I used to write about Assotto Saint

Slamming his hand down on the pulpit at Donald Wood’s funeral

when it was common to hide the cause of death of

young men who’d died from AIDS if they were buried at all

and weren’t abandoned

Someone told me about a thin boy

Thin with fear and death

played piano for the choir

no one touched him or talked about it

I know in my mother’s family

her mother’s sister said a parasite had killed

her son when he died suddenly

But I remember once him coming out of a Gay bar in Boston

all the white boys said, “How do you know her?”

I don’t know if he or I said cousin

I’m his cousin

He made me promise not to tell anyone in the family

I’d seen him there

So when they said parasite I knew something didn’t ring true

His mother a seemingly healthy woman died shortly after that

but I always felt their deaths were related

His mother either from the lies or repression

or a broken heart

having lost her young son

 

And I know everyone blames Jussie Smollett for his lies and staged attacked

but it makes me think there was something very toxic going on

that he didn’t feel he could talk to someone

Either that he was covering up an addiction or a hookup.

Watching Assotto stand up at Donald’s funeral and tell the truth

goes down in history as one of the bravest moments I’d ever witnessed

Either that or Audre Lorde spreading open the arms of her dashiki

the bravest woman we’d all witnessed

telling a crowded room of followers

I began on this journey as a coward

That or seeing a friend at the height of the AIDS era

at a bar his face covered in purple welts

refusing to hide

going out in public

That or Donald Woods being feeble

barely able to walk

accepting an award as a director of AIDS films

Or an ex-lover on a beach taking off her top and refusing

to hide her mastectomy scar

Or when Danitra Vance performed at The Public Theater

and danced naked revealing her mastectomy scars

and Audre refusing to wear a prosthesis

Or when Zakes Mokae in Master Harold and the Boys in the first Broadway play

that a cousin took me too

said to his white master, “Have you ever seen a Black man’s ass?”

and pulled down his pants and revealed himself to the audience

I was sixteen years old

Or seeing my mother beaten religiously

and still go out to work as if it hadn’t happened at all

Or even me surviving so many incredible tests

Once when I was talking to a doctor, I doubted my strength

He looked at me incredulously and said, “You are strong.”

Another doctor looked at me

my suffering

And asked isn’t anyone there for you?

And another said you deserve to be taken care of

Today once more I am nursing my broken heart

Caused by someone who betrayed

was not honest

That and attending an event and asking white people to give up

their seats to Black people who couldn’t sit down

And seeing social justice in action

Yes I often think of Assotto for the important place

he resides in my history

But today I am examining his tactics

pulling the tools off the shelf

dusting off the weaponry

in an exhibit

because today I need to use what he taught me.

 

Today I feel that puff of rage

That continuous assault

And I want to stand up and testify

though I too haven’t been asked

I want to interrupt all the proceedings

all the places Black lesbians have been erased

and silenced

Like looking down at a manuscript

seeing that they asked a young white woman to write about

Black queer history

when it’s been my area of expertise

forever

Or only attributing ’80s and ’90s AIDS activism

To ACT UP

I want the point of outrage now to not only the historicizing of AIDS

But the fact that women and Black lesbians

have been erased from the dialogue

When there were so many organizations like GMAD

Other countries ADODI

Men of All Colors Together

Salsa Soul/Arican American lesbians united for Societal Change

Las Buenas Amigas

and more

Or asking where are all the Black lesbians on Pose

because certainly they were on the piers and part of that history

And why are white men constantly at the helm

to tell our stories

And why don’t white queers recognize this

That and seeing panel after panel being organized on history and art

all things important to the world and no one thinking or noticing

it might be important to have a Black lesbian present

Just like they kicked Stormé out of

the Stonewall narrative.

And what about the people who weren’t on the streets

but in jobs

fighting the system

The dykes and queers

meeting each other forming community

and connections and families

and love

Just like in South Africa where they prevented intermingling

but ways were found

And each time we touched or loved

found each other in darkness and light

It was resistance

Each time we told each other You’re beautiful

You’re not wrong

It was resistance

When we stood up to the parents and families

and courts and those that shunned us

It was resistance

Wore what we really wanted

It was resistance

Yelled at doctors and drug professionals

It was resistance

Every time we wrote and read poems

It was resistance

Every time some queer kid

stays alive because they saw us

read us

discovered the archive

We’ve won

 

Every war is fought on our bodies

And one day after the gender racial

sexual orientation wars are over

in America

there will be a new generation

just like in South Africa called

the Born Frees.

