Sheilah Mabry: He was the first family member who said he loved me because I was “fresh” — thought I was grown at six. When I was seven, he showed me how to toss eggs into convertibles from the 15th floor of the Wilson projects. At eight, he taught me how to cheat at Monopoly, slipping $100 and $500 bills under my robe when he was the banker so that I could beat his brother David. He used to braid my hair — both plaits and cornrows — since I could remember. My cousin Bertram (who the family calls Michael) was always accessible to me for the things that most concerned my life: school, family, romance. I can’t quite explain it, but it seemed we were bound from youth by both love and our future selves — by what made us “different” from others.
B.Michael Hunter: It was easy to say I loved her: my mother’s namesake, my cousin Sheilah — Little Sheilah. Besides myself, she was the only other person who questioned my father, our great aunt — authority. I cannot recall the first time I saw her. (There are pictures we are both in when she was one and I was four.) But I can recall the incidents which bonded our lifelong friendship.
One day my mother took us to visit her sister — Sheilah’s mother. It was an early Saturday morning and neither she nor my other cousins were up. When Sheilah did awaken, she realized she had wet the bed. To my knowledge, at the time, there were no other bedwetters except myself in the family. For a child, it’s the type of thing that friendships are made of. The clincher for me was when she came to visit us and stayed the night — bedwetters were not allowed to spend the night. She told my father,
B: She did not eat tuna fish — with or without mayonnaise in it. “So you don’t want it? Too damn bad. Eat it!” he boomed. Once raised above his speaking tone, my father’s voice would intimidate any normal adult. Most children would obey him, or cry, as soon as he gave an order.
S: “No, you fucking bastard!”
B: … squeaked Sheilah, as she raced to hide under the cast-iron bed, three rooms away from the kitchen. How she survived this is another story, but it’s safe to say that it helped to be someone else’s child — and female.
I had always figured out ways to get around him, which set me apart from both my older brother and sister and my younger brother. I often wonder if this is a third child’s trait. Sheilah, too, is the third child in her family. But I was never as direct as Sheilah. We were both different, and our difference made us natural allies.
S: Each of the two girlfriends Michael had his first three years of college he brought home to the city to meet his family. Pulling me to the side, it was always important to him that I liked her and that she liked his favorite cousin, Sheilah. But starting his senior year of college, and throughout his entire term of law school, whenever he came home to visit and I would ask where he was going, he would always say,
S: I remember clearly asking Michael when i was fourteen and he was seventeen if he was Gay. I reminded him of this recently, and he was clear that he remembers the question being “Are you a faggot?” To which his reply was “No.” So, having gotten what was a comfortable response for me at the time, I blocked my curiosity about Michael’s sexuality out of my mind, and threw myself quite rapidly — prematurely I might add — into heterosexuality.
B: From when she was ten until she was twenty-three, Sheilah and I saw each other two or three times a year, which was always enough time for us to pick up where we left off. She could always tell a story and would give torrid details of any facet of her life. It seemed her life was infinitely more dramatic than mine. She lived to shock you, so when in one of her moments she asked me at seventeen if I was a faggot, I quite calmly answered no. Had she asked me about my dreams, I would have given a different answer.
It’s incidents like these that allow me to say she was one of the many people who knew me before I knew myself. But, not trusting myself, I didn’t include her in as many aspects of my life as I had done in the past. She, too, would receive the standard answer to where I was going — “Out.”
Had I suspected that much of my behavior was overcompensation for my own guilt as a Black man about possibly being Gay, I might have been a little more honest — at least with Sheilah. When her mother died, she had tried to be mother to her siblings — older and younger. She had spent all her energy, even her reserves, trying to be a woman — something no child, without the proper stimulus, can be. It is painful to realize that for us inner-city kids, childhood is a luxury you might enjoy if your mamma is living, but one you will surely miss if she ain’t there and you’re facing your fourteenth birthday. Sheilah had worked seriously since she was fourteen, so I did not foresee any economic problems with her living with me.
I knew she was tired and suggested that she move from New York City, away from everyone else’s problems, to Boston to live with me. Those who have lived in Boston know you don’t suggest someone move there unless it’s really necessary or they are going to college. For Sheilah, it was both.
S: I remember telling Michael about a year before he asked me to move to Boston that I was tired of men and was going to find me a woman. The way I said it, however, it might seem to an outsider that my disenchantment with men was what sparked my interest in women. My interest in women — in girls for that matter, when I consider how early I noticed them sexually — predated this. And the feeling of disenchantment, I now know, was a result of unhealthy relationships in general, and not heterosexual relationships per se. I remember Michael saying that was not the way or the reason to explore. I don’t recall his saying, however, what were the good reasons. We just laughed it off.
One day as we were walking outside the Museum of Science, while he was telling me a story about a former roommate, he said something like, “He said he loved me” (which I could have quite comfortably interpreted as: This guy came on to Michael, who isn’t Gay — because I asked him when he was seventeen and he said no). Instead — and I did not share this with him — the next two weeks of my life were traumatic. It was painful for me to realize that Michael was Gay and had been for some time — not so much because of his earlier denial, but because I wasn’t comfortable yet with my own sexuality and hadn’t fully dealt with that.
