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

Senior Editor
Darryl Stephens
Darryl Stephens
Dexter Brown

Part two of senior editor Kenyon Farrow's conversation with actor and author Darryl Stephens of the television series (and feature film) Noah's Arc_. Here, we continue to discuss the legacy of writer and activist Joseph Beam, but this time turning more towards HIV among black gay men and strategies to address the epidemic._

Kenyon Farrow: We were just talking, having this conversation about Noah's Arc and how you felt the impact of that show, and how it made space for the more fabulous-of-center folks to feel represented in the media. I was reflecting on the fact, in preparing for this interview, that Joseph Beam died in 1988, around December 30, I think -- so close to this date. So, we're coming up next year on the 30th anniversary, in fact, of his death. And it's known that Joseph died of AIDS. But he was not ever really out about that fact at the time, even though he was doing this work as a writer, as an activist, and as an editor, and some of it was specifically about HIV.

But the way in which Marlon Riggs, by comparison, really centered AIDS in his own kind of cultural work; Joseph really didn't. From what I understand, people that I know who knew him, who were around for that, knew he was getting sick. But he didn't ever really step into that. And so, I guess the question is how far do you think we've come in terms of still having that kind of stigma?

Darryl Stephens: Well, I think that we still have work to do, just in terms of getting over the gay stigma, still. But I would say, with respect to the HIV stigma, the work is -- the burden is still upon us to really dismantle that, still. You know, everybody I know who is positive, and I know quite a few people, has communicated to me at some point how hard it is on a personal level.

You asked me earlier, and I didn't really answer this question, about how people respond to you personally. Right? The reality of how we are responding to each other, even in the midst of PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] and the reality, or the discovery, that people who are undetectable are not transmitting the disease -- even with that new information, this new stage of this epidemic, I still think black people in particular are struggling with disclosure and with not stigmatizing those of us whom we know. ...

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

You know, obviously, a number of us are involved politically, in the ways that, I guess, Marlon Riggs was. Right? We can all talk about it. But it was personal for him. Even for those of us who it's not personal for, we can talk about it in very academic and enlightened ways. But I think that there's a very different experience when you're living with it and every single time you are going to be intimate with someone you have to disclose it. The personal challenge on that level, to me, is still something that we have to work at opening up dialogue around.

I think that most of us are still not talking about it. We also know that condoms are not really the norm anymore. And I think that even with young black men who are not using condoms and are also not necessarily using PrEP, or whatever we're calling the drug, there's a real issue with -- I don't want to call it nihilism -- but this sort of, like, "Well, I'm just going to do it anyway and see what the fuck happens," that I think is tied to this notion that we are still living in shame about our sexuality in the first place.

We're still suffering being ostracized by our families and our communities, simply about being gay. So, when it comes to those of us who are living with HIV, that's a whole other level of stepping up to the plate, in terms of what we are going to disclose about our personal lives and our day-to-day realities. I think that there's a lot of work to still be dome. It's rooted in our culture's shame around sexuality, our culture's refusal or inability to embrace the gay, the queer portion, of our population.

KF: Right. I often say to people that I think, particularly for black gay men, the struggle is that people feel pressure to grow up to be a kind of strong black man and a responsible black man, and all of that.

So then, you discover that you're gay. And so you feel like you're a letdown to your family, to the community, and kind of to black progress writ large, by not being that. And so then, you're asking people to disclose once people become HIV positive, and that becomes another piece of how I didn't measure up to this notion of being an upstanding black man contributing to the community, right?

DS: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think it's up to those of us who are living openly, either gay, or gay and with HIV, to be as vocal and as unapologetic about our experiences publicly as we can, to empower the younger people to also feel like there's nothing for them to be ashamed of.

The reason that I wrote a book -- my second book is sort of a motivational memoir. It's specifically about trying to help people dismantle the shame that's been imposed on us by not only white supremacy but also our own black culture's response to white supremacy -- which is to [hold] those of us who don't measure up to this hyper-masculine black male ideal. We have to sort of break through that shame, still.

And I think it's really important for us -- again, those of us living openly -- to be vocal, be visible, and to communicate that there is absolutely nothing for us to be ashamed of.

