before he died.

No Space at Forty-One

Have not defined old
But they all agree
Once you’re over 40
You are no longer young

Older men
I used to prefer them
Now I’m one of them

Remembering cheers
From liked poets
Lines delivered
Haunt you

Dancing in clubs
Hearing music
Knowing all the lyrics
Remembering the first time
The artist performed at Club Car Storage

All your primary references are now retro
Replaced like the PanAm sign on the MetLife building

Outliving Martin
Outliving Malcolm

Talking about people because
You here and they ain’t
Every line ain’t really yours
But you use them

Only experience is down to the drenched sweat
Because you here
And they ain’t

Bryan and I ride the F Train
Remember the Bus Boycott in Boston
Remember Roy
Orange line on Washington Street
Mass Ave with the hole
Eyes sparkle
Pain freshened

Mother says
She’d never go back to Pensacola
Her birth home
To her Pensacola is
Black men dangling from ropes attached to trees

But I go back to Boston
Holding dreams still fresh
Still fresh

We live long enough to see folks
Git right with God
Family find Jesus
Circles survive the Plague
Look in hindsight

Ask your mother
While she’s still here
Secrets to survive
Codes to daily living
Grasp at old folk
Real old folks
The old old
Not the young old
Like you are now

This time
You know too much
Parents seek your advice
Venus got her Grams with her
Celebrating her 80th
In and out making decisions
It’s not a burden
You ain’t reliving your childhood trying to make amends
It’s just the circle of life
You just doing your part
Taking your turn
Getting up with the sun
Taking back the daylight
Marvel at the joy of being
The sound of crows
Watering plants in your urban garden
Flowerpots on a sill
The window clocks your favorite time of day

Denise used to say
Some people read books to experience life;
I live a life that’ll be written about in books.
Are you going to read life
Or live it?

Over dinner
We talk about our fathers

We get to apologize for past pain
Caused by casual conversation
We get to wonder what time will bring
Ten years past the first date
When we thought
We’d be old

Plotting toward new centuries
Tomorrow’s possibilities
To be celebrating
The remembered

© B.Michael Hunter 1999

Performed by Allen Luther Wright at B.Michael’s Celebration of Life on 27 January 2001.


for John and Joe

Paint a mural of your love

Baptize your vision
in primeval pools and puddles
of pastels and primaries

Give it three dimensions
with inky wads of discarded phonebook pages
tattered shoestrings
and links of rusty coat hanger

Make it shimmer with gobs of glitter
and shards of broken mirror
like Saturn’s rings
celestial debris in harmonious order

Autograph your oeuvre
with each goodnight kiss
with homemade birthday cake candles
            weeping wax
with juice from Saturdays of olallieberry-
            picking and sparring elephant seals
holding hands on long drives
slow walks arm-in-arm
Vancouver                  Venice                  Vanuatu

Know that no one knows you
like him

Acknowledge and appreciate each meal
and chew thirty-two times

Share silences and pillow-talk
chattering teeth on chilly mornings
evening jogs and fever-bouts
savor each full-mouth kiss

Remember all the possibilities

When you are octogenarian
souls rocking
side by side
cheeks parked on macramé cushions
measure time in days of gardening
and moonrises
warm your fingers and palms
on shared recollections
of fine wines and ceremonial gatherings

May angels and ancestors guard you — lovers

May honesty and humor guide you — brothers

May kin and kindred spirits buoy you — cousins

May you both
be anchored in the present
refreshed by mild winds
the joyful passing of
this moment
the next

© B.Michael Hunter & John Manzon-Santos 1998

Written on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of cousins John (aka Spike) Lomibao and Joe Garrett. Below is a reproduction of the original printed and framed.


