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Charles Stephens

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When We Were the Needle, When We Were the Thread: Friendship, Revolution, and HIV

Posted: 09/25/2013 1:57 pm

This is what you will remember most: that you did not all survive. But you will also remember your friendships: Kevin, Lawrence, khalid, Tory, Rashard, Keon, Walter, and Keiron.

The phone call wakes you before morning. You are sound asleep when it rings. You pick it up thinking, "Wrong number," and after you hear the voice on the other end, you realize that it's much worse. You sense that things will be said that can never be taken back. You sense that information will be shared that will be not only life-altering but life-shattering. Your heart pounds in your ears, you swallow spit between breaths, and you receive the information grudgingly.

It was during one such phone call, received a little over 10 years go, that I was told that my friend Keiron had died. I was the one who got the call, so I was the one who had to call the others. Charleton, his then-partner, was the one who told me.

In the early 2000s we were a network, but we were also friends, running around Atlanta, being young black men, howling at the moon, not bothering to ask anyone for permission or affirmation. We were defiant and unruly, and it was fabulous.

Keiron, being our leader, paid the heaviest price for our transgressions. His sin was that he had the nerve to be young and black and queer, his very existence threatening the black homonormative and masculinist leadership culture of Atlanta at the time. Even then we preferred our leaders, young or old, to resemble our sexual fantasies and/or our oppressors, as many of us do now. Keiron dared to lead, absolutely dared to lead, and dared to be a sissy. For his crime he was banished into the wilderness by our elders, sentenced to loneliness, the ultimate price. They finally silenced him. His agency was dissolved, his will crushed.

And then he died. Like many of us do, he died alone in his house back in Detroit. I was told that he'd gone blind first. I was told that his family had abused him. Finally his heart had stopped beating. He died in exile.

But before that, before he died, when he still ran with us (and how we ran around Atlanta in those years, in Keiron's red Pontiac, blasting Rachelle Ferrell from his stereo, arm dangling out the window, snapping along), he veiled this loneliness masterfully. He constructed a mask and wore it so seamlessly that it wasn't until after he died that his pain became clear. He is the evidence that even in the midst of a support system, you can be isolated. None of us is immune. I still carry guilt and shame over our failure to save him. When he was banished I should have marched off with him. We all should have. Instead I stayed behind.

When I learned of Keiron's death, I made the round of calls, dutifully and with dread, to inform our friends. If you're lucky, you never become skilled at telling people that your mutual friend has died.

A few days later we were all assembled at Keiron's memorial service. In a circle we sat. The mood was somber. We recounted our memories. At least some did. I don't remember talking.

That evening, after the memorial service, we went to Kevin's apartment, because you went to Kevin's apartment after things like this. The mood was slightly lighter. Someone joked about who would inherit Keiron's impressive library of books. Someone else joked about who would inherit Keiron's impressive library of porn. We laughed and reminisced. We all laughed the laugh of young black men drunk with grief and frightened about what our own destinies held. Uncertainty stalked us mercilessly in those years. But in that moment, at Kevin's beautiful apartment in the West End, we, a coven of witches with no cauldron, laughed because it filled the space.

And then something quite amazing happened. khalid, in his deep khalid voice, said that we should start calling our group "Keiron's Room." We all agreed. We were in an unusually agreeable mood. We continued to share. It was good, "Keiron's Room."

The night went on until early morning. We were bonded not by tragedy but by determination. Someone read the Essex Hemphill poem "When My Brother Fell," because whenever a black gay man dies, that's the poem you read. We cherished each other because, in a sense, that was the ultimate act of defiance, and it felt, in many ways, as if we only had each other.

Years later we would grow apart, fall out, or go our separate ways. We would get tied up with men, or with jobs, or with addictions. But I often allow myself to go back to this memory to remind myself that as strong and as courageous and as revolutionary as we were, we were not, nor could we ever be, immune to the forces that conspired against us. I cannot romanticize those years, because I was there, in them. You fail each other, and you hurt each other.

As much as we were each other's armor, we were each other's mirrors, and we didn't always like what we saw. We reflected the best and the worst in each other. And yet, despite the war raging around us, for a moment in time, we had each other.

 

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