By David Lewis-Peart
I recently attended the funeral service of a distant friend- a young Caribbean man well known in the LGBT community. He was a vibrant, dynamic and very bold young man and I remember often appreciating him from afar. I enjoyed reading his occasional posts on Facebook about God and the Universe, and quotes from powerful spiritual teachers and thinkers. During the summer I could almost bank on seeing him energetically bolting through the crowd, flashing a wide smile and in some fantastic outfit showing off the body that proudly displayed his appreciation for the gym. News of his unexpected death took me by surprise and I observed as rumours abounded through social media posts with about the possible cause of his passing, as is all too common in the community. Speculations about suicide, mental health, and drug abuse seemed to be the predominant ones and I found myself mentally reviewing the last few times I had seen him, trying to recall anything significant I might have missed. Perhaps somewhat naively (or maybe arrogantly) I had assumed that given my background in Mental Health and Addictions Counselling and years working with people in community I would have noticed behaviours out of the ordinary. It was with this mixture of grief and in some odd way, guilt, that lead me to attend the funeral service a $40 dollar cab ride later and an hour early. I was the first guest to arrive at the church and was welcomed warmly by his family, watching as his parents prepared for his home-going in such a dignified way, noticeably holding back tears while they attended to last minute details. I couldn’t help but be a bit taken aback. A part of me had anticipated a different type of reception. There are multitudes of stories about the passing of individuals from within LGBT communities where there is a notable absence of blood relatives, and if they are present, few tears. Few tears was not the case here. The eulogy offered by his father was heartfelt, “I didn’t always understand my son, but I truly loved him”. That brief but honest offering by a parent in grief, wrapped itself around me in such an important way, and stood in a bit of contrast to the sermon by the senior minister that later followed. His sermon, though relatively tempered and mindful of the audience, eventually unfolded into a cautionary tale about those who turn from the fold and succumb to carnal influences. The pastor’s sermon seemed in stark contrast to the warmth of my young friends family and the loving eulogy given by his distraught father.
Seated among the dozen or so gay Black men in the pews out to pay their respects, I glimpsed ne’er an eyelash bat at the pastors thinly veiled finger wagging that peppered the otherwise well articulated sermon.
Moments later the pastor ended with a prayer, I bowed my head. The pastor prayed fervently for the souls of those who’ve gone ‘lost’, I prayed for his soul, and all of our souls too.
On the drive home with my best friend afterword, we discussed the service and the seeming lack of upset from me and the other Black gay men in attendance. My friend who grew up in a large Hispanic family and very connected to the Catholic church framed his response to me like this, “David, it’s not the same for us [Black and Latinos]. Every time some priest or pastor says something that upsets us, where are we going to go? Faith and family is all we’ve got, so we learn quickly in order to survive, not to take things personally”.
I contemplated over the next month or so, that idea of our not taking things personally and wondered if that in fact was true. With the significant rates of HIV infection among gay and bisexual Black and Latino men both here and across North America, the number of us issues of substance abuse or mental health issues like depression and anxiety and the links many can claim, between those things and the struggle many have with reconciling our sexuality and our religious beliefs.
Perhaps my friend was right in naming that in ideal circumstances “Faith and family is all we’ve got”, and that possibly, in the absence of these factors is where concerns arise. So then what is the ideal? Faith, first and foremost in ourselves; seeing ourselves as being okay just as we are. Second, faith or belief in something bigger and better that allows us to see ourselves connected in a meaningful way, whether that be to a God, Force of Universal Power, a community, or a cause. Then family, both blood and chosen who give a shit about us and our wellbeing, just as we are. I feel that the dividing line for many of us queer folk and queer folks of colour, the line that I believe ensures that - despite the very difficult things we will face in the world - we hold on, that we bounce back, and we survive and better still thrive in sometimes shitty situations. Communities of faith and families that affirm, unreservedly, our worthiness of being loved and existing, has an uncanny effect. It tells us LGBT folks, and folks of colour that we have inherent worth, that someone (or some thing) is looking out for us, and that our lives matter. I am not sure exactly what happened with my young friend that resulted in his tragic and untimely passing, and in the larger sense the specifics should respectfully not be up for debate. What is evident however is that many queer men of colour; friends, colleagues and young people I have worked with professionally, struggle with finding place within their communities of origin, faith communities, and for those who are actively out, even within the larger, mainstream (read, white) LGBT community too.
The seeming dysfunction of so many gay and bisexual men is not innate or characteristic of our being same gender loving, despite what some leaders in our churches, mosques, and temples say. Our seeming dysfunction is a response to not being affirmed, not having a ‘soft place’ when shit gets real in the outside world. So many of the young people I have worked with over the years demonstrate this to the fullest. Shit, even my own life is a testament to faith and family, both chosen and blood, keeping me from reaching the edge, and to be completely honest, the ledge, in my own life. Having solid friends, family and a faith community and practice that affirms, has provided me the sense of connection and affection that is integral to making choices that best support. Choices that have ensured that recreational drug use and experimentation did not result in abuse, that an active sex life remained healthy, enjoyable, and even downright spiritual from time to time. Friends, family, and a faith community provided (and continues to provide) the needed caring, and understanding ears to me when I have felt at my lowest, and life seems to be getting the best of me.
My work now, as both a Human Services Counsellor and as a Minister, is informed by this belief that there is preventative and protective value in building community connections that impact the physical, mental, sexual and spiritual health of communities (and individuals) that look and love like me, for the better. The life and death of my friend and the many others like him are the needed reminders that our communities are not connecting as best they could, but that there is also room for change. My call to action to myself, to family, friends, allies in the struggle, and to you reading this post, is that in whatever way, right where we are, it is our duty to ensure that no one, absolutely no one, gay, straight, black, white or anywhere in-between, forgets that they are worthy, wanted, and that their life matters.
A graduate of York University and George Brown College, David has worked as a trained Human Services Counsellor, Consultant and Community-based researcher for nearly a decade. Outside of social services, David, an ordained New Thought Minister and speaker also co-pastors the quarterly interfaith gathering, Sunset Service, in Toronto. David speaks and facilitates groups throughout the city on the intersections of race, sex, sexuality, and faith(s). David's research on sexual minority Black young men has been used in the development of Picasso's Black Canvas, a verbatim theater piece crafted by the award winning collective, Project: Humanity, and staged in late 2012. In 2013 David was among twelve presenters at OCAD University for the inaugural TEDx Conference, where he gave a talk entitled, "Pulled to the Periphery".
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