Image taken by event photographer and gifted to John & Bert by Spike & Joe, San Francisco Bay Area, June 1998

unwrapping the present

For Shiree, in observance of life’s passing

some things are undeniable
like time’s eventual wrinkles
framing our smiles
but that’s not now

now is the insistent itch on my shoulder
a solar flare on my body’s horizon
urging me to offer you
a piece of me         us
sour         sweet          spectacular
sad          soulful
somehow expressing
for your courage

it’s morning
Sun shines through
shuttered windows
hot on our faces
blinding          images
generously descend upon us
move in concert
practicing their choreography
moment          to moment

there’s no need to delve into
deeper meaning          not now
no regrets in simply saying
friend family sister

© B.Michael Hunter & John Manzon-Santos 1998


octogenarians — for bert

A 1995 Chriskwanzaka gift from partner John!

  1. “widows overnight” refers to three people who lost husbands that year: John and Bert’s friend René Astudillo (Daniel Scott Strano), Olympic figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva (Sergei Grinkov), and actress Candice Bergen (Louis Malle), who played the title character on Murphy Brown, a favorite television series of Bert and John.
  2. The “30-something-brother” is artist Ronald Harris, for whom Bert wrote Dew Locks.
  3. “Donald” is Bert’s friend, writer and poet Donald Walter Woods.

Windows & Water Towers

In response to Susan Raffo‘s original Call for Submissions for Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians Write About Class, B.Michael and John Manzon-Santos, domestic partners at the time, interviewed each other and themselves and transcribed the following piece.

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.

Bert: When I was growing up in the Woodrow Wilson Houses in East Harlem, my family went through periods where we seemed to have everything we needed and at other times when we had to go on food stamps. The most important thing was to avoid being on welfare. Food stamps meant that someone in the family still worked, and you just needed a little help. But welfare meant that your parents couldn’t “make it,” and that was not okay. So one indicator of your class situation was whether or not you had a job, and there was a shame factor attached if you had to rely on help from the government. It wasn’t until I went to college that my parameters that defined someone’s class status were expanded to include where you live, what you own, how exposed you are to the world, even how you act in social settings.

John: For me, someone’s socioeconomic class is measured by their access to resources–not just money, but other resources like housing, employment, nutrition, health care, mobility, public-sector decision-making, and education. So, for example, even though I grew up working-class and wasn’t wealthy like the majority of the other college students, I know my Ivy League university degree affords me broader access to middle-class opportunities, like what kinds of jobs I could have, what quality of healthcare providers I’d look for, how possible I’d think it was to travel or relocate, where I lived, etc. ANd meeting students who grew up poorer than me gave me some sense of perspective and helped me gauge where I fit in this landscape relative to all these class markers. I don’t think I and my brother and sisters grew up with any conscious class identity, though I assumed that immigrant status meant being poor or working-class. Like when my family lived in barracks, enlisted men like my father lived with their families in row housing, and the “big brass” generals that my father cooked for lived in gigantic, free-standing houses. Actually, figuring out our living situation kicked up a lot of issues.

B: In 1988, when I moved into the apartment at 528 East 11th Street, the rent was $325 a month, a good deal for two bedrooms in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, even with no sink in the bathroom. At first it seemed like a really family-oriented building, quiet and safe. But a police raid uncovered a large amount of cash, drugs, and a number of firearms, including two AK-47’s, in the apartment across the hall from mine. Our landlord’s solution to deter other alleged drug dealers from working out of the building was to disable the intercom system and remove the front door to the street. It was like that for eight months. There was no collective outcry from the thirty-three apartments, but the situation generated enough attention that a local newspaper listed 528 as one of the top ten worst buildings in Manhattan . . .

J: . . . which I didn’t know before I moved in! That entire first year of living together at 528, I don’t think I ever felt safe going from the corner of East 11th Street/Avenue A to the front door — less because of the drugs, more because I thought I’d be “fag-bashed” or else mugged or harassed because I’m Asian. Even though it’s also true that sometimes people don’t fuck with me because they think I know kung fu or something. But over time I think people started to get used to us as a couple. I even became friendly with some of the neighbors. In a way, the drug dealers who were always on the block kept an eye on everything that went down, a kind of neighborhood patrol! I mean, they’re businesspeople after all, so if you don’t get in their way, they’ll leave you alone.

528 was a decent size for two (and big enough for nine houseguests during Stonewall!), and I was certainly fine with splitting the $400 rent. I was also conscious of the me-as-gentrifier, especially as I was sure people perceived me as one of those outsider Asian and/or Queer artist-types who flocked to the surrounding East Village.

