September 19, 2018 – Atlanta, GA – The iconographic images of long-time Atlanta-based photographer and Counter Narrative Project (CNP) Director of Networking and Community Mobilization, Johnnie Ray Kornegay III, are gracing the September/October pages of Positively Aware Magazine’s landmark HIV Criminalization issue. The editor of the publication’s special edition commissioned Mr. Kornegay as the volume’s cover photographer to visually capture the stories of those impacted by HIV criminalization laws as well as those who have spent the better part of their lives advocating for the modernization, if not the eradication of these draconian laws. The issue features such prominent activists as Georgia HIV Justice Coalition’s Nina Martinez and survivors such as The Sero Project’s Robert Suttle, a Black gay man who was imprisoned under Louisiana law. Symbolically shot at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the critical edition extends Mr. Kornegay’s reputation as one who continues to mix his art and activism with a unique and personal flair.
Charles Stephens founded the Counter Narrative Project in April 2014 after several years working in local and national organizations. CNP’s mission is to “build power among black gay men and stand in solidarity with other movements committed to social justice.” Stephens’s vision for CNP is large and engaging offering black gay men a political platform and political home. Part of that clear-headed, unblinking advocacy is effectively connecting Black gay men to their past through the works of Black gay activists and artists of the past. What follows is a look at the roots of CNP from its collaborators and staff, including: Alvin Agarrat, Jeff Graham, Johnnie Ray Kornegay, III, Ayesha McAdams-Mahmoud, Suraj Madoori, and, of course, Stephens himself.
The fourth year of the Counter Narrative Project (CNP) found our committed organization going from strength to strength in 2017, deepening our commitments in critical areas while learning more about where we excel and where we could use a bit more work. The year offered unexpected triumphs and harrowing tales for the Black gay men (BGM) we serve, from successfully raising five-figures to support the legal defense of Michael Johnson to highlighting the many deaths to intimate partner violence (IPV) that made headlines throughout the year. Throughout it all, CNP was there to elevate the voices, experiences, and expectations of BGM who continue to demand to be heard across various media and policy platforms and who will no longer be denied a table of their own, rather than merely the token seats at someone else's.
Just as it took a process of time, reading, living, and loving to come to a state of radically loving my Blackness and my gay identity, so is it to accept this body and all that comes with it. It has been a process assisted by the words of folks like Gay and Renee, Black feminists who know something about what it means for the world to tell you that you’re undesirable. I desperately needed their help, having not always been a size 46 in the waist. It has taken more than a decade to relax into this identity of “bear” and have it become a comfy fit (and, yes, I’ve heard the concerned Black gay nationalist arguments of adopting yet more white gay cultural language by using terms like “bear,” but I can’t really embrace the term “boy” at a smooth and grown 43-years-old in any context, even one intended to be culturally affirming).
I lacked the bravery and carefreeness displayed by hundreds of cubs, bears, chubs, superchubs, otters, and chaser brethren who confidently splashed, played, and luxuriated in the Orlando heat over the four official days of the Eighth Annual Big Boy Pride at the Parliament House pool. The privilege of standing bare-chested in the sun, in the sparkling chlorine water, or just outside in a public space before the caressing or judging eyes of others is something Black men of size seldom can take for granted, particularly not gay men of size, trained to be particularly attuned to the harsh judgement of the male gaze.
The first time Lauryn canceled on me, she had a legitimate excuse. I was in the middle of my junior year of Montclair High. The African American Awareness Club’s faculty advisor had a connection to Lauryn’s family, and had arranged for her to attend a meeting one afternoon. While Lauryn was certainly a known hip-hop artist, The Fugees hadn’t released The Score, which would catapult her to global superstardom. She probably still had time in her schedule to deign to visit with a random group of high schoolers. Unfortunately, Lauryn’s visit never came to pass, as a nor’easter dropped about 4 feet of snow on the Mid-Atlantic the week of our scheduled meeting. A few weeks later, The Score dropped, dashing our hopes of a visit with a fellow Jersey girl. You see, Lauryn was raised in the neighboring towns of Newark and South Orange, where she attended Columbia High, a rival to my alma mater. (In fact, Ras Baraka, Newark’s current mayor and son of famed poet Amiri Baraka, can be heard on the interludes of the magum opus I honor with this column, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.)
It was in hot and sweaty venues with music and strobe lights that I discovered identity was negotiable. Before I turned the legal age of 18 in my hometown of Atlanta, I saw identity as something fixed. In gay clubs, I quickly learned that identity was liquid, able to flow and transform based off of the container and environmental circumstance.
I was 18 when I met him. He hissed. I pretended to not hear him as I walked in front of the corner store collecting snacks to keep my body the fat spectacle it was. I was beginning to shed the childhood insecurities and began walking into the flaws-and-all confidence I wouldn’t fully know until adulthood. Comfort in authenticity was a new adventure when I was 18. He hissed again. I walked a bit faster, terrified by the persistence and complimented by the interest.
