My Friend Died Before Living His Truth

I just hope he knew I accepted him. Unconditionally.

I will call my friend “C.”

He grew up in Washington, D.C., with me and our crew of Black boys.

He was gay, but we did not know it. We suspected, but he didn’t say it, so that was that. People would say he was in the closet, but he and some other gay friends who grew up in the neighborhood had been pushed out.

C floated in both worlds. Still, there was no doubt in his mind that he couldn’t ever come out on his own accord. It wasn’t safe on so many levels. Yet C was our friend. A Black boy like us.

He navigated the path of a closeted gay Black teen in the 1970s and ’80s, an era when most of the brothers who came across as straight never dared to suggest they were gay. Instead, they pushed back and sought to be even tougher.

C went to house parties. He read books. He played sports. He probably threw rocks at cars. He dressed up on Halloween. He got drunk. He got high. He dated girls. He hung out in the neighborhood and had a good time, as far as we could tell. His love life was his business.

Our all-Black D.C. neighborhood was like a village. We all knew each other. We were postwar Black boys. Washington, D.C., had become “Chocolate City,” and for a brief period, everything about it was special and amazing. We were Black and proud.

By the ’70s, when we were all feeling ourselves and taking chances on the streets, C did as well. But there was always quiet chatter and whispers. Were C and some of the friends he kept gay?

A rumor spread that they went into the alley where loud music often boomed and inhibitions lowered. Men hooked up in the dark. They passed joints and wine bottles and, I learned later, partied without much control.

As word ignited through the neighborhood, straight boys got ridiculed for hooking up with the gay boys. They got teased; fights broke out. C and his crew went back to their lives. They never said a word about it; they didn’t sweat the moment at all. To them, it was as if it never happened.

Years later, at the start of the HIV epidemic, C was one of the first in the neighborhood to get seriously ill. Others in his crew also got sick. Most lived the rest of their days very low-key.

How could we know the torment of denying part of himself to the end? How painful must it have been to hide his sexuality even from his parents because he likely thought they would never understand?

When C and I spoke, as we always did, I could see he was very sick. I never asked him about his health issues, although others did. He’d say he had a cold. Once, he had pneumonia. But it only got worse; he never got better.

Eventually, his mother told some of her friends around the neighborhood that her son was dying. A few Black boys and girls from around the way had already succumbed to the disease. AIDS was a motherfucker to Black communities back then. C had lived his entire life in the closet, and though most of us had our suspicions, his own mother had no idea of her son’s life and sexuality.

When C got very sick, he planned a trip to Puerto Rico. He had never been.

I saw C one last time. I was going to my job downtown, and he was exiting the building with his father. He could barely walk and had lost even more weight. Since he was with his dad, I didn’t hold him up. I could see he held a driver’s license. He had come downtown to get a new one.

Days later, a friend told me that C had flown to Puerto Rico with his father. They had checked into their hotel, and within 30 minutes, C was dead. He had fulfilled his last wish. He died in Puerto Rico.

He never came out. How could we know the torment of denying part of himself to the end? How painful must it have been to hide his sexuality even from his parents because he likely thought they would never understand?

All we knew then was that C was gone. Our friend. Unlike us, he would not go on to see adulthood. And it wasn’t until he was gone that some of his friends told us about his life and who he loved and wanted to love.

If C were still around now, I would tell him once and for all that he was my friend and was one of us. A Black boy, from Chocolate City.

Numbers runner. Cigar smoker.

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