KF: Right.

DS: And also that the communities that we grew up in bear some of the responsibility for the missteps that we experienced in our youth. The fucking -- the hiding -- that we had to do, a lot of that comes from the shame they imposed on us. Right? So, if we were able to live openly and honestly in our communities, then this disease would not have ravaged us in the same way, in the ways that it did. Because we'd be able to be honest about our desire, and our sexuality, and what we need in terms of intimacy instead of doing it in the dark and in ways that end up being unhealthy.

KF: To that point, if you had a magic wand, what do you think, in terms of our response to HIV in the black community, among black gay men, in particular: What do you think we should be doing differently?

DS: Well, I think that we definitely need to get more educated about the drugs, HIV drugs. I don't believe that it's necessarily going to fix the whole problem. But I think for those kids who have access to health insurance and can get to a gay and lesbian center that will provide it for them, we need to get more educated in terms of what steps we can be taking to protect ourselves in lieu of condoms that we are clearly no longer using. I think that's the first step.

I think that needs to be coming from the elders: me and you.

KF: Oh, Lord. Elder? I'm still young and out here poppin'.

DS: No, but you know what I'm saying? The people, those of us who are still sexual and who were alive during the crisis, we need to be teaching them. While not now, but 15 years ago -- not even 15 years ago -- 25 years ago, this looked very different. The landscape was very different.

So, we really need to just get educated. I think that desire should be expressed and experienced in the ways that we want to express and experience it. This is not about shaming anybody. But it's about being equipped with the information that we need to protect ourselves.

And, again, I think it's up to people like you and me to do the work that you are doing, in terms of informing people about this life beyond shame. For me that's the big recurring theme. Not only figuring out how to love yourself so you can love someone else, but also learning how to uplift those around you. I think that black gay culture has found a lot of mileage and sustenance in shade, and in reading, and in sort of tearing one another down -- however playfully we intend it to be. I think that there's a lot of self- -- not hate, that's too strong a word -- self-deprecation.

KF: Yeah. There's a little bit of truth in not necessarily what's spoken, in terms of shade, but the nastiness of it is not all play all the time.

DS: There's a self-hatred there. ...

But now it's our job to take what white supremacy taught us to hate about ourselves and what heteronormativity taught us to hate about ourselves, and dismantle that. We have to learn to embrace one another in ways that I don't think we have ever really learned to do.

What we have now -- and it's obviously, in many ways, a curse but I think, also, a gift -- is an administration that is vilifying us to our faces, that is making no bones about its disrespect and, essentially, its hatred of black people and of queer people. And in light of that, I think it falls upon us to be more inclusive, more about coalition building, more loving to those around us who are experiencing with us. Because the shade that we've been counting on is sort of, I don't know -- I don't know if the shade is meant to keep us, to somehow build our own egos. But I don't think that it does. I think that, as you said, there's a tell there. It betrays. The shade betrays, I think, its intended goal, which is to make somebody else feel bad.

I think what it ends up doing is making us feel bad about ourselves. Until we dismantle that impulse and we figure out ways to embrace one another and love one another, in light of this very clear and present danger in front of us, we don't stand a chance. You know what I mean?

This is the time to fight. And we have to fight together. That comes from embracing trans sisters and brothers. That comes from embracing other people of color -- people of color we don't necessarily grow up with, but people of color who are also being vilified by this administration, this culture of -- I don't even know what you want to call it -- hate.

KF: I have a stronger word that I would use in a different scenario. But we'll leave it at hate.

DS: I think this is really a beautiful and important opportunity for us to step up and start figuring out how to support one another in all of these realms -- in sexuality, in HIV, in living with HIV, in whatever version of gender variance or fluidity we are experiencing. I hear gay men still being shady and shitty to trans women. And I'm just like, "How are you still doing that?"

I hear gay men being shitty and shady to women, lesbians, women in general. How are you still doing that? This culture of tearing one another down because we're all on the bottom, this crabs-in-the-bucket shit? We have to nip that in the bud. We have to start building coalitions on celebrated shared experiences and on even things that we don't necessarily share but we can respect. Because we know somebody's out for all of us. And it's time to start acting like we know that.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.