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Interview

Making Black Gay Lives Matter: A Conversation With Darryl Stephens on the Impact of Joseph Beam (and Noah's Arc)

December 11, 2017

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Joseph Beam

Joseph Beam (Credit: Philadelphia Gay News)

Nearly 30 years after his death from AIDS, black gay writer and activist Joseph Beam is inspiring a new generation of black gay men. In fact, a new organization, Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), used his name as inspiration. On Dec. 14, BEAM is hosting an event in Los Angeles honoring his birthday with a public reading and discussion of his work. Actor Darryl Stephens, best known for playing the lead role in Logo TV's landmark series, Noah's Arc, will be among them. TheBody.com's senior editor Kenyon Farrow spoke to Stephens about how they both discovered Beam, as well as the importance of making black gay lives matter.

Kenyon Farrow: Tell me about your relationship to Joseph Beam's work and why it is important to you to participate in the upcoming event.

Darryl Stephens: Well, quite honestly, Yolo Akili really brought him into focus for me. I was aware of Joseph Beam years ago. I went to school in Berkeley in the early '90s. And I would say that there was still a very present and significant, I would call it, poet-warrior presence in Berkeley, probably largely rooted in Oakland, but a lot of queer people of color doing poetry.

Joseph Beam came up at that point. But when Yolo started talking to me about this, and I did some research, I became fascinated by what, in many ways, I had really taken for granted. I came up at a point when the conversations were probably already happening. This was in the Bay Area in the early '90s, so we were already talking about prevention at that point, and detection, as opposed to the mid-'80s when it was all about "what the fuck is happening?" And "how are we going to -- ?" "Who is going to save us?" And "what is the government doing?"


Related: Untying Tongues: A Conversation With Darryl Stephens on Joseph Beam, Black Gay Men, and Ending HIV Stigma

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We had already sort of mobilized -- we, meaning, they, because I was a child. But folks had mobilized around prevention and detection. And so, there was already this conversation about queer people of color happening that I sort of assumed had always been happening.

So, I kind of took for granted that they were always there and didn't really know -- didn't have a historical context for when they had started and who had been instrumental in bringing them to the fore.

So then, Yolo approached me a few weeks ago and mentioned Joseph Beam. I said, "Yeah, I'm familiar with him. I remember Joseph Beam." But I hadn't really done enough research, in terms of recognizing his role in curating all of this gay black literature. So, I'm learning with the people who are coming to the show, really.

KF: Yeah. It's funny. The way I came to Joseph Beam's work -- I'm from Cleveland, born and raised. When I was in high school -- I think you and I are the same age, same year, in fact. So, like, early '90s, like, '91-'92, I think my junior/senior year in high school, I went to the library, Cleveland Heights Public Library, to get some books out on Zora Neale Hurston for a thing I was doing for my African-American history class.

I'm in the aisle of black people's books at this library, and I saw the title In the Life. And I knew what that meant, even then. And it was kind of like buying condoms out of CVS for the first time.

DS: Yeah. For sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.

KF: I was like looking around, like, "Oh, I want to get this book." So, you know, [I] pulled it off. And then right next to it was Brother to Brother. That was already out at the time, too. And then I got the Zora Neale Hurston books I wanted and then, like, got the nerve to go up to the counter. And I had In the Life and Brother to Brother stacked under the Zora Neale Hurston books.

Darryl Stephens

Darryl Stephens (Credit: Logan Alexander)

DS: Oh, my God. That's like when kids buy porn in the store, at like 7-Eleven, and they put comic books on top of it.

KF: It was exactly like that. And then I went home, and I put those two books in between my bed, the mattress.

DS: Yes. Wow. You are talking much earlier than I did. I would say I was not really exposed to it at all until I got to college. You jumped in at the end of high school.

KF: Yeah. I guess, thank your local public library. Because it was really that kind of random. I had actually seen Tongues Untied, but I didn't make the connection. But that's a whole 'nother story, how I saw Tongues Untied at, like, 14 years old.

DS: How did you see Tongues Untied in high school? Why was I so sheltered in my upbringing?

KF: Well, OK. Some of it has to do with my mom. My mom, first of all, was very politically active. So, we always had to watch every PBS documentary -- you know, all of them, Eyes on the Prize, all 100 hours of it, and everything else.

DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We watched that. We watched that. But nothing touching on anything gay.

KF: Yeah. So, Tongues Untied, when it premiered -- I want to say on PBS in '89/'90 when I was like 14/15 -- I think two reasons [led to my seeing it]. One is, my mother had a bunch of gay friends and lesbian friends, or whatever. And pretty much, in my extended family, queer folks were around, and there was no secret as to the fact that they were queer and whatever. So, I kind of grew up around a bunch of queer folks. So, there was that. Two: My mother, she knew I was one of the children. And so, I think she also, on the sly, was like, "Let me get some resources for this honey over here, sitting, perched, watching All My Children all day."

DS: I mean, you recognize, obviously, now how powerful and how valuable that is, right?

KF: Yeah. I do recognize, totally, how powerful it was. So, I think the other reason: One of my mother's best friends, my uncle Roger, growing up -- actually, he had died tragically a few years before. Literally was found dead by his brother (who was also like an extended family member of ours) on Easter Sunday, shot dead in his apartment five times. Same story we hear about black gay men and trans women all the time: no signs of forced entry, etc., etc. Right? And so, I think my mother was still, in hindsight, kind of also just grappling with his death. And also, just being this political person, responding to the big political storm Tongues Untied had created. She was like, "We're going to watch this."

So, we watched it. I say all that to say Joseph Beam's work is in Tongues Untied, but I didn't know it at the time, so then two or three years later, when I was older in high school, then I came across the actual writing, through trying to sneak in. Which also sounds ridiculous, to tell you that my mother sat us down, and we watched Tongues Untied -- me and my two sisters and my mom -- but I'm still trying to sneak.

DS: And then, you're sneaking the literature.

KF: And also trying to sneak the literature. Like, what did I think I was doing? Anyway.

DS: That's funny.

KF: This book that came out a few years ago, Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam's Call, one of the things I learned [was] from one of the editors, Charles Stephens, who said in an interview that Joseph Beam said to Essex Hemphill in a letter, right when In the Life was about to come out, that he felt like he was sort of idolized in the community for his work but didn't feel like people really dealt with him as a person.

And so, I'm just curious for you to talk a little bit about your experience in that respect. You were one of the few people, around 2005 when Noah's Arc first premiered on Logo, [who] I think really helped make actual black gay men visible -- we actually aren't just on the DL and we actually have lives.... I'm just curious about how you've had to navigate that role, both being somebody that is sort of hyper-visible in the community, but then, how you negotiate people also recognizing you as a multifaceted person.

DS: I would say that, for the first few years, it was really challenging for me. I didn't necessarily anticipate the reaction that the show would get. I mean, you really can't, right? You don't know how people will receive it.

And we were also being very bold. Patrik [-Ian Polk], the creator, was being very bold, in terms of having the sort of hero be this soft-spoken, so-called sissy, essentially, right?

As you mentioned, at that point, 2005, DL culture was everything. If you were black and gay and not wearing saggy jeans and a fitted cap, you were not really on the radar.

KF: Tell me about it.

DS: Really? Right? It's like, like, we were invisible.

KF: Right.

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