I hope this love letter doesn't sound like a PSA. I loved Bryce* because he talked like he found resignation comfortable, in a slow baritone whine. Recalling pain that would make me stammer, his voice maintained the same pliant sweetness. I remember wondering if I could sigh through words like Bryce did. I wanted to know where he stowed his rage and if I could put mine there too.
Before we met, his stare cut through the booming dark to where I stood on the dance floor. I had just finished my first year at Morehouse, and being in Charlotte at Scorpio meant being away from the familiar cold judgement that waited for me just a few hours North up I-85. Bryce and his twin brother had come from Kannapolis, their own panopticon of prying eyes and Pentecostal intolerance.
Bryce offered an audience, and I forgot what I knew about shame. I danced sporadically to Beyoncé singing about green lights and ringing alarms. Perhaps in spite of myself, I danced just for him.
Though he became a fixture of my nights out, I didn't hear much of Bryce's voice until a few summers later. We were both staying rent-free with a mutual friend in Raleigh. The three of us watched HBO's True Blood, which takes place in a fantasy South of vampires and werewolves. In between episodes, Bryce would call me back to the South I knew was real, playfully mocking the preachers and church secretaries who led our respective childhood Sundays and did the Lord's work by telling us, always out of sincere concern, that we weren't good enough. They were careful to never chastise directly. Instead, they spoke in hushed tones about other boys who became men like us—nasty boys and funny boys—warning of our coming maturation, they spoke of sin, embarrassed families, and frightening things about AIDS. We had been warned, and now we waited for hell or redemption, finding consolation in our own company.
The dated townhouse we were staying at had a pool. I wasn't a swimmer, but Bryce had been a lifeguard. One night, standing against the wall of the pool's shallow end, I saw him positioning himself away from me, farther and deeper in. Bryce was especially composed in the water as he turned towards me. We locked eyes and he nodded slowly. Despite giving it my all, a clumsy dog paddle only splashed water in the direction of where he stood, tall and beautiful, now smiling. I couldn't reach him. Leaning back towards the wall, I reignited some day-old conversation.
I wanted to know where he stowed his rage and if I could put mine there too.
Neither of us had money or many friends in Raleigh, so we spent most of our time together that way—in the midst of halfhearted doings and comfortable silences. We had a cool, unspoken understanding to not say or do too much beyond occasional nights spent together in darkness. Still, after our summer ended, I treasured what Bryce taught me about connection. I learned that love could manifest leisurely and without any real basis beyond mutual admiration. I imagined one day meeting someone like him who spoke like he knew the pain I knew and had found some way to accept it.
I didn't see Bryce again until two years later at Icon, a now closed Black gay club in Cary, North Carolina. I was a broke grad school dropout by then. I had spent the bulk of the interim at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Except for a few weekends away in Harlem, Rutgers was isolating, and being back home in North Carolina came with familial support. Being home also came with icy rebukes, which centered my sexuality as though it were a mangy little beast I insisted on toting around.
At Icon, I tried to distract myself. I teetered along the edge of the crowd, silently chastising myself for too quickly drinking the one vodka soda I was supposed to have. Then I heard Bryce shouting: "Darius!" He looked and sounded different—upbeat and composed. Instead of his typical cargo shorts and worn shirt, he had a trendy mohawk and a bright blue tee. I missed the way his former scruffy appearance only confirmed the tenacity of his beauty. Unfazed by my silent assessment, Bryce buzzed about his boyfriend, his boyfriend's muscles, and his boyfriend's friends—also with muscles—who he thought I should meet. We promised to really catch up soon, but we didn't. Instead, we exchanged a few texts before things receded back to what I thought was the comfortable silence we knew well—from the pool, from Scorpio.
[T]hey spoke in hushed tones about other boys who became men like us—nasty boys and funny boys.
A few months later in 2013, I received a call from our mutual friend. He told me Bryce had passed from pneumonia. He was still in his twenties.
