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A Cause For Celebration

Celebrating is a radical act that reminds queer Black folks how far we’ve come and the future we’re still fighting for…
 
By Jumol Royes
Photo by Clay Banks
 
How do you celebrate a birthday when the whole world has come to a standstill?
 
It’s a question I asked myself around this time last year at the onset of the pandemic when Ontario declared a state of emergency on the same day as my birthday. With restaurants and bars only open for takeout and delivery and zero possibility of getting together with friends, plus all the fear and anxiety swirling around in the atmosphere, I wasn’t in much of a celebratory mood.
 
My friends and family would tell you that I’m an eternal optimist who sees his glass as half full and who exudes positive energy and good vibes everywhere he goes. And on most days, that’s true. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there have been periods over the past 12 months when I felt drained and overwhelmed and had a difficult time managing my emotions and holding my own heart. In those moments, celebrating was the furthest thing from my mind.
 
A few short months ago, I starting listening to a podcast called Being Seen; it persuaded me to reconsider my position and helped me reframe the act of celebration in a whole new light. Hosted, narrated and produced by Darnell Moore, in partnership with Harley & Co. and ViiV Healthcare, the weekly podcast focuses on the gay and queer Black male experience by offering an in-depth exploration of culture’s role in resolving the tension between how we are seen and how we see ourselves.
 
One of the episodes features internationally acclaimed activist and humanitarian Eddie Ndopu, who plans to be the first physically disabled person and the first Black queer disabled person to travel into space. During the course of the conversation, Ndopu says something so profound that I can only compare it to a light switch being flicked on and illuminating a dark room: “As a Black, queer, disabled man, I defy gravity every single day of my life by virtue of my existence.”
 
For LGBTQ2+ folks, and queer Black people in particular, managing to survive – let alone thrive in the world today – is cause for celebration. Too many members of our community have been lost to HIV/AIDS, suicide, accidental overdoses and acts of violence for us to take our lives for granted and not be grateful that we still have breath in our bodies.
 
But then the question becomes, how do we make room for celebrating in the face of so much grief, loss and pain? The answer might lie in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the stories the world tells us about who are and who we can be.
 
I struggled with my fair share of shame and stigma surrounding my sexuality and racial identity growing up, and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who felt this way. I didn’t see the faces and stories of people who look and love like I do reflected in the pages of magazines or on my television screen. I didn’t have anyone to model for me what it meant to be Black and gay or how to successfully navigate through the world as a gay Black man. As a result, my personal journey towards healing and self-acceptance continues to this day.
 
When our stories do take centre stage, they rarely if ever are told through a lens that captures us in a positive or uplifting light. If we only see Black trans women in the news when they’re victims of assault or murder, or gay Black men in movies and porn having sex with men on the down-low, our self-image becomes skewed. Seeing is believing, after all. While these lived experiences ring true for some in our community, they’re not all-encompassing or fully reflective of the totality of who we are.
 
Now is as good a time as any for us to reclaim the narrative and challenge the notion that the queer Black experience is inextricably linked to trauma and tragedy. Our stories are nuanced, complex and complicated – and we have a duty to demonstrate, and more importantly celebrate, our creativity and artistry, storytelling and storymaking, love and joy, indeed our very existence. Instead of allowing old, limiting beliefs and the powers that be tell our stories and dictate who we are and who we’re capable of being, we need to ask ourselves how we wish to be witnessed, and then have the courage to show up in the world with all the beautiful and heartbreaking facets of ourselves on full display for all to see.
 
When my birthday rolls around again this March, I still won’t be able to spend a night on the town sharing a meal with my friends in a restaurant or going dancing at a club, but celebrating will definitely be on the agenda…it’ll just look a little different this year.
 
I’m thinking of turning it into a day of self-care: starting out with saying a series of positive affirmations while looking at myself in the mirror, then a bit of journalling, a guided meditation and maybe an emotional freedom technique or tapping exercise to relieve anxiety, followed by a walk around the trails in my neighbourhood, and then eating dinner at home with my family before capping off the day with a warm bubble bath. Because I now know that I need to fill my own cup first before I can offer what flows over to others.
 
Whatever I decide to do on my special day, I’ll be sure to reflect on the highs and lows of the past year and remind myself that I’m still here, queer, safe, guided and loved. If that’s not worthy of celebrating, then I don’t know what is.
 
And if I need a little musical pick-me-up to keep the celebration going, I can always count on singing along to one of my all-time favourite songs by Love Inc.:
 
Reach for the sky
And hold your head up high
For tonight and every night
You’re a superstar
And don’t you be afraid
Think of all the friends you’ve made
Like any other night
You’ve got your name in lights
You’re a superstar

 

 
JUMOL ROYES is a Toronto-area storyteller, communications strategist and glass-half-full kinda guy. He writes about compassion, community, identity and belonging. His guilty pleasure is watching the Real Housewives. Follow him on Twitter @Jumol and on Instagram @jumolroyes.
 

 

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