B: I did have guilt about gentrifying the neighborhood, but in a lot of ways, because of my race, my sexuality, and my perceived class background, I was excluded from a lot of other moderate-income housing. On some level I tried to absolve some of my guilt by joining the local Community Board and chairing the Human Resources Committee, where we had N.I.M.B.Y. (Not in My Backyard) debates around AIDS housing facilities, women’s transitional housing (from prison back to the community), and other social service agencies in the neighborhood. I even sat on their Lesbian/Gay Community Task Force to sensitize the police.

J: I think we could’ve lived there longer than we anticipated. We did paint the walls and make other improvements here and there. Then I received a windfall from that legal settlement, which started us thinking about moving and the possibility of a pretty dramatic change, quality-of-life-wise. Like an elevator would help. Some of it had to do with the fact that your relatives, especially your mom and aunts and grandmother, aren’t able to negotiate stairs. Then there’s the weekly schlepping up and down of groceries, laundry, and garbage. I don’t think we talked about it much at that point, but your being HIV-positive entered into it, specifically what it’d mean for either of us to have some potentially debilitating illness. So we started thinking about stuff like having more space, a washer/dryer in the building, a sink in the bathroom, and the possibility of leaving behind our pets (i.e., the roaches).

B: John, you’re the one who brought the roaches when you moved in. Because that’s when we got more into the habit of eating in, since I always ate out when I lived alone!

J: You know, for my parents it was a dream come true to buy a house after my father retired from the Army, but prior to this legal settlement, I never imagined, nor did I have any aspirations about buying or owning anything. The culture of it all made me feel uncomfortable, partly because real estate has such a rep for being a discriminatory sector, partly because I didn’t want to deal with tax planning and all that. I also didn’t want a doorperson, which promotes some sort of urban gated-community dynamic. And as two men, we maybe didn’t need the assumed level of security that a doorperson would provide. Then where we thought of where to live in New York, pickin’s seemed slim. As an interracial couple, there are few neighborhoods where we would feel as comfortable as individuals and together.

B: As a Black man, I had no intention of living in any of the Asian enclaves like Chinatown and dealing with stares or hostility from others. And as a Manhattanite, born and raised, living in any other borough seemed too remote.

J: Harlem, or even Fort Green, wouldn’t prove much more welcoming to me…

B: … because people would think you were working in the markets.

J: There are also the gay-concentrated neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, but there’re too many white people per capita for my comfort level, especially after spending all those years in predominantly rich, white private schools.

B: After looking at half a dozen lofts and apartments with doormen in view, we walked into the one place the realtor was reluctant to show us — her descriptive word was “funky.” When we walked into this 1,500-square-foot corner loft it had two things that were high on our list — space and natural sunlight, which poured through the five-by-seven foot windows on two sides.

J: You know there’d be very few places we would both fall in love with, as different as I think our aesthetic senses are. But for the first few months–and once in a while even now–I felt very strange being ins such a huge, spacious living arrangement. I definitely associate large living spaces with the rich kids I went to school with and the kinds of houses they lived in. On some level, I also didn’t feel like I deserved to occupy so much living area or to access the kind of stability that you get from not throwing rent down a hole every month. It also felt strange since owning this home wasn’t part of my value system or something I worked for and saved for over time. But like you said, this new home is “full of possibilities,” and the process of buying the loft, especially in its raw condition, has moved us as a couple to look more at life-planning and focus on our needs, something I don’t think either of us have done a very good job of doing up until recently.

I dig the roof, too, and you can see both the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center Twin Towers and how every building in Manhattan over five stories has a cedar-wood water tower like on a West Side Story set or something, which you never see walking around on street level. We got the washer/dryer that we share with the three other couples on the floor, but we did give up the family atmosphere that 528 had with seniors and baby carriages and little kids running around and playing in the street.

