02/09/2012 05:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Black LGBTQ Stories: To Face HIV/AIDS, A Community Is Brought Together (VIDEO)

I'm From Driftwood is a 501(c)(3) non-profit forum for true lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) stories. The first full week in February, to commemorate Black History Month, every story will be from a member of the black LGBTQ community. These stories will reinforce the fact that there are black people in the LGBTQ people, and that there are also LGBTQ people in the black community.

Tyrone Smith was originally from Kinston, N.C. but has lived in Philadelphia for most of his adult life.

I am an openly affirming African-American gay man who happens to be 70 years old in the year 2012. Ain't that fierce?

The story he chose to tell was linked to the history of black gay men in Philadelphia. He was part of a movement, Unity Incorporated, which was the first group to deal with AIDS and HIV for black gay men in Philadelphia. Most of the men he references have long since passed, but their contributions have led to the creation of the Black Gay Men's Leadership Council.

People [are] in these rooms, where differences are being made, openly affirming their gayness; prior to this epidemic, that was not happening. So if I think that there is anything good that has come about, is the fact that we were able to come together, organize, and move forward to where we are now.

Tyrone proceeds to tell the story of Kenny, a bartender that used to work in Philadelphia. Whenever Tyrone got off from work, he'd come to this specific bar, and the two quickly became friends.

The differences in our age -- at that time, I was in my late 40s, and of course he was much younger--but I've always tried to have a relationship with younger people in a productive way. So when Kenny became ill, he called me and let me know that this was what was going on with him.

Kenny called Tyrone and requested for him to come down to the hospital where he was, and to bring a cheesesteak.

I went and got it for him, never knowing that from the time I left my house to get to him, he would have gotten a diagnosis of being -- at that time, it wasn't HIV-positive -- he had AIDS. And in those days, young people got AIDS and they died. I'll never forget the fact that he didn't want to be alone, and I figured for me to say, "OK, Kenny, don't worry about that, I'll be there for you..." But the thing is, I thank God I was able to be there for him and his family.

The first fundraiser that the black gay community did as a collective was for Kenny. They didn't have money, but they did it on food stamps. At that time, it took a long time before people got on to SSDI, which is now disability.

At this point in our conversation, Tyrone brought out a picture with lots of sentimental value for him: a picture of him holding Kenny during a candlelight vigil.

This was the night that Rashidah Hassan, the woman who started Bebashi, which is one of the first AIDS organizations for African Americans across the board... Wishida, a Muslim woman, started this organization that evening. It gave her the strength and courage to do it, because we had been dealing with organizations, at that time, which were basically white, gay men in center city, and we had been working with them because they had a task force that was dealing with the issue of AIDS and HIV. By this time, we started to realize that AIDS was not just a white gay men's disease: it was a peoples' disease, and it was affecting our community.

From that, the black gay community was able to put systems in place that accommodated them more, including Bebashi. The following morning, after the vigil, the particular picture that Tyrone displays was on the cover of the Philadelphia Daily News.

For me, remembering and looking back over that... it's very moving for me. This young man transformed my life, and I mean that in a very positive way. I was never really an "activist" -- I was a flaming sissy, but I wasn't an activist. Issues, unless they affected me, I didn't give a damn. But because of me interacting with him, and seeing the struggles in others, has made me the activist that I am today. So I'm very grateful for that interaction.


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