It’s been 15 years now since living in the UK; London for the last 10; my entire 30s in this city. At age 25 I arrived in Birmingham as a PhD student; and I never went back to live in my native Chicago. I’ve always had a funny relationship with and to ‘home’; my city; my country. When I was 15 I began to feel more independent; nearly free from the care system that raised me. During my time in care I had a changeable and unique relationship to Chicago’s Black community; the community into which I was born; but one in which I only engaged as a vagabond or drifter, at the periphery of Black families as a foster child. By 15 I lived in a group home and although those staff did not validate my sexual feelings any more than Black foster parents and Black church folks did, they did not demonize my sexual desire. Indeed they offered a rationalization for my desire. Still up to that point, even after a self-declaration of a bisexual identity, I still thought my sexual desires wrong and unnatural. And if at all, I only reluctantly thought of myself as part of a Black gay community in Chicago. But I certainly was not proud; in Chicago in the 1990s; a community ravaged by AIDS and crack. And the only visible members I saw wore make up and dresses.
At age 15, I lacked any evidence of my existence; knowledge to tell me who I was. I discovered reading late in life; the foster homes I knew did not encourage or facilitate such activities; and lucky if they fed you. But once I discovered reading, I realized I could find a measure of who I was within the pages of books. Soon I discovered THE book, In The Life; a seminal Black gay anthology. But initially I did not hear the words of the writers. In Chicago it would seem; I was unable to fully listen to what those men had to tell me about who I was; and what I could be. It would be another 15 years before I truly heard and listened to the men of In the Life; and it would be in another country. Having crossed the deep waters of the Atlantic to make a home in London; with thousands of miles separating me from Chicago, the words of In the Life finally penetrated my soul like great gospel music. And throughout my 30s in various spaces in London I read and reread this book, slowly, taking in the words with frequent pauses to reflect on their meaning; and with a deeper recognition of myself in the stories poems and essays. And with each passing year away from ‘home’; I felt something grow in me; a confidence and security and indeed a greater sense of freedom in the expression of my sexual identity; and more than I ever knew or felt in Chicago.
In the last 10 years as a volunteer worker and activist in LGBT organizations; and as an academic I engaged in a range of conversations; conversations that have helped to fill a great void; one developed in those 15 years of survival that characterized my beginnings in Chicago. And during this time in London; always the voices of men from In The Life ring in my ears; my constant companions as I live an expatriate life. But now I need new conversations to take me forward or perhaps to take me back; to bring me out of this self-imposed exile. I need to engage voices not only here but across those deep waters. I want us to talk to each other; as Black and Gay people who make up our vast diaspora.