The same boyfriend Bryce buzzed about had to go through a convoluted loop of people to contact Bryce's family or anyone who had known him before they met. He eventually reached one of Bryce's exes who had moved to Baltimore. He told our mutual friend, who then relayed the news to Kannapolis. Bryce elected not to tell the friend, his twin brother, or any of his family about his pneumonia or hospitalization. They only found out after he passed.
For me, the news swiftly demoted a slew of insecurities—my tenuous employment, living back home, and not knowing what came next. Bryce was dead. The comfortable silence between us filled with unanswered questions. Perhaps in some way I am still ineffectively dog paddling to reach him—to know how.
Or perhaps I am still dancing just for Bryce. Soon after learning of his death, I was fired from my job selling new cars at a Lexus dealership. My grandfather was a car salesman, and following his path seemed safe until it didn't. Bryce's death inspired a haunting curiosity in me that I couldn't quench with deliveries and test drives. On a whim, I had already reapplied to graduate school. This time, I stayed in North Carolina, someplace familiar, however complicated.
I started studying the histories of roads through Southern rural Black communities like my own, like Bryce's—the ones through which we escaped to just be, and the ones we took to go back home. I kept wondering why his life ended the way it did. How do Southern Black queer and transgender people end up disproportionately facing a virus much of the country thinks is over?
The first man I interviewed was Greg*. Like the other Black gay men I interview, he is older. Like many of the others, he somberly recalled nursing a partner and watching him die. My narrators remember doing so alone. without support from the loved ones or families who say they "accept" them. Like Bryce, they had left their less urban hometowns for larger cities like Raleigh or Durham. Some recall going as far as Long Beach and New York City.
Despite being out, many of my narrators never introduce their partners to family "out of respect" for the religious norms that label their love taboo. They know that exclusion awaits the bold. Greg recalled such a fate for someone from his hometown: "He done lost his father, his mother, one of his brothers, never came home." Though Greg has moved to Durham, he knows intimately that stigma still courses through the coastal hamlet. It showed up there at his father's funeral mere months before our interview: "While we was down there the whole week and a half, people skeeved me… I can hear them talking: 'There's that sissy.'"
"He done lost his father, his mother, one of his brothers, never came home."
Perhaps such stigma is what drove Bryce, so taken with his boyfriend, away from his friends and family in Kannapolis before he passed.
I wish my narrators spoke of Souths that were different from my own. But they tell me what I know too well about Southern queer and transgender people navigating a lack of resolution with acceptance—bound by religious mores—and their own God-given identities. For my narrators, being out offers little reprieve. There remains a binding expectation to not be too open—an expectation that is complicated by the lingering hold of HIV and the way it divulges too much about sex or who one might love. The result is disconnection.
Some of Bryce's family knew of his HIV status, and I know some of them cared deeply for him. I ultimately can't say why they didn't know to be there by his bedside. But I imagine, as with the other thousands of people who die yearly from HIV complications, there are factors that may have fallen well beyond the reach of both Bryce and his doctors.
How do Southern Black queer and transgender people end up disproportionately facing a virus much of the country thinks is over?
In 2017, a conservatively estimated 5,698 people died from HIV complications in the United States. Of the 15,807 HIV-positive people who died (of any cause) in 2016, 47 percent lived in the South, where religious stigma clashes with anything marginally sex-related—getting an HIV test or receiving regular treatment. To be clear, there's something fatal in the Bible Belt stigma that has withstood the challenges of countless million-dollar campaigns meant to render queer people living with HIV free of shame.
But the South is complicated. However stigmatized, queer life enlivens the region's humid distances—sparse dancefloors and, yes, even Sunday worship services. Queer life, too secretly, often whirls through these distances without much more reproach than gossiping whispers. In this light, perhaps there was always space for Bryce in the place he grew up. After receiving the call, his family moved in swift coordination to see that his body was brought to them back in Kannapolis. They arranged a proper burial service for someone they loved. Like me and the men I interview, I imagine Bryce knew of only one home.
* To protect their identities, Bryce and Greg are pseudonyms.