The gay students at Morehouse College today have never heard of Keiron Williams. How would they? History is inherently political. A battleground where the winners get to tell the story. And like most subversive histories, much of it has been buried, lost, distorted, or forgotten. Even my own memories have become softer and less vivid. The level of detail that once animated and fueled my memories has flattened considerably. But, the necessity of remembering is worth the effort.
Keiron rocked that campus before many of them were born. An English major from Detroit, a graduate of Renaissance High School, he would not let you forget it. He would sometimes joke that he came to Morehouse at 17, with knee socks and pigtails. He was my friend and mentor. I saw his battle scars up close.
I met him before I attended Morehouse, when I was still in high school. I attended a summer program that was staffed by Morehouse students. I met Reggie who took me under his wing. I could tell even then, or suspected, he was gay. I came out to him as we bonded. It freaked him out a bit, I was 15, but he decided not to flee. He taught me as much as he knew about being gay, and through him one afternoon at his apartment, I met Keiron. He did not have dreadlocks when I first met him, he grew his hair out later on, but I always remember him with dreadlocks for some reason. He also had these very full lips that carefully shaped each word as he spoke them. We did not take initially. But I bookmarked him in my memory. Years later when I came to Morehouse, once our paths crossed again, we became friends.
His major feat as a student, was that he started a gay group at Morehouse College called Morehouse Adodi. This was toward the early and mid-1990s, before I was a student. If one finds it difficult to be gay at an HBCU now, and an activist to boot, back then it was insane. He convened programming on the campus and became identified for his work. He was heroic without the benefits, social capital, and privileges of being a hero. He did it because he thought it was necessary. He was not a cookie-cutter activist. He was flawed. His school work suffered.
He was not very successful at mobilizing the queer students on campus either. Many of them rolled their eyes at him. Sucked their teeth. They threw him shade. Read him behind his back, the spineless bastards dared not say it to his face. I know because sometimes they tried to do it in front of me, especially if they didn't know I knew him. So whenever other gay students would insult Keiron, criticize him in front of me, for some reason the straight students never did, they would be corrected, quickly. Keiron did not suffer fools, and neither did I.
Keiron was more a leader of ideas and a particular kind of worldview. Rocking the boat does not always make you the most popular. Unfortunately, too often, in oppressed groups we sometimes prefer our leaders to resemble the ruling class. That was not Keiron.
"Queer Morehouse," is imagined as a homophobic campus with courageous gay students. This is one truth. What is less talked about, are the complicit gay students that also create a hostile climate for their brothers. And certainly the silent and impotent closeted faculty. Not all of them, but many of them. This is another truth. Fear sometimes makes you do horrible things.
So I would be lying if I said it was the heterosexual students that gave Keiron the most hell. I recall him being equally devastated by the complicity of the gay students. At best many of them ignored him, at worst they were hostile. Even then he possessed an ambivalence around fighting for others that could give a damn about him. I think we all saw ourselves as martyrs for the cause back then.
My favorite Keiron story, and there are many, was when he was attempting to have Morehouse Adodi officially charted. He was asked, in an attempt to ridicule his efforts, if there was a gay student group at Morehouse, what would their Homecoming float look like. I imagine there were quite a few giggles all around, as such remarks are expressed to cause laughter. Keiron, without missing a beat, and not one to be made the object of someone's misguided attempt at humor, replied "I don't know a single Morehouse College Homecoming not produced and directed by a gay man." Silence replaced giggles. A flash of heat swept the room, overcome with the white noise that Keiron unleashed with his response.
It was the gay community that ultimately made him end his career as an activist. I hate to admit it, but that's a large part of what happened to him. The lack of support, and the criticism ultimately became overwhelming. He was too feminine, too outspoken, too assertive, too opinionated. He wasn't cute in the way that we like young men to be cute. He was a queen and dared name himself as such. Before there was a discourse around the "homonormative," Keiron made it his job to disrupt it. He made the gays as uncomfortable as the straights. The penalty was often rejection. To be invisible among your own creates a special kind of suffering.
Keiron died about 10 years ago, a few weeks after his birthday. He had gone back home to Detroit, the dying city. He was about 27 at this point, four years younger than I am now. He died of AIDS. By then, he felt in many ways that the gay community turned their back on him.
When I meet the brilliant and courageous gay campus activists at Morehouse now, I'm certain I annoy them. I do it on purpose. With the zeal of a missionary and the honesty of a madman, I ask, "Have you heard of Keiron Williams?" and then "Let me tell you about him, he made what you do now possible."
Follow Charles Stephens on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@CharlesStephen