Keith Boykin has been at the forefront of LGBTQ advocacy since his days in the Clinton White House as an out, gay, black Harvard Law grad, where he engineered the first official dialogue of gay civil-rights leaders with a sitting president. He’s made appearances as a TV commentator on CNBC, MSNBC, CNN and BET, and his books One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America and Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies and Denial in Black America were part of the national dialogue about the complex and changing dynamics of African-American gay, bi and trans men, who often faced virtual shunning from their communities.
This week, Boykin will be in Philly at Giovanni’s Room reading from his new book, which comes out this week — a collection of real-life coming-of-age and coming-out stories from within the African-American and Latino communities. Among these essays is Boykin’s own account of leading the gay contingent of men who came out at the Millennium March on Washington in 2000.
The collection’s title, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough: Coming of Age, Coming Out and Coming Home (Magnus, Aug. 28), is an homage to Ntozake Shange’s iconic ’70s prose-poem manifesto, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Boykin thought that Shange’s book — which focused on issues specific to women of color, at the time often overlooked by the greater feminist movement — was a good way to begin the dialogue about boys of color who might be suffering over issues of sexual identity and feeling invisible.
“In the fall of 2010 I started hearing a lot of stories about African-American and Hispanic teens who were gay or were suspected to be gay, committing suicide, which [before then] wasn’t really being widely reported,” Boykin says.
“It was around the time of Tyler Clementi’s suicide, which was followed by Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. But it struck me that the messaging wasn’t really targeting people of color, and they seemed to me disproportionately at risk,” Boykin said. A 2011 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, for example, found that people of color made up 70 percent of American hate-crime murder victims in the previous year.
Even though there is more open dialogue today than there was even two years ago, outreach is still especially critical for young men of color struggling with their sexuality. A survey released by the National Strategy for Black Gay Youth earlier this year found that more than half of the young people who responded had been disowned over their sexual orientation or were afraid they’d be disowned if they came out, and 43 percent had considered or attempted suicide. And another study released last month by the Fenway Institute found that the rate of new HIV infection is three times higher among black gay and bi men under the age of 30 as it is in the corresponding white population, and that each year around 6 percent of black gay or bi youth contract HIV.
Boykin’s goal with For Colored Boys wasn’t just to reassure gay youth that it can get better, but to demonstrate it through relating the actual experiences of African-American, Latino and Asian gay men — doctors, lawyers, performers, pastors, poets, journalists, community leaders and pro athletes.
Though statistics and the occasional after-the-fact coming-out of a former pro athlete would suggest that there are more than a few gay men playing in American professional sports, there’s still not a single out man currently in the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL or MLS. One powerful section of the For Colored Boys, called “Coming Out in the Locker Room,” is a verbatim conversation by gay pro athletes about the closet codes of the locker room.
Other essays speak of living through harrowing circumstances growing up, or of religion and the effects of the confusing, unspoken “don’t tell”codes found in many African-American churches, where homosexuality is condemned in the most vicious terms from the pulpit but tolerated as long as it’s kept invisible.
“Physical abuse, molestation, bullying, HIV-AIDS, coming out, relationships, church issues, sex — such a wide range of perspectives,” says Boykin of the contributed stories, many of which he found through a website he set up for the project. “This is the most complicated book I’ve done, but the important thing is that these stories are out there now. ... All of the voices in this anthology needed to be heard.
“Things have changed dramatically in my lifetime, both politically and personally,” says Boykin. “We have a president in the White House that will talk to and about black gay men, and is not afraid of the LBGTQ community.
“That doesn’t mean there won’t be resistance on the way.”
For Colored Boys reading and signing, Fri., Aug. 24, 5:30 p.m., free, Giovanni’s Room, 345 S. 12th St., 215-923-2960, giovannisroom.com.