The idea for the groundbreaking support group Sons and Mothers came to Depressed Black Gay Men (DBGM) President and CEO Antoine Craigwell and a colleague a couple of years after Craigwell contemplated suicide for the second time.
The Guyanese journalist and filmmaker formed DBGM in 2014, a year after the release of his documentary, You Are Not Alone -- a compelling collection of interviews with more than 40 Black gay men from the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa about depression in the Black gay community -- and started Sons and Mothers shortly thereafter. Craigwell says he was inspired to help other men who were grappling with the same heartbreaking pain he had lived with for more than a decade, and in so doing, he also helped himself.
"In 1999 I thought about killing myself by jumping in front of the No. 1 train at Penn Station," admits the New York City-based activist. "I came close to killing myself again in September of 2012 because of the issues I was dealing with then, including struggling to get my documentary completed. I didn't have a plan as to how I was going to do it; I just knew I didn't want to be here anymore."
Craigwell says it wasn't until he began working with a therapist that he realized that the root of his debilitating depression was actually a chemical imbalance connected to, in part, a complicated relationship with his family.
"The relationship between a mother and son is one of the closest bonds in the human family," he explains, indicating that he formed the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Sons and Mothers with the men he'd profiled for his documentary in mind. "When a mother does not accept her son for who he is, he will then create an alternate identity to please her, and at some point who he really is will collide with this identity, creating a crisis," Craigwell continues. "Sometimes he seeks to deal with that crisis by choosing drugs, alcohol and promiscuity, which can lead to him contracting HIV. Sons and Mothers was created to allow young Black gay men whose mothers have not accepted who they are to come to a space and heal," he says. "It's also a place where we hope that eventually these men and their mothers can learn to accept each other."
A free support group open to any Black gay man, Sons and Mothers is part 1 of DBGM's ongoing "I Am Healing" series, which is facilitated by three licensed therapists. It is co-sponsored by national non-profit Gay Men of African Descent. Craigwell says that the plan is to seek further funding through grants in order to extend the program indefinitely and to launch it in cities around the country.
Shane Tull, a clinical psychotherapist who donates his services to the group, calls Craigwell's mission a critical one. He says that the work he and the two other therapists have been doing with the (so far) nine-member group is literally lifesaving. "If this was implemented 20 years ago, I'm sure we would have saved so many lives," says Tull, himself a Black gay man.
He says that he has not seen a group like Sons and Mothers in all of his 22 years as a therapist. "These are young Black men, many of them from the Caribbean, who are struggling with sexuality, depression and suicide as a result of rejection from their families." Tull says. "Research has shown that MSM who were accepted by their mothers at an early age tend to do much better psychologically, educationally and in interpersonal relationships, so it's very clear that that nurturing -- that acceptance you get from your mom -- really impacts how your life turns out. Period.
"The goal of Sons and Mothers is to help young men and their moms to, first of all, have a safe space to talk out their anxieties about homosexuality, about acceptance," Tull continues. "It's also to give moms some support. To let them know they are not alone -- that this is an issue that mothers all over the world likely struggle with. Not that dads aren't also important," he clarifies. "It's just that we literally come from our moms. To not be supported by them can feel like the body rejecting part of itself."
For Vaughn Constable, a 31-year-old art student, Sons and Mothers came right on time. The St. Lucia native says he has been struggling with how to tell his mother that he's gay, and he came to the group, in part, to figure out how. "My mom and I don't have the best relationship," he says. "I'm in this country by myself, and so I want to feel connected to her. Theoretically I know that the love is there, but in time I'm hoping that the documentary [Antoine did] and other bits of information about Black and gay lifestyles get out there and back to St. Lucia, and that she will understand that it is not wrong to be gay or not a sickness to be gay.
"It was not a choice to be gay," he concludes. "This is one of the stigmas that I continue to fight with, and [I hope] in time to come that we will be able to have the conversation one day."
Tomika Anderson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Essence, POZ, Real Health and Ebony magazines, among others.