B: It’s definitely not a residential neighborhood. The street’s bustling between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., when only commercial parking like the loading/unloading of UPS trucks is allowed. Then there are the import/export businesses dealing in fashion, furs, toys, and sundries, the motorcycle-repair guy working on the sidewalk, but the street really shuts down in the evening, and it’s not too safe for single women who visit. The area’s zoned for light industrial, full of converted manufacturing facilities, garment sweatshops (like the one across from our bedroom window), printing presses, photography studios, and we’re on the perimeter of all these communities: the new Korea Town, Gay Chelsea below West 23rd Street, the Garment District, the Flower District, where wholesale vendors sell cut flowers and potted plants. And in a two-block radius there are five weekend antique flea markets. However, real estate brokers of course promote the neighborhood as the “new SoHo” (New York’s premier artists’ colony), which is slowly becoming more residential–the building we live in, anyway.

J: I have mixed feelings living so close to Chelsea. I generally feel ambivalent, at times hostile, when walking down Seventh or Eighth Avenue, two of Chelsea’s main arteries, and I never do it alone, if I can help it. All these uniformed, gay male soldiers at attention or at ease help shore up the rep that gay men make wonderful consumers, like the patrons of the all-gay-while-male-run, community-based, mostly service-oriented institutions, some with multimillion-dollar operating budgets: often double-income in a single fabulously decorated household, no kids, fashion-conscious, theater-going, bar-hopping, globe-trotting, time-sharing, alcohol-abusing, iron-pumping, steroid-shooting. It’s no coincidence that Chelsea is where these superstores have all sprung up–Barnes & Noble, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Today’s Man, Filene’s Basement. This is the gay community that I am supposed to identify with. It’s the upwardly mobile, queer-nationalist culture that turns me off the most.

B: In order to feel more at home, it’s people of color-focused lesbian and gay networks which both of us have gravitated toward. We’ve had some involvement in establishing, supporting, or having active membership in several of the organizations in the “gay community” with which we identify: Other Countries: Black Gay Expression, APICHA (Asian & Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS), GMAD (Gay Men of African Descent), Project Reach (a mutliracial, youth- and adult-run youth advocacy, counseling, and organizing center), GAPIMNY (Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York), and the Lesbian & Gay People of Color Steering Committee (a coalition of almost thirty indigenous, grassroots groups). Most recently, we’re working as members of the founding board of the Audre Lorde Project (a lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, transgender people of color community center based in Brooklyn, New York), a community space and spiritual home base whose vision includes multiracial, co-gender programming and organizing activities and an initiative that’s not based on pathologizing our identities, experiences, or worldviews.

J: And it’s through this community that we met. Though Bert may have a different recollection, I first met him at a meeting of the Lesbian & Gay People of Color Steering Committee to secure a spot in the People of Color contingent of the New York City Pride March for GAPIMNY, at the time a new affinity organization. I noticed Bert, one of the handsomest men I’d ever seen, who was really quiet and cautious—the opposite of me. He was a writer and refreshingly not a graduate of an Ivy League school, like my ex-lover. I was happy to learn that he didn’t grow up with money and, like me, received financial aid to get through mostly all-white schools. I felt safe with him from the beginning, and not ashamed of unpacking whatever personal baggage I may have brought with me. I wondered about Bert being Black, having experienced too many Black people telling me I wasn’t oppressed enough.

B: I first noticed John at a general meeting of VOCAL (Voices of Color against AIDS and for Life), a fledgling group of lesbian and gay people of color who worked in AIDS. I was there to announce the marching order of the People of Color Contingent in the 1990 Lesbian & Gay Pride March. He reminded of a high school friend I had, who has one-fourth Black, and three-fourths Chinese. John didn’t look anything like my friend, but they did share one feature: black hair. There was something about John that seemed familiar. We saw each other at a couple of other joint People of Color meetings–after one such meeting I asked him to dinner, and he accepted. After one or two other dates we got together and somehow developed a relationship. Physically, John is similar to almost all of the other men I’ve dated–slim. I was and am most attracted to John’s mind, quick mouth, and energy, some of the very things that cause tension in our relationship. I was thirty-two when I met John, and feeling young but old. Old from so many consecutive deaths of friends from AIDS. When I found out John was seven years younger than me, I was a little reluctant to continue our relationship because he seemed politicized in a way I wasn’t familiar with. There were some early signs that we have had very different life experiences.