 

—2019


Watch Pamela Sneed read a version of this poem at the 2019 Stonewall 50 reading.

Copyright © 2019 Pamela Sneed. Used with permission of the poet. Videography by James Matthew Proctor, event co-hosted by Poetry Project and Lambda Literary

When did you first know you were bisexual?

I will never know how the pleasure I give feels as a body receives it. 

I fear strangers, Naomi, even the ones I love. I count their turned backs on the subway.

Some nights I fear even the subway itself—or is it my reflection in the yellowed glass, how I cannot see the city moving beyond me?

I want each round mirror to open as a window might.

Perhaps I always knew, but I mistrusted my knowing. I once stacked my journals to the height of a beloved and embraced them.

Every poem I’ve read to you has been written in this direction. Each word a line on the map I haven’t yet finished that leads me to you.

In college, I got ready for a party with two women I loved who loved each other.

I watched Diana flip Jean’s hair from her freckled shoulders before zipping her into her dress: 

the same gesture I’d made in the mirror, alone, before I arrived at their apartment.

I watched them pass Jean’s mascara wand fluently between them, one’s licked fingers curling the other’s lashes, and a question split me at my spine—

like a hand gently cracking a new book’s cover, ready to understand.

Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Mennies. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on May 28, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.

I.

my lover is a woman
& when i hold her
feel her warmth
     i feel good
     feel safe

then—i never think of
my family’s voices
never hear my sisters say
bulldaggers, queers, funny
     come see us, but don’t
     bring your friends
          it’s ok with us,
          but don’t tell mama
          it’d break her heart
never feel my father
turn in his grave
never hear my mother cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?

 

II.

my lover’s hair is blonde
& when it rubs across my face
it feels soft
     feels like a thousand fingers
     touch my skin & hold me
          and i feel good

then—i never think of the little boy
who spat & called me nigger
never think of the policemen
who kicked my body & said crawl
never think of Black bodies
hanging in trees or filled
with bullet holes
never hear my sisters say
white folks hair stinks
don’t trust any of them
never feel my father
turn in his grave
never hear my mother talk
of her backache after scrubbing floors
never hear her cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?

 

III. 

my lover's eyes are blue
& when she looks at me
i float in a warm lake
     feel my muscles go weak with want
          feel good
          feel safe

then—i never think of the blue
eyes that have glared at me
moved three stools away from me
in a bar
never hear my sisters rage
of syphilitic Black men as
guinea pigs
     rage of sterilized children
          watch them just stop in an
          intersection to scare the old
          white bitch
never feel my father turn
in his grave
never remember my mother
teaching me the yes sirs & ma'ams
to keep me alive
never hear my mother cry
Lord, what kind of child is this?

 

IV.

& when we go to a gay bar
& my people shun me because i crossed
the line
& her people look to see what's
wrong with her
     what defect
     drove her to me

& when we walk the streets
of this city
     forget and touch
     or hold hands
          & the people
          stare, glare, frown, & taunt
               at those queers

i remember
     every word taught me
     every word said to me
     every deed done to me
          & then i hate
i look at my lover
& for an instant
     doubt

then—i hold her hand tighter
     & i can hear my mother cry.
     Lord, what kind of child is this?

"My Lover Is a Woman" by Pat Parker © Anastasia Dunham-Parker-Brady, used with permission.

found language from Brideshead Revisited

When I was seventeen,
ecstasy disguised itself as vice:
juicy, offensive, and easy—

pretty things want to get rough.
an impertinent affair of the heart & more than the heart,
when I was seventeen. 

Tipsy virgins viced their pimples
when I was seventeen,
and transformed pretty things to indecisive cornsilk. 

When I was seventeen I said
I give up, finding no keener pleasure than a dear
or unnatural boys in ecstasy.

My partner, the obscure other,
was very naughty and kind
insatiable as our affairs, 

so I gave up and let myself be offensive—
a juicy piece of impertinence 
when I was seventeen,

wearing coloured tails obscured
by poppies, hearts, and deers:
no thing could give me keener pleasure.

Come back! I’ll be keenly offensive!
whispered, when I was seventeen
and transformed the popping juice of pleasure.

With meaty boys, a juicy little piece 
of vice, when I was seventeen.
And with others? Pleasure. Hullabaloo. Ecstasy. 

The heart’s juicy poppy,
its rough pimples, its kindness—blasphemous.
I gave up more than my heart.

Copyright © 2021 by Cyrée Jarelle Johnson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on June 3, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.