by D.A. Steward
When Tyler Clementi jumped off New York’s George Washington Bridge in 2010, he quickly became the face of the anti-gay bullying epidemic. But that same year, it was the suicide of Joseph Jefferson, a 26-year-old African-American gay rights activist, that deeply affected award-winning journalist and author Antoine B. Craigwell.
Jefferson’s roommate found him after he’d hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was a graduate of the famous Harvey Milk High School and worked at Gay Men of African Descent, devoting much of his time to the fight against HIV/AIDS in the black gay community. Needless to say, his suicide took many by surprise.
“I went to [Jefferson’s] funeral,” Craigwell said. “I couldn’t help but think, ‘What could I have done to prevent this?’ That was my powder-keg moment.”
At the time, Craigwell already had logged many hours working on a book that he still hopes will become the definitive research tool on the issue of black gay men and depression. However, setbacks with securing a publisher led him to translating the project into a full-length documentary.
Craigwell partnered with NAACP Image Award-winning director Stanley Bennett Clay and late last year released You Are Not Alone, a powerful and unprecedented look into the issue of depression in the lives of black gay men. Craigwell interviews dozens of men about their experiences, and Clay packages it in a way that offers hope to those who feel hopeless.
“No one’s talking about the intense stigma and homophobia a black gay man has to deal with that’s getting him to the point where he no longer cares about himself and too often getting to the point where he wants to die,” Craigwell said.
Clay, who’s known mostly for his stage work, said he approached the film the same way he approaches his dramatic writing and directing.
“Here is the spilled milk, now clean it the f*** up!” Clay said. “In Act 1, I show what depression is and what it looks like, and Act 2 is about redemption and finding the resolution. How can we solve this issue? The story had to be uplifting.”
Craigwell and Clay hope to continue to be an uplifting force beyond the film. Through this project, the organization Depressed Black Gay Men was born. DBGM now consists of the book, the documentary and a series of community discussions that Craigwell and the cast/crew host in various cities throughout the country.
“Being a part of this documentary definitely helped me emotionally, I talk candidly on camera about dealing with the sexual abuse done to me by my father, and how I didn’t associate it with abuse as a kid. I just thought that was how my father loved me,” said Lester Greene, one of the many powerful stories featured in the film.
Greene is also responsible for a song on the film’s soundtrack, titled Father and Son.
“Doing the documentary was my own form of therapy. This film is a beacon of light, and I hope it shows people that even though I dealt with all of those hardships, I overcame it, and they can too.”
Nhojj, an OUTMusic Award-winning recording artist who’s responsible for the film’s theme song Hold On… You’re Not Alone, echoes this sentiment.
“That’s where the song came from…my own personal experiences with depression and overcoming it,” he said. “When films like this come along, you realize there are other people who are going through the same thing. It adds relief and helps to look at what’s really causing this.”
Craigwell’s research identifies five key components that lead to depression among black gay men, which are discussed in great detail in the film and his book. He cites denial or negation of self by family, community and/or society; sexual abuse or sexual trauma; the role of the church, and religion demonizing one for who they are; the correlation between HIV/AIDS and depression; and the abandonment felt by older gay black men who are emotionally and sexually rejected.
“This is a film that everyone needs to see,” said Dr. Jeffery Gardere, a clinical psychologist who appears as an expert in the film and is also its co-executive producer. “My hope for the film is that it becomes a staple in every school system in the country, because we have so many young people who are just coming to terms with their sexuality and are committing suicide just for being who they are.”
You Are Not Alone is set to hit the film-festival circuit this year, with appearances already scheduled at Los Angeles’ Pan African Film & Arts Festival (Feb. 7-18) and the Oakland International Black LGBT Film Festival (Feb. 15-17). Craigwell said he wants to have the film released on DVD within the next year as well, but until then he’s willing to host screenings and discussions of the film anywhere he’s welcome.
Everyone interviewed for this article said getting its message to the people was the most important mission of You Are Not Alone.
“Depression among black gay men because they are black and gay needs to stop,” Clay said. “When we sat down to watch the first rough cut of the film with the editor, we all cried. All I could think was, ‘Wow, this is going to help a lot of people.’”
For more information on the film You Are Not Alone and the organization Depressed Black Gay Men visit yana-thefilm.com and dbgm.org.
D.A. Steward writes The Other Side every month for outlook. He also hosts Queer Minded, an online radio show that airs live every Thursday at 8p at talktainmentradio.com.