Chicago forum examines justice for black gay men

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Feb 2, 2010

On the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, birthday, author, speaker and activist Keith Boykin headlined a Chicago forum that addressed the issue of justice for black gay men.

Titled "Justice for All?," the forum, which the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus, the Communities of Color Collaborative and other groups organized, was intended to debate the meaning of justice while strategizing for lasting change for gay men of color. It drew a standing-room only crowd to the University Center on Thursday night, but the discussion turned almost immediately to solutions, rather than problems.

Boykin, a television host and author of "One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America" and "Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America," identified the mood of the room as one of hunger--for information, conversation and, most importantly change. He encouraged attendees to overcome a "fear-based society" with love and self-empowerment to face their biggest challenge: Themselves.

"[Fifteen years ago,] I felt at that time that the biggest concern for black gay men was the issue of racism from the white community and homophobia from the black community: I no longer believe that," Boykin said. "I think the biggest issue we face today is our our internalized prejudice. The most important thing we can do is to come out ... and be open and honest about who we are."

Joining Boykin on the panel were E. Patrick Johnson, a professor at Northwestern University and author of "Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South," and Antonio D. Jimenez of the University of Illinois Chicago's School of Public Health. Each discussed their views on justice, before the panelists fielded a barrage of questions from the audience. Topics ran the gamut from HIV prevention for at-risk groups to the role of allies, but they focused on the recurring themes of empowerment, education and identity.

Identifying success stories--from both the present and past--also played a crucial role in the discussion. Johnson spoke of his experiences interviewing more than 60 black gay Southerners who ranged from teenagers to one 97-year-old man for "Sweet Tea." He said the process "reveal[ed] a history I didn't know I had" as he spoke about the importance of Bayard Rustin, Alvin Ailey and the Rev. James Cleveland.

"We have to embrace our history," Johnson said. "We have to use confirmation and affirmation, affirming who we are as people and loving ourselves, because then we can love others and have conversations about what justice looks like."

Jimenez added he thought it was important for LGBT men of color to "re-calibrate our idea of success" and look at getting tested, talking to family members, discussing one's health with partners and other seemingly small victories as steps towards a "culture of justice."

Owing to the vast number of topics that fell under the discussion's umbrella, Boykin conceded the evening's forum was only the start of dissecting a much larger issue. He referenced his experiences forming a gay delegation with the Million Man March in 1995 and co-founding the National Black Justice Coalition with a small group of friends as signs "it doesn't take a lot of people to make change happen." And Boykin invoked King's own words at the forum's conclusion.

"History is written in day-to-day occurrences, the things that happen that we sometimes ignore," he said. "It doesn't take a lot of people to make change happen and we all need to do something. If you can't fly, run; if you can't run, walk; if you can't walk, crawl, but by all means, keep moving."

Doctor Keith Magee of the National Public Housing Museum and Jim Pickett, advocacy director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, co-hosted and co-moderated the event. Project CRYSP and also sponsored it.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.


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