This piece appeared in Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS Other Countries:1993. It first appeared in the March/April 1992 issue of B&G .
Silence = Death. I used to scoff at that statement. Called it clever sloganeering, sort of like, "Have a nice day." It didn't apply to me, or so I thought. I preferred the motto. "Ain't nobody's business if I do." It had gotten me this far.
Likewise, first-person narratives make me uncomfortable. why is this person's testimonial important? However, being the nosy somebody I am, I usually read them word for word.
Silence does = Death, but for most of us it's a sneaky death. It doesn't nuke you or mow you down with an Uzi; it quietly eats away at your insides, makes you doubt your self-worth, and exposes you to abusive situations. It's seductive; it feeds the martyr complex. You convince yourself that abuse makes you stronger, instead of tearing you down. You say, I'm not dying, I'm thriving. Look at my accomplishments. Silence is safe; speaking out, leads to confrontation--instant death. Slow and Inconspicuous is preferable.
My breaking point came slowly. I chose the closet-track: marriage, three kids, a pillar in the community. My pillar posture included joining Alpha Phi Alpha -- the nation's oldest African-American fraternity, which counts Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, and Bill Gray among its membership. Fraternity membership allowed me to fulfill my personal goal of service to the black community. I was the "somebody-ought-to-do-something" brother. I spearheaded the chapter's "Project Alpha," a male teen pregnancy program run in conjunction with the March of Dimes. I designed flyers and publicity pieces for chapter events, wrote releases, and organized mailings.
When it was our chapter's turn to host the Eastern Region Convention, I eagerly joined the convention committee. I handled conference publicity: designing stationery, laying out program brochures, editing the souvenir journal, and writing releases and bios. I produced a daily convention newsletter that highlighted activities and announced upcoming events. In addition, I stuck around to assist with the mundane work of stuffing packets and registering delegates. I genuinely enjoyed myself and felt good about my contribution.
At the convention's closing meeting, the Eastern Region Vice President asked me to stand. He began by saying that he was unable to thank me at the banquet the previous evening (I had a habit of avoiding the frat's bourgeois affairs). He thanked me for a job well done and told the group that I had added a touch of professionalism not seen at previous conventions.
His next order of business was to lambaste the hotel for not hiring additional black staff for the fraternity's functions. "Except for that sweet thing waiting on tables." He went on to say, "You know, what the General President refers to as on of those 'it brothers'."
I felt the heat behind my eyes as I fought back tears, my temples throbbed, my jaw tightened, my hands shook. I said nothing, silence. I felt robbed. At a time when I should have felt good about my accomplishments, I felt small and insignificant. At that moment, I felt closer to the "it brother" than I did to my fraternity brothers. I hurt, yet I said nothing, silence. I even remained for a short time following the meeting to exchange pleasantries.
I convinced myself that I would soon forget this one the way I had forgotten all the other insults. I tried to rationalize. It's his ignorance. The insulted party was not even in the room, so who's hurt? I tried to focus on the compliment and ignore the insult. this time it wasn't working. I wasn't buying any of my own excuses.
The more I tried to shrug it off, walk it off, swim it off, the angrier I became. I was angry with myself for remaining silent. Trying to forget the incident pulled past hurts into my consciousness:
I remembered the complaints that my teen pregnancy program had too much AIDS information. "What are you trying to do, scare them to death?" "These guys aren't into that!" "Parents will object to their sons bringing home gay literature." "What's a dental dam anyway?" I shrugged it off, remained silent, and told myself that if I had helped on kid avoid AIDS then it was a job well done.
I remembered the same Eastern Region Vice-President asking one of the other brothers if the director of a certain community agency was gay. I remember the laughter that accompanied the response, "I think so, but I don't know for sure, he's in the hospital now for a check-up (AIDS). We'll know soon, won't we?" From me still more silence.
I remembered yet another brother telling me to my face why a friend of mine was not accepted into the fraternity's pledge program. "That one brother was too sweet for the frat." From me, still silence.
I remembered comments regarding a brother from another chapter who offered to sing during a program. "He's got a great voice, but he's so sweet." Me, still silence.
I remembered the jokes during a convention planning committee meeting when the souvenir bag was selected. "Some brothers probably want a clutch bag, hah, hah, hah." More silence.
