What was the last fairy tale you've read or watched? Were you able to see yourself in it? Could you see yourself being one of the characters or in situations they portrayed? Growing up, did TV shows like The Cosby Show, Full House, The Brady Bunch, and Fresh Prince of Bel Air give you visions of the family life you wanted one day?
If your answer is no, then you are probably dealing with the same emotions Aunsha Hall-Everett has been dealing with. Aunsha is a superman: In addition to being Senior Development Manager for Black AIDS Institute, he's co-owner, along with his husband Michael Everett, of the consulting firm Intimacy & Colour, and most importantly a father to their daughter, Jadenna Monae Elizabeth Everett. As with any fairytale Aunsha's life with his family is always full of excitement, mystery, and challenges.
Unfortunately in every fairytale there's a hitch, and for Aunsha and his family the problem is that there's no guidance for how to exist as a queer family. When there's an issue, or advice is needed for a family of two same gender loving black fathers raising a daughter, there's just not a lot of support to be found. Imagine yourself having to fulfill multiple roles and responsibilities on top of living in a society where you aren't the norm. Even before fears and prejudice become factors, the truth is, you aren't in a world quite designed for the life you desire to live. Aunsha and his husband Michael live this reality every day and they strive to create a blueprint, their own fairytale, to ensure they provide the best life they can for their daughter. They also give guidance to other same gender loving black, married, fathering men so that they can achieve their own happily ever afters.
It's only natural to wonder what brought Aunsha and Michael together to begin their magical journey. It all began at the HIV Prevention Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C in 2011. Introduced to each other by Michael's boss to explore capacity-building opportunities for New Jersey's HIV workforce, Aunsha and Michael's relationship flourished into a romantic connection where they became "baes." Aunsha, who's HIV-positive, is in a serodifferent relationship with Michael, who is HIV-negative. After two years of dating they decided to take their relationship to the next level, and in June of 2013, they exchanged their vows to one another in Puerto Rico. Since being married they've created Intimacy & Colour, a consulting business that uses African principles to promote physical and mental well-being for organizational wellness and to "build emotional communication tools among same gender loving men, whether it's for their relationships, for themselves and their self-esteem, or for their family," said Michael in a 2015 interview with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). "It's about giving people the emotional language to talk about how they feel and what they need."
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Aunsha and Michael noticed that there were no tools for same gender loving men to use for guidance in communication with one another. Not being able to convey what you truly feel can be really toxic to the foundation of any sort of relationship. Their goal was, and still is, to provide the necessary tools to individuals so that they might be able to build a foundation to be understood by their partner. Especially for those who were raised in the South, where there is an unspoken rule that expressing and conveying emotions and feelings is forbidden. This also goes for trauma in the black family, it's something that isn't to be shared, but instead kept hidden, particularly if it goes against religion, family, or social status. Internalizing these unspoken rules sets the playing field for a toxic relationship. Thinking about these barriers, it's no surprise that this is no setup for a happily ever after, especially in the black same gender loving male community, and both Aunsha and Michael were aware of this. To make their goal even more personal, Aunsha began to realize he was reacting to present life situations based on his past experiences growing up with his family, and was still not able to accept and learn from his past.
Aunsha and Michael believe that what helps people build family, whether in a romantic relationship, the workplace, or even with friends, is focusing on communication skills. "A lot of our work is trying to counter all of the shame and stigma surrounding HIV," Aunsha explained in the 2015 interview with HRC. "It's not just about HIV prevention. It's about talking about the situations in our daily lives. Conversations around HIV risk and acquisition can trigger deep feelings of shame, because many of us navigate the world already in fear of disappointing people. Having permission to discuss the wholeness of our lives -- meaning who we loved, how we loved, what made us feel pleasure, desired, and safe -- tells the most important part of our stories. When we can talk about the love in the life of the people we serve, then we can talk about HIV." Intimacy & Colour has brought together many people, created healthy communication practices, and ultimately, successful families.
A family isn't quite a family without a couple of things: a ring, a pet, a child, and of course sharing the bills. With Aunsha and Michael the journey didn't stop with their work. In July 2016, Aunsha and Michael welcomed two-month-old Jadenna Monae into their home. She was adopted through a kinship adoption -- her mom is Michael's first cousin.
