January is usually a time of celebration. It’s a time when people can revisit goals from the previous year, create new ones, craft vision boards and determine our course for the year, all while anticipating some unexpected hurdles along the way.
I, too, can always appreciate how important celebrating the new year is—a time with family, friends and loved ones, or even a time to sit in silence, contemplating what’s next. However, I’m also left with the unenviable task of remembering that, 19 years ago, I was raped by a male family member—and that, unfortunately, January is his birth month. That leaves me straddling the nearly impossible line between celebrating victories and remembering defeats; for me, in an odd way, both are necessary this year.
To nonsurvivors this may seem peculiar, but to most survivors—no matter how hard we try—we feel that a piece of our body is gone, along with the person who attempted to take our body from us, no matter how long ago. In 2017 it is time to reclaim my body on the month of my rapist’s birth.
I can still visualize his features, the slant of his yellow-stained eyes, and hear the baritone of his voice. I still get a whiff of the cheap-smelling cologne emanating from his body, as if he'd just finished showering with Michael Jordan’s Legend. I can still see the trail of smoke around him from inhaling a daily pack of Newports. These characteristics of my rapist will not escape my mind; nor will my recognition of the nausea I feel as his birthday approaches each year.
It all started when I was 10, that age when masculinity—and how it's performed—is tested in uniquely different ways. This often began with discussions with older males about topics ranging from relationships—“How many girlfriends do you have?”—to assurances that if my guy friends and I only looked at each other’s penis in the elementary school restroom, then we wouldn’t technically be gay. One man went a bit further: “Curiosity is natural,” he often said. “It’s a part of life, in fact.”
My innocence allowed my conversations with one of these male figures to turn into “the talk,” which then turned into unwanted touching. I thought I wanted this—needed it, even. I can vividly remember lying on the bedroom floor while a 1970s-sounding porn film played in the background. It was as I began to stare at the ceiling that I felt the first painful thrust. My body reacted negatively, but it was that same baritone that forced my silence. Perhaps I could ignore the painful thrusts; perhaps it would go away.
It did not.
It’s fairly easy to arrive at conclusions when you haven’t yet developmentally formed the ability to fully decipher whether what someone is saying is nonsensical or not. And because I wanted to feel accepted, to be loved, to be nurtured by an older black male figure, all I needed to do was follow one simple request: acquiesce. And so I did. It was easier this way, right?
Being raped leads to many devastating short- and long-term effects, beginning with questioning whether my later queer-identified sexuality was born out of a painful experience—it wasn’t. It also led to an extremely problematic and messy understanding of love and acceptance. And, what’s worse, it caused me to be fearful and untrusting of men—even myself.
The first question I usually receive when disclosing my rape is, “Did you press charges?” For me as both an attorney and a survivor, this is tough because I often sit at the intersection of recognizing that justice should not be such a distant reality and working within the systems that promise results. I also have the very unfortunate realization that moving forward in that way would make my life a hell of a lot more complicated than my perpetrator’s. I have always felt that I had only one option, as do so many other survivors: suffer in silence for however long I could survive it. So I did.
But for the past couple of years, this has become extremely unhealthy, no matter how much I ignored the physical and mental pains. Rape survivors are hardly believed; in fact, the more noise we make, especially publicly, the more silenced we become—by family, by friends, by media and by larger society. There are several reasons that children refuse to discuss their sexual assault even at the time it is occurring: because society still finds it acceptable to bring the questionably drunk uncle or cousin around every summer barbecue, even though the younger relative displays signs of fear or shrinks. It’s critical that we pay attention to these signs.
As a survivor, I am frightened by our discussions of rape. Given the immediate defense of accused rapists like Nate Parker and Bill Cosby, ranging from “Why are they always trying to attack the black man?” to lies about a black man being prevented from purchasing an entire network and statements like, “It was so long ago,” it’s no shock that survivors remain silent. We must stop questioning why survivors finally decide to speak out and begin questioning why society forced us to remain silent for so long.
Every year, it hurts that a part of me will be reminded how an adult—someone I viewed as a role model, as a father figure, even—attempted to rip who I was outside my own body, to force me into submitting to an already domineering presence. Not only will the physical harm never be forgotten, but it is apparent that it has positioned itself to cause more lifelong emotional, psychological and mental harm. Rape caused me to revisit and reinterpret my already conflicting and naive understandings of sexuality, attraction, masculinity and what belonged to my body. At a young age, it was clear that the old black adage of “Keep your hands to yourself” didn’t work too well.
The older I became—and the more I understood that I was able to define queerness on my own terms—the more I was allowed to reconsider a world where I would want to see a new day. We deserve to live in a world where black gay men can talk about our addictions, our frustrations; about loving sex, living with HIV, being vulnerable, needing intimacy, needing to be touched, needing to cry, being raped, experiencing violence, being tired, loving to have fun, being lost and needing a helping hand, without being shamed by others who repeatedly say that talking about it is wrong. Defining myself for myself is love—it is healing and it is necessary.
And though I don’t believe that finally freeing my pain from the psychological and emotional prison I was forced to erect within myself is the end of my self-discovery, perhaps it can be the beginning.
Rape is an unbearable pain that often renders words insufficient. But I am also reminded that it is a chance to start over, a chance to be better and a chance to reclaim my body—especially during my rapist’s birth month. It further lets me know that this body is mine alone, regardless of a man’s attempt at one time to claim it—and my soul—for himself.