I remembered back to my pledge period, when the Dean of Pledges asked, "Which one of you guys is gay? I remembered the line president's response, "There are no faggots on my line, big brother!" I thought to my self, "It was the faggot who organized the study notes and saved your asses countless times." But silence.
The memories flooded my consciousness with painful clarity. I grew even angrier with myself. How could I have put up with such abuse for so long and remained silent? I kept telling myself it was no big deal. this like all of the others, will eventually fade.
When the Regional Vice-President asked me to locate an artist to render a copy of the fraternity shield for the dedication of the fraternity's new national headquarters in Baltimore during the National Convention, I once again swallowed my hurt, completed the task, and had the shield delivered to headquarters in time for the ceremony. By now, I was beginning to hate myself for continuing to cooperate in the face of past abuse. Silence=Death. I was slowly dying.
I avoided fraternity functions. My hurt and anger would not let me attend. I always had a convenient excuse: meeting times conflicted with one thing or another. During the picnic, I was conveniently out of town.
During the summer retreat, I took the kids to the museum. I scheduled job related activities during the National Convention, and missed the boat ride because of family obligations. I convinced myself that it was my schedule and not my hurt feeling, that kept me from attending fraternity functions.
Yet, the incident and pattern of abuse were never far from my mind. A call from the 1992 Eastern region convention Chairman reopened the wound. He asked If I were available for a joint meeting of the '91 and '92 committees. Why did I feel so angry? I didn't even know the brother. I felt myself get angry again, when another brother asked me about the location of the monthly chapter meeting. I responded, "I don't know." I meant, "I don't care!" Why anger? He'd never offended me.
At 4:30 a.m. the day of the monthly chapter meeting, I bolted awake. It was then that I knew what I had to do. I sat down at my computer and fired off a letter to the now former. Vice-president:
By now my absence from GTL (chapter) and Alpha activities has probably become conspicuous. I have decided to formalize it and become inactive. Your remarks at the closing meeting at the '91 Regional Convention are key in my decision.
During the meeting, you asked me to stand and praised me for a job well done during the convention; I thank you for that acknowledgment. In your next breath you made homophobic remarks about one of the black hotel workers. I can quote you to this day, but I'll refrain.
Now let me connect the pieces for you. I'm gay.
I sent a copy to the chapter president along with another letter resigning my position. when the letters dropped into the mailbox, I felt a strange sense of relief. I spent the rest of the weekend smiling to myself and laughing under my breath. On Monday I shared copies of the letters with a close friend--a white man. I told him that I had just "launched" myself our of one of the "most prestigious black organizations in the country." He told me, "You got them right between the eyes." He then asked, "When did you grow such large huevos ?"
By the end of the week, I had scheduled a "reality check" with my former therapist. He assured me that refusing to put up with abuse was a sign of strength. We spent the rest of the session laughing and catching up on each others' lives.
By the time the expected apology came, I had already made up my mind to forgive but not forget. I forced myself to short-circuit my usual response of coming back as if nothing had ever happened. I accepted the apology, but stuck with my decision to resign. the chapter president asked if I would at least come to the joint committee meeting and share my ideas. I declined.
The silence had been broken and I felt good. I've always lived by the adage: "One monkey don't stop no show," but this gay monkey had thrown a wrench into the workings of the Eastern Region of Alpha Phi Alpha.
The irony is that so much of the fraternity's work is done by gay men. Yet the silence is overwhelming. I thought back to the regional convention and my surprise at how often I was cruised. I thought back to the flirtatious former chapter president, who in death was eulogized by those who never really knew him in life. I thought back to all of the carefully worded obituaries in the back of the national magazine, which to the trained eye read AIDS death. sadly one of those obituaries was for the national magazines' editor-in-chief. I thought back to stories of a National Convention, where a resolution was placed on the floor to remove "homosexual" from the fraternity. Rumor has it that the motion was table, given to a gay man for further study and somehow disappeared. Silence was once again the strategy; a strategy I can no longer tolerate.
I wondered how often the silent strategy was used by productive members of the fraternity, who have simply vanished and no longer make valuable contributions to the organization and the community.
I'm still available to work for the good of the fraternity, but no longer as a silent partner in the process of my own abuts. My talents come with new terms. They know where I am. Negotiations can begin at any time.