B: As I said, her move benefitted us both. Until she actually moved, I hadn’t dealt with how I was going to be a “fag.” She had been in Boston two weeks, and I still was going “out.” I didn’t come right out and say I was Gay, but I alluded to it so that she would know. Leaving no stone unturned, she asked me again. This time I said yes.
S: I went to my first Gay bar, the Haymarket, with Michael. He met me at my first women’s bar — Campus — for moral support. I met my first woman lover at a party I attended with Michael — a relationship which, incidentally, made me realize that unhealthy relationships could be found in all communities.
B: I told her that I always thought she was a dyke. (I was not politically correct then.) She helped me believe in and respect bisexuality. We talked about the pressure from the Lesbian and Gay community to make a “more definite” choice than bisexuality. And about the invisibility she felt in both homosexual and heterosexual communities. We felt that, after all, at least as Lesbians, Gays and Bisexual women and men, we could try to liberate ourselves from these rigid sexual definitions.
S: I don’t by any means want it to seem that my relationship with my cousin has been all collards and candied yams. There was a period within that first year I lived in Boston that we did not get along.
B: She talks about the period when we hated each other. (It really was the period she hated me.)
S: Michael and I had sat down and made a semester by semester plan for my next year and a half in school. I was sure I could not handle an accelerated courseload and told him this, but he insisted I could. At the end of the second semester, I found myself drowning, but didn’t seek out the necessary help. Quite frankly, I lied about getting the work done. When Michael asked how I was doing, I told him I was doing terribly. Flippantly, he suggested I needed counseling. I screamed a lot of hateful words …
B: … bringing up all the family dirt, she told me ten different ways that I was sick for being, among other things, Gay.
S: And I called him a faggot — because I wanted to hurt him.
B: The bitch was feelin’ it! I had known Sheilah to go off on other people, but never — never — never on me. She is painfully honest. I felt like shattered glass. The truth, no matter what package it comes in, is truth. I had become the perfect son/cousin/brother/employee/citizen/invisible respectable homosexual — all things good: to compensate for my own guilt. I had given her much, had in my own sexist way made her my child. And no grown woman, standing on the verge of her own self, needs a daddy. Even if he’s Gay.
S: Looking back at the period and being more aware of myself today, there was probably a great deal of self-hatred going on that I had not yet gotten in touch with.
The event that salvaged our year and a half together in Boston was Michael’s decision to get a roommate. I had become an economic and emotional strain on him and he told me that I would have to give up my room and share his. Part of his rationalization for his decision was a transfer to New York he had put in for at his job.
It was the first time he had mentioned the transfer to me.
The roommate’s attempt to divide-and-conquer brought us closer together — in an effort to reclaim what sanctity we had had in the household. We were on better speaking terms and Michael was still preparing for his New York transfer. He would be leaving at the very end of December. I had gotten a copy of Joe Beam’s In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology for Christmas and told him to check it out. He said it was “fierce,” so I bought him his own copy. That was a turning point for him.
B: Not wanting to lose my ally and the only person I’d been honest with, I picked up the charred pieces of my ego and began to s-l-o-w-l-y let go. I began to let go of my controlling, closeted lifestyle. My sexist and homophobic attitudes. My guilt for not being there for my straight Black sisters. My exclusion of my family from my life. Letting go was a turning point in my development and our friendship, and it helped Sheilah to take control of her life.
S: Once he moved away, I had to deal with myself more and learned not to expect someone to take care of me. I can look back now and see his frustration with me. I had been living on my own for four and a half years before I moved in with him, yet once I arrived in Boston, a definite sense of helplessness came over me. It wasn’t something deliberate, but after years of taking care of others and myself, his invitation to me said someone was finally going to do this for me.
After a great deal of introspection and at the suggestion of a friend, I went to counseling and worked diligently on my life. I attended many readings in the Boston/Cambridge area, did the needed backtracking to fix up my college transcript, and dealt more constructively with family issues.
B: I was forced to reevaluate my self-imposed exile from New York. After five years away, I began to make arrangements for my return. Sheilah, as I knew she would, spread her wings and was in flight. It was up to her to find sanctuary. I had to excavate muted feelings about what I really wanted to be and find a way to make my reality happen. But it was Sheilah who introduced me to the work of Kate Rushin, Lorraine Bethel, and Audre Lorde, as well as Joseph Beam’s Black Gay anthology In the Life. I met many of my closest New York friends as a result of Joe Beam’s book.
S: Over the next year and a half I told Michael how aware I was becoming of the destructive patterns that had bound me and the necessary steps I was taking to rid myself of them. I remember the inscription on the birthday card he gave me that year: “I’m proud that you are taking the time to love yourself. Love, Michael.” I was proud that he had taken the time to acknowledge it.
B: I still get choked up thinking about the day Sheilah graduated from college, about the joy and pain we shared.
S: We have both set up boundaries in our lives so that we can better deal with ourselves …
B: I think about all the work we still have to do …
S: … not always rigid boundaries, but boundaries nonetheless.
B: … and as we continue to grow, I thank the Goddess for her blessings and for my cousin Sheilah …
B & S: … AND WE ARE LOVING OURSELVES BECAUSE OF IT.
© B.Michael Hunter & Sheilah Mabry 1989
Performed on 29 September 1989 at the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center as part of Other Countries’ A Page From A Black Child’s Diary.