First, the obvious: he’s Filipino, I’m of African descent. I was raised in a housing project in East Harlem, he was raised in a house in Daly City, California; he worked as a counselor at a community agency in Chinatown, and I had just quit my job as an account marketing representative selling mainframe computers for IBM. Now the not so obvious–he had gone to private school since sixth grade and then to an Ivy League college; I went to public grammar and middle school, a specialized public high school, a small, east coast private college, and had already graduated from a top-ranked public-interest private law school. My previous experience with men who attended Ivy League school also left me a little cold–they seem to never be satisfied with things. They always seem to have access to information and invitations to events and always acted as if they were entitled to everything they desired. I also felt I was considered desirable by these men because of my degrees and career track: they assumed I was their “class peer.” John was very different–he is one of the few men I trust.

J: Even in a racially diverse city like New York, striving for visibility and recognition as an interracial couple of gay men of color is not very supported. Fact is, we’ve interacted with only two other Asian/Black male couples, one in New York and one in Boston.

Class determines a lot of the dynamics between Black and Asian communities in New York, where there isn’t much widely documented history of peaceful coexistence, as with the relations between Korean grocery store owners and the inner-city Black neighborhoods they’re often located in. In these same stores, check-out clerks never assume we’re together, even as we talk animatedly and commingle items-to-buy on the counter.

B: When we began going places together, we’d sometimes take cabs, though I rarely took cabs myself, especially at night. In fact, I’d only flag down a cab when I was dressed in suit and tie. On some level I really resented being with someone who never had problems with gaining access to something like a taxicab. I’d been frustrated enough times by the indignity that passing taxicabs represent to factor in enough time for public transportation in my daily travel plans.

J: In fact, I didn’t grow up in a place with cabs and didn’t know until I met you that Black people were routinely passed by because of what the drivers assumed.

B: I think less of it that I’m going to mug them; more of it is the assumption that I’d ask to be driven somewhere that might put them in a dangerous situation. The cab situation brings up how we negotiate on a day-to-day basis–you run up to cabs, stop them, or you run halfway up the block to flag one down. What allows you to do that, to think that it’s safe, for you or the driver? Is there some intersection of race, class, and sexual orientation that gives you the freedom to run in the street? (Most Black men running in the street would seem suspect, and more than one woman would clutch their pocketbook.)

J: It’s funny you perceive my running up to catch a cab as some kind of privilege or some manifestation of my level of safety. (A) I don’t feel safe in New York generally, especially being on the thin side in a city where anti-Asian violence has topped the hate crimes stats, with queer-bashing a close second. And (B) when I see a cab, what I immediately think of are all the times cabs have passed me because, I assume, I’m not dressed like a businessman or whatever, or when they have refused to unlock the door until they know where I want to go (and agree to take me there). The cabs are supposed to be there for people, so I run up to the cab and open the door so as not to be passed over. It’s an accountability thing and maybe there is some privilege I have to be able to do that. The dodging-traffic scenario is something I’ll do only if I have to get somewhere. So it doesn’t feel like a comfort or safety level I have; it feels like a risk I have to consciously take to get what I need. Also, in this city, I take public transportation more often than not. At times, when I’m on the subway, the racist vibe I get from people is that I might karate-chop them, so they’ll keep their distance. However, at other times people generally perceive me as weaker and totally non-threatening because I’m Asian, like the time I was mugged between the Delancey and Second Avenue stops on the F train.

B: Except when we were both treated similarly on our way back to New York from Montreal, when we were stopped by the U.S. border patrol, interrogated separately; our rental car strip-seached presumably for smuggled drugs, our gay guides ridiculed.

J: I also learned that we respond differently to authority. You became cool as a cucumber, not attitudinal, but terse, measuring your words per your lawyer training. I eagerly answered their questions and tried to send out easygoing energy, as if to say, “OK, officer, whatever-you-say, just-leave-us-alone.”

B: Yeah, and you almost got us killed when you reached down under the seat for your shoes after they had already told us to get out of the car!

