There's Resilience in Embracing Our "Difference"

Not allowing others to define us is key to defeating racism and homophobia.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

“Aren’t you proud to be white?”

No one had ever asked me that question before. But now my highly-armed, self-identified right-wing friend was asking it.

I told him I had never thought of my skin color as something to be “proud of”—or not. It was simply an immutable characteristic, something I had no choice about.

I also pointed out that he was the first person I’d ever known to identify himself, first and foremost, as white. Other white people I have known are often proud of their ethnic heritage, as I am too. But it’s the shared cultural heritage, not the similar skin pigmentation, that gives us a sense of belonging, connection, and pride.

During my elementary school years in the 1960s, my family lived in a highly integrated low-income housing project. My sisters and I described ourselves as “Greek-Polacks”—my father’s family is Greek, my mother’s is Polish and Scots-Irish, and we weren’t yet aware that “Polack” is considered a slur. Like us, our white friends were descended from European immigrants, including the English, French, Irish, Germans, and Italians.

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It was my childhood friendships with Black kids that first got me interested in trying to understand why they so often were treated poorly simply because their skin color was slightly darker than my own “olive” color. That’s when I began reading books about Black life in America—and when I first became aware of the pain of racism that Black people suffer.

When I finally accepted the fact that I’m gay and began educating myself about LGBTQ history, I likewise became aware of the multitude of injustices that people like me have suffered simply for being “different.” Our difference has caused the dominant heterosexual culture so much discomfort at times that we have been routinely abused, beaten up, condemned, imprisoned, institutionalized, lobotomized, rejected from jobs, and thrown out of our own families.

Coming out, as I did, during the summer of 1981—just as the first AIDS cases were being reported—I also witnessed from the beginning of that viral pandemic the stigma that so many attached to the illness, as though it was a moral judgment rather than a disease caused by a microbe. Since my own 2005 HIV diagnosis, I have experienced the stigma firsthand—usually from other gay men.

Over the years, I have known and interviewed Black gay men living with HIV who suffered a kind of injustice trifecta: treated as “other” because they were Black, gay, and had the misfortune of contracting a socially disapproved illness.

One of these men was Reggie Williams. In 1988, Williams pulled together the AIDS-related efforts of the national gay male social organization Black and White Men Together (BWMT) to win a contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to provide AIDS prevention for gay men of color. No one else was doing it.

In our late 1990s interview for my book Victory Deferred, Williams said, “If they’re not going to do it [prevention for gay men of color], then goddamn it, we can do it for ourselves. We’re not crippled! We have power. That’s why we created the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention—to do it for ourselves.”

For Williams, “doing for ourselves” began with honesty about one’s identity—in terms of race, sexual orientation, and even HIV antibody status. He described the liberation he felt personally because of such frankness. “I was able to walk up to the podium and say, ‘I’m Reggie Williams, a Black gay man with HIV,’ instead of saying, ‘I’m Reggie Williams, executive director of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention.’” And it always had an effect on the audience, said Williams, “whether hetero, gay, white, or Black.” He explained, “I didn’t look like most people’s idea of a person with HIV/AIDS since I wasn’t dragged in or wheeled out to the podium.”

Reggie Williams didn’t look like anyone’s idea of an AIDS “victim” because he didn’t think of, or present, himself as a victim. He definitely understood how society had victimized him. But he wasn’t buying into victimhood. He wore his hair in cornrows and dreads, incorporated traditional African clothing into his attire, and showed the world what a Black gay man with HIV “looked like” when he defined himself—and didn’t allow others to define him based on their stereotypes of any of his various identities: Black, gay, or person living with HIV.

It wasn’t easy. “I know what it is to have low self-esteem and not feel like your life has value,” Williams told me. “I’ve been there. I grew up in the ghetto, so I know what it’s like.”

Taking control of your own story is about seizing the narrative about yourself, and insisting that you alone get to tell the story—and not allowing others to tell the story for you, particularly those who devalue or dismiss you because of their stereotypes about “someone like you.”

No one wants to be reduced to a stereotype. We all want to be accepted as we are, regardless of our skin tone, sexuality, or medical diagnosis. Reggie Williams’ story shows the importance of not reducing ourselves to a stereotype in our own minds.

When you understand the value of who you are, and what you offer in life, no one’s racism or moralism—or any other “ism” that people are prone to wield like a weapon—will succeed in reducing you to any single characteristic or trait you possess. Unless you let it.