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Mayor Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
Maya Angelou

“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? I am afraid to tell you who I am, because, if
I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all that I have.”
John Joseph Powell

My Uncle Charles lived all but the last few weeks of his forty-five years on earth afraid to tell or show our family who he fully was. I did not know he was gay until I had a conversation with him as I visited him in the Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles. I went to see him as both his nephew and as his pastor. Charles was dying of HIV/AIDS in July of 1982. I regret that in the hundreds of conversations we had in my then thirty-two years of life with him, we had never had this one. Nor had he ever dropped any hint or clue. In fact, his whole public persona was a carefully crafted mask to hide a major part of who he was as a person.

I suspect that my family’s selective Biblical literalism and traditional culturally conservative world view at that time made it difficult for us to really see Charles for who he was, and for Charles to tell us who he was. Every Sunday in church we would sing some version of

I must tell Jesus all of my trials,
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me,
He ever loves and cares for His own.

Yet, on Monday through Saturday, we would find one reason or another to weaponize our faith, turning our All-Embracing Jesus into an Excluder-in-Chief who left at least 15% of humanity feeling alienated, isolated, shamed, and estranged. The so called ‘progressives’ in our family and community were only slightly better. Our mantra was “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” We failed to ask ourselves the question, “What happens to a person when he or she can never speak their whole truth?” Nor did we ask ourselves, “What happens to us when we refuse to hear inconvenient truths?”

My deafness up until then and Charles’ silence about himself are particularly painful because “Uncle Charles” was more like a big brother to me than an uncle. Charles was my mom’s youngest sibling and only twelve years my senior. We grew together in the same house. He and I were the only boys in our intergenerational household. I affectionally referred to him as “Bruncle”, Charles was my brother/uncle. I graduated from kindergarten the same day he graduated high school. Our family had a joint rites of passage celebration
for the two of us.

Charles then enlisted in the Air Force. Except for those times when he was overseas or out of state, Charles made it a point to show up for almost every major event of my life. I can still see his proud and smiling dark chocolate colored face in the stands as I scored the winning touchdown to clench my high school’s football championship season. He showed up when I graduated from college and when I married. He beamed ecstatically when I was ordained a Christian minister after graduating from seminary. He was the first person to hug me when I emerged from the delivery room after the birth of my son. Brun cle Charles was always th ere. He always showed up.

To this day, forty years after his death , I am less pain ed by Charles’ passing than I am by not having fully kn own him before those weeks in July of 1982, soaked in so much sorrow. It hurts me to kn ow now that this person whom I loved deeply was never fully known by me and so many of the people he loved for the forty-five years of his life. I understand that one’s sexuality doesn’t fully def ine anyone. We often misstep by making too much of it. We often miscalculate in making too little of it. I also know that to deny or distain a person’s sexuality is to dismiss them as a complex human being.

This June, remembering and honoring Charles, I celebrate Pride Month, affirming LGBTQ+ people and their right to be open about their sexual orientation without fear or intimidation. For me, Pride means having the right and the capacity to be fully human and fully alive. Pride means having no reason to hide or be hidden.

I met the late Archbishop Carl Bean just days after Charles died. Carl became a friend and asked me to enlist churches to support his work in founding the Minority AIDS Project of Los Angles. I did so enthusiastically in honor of my Bruncle. The archbishop had a saying, “Wherever you identify yourself sexually along God’s rainbow of sexuality, know that you are not in error. Homosexual, Lesbian, Bisexual, Heterosexual, Transsexual … you are not a mistake. God made you the way you are, and God loves you just the way you are. So, love yourself and know that you are very special!” I believe that. To me, that is a great description of what Pride Month is all about. Happy Pride Month!

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