J: Well, we communicate differently according to the situation. We talk different, too. You easily flip between that teeth-flashing IBM, “I’m going to sell you a computer now”-speak and Southern Black Baptist (which you fake).

B: We’ve known each other long enough to know which of each other’s buttons to push. And how easily we fall into a competitive mode like the boys we were socialized to be, which is consistent with the survival strategies we developed as children.

J: For a long time one of the buttons was around HIV. When you tested HIV-positive and I tested HIV-negative, we needed some serious, relationship-oriented “technical assistance” to deal with being a “sero-discordant couple.” You really surprised me ‘cause I thought you’d be resistant to working with a couples therapist. But we did need some structured time to look at HIV-specific stuff and other, non-HIV-related issues.

B: I welcomed the chance to look at HIV/AIDS and its impact on my being able to be in a longterm relationship. In fact, the eighteen months we were together before I went for the test was the longest period of time I’d been with another man.

J: Therapy definitely helped us learn how to call out how we’ve been trained. You know, to question the norm to achieve, get more degrees, be active, make money and babies.

B: I’d say we’re trying to center ourselves more, to carve out a life, develop more discipline and internal structures for us as individuals and as a couple, to create family and rituals, live with HIV and the gamut of health conditions: in short, less doing, more being.

J: I no longer live in fear of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for you to develop AIDS and die shortly thereafter. AIDS does not rule our lives. It has a place, it may even be a room in the house, but it is certainly not the roof, nor the paint on the walls. Structuring time together was our first step, and committing to planning was another, which I think helps us deal with our anxiety about the future.

B: Being in a “sero-discordant” couple, I don’t think of myself as opposites of things, but it’s another box or demarcation. Given my level of education, I’m in a safe job in the sense that as a New York City school teacher, it’s low-stress and it’s something I enjoy. But the major reason that I’m there is the security that the benefits bring, mostly because the teachers’ union is strong. I wasn’t concerned when I was IBM. Or when I was in law school, or before I was diagnosed as HIV-positive, I was concerned with finding the security that a government job could offer. The bizarre thing is that when we became domestic partners in 1994, all the health and life insurance benefits started coming through my job, which recognizes same-sex couples, but people would say that I’m the most “fragile.”

J: Because the HIV-negative person is the one who’s supposed to bring home the benefits-bacon?

B: Right. So the roles would play themselves out in the relationship, and ultimately I would be rendered unable to work. That is, if you believe the whole “hysteria” about how the progression of HIV disease eventually ends in a crisis-filled, downward spiral toward death.

J: What motivates me is not security at all. The full-time jobs I’ve had were not about security, but more to feel like I was doing something meaningful. What is interesting in retrospect is that, when I was old enough, I found myself landing mostly service-oriented jobs of the type I had known my parents and/or my older siblings to take. Like my first paid job was as a clerk/typist with a temp agency. When I was seven, my oldest sister had done temp work after high school; during one visit home, she and her co-worker at the same time taught me to type. Other jobs were in and around restaurants — dishwasher, busser, salad-maker, bartender, host, waiter, valet — all of which my father, brother, and sisters had done. I volunteered as a buddy to a Person Living with AIDS with the knowledge that my mother frequently took care of older white women who were disabled, homebound, or abandoned by their families. Pursuing other “service-sector” jobs, I drove a college campus shuttle and registered with a couple of escort agencies. In fact, when I became a teacher, I felt a profound inadequacy, in part because there were no role models within my immediate family. But in any case, the motivation was not to save money to either buy a house or have for some “rainy day.” I didn’t grow up in a culture of saving. I now know my parents were committed to saving, but they never talked about it.

I remember poor and working-class Third World students I went to college with, who were clear about becoming doctors and other professionals because that was one way out of whatever situation they came from. But one of the things that made me not follow my classmates was coming out as a gay person. Coming out meant such a radical departure from so many expectations–so necessarily becoming a professional was one more that I threw into the trash. On some level, my mother doesn’t understand why I’m not a doctor or a lawyer or otherwise capitalizing on what she perceives as “Brown University degree as ticket somewhere.” And I think one struggle in our relationship is how much security should be a priority for me vis-à-vis you. I think up to now, I’m not preparing for your impending “downward spiral.”

