Through Facebook, over a series of messages back and forth, his sister told me it was a "rare blood condition." He wasn't yet 30, about 26 at the time, and had been found in his apartment. Found. Unconscious. A mutual friend was the one that told me he was in the hospital.
He was living in Washington, D.C., by this point. I reached out to his sister on Facebook to find out what was going on, and she told me it was a "rare blood condition." She didn't say much more about his condition. I didn't ask.
Charles and I met when he was a senior in high school and I was a sophomore at Morehouse College. He started attending a young black gay men's discussion group that I facilitated at the time. This was around 2000. He was ambitious, articulate, thoughtful, but very introverted. We hit it off immediately.
In the course of our hanging out, I would find out that he had a very religious family. I never asked what it was like, to grapple with his sexuality in the context of a religious family. I figured it must have been difficult for him. I assumed because he did not talk about it, that he was all right. I would learn later that was not the case. In a way, I was complicit in his silence. At 19, I didn't yet have the tools to discern or the language to ask about those matters.
Years passed and we kept in touch. He went to college in Virginia and my volunteer job turned into a staff position. I began building a black gay men's program.
One of our friendship rituals was to go to a local park and gaze into the lake and talk about our futures. We rarely talked about the present, and never the past.
We didn't discuss personal and intimate things, mostly our ambitions. Perhaps there is a vulnerability to sharing your dreams, but not the same vulnerability in sharing your struggles. The thing is I would have been a shoulder for him. I always thought he knew that. But he didn't.
A year or two later, I found out he had been in the hospital. That he almost died. A mutual friend confided this to me one night while we sat in his broken down car waiting for a tow-truck. "He has full-blown AIDS," my friend described it. I flinched a bit at the language, but was horrified at what he shared with me. Should I reach out? Was I supposed to know this? What was I supposed to do with the information?
I finally decided to reach out, even if he would be mad at me, but I decided to risk it. Before I could call him though, he reached out to me first. It was over email. He didn't reference his hospitalization, he only indicated that he had done some soul-searching, realized homosexuality was a sin, and decided that he no longer wanted to be gay or be connected to our friendship circle. He described his time in the gay community as essentially being frivolous and pointless and said he had not benefited at all. He communicated wanting to be left alone, I was heartbroken. Before I could figure out to do with his most recent communication, he had left to go back to college.
The years following our relationship remained strained. He moved back to Atlanta for graduate school. We never again hung out separately; it was always in a group. My sexuality had become increasingly politicized and he seemed to insist upon not being political at all. This created a tension between us. He never brought up what happened, about him renouncing his homosexuality, and neither did I, not really knowing how to begin the conversation.
After staying in Atlanta for a while he moved to Washington, D.C. It was there that he started getting sick again. And then about three years ago, I found out he was in the hospital. I reached out to his family to find out what was going on, that was when his sister told me about the "rare blood condition." I thanked her for telling me and started contemplating how to get up to Washington, D.C. to see him. I wondered if I should visit, not knowing how his religious family would respond to me. Before I could put it all together, he died, not even 30. As has been the case within my circle, I was the one to announce the news. The burden of communicating such things often falls to me.
Silence is not singular. It's a constant negotiation. That has always been my thinking on the third Friday in April, the National Day of Silence a campaign organized by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network). I've also never been able to think about homophobia, internalized or structural, without thinking about the other silences young black gay men must manage and navigate. It is impossible for me to think about HIV stigma without thinking about anti-gay stigma, and vice-versa. And though I recognize the specificity of each, I also see where they overlap. I think about Charles in particular, because his silence was so pronounced around both issues: he was silent about his sexuality and silent about his HIV status. This silence, or white noise, followed him wherever he went. In a culture where young black gay men are stigmatized for being young black gay men, how can silence not feel like the best option? But we must communicate that silence, yes, creates temporary safety, but it also causes suffering.
Charles Stephens is the Southern Regional Organizer for AIDS United.