"Having Jadenna Monae is a constant reminder of selfless and unconditional love, as it really does take a village to raise a child," says Aunsha in a blog post for Black AIDS Institute. Starting a family has broadened his worldview. "Being a dad has allowed me to begin forgiving my own childhood pain, as I have come to learn we all come into this world with good intentions, but with limited capacities. It's amazing to watch a young being grow, figure life out, and learn so much."
Michael and Jadenna inspire Aunsha to be a better person. "Now when I'm walking anywhere I make it a point to speak to people, greet them, or at least share a smile, because I would want other people to share that same courtesy to my family."
Constant improvement in any relationship is important and Aunsha and Michael know this. So, they've decided to start practicing meditation, which has rubbed off on their 18-month-old daughter. Aunsha explains that he and Michael needed to find a solution for Jadenna, because she would throw tantrums if she didn't get what she wanted, as many children do. Their solution was meditation. Now, when she attempts to throw a tantrum they encourage her to chant, and they do this simply by chanting with her as she's fired up. After months of showing Jadenna how to chant and calm down, Aunsha says Jadenna is even beginning to meditate on her own. Starting a family has created positive magic that's inspired Aunsha and Michael to push their boundaries and to keep an open mind to new experiences, perspectives, and possibilities.
Even though both Aunsha and Michael strive to be better for their family, unlike TV families, most of their problems can't be resolved in a 30-minute episode. While we might expect perfection from our family due to the pressures of society, life is not a fairytale, and Aunsha is not afraid to confront reality. We've all had moments where we listened to someone's argument, while planning to make a counterargument -- it's human. Aunsha has concerns about communicating effectively with his husband, and recognizes the power in actively listening for understanding, versus listening to respond defensively.
"Communication is hard because it doesn't feel good to express unfavorable emotions and then [receive] feedback you don't want to hear," says Aunsha. He longs for a community that he can run to for support and advice, a group of people who understand his challenges, but it's hard to find a same gender loving black, male married couple with a child who would understand or at least be able to empathize with Aunsha's concerns. He also recognizes that Michael needs his own outlet, but neither have that luxury of meeting other couples in their situation. Aunsha feels not having that social support is probably the biggest challenge in building a family. He and Michael can pull bits of advice from other people, but it's never from someone who has lived or is living their story.
Aunsha and Michael are not set on the idea of a "perfect family;" what keeps them moving forward is their commitment and respect for one another, and creating their own story their way. They understand that there will always be a challenge in making sure they are communicating effectively with one another, but they are up for the test. It won't always be easy, due to their busy traveling schedules, lack of social support from people like them, and being two fathers, which adds even more complexity. All of this demands more growth within their communication with one another.
Life's hurdles require more than just true love's kiss or the flick of a magic wand. After dating for two years, being married for four, and having their precious daughter for 18 months, Aunsha and Michael understand the value of commitment, investment, and social support. Yes, they expect difficult times within the family, but they understand ultimately it's about respecting the commitment made to each other. Aunsha explains that it's also about holding oneself accountable for their role in the relationship. He remembers when he tested positive for HIV seven years ago, and how he was quick to blame others, but after much reflection he had to hold himself accountable and reflect on his own actions to truly be at peace with himself. Aunsha started antiretroviral therapy within three months after his diagnosis and is undetectable, and now uses his life experience as a source of empowerment to help others.
Working on a family means having the willingness to learn more about yourself, understanding your past and your future, so that a healthy foundation can be built. In no way do Aunsha and Michael think their family is perfect, but they feel family is worth fighting for and staying committed to. No matter what boundaries society may set, they will continue to work and create their happily ever after, so that other people wanting to start a family of their own can be inspired to create their own happiness.
Jourdan Barnes is a community engagement specialist with the Louisiana Office of Public Health and STD/HIV Program.
For more information go to intimacyandcolour.com.__[Note from TheBody.com: This article was originally published by Positively Aware in Jan., 2018. We have cross-posted it with their permission.]