B: For me, not pursuing careers in law or with IBM has a lot to with the expectation that somehow I would be connected to some sort of family unit. Security was less of an issue then, before I left IBM. I had saved, I had already built credit and was looking for the class/access/security issue of station and status, versus the kind of security I’m talking about now. I had a house already, but an investment-property house versus a house I wanted to live in. So I started to re-evaluate what kind of life I wanted to live.

The thing that’s interesting to me is exactly abandoning the expectation of a nuclear family in the sense of “well, there’s no generation I have to look out for, so I can do stuff to feel self-fulfilled.” HIV stepped up my making personal fulfillment a priority. I am not sick or dying; I remain asymptomatic at thirty-seven. What changes do I need to make to get me to sixty, seventy, or eighty?

J: In fact, that’s what I meant by “abandonment.” Coming out as gay (even if it was a certain narrow, white, middle-class definition of “gay”) let me off the hook to a certain degree so that I didn’t have to do what my classmates did. Whatever HIV has done in my life and in the lives of people around me or through my job, it’s also stepped up my schooling in the importance of planning. In particular for us. Growing up, planning was not an issue. I think my parents relied on “God will provide” or “the Army will provide.” They turned over a lot of needs that people would plan for being taken care of. I think what’s difficult as a couple is trying to plan our future together, to make self-fulfillment a priority in our personal and professional lives, and those are big choices (especially in a gay male culture that emphasizes being young and vilifies getting older, and where premature death is so commonplace). And I can think of people in our lives who are more concerned about making money, in particular, gaining status, particularly gay people/professionals. I see a lot of people overcompensating for being gay by seeking status, even if it’s not the status you get for being heterosexual and family-raising.

B: There’s also 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. That automatically sets you up for failure. Somebody always has a little bit more, someone else is a little bit taller. Ranking is dangerous. Some kind of status that you fall short of makes you self-hating, self-destroying. What’s the value that society places on you versus the value you put on yourself? What gives you status, or class, or station? Sometimes it’s not education, or financial worth, or where you work, or how much you make, but rather it’s about how you life your life.

J: Like our ceremony, the fact that it was such a public ritual. The ceremony was a series of decisions that we made according to measures that were important to us, according to our own standards. Exchanging beads instead of rings, planning logistics, inviting who we wanted to witness. People came from as far away as L.A. and the U.K. Five generations from your family and four generations from mine were in attendance. Like they say, it takes a village to raise a child and to sustain a relationship, no? That’s the kind of validation that we’re seeking.

B: So why do you choose to be in a relationship? Do you think that being in a relationship has anything to do with class or mobility?

J: Not to sound cynical, but I think that people are in relationships for themselves. You and I are both on our individual paths, doing what we need to do to feel self-fulfilled, and it’s great that we can go down these paths while keeping each other company. Also, couples are far more validated than individuals. But it’s healthy when we don’t lose our identities. And we’re each pretty independent, strong, survivor-types, but the challenge is, how do we create something new that goes beyond our individuality and integrates our values and who we are.

When we talk about our values, we reveal tons of information about how we feel about class. And values are things that matter, that we’re passionate about, that we would die for–what’s qualitatively important enough to keep us together. It’s not just about co-existing; the plan is one thing we create together. Our joint plan is like a child and it’s totally informed by our perspectives, our experiences, our values on class and other things, which come to the surface in the process. Our joint plan becomes the embodiment of our joint values; it’s like we’re developing common ground rules, values, culture. Not to say we’re becoming one person. At the point we’re at in our relationship, it’s a challenge to find what that “spiritual child” is.

B: The critical question is: what does a child represent? What’s our third thing? Sometimes it’s community activism; our relation to our families of origin; how we make our loft a home. How does this stuff play itself out day to day? Exactly how does our home look? What kind of feeling do we want to have when we’re inside?

J: My ideal is to be able to live in a space where I share the chores — the washing, the cooking, the cleaning. It feels more like everyone pulls their own weight. That roles are not so rigid. So many gay people I know hire maids to clean the house — and I’m not sure why that’d bother me if we did. Maybe because my mother cleaned and cared for other people, my father cooked for other people. I know we’re busy people…

B: … this notion of always being busy — but busy doing what? How do you prioritize a commitment to what goes on outside with what goes on inside our home? If part of the motivation for hiring cleaning people is that “somebody’s gotta do it so we can have time to be activists in the community,” we need to talk about that. I mean, let’s break it down: who did the cleaning in the house growing up and what is our relationship to chores, and what do we think about chores? What’s interesting for me is that my mother cleaned the house, until my father left. And when my father left and we were pretty much in our teenage years, we all got assigned specific chores. What’s also interesting is that while I want a clean house, I don’t want a clean house just to showcase to guests.

J: I sort of agree and disagree. I do want us and other people to feel warm, temperature-warm, and cozy. I don’t want a space that’s cluttered and prone to dust, but full of things, whether they’re gifts or mementos of places we’ve been. Not to showcase, but to display things that have spiritual value to us. We should have a place where guests can sleep–you know, to the extent that hospitality is currency, because I certainly have relied on and been extremely grateful for people’s floors and extra beds when I’ve needed them.

B: I also want to eat at home with you, my partner, and figure out how to make time for that. It’s a very funny thing. My mother’s a horrific cook, but some of the most fun and bonding I’ve had with my family has been in the kitchen. I remember that no matter what we were doing, we all had to be around the table at 6 p.m. No excuses.

J: Well for me, even though my father did all the cooking and my mother did all the cleaning (except in the kitchen), meals weren’t a family thing. We rarely ate together. I think I learned the importance of meals from experiences that happened after I left home. Like when I lived in co-ops, and when I studied in Italy and saw how much value was placed on eating-as-ritual and sharing during meals, and I definitely want that with you.

B: We did pretty well with the McDougal Plan. For two months we planned, shopped, cooked, and cleaned up after three meals a day–low-fat, no-meat, no-dairy, high-carbo meals.

J: That was challenging, but fun. I know I was sleeping better, dreaming better, shitting better, and people at work said I seemed less stressed out! I appreciated the planning aspect the most and the fact that it structured time for us together.

B: Just like we’re trying to do with financial planning, doing our wills and powers of attorney, naming beneficiaries, and everything that goes along with that negotiation. We’re also doing the same sort of process with each of our mothers…

J: … which ultimately is about our own planning and our peace of mind as well as, hopefully, for theirs …

B: And having to commit things to paper, we’re getting clearer on what’s important and what we need to put in place in order to entertain all of the possibilities.

J: It makes a difference, too, to do this with you in conversation. Trying to get in touch with my views and feelings on class by myself was kicking up some of my negative history with school, like the pressure of having the write the perfect paper. Then there’s the expectation of our collaboration of saying something super-significant together. But documenting our conflicts and differences of opinion definitely feels more real-world.

© B.Michael Hunter + John Manzon-Santos 1995

Published in Queerly Classed: Gay Men & Lesbians Write About Class, Ed. Susan Raffo, 1997

Leaving IBM

I remember waking up and thinking, “Today is yet another day to go to work.” I wondered, “Is that all life’s about? Working? Trying to make another dollar?”

I remember putting on my shirt and then trying to find a suit to complete my costume. Every outfit, the same, every suit dark, all conservative, all corporate. I had become corporate: dollars flowing everywhere, sitting in rooms full of people, unaware, unconcerned about poverty or me or those like me, wearing masks to hide feelings, politics, sexuality, pedigree.

Did I have pedigree?

I remember saying to myself, “Being professional, being thought of as a professional, has lost its glamor, its attractiveness, its meaning.”

I know now that on that day, I realized my meaning, my purpose, was not about that, and I decided that day to quit, pitch and toss it all for a future which defined who I was more eloquently than a mask, with more fluidity than short hair or silk ties, ever could.

© B.Michael Hunter 1995

Curator’s Note: This transition was one of the defining moments in B.Michael’s life. It was, as he shared with those closest in, a leap of faith.