It took a long time for me to enjoy myself. It started with 30-second gazes into the mirror and grew into a lunch date with myself and now I’m a writer, which means a lifetime marriage with myself. There is a societal pressure to love yourself that says this self-love will unlock all the things you desire that are probably the reasons you hate yourself to begin with. There is also this unspoken push for the natural. To preserve, physically, who you were born as and to not fall victim to this societal pressure to change yourself. There are countless self-help and diet industries designed around these ethos.
Technology is integrating with our lives at an intense rate whether we like it or not. This is both bad and good. Technology gives up convenience. Theoretically, it allows us to open up our lives now that we do not have to be concerned with tasks that can be done by computers or folks willing to make jobs out of what we no longer desire to do. Technology offers us the space to be human instead of taskmasters.
May 15, 2018 – Atlanta, GA – The Counter Narrative Project (CNP) congratulates Gracie Bonds Staples on winning the coveted 2018 GLAAD Media Award for “Outstanding Newspaper Article.” Hosted by the GLAAD in New York City on May 5th, following star-studded ceremonies in Los Angeles in April, the 29th Annual Awards ceremony honored her critically acclaimed coverage of the HIV epidemic’s impact on Black gay men in the South. Published last August in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), the five-part series, “The Silent Epidemic: Black Gay Men and HIV,” featured Rev. Duncan Teague, Craig Washington, Dr. David Malebranche, Daniel Driffin, as well as CNP Executive Director Charles Stephens
My body has never been still. It has had its ebbs and flows. My relationship with my body has had similar ups and downs. Some of my deepest moments of self-hatred has happened at my thinnest physical moments. And, moments where I’ve felt the most divine and delicious have also been when I’ve been at my fattest. The relationship with the body, like any relationship, is not static and comfortable.
As I reflect on the content now as a black gay man, no longer a boy, I realize realness was a common thread in all of the creators and content I was consuming. Most of the black gay men who had YouTube channels expressed countless times that their goal was to transform their YouTube popularity into stardom that meant television networks and shows, hosting gigs, and mainstream attention: realness. They were not satisfied with the independent or niche market they were dominating, but instead desired “real” celebrity and power which meant mainstream attention and access.
It’s National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day (NYHAAD). A national day devoted to telling you to be safe and how to be safe from HIV. Another day of folks holding you accountable and responsible for your own safety as a young Black gay man. Safety? Days like today must seem cosmically absurd and certainly hypocritical to have older people tell you how to be safe when they fail you on a daily on so very many fronts. When those who deign to scold, rebuke, and judge, if only implicitly through days like today, are consistently unwilling or unable to pass the laws and policies that can save, protect, and enrich your life, you have every right to ask why this protection matters more than other paths of protection.
Upon looking at various statistics on the HIV epidemic, the most striking realization was the percentage of those living with HIV, yet unaware of their status. In 2013, half of allyouth and emerging adults aged 13-24 living with HIV, didn’t know they had HIV.
Partnership has never come naturally to me; the idea or the lifestyle of it. When I feel the most at peace is when I am alone. When life makes the most sense to me is when I can reflect on it in solitude. Billie Holiday sings in her blues song “Solitude”: “In my solitude, you haunt me with memories of days gone by.” This, I suspect, is one of the reasons people can find themselves attempting to escape quietude. In this space, ideas and memories both pleasant and traumatic are able to flood the mind.
My favorite part of preparing Kool-Aid as a child was watching the sugar dissolve. I would fill the pitcher with water, not quite to the rim. I would rip the packet open and pour my preferred flavor into the water. Then, I would add the sugar. The sugar was the most important step to ensure the drink was refreshing and sweet, not strong and bitter. In childhood, I had a few moments where I experienced Kool-Aid with not enough sugar or no sugar at all. The taste was bitter and strong. My young mind would ask when, “Is this what Kool-Aid really is? This bitter and disgusting liquid only made edible by copious amounts of sugar?” Not the most sophisticated thought, but strong enough to haunt my adolescent self. I started to wonder was I finding delight in the actual powder that I was unleashing into the water called Kool-Aid or was I just simply just a slave to sugar?
February 28, 2018 – Atlanta, GA – The Counter Narrative Project (CNP) Atlanta-based Mobilization Director, Johnnie Ray Kornegay, III, has been featured among the South’s top queer artists in the third physical edition of WUSSY Magazine, a Southern LGBTQ multimedia platform. Kornegay and three of his selected photographic works are prominently featured in WUSSY's “Sex Issue” alongside over 30 other queer Southern artists. The edition, available now through WussyMag.com, serves as both Kornegay’s artistic debut in a print publication and the first time his work will have international exposure through the magazine’s global distribution channels.
White supremacist rhetoric, easily accessed via media and literature, told him that none of these realities belong to him, but instead are the fault of marginalized people—and, perhaps, that even if he doesn’t know those challenges well, that he is susceptible to them so long as those marginalized people have any access, power or identity whatsoever. He was told and chose to believe the only way to gain a happy state of being is by accessing power through hatred, although his gender and race grants him immeasurable amounts of power simply by existing. And this was easier than working through life, loving through life, forgiving through life, or being accountable through life.
Oprah was my first taste of possibility. I could not have been older than nine years of age; witnessing her with a microphone and holding the attention of a large audience inspired something in me. The arrogance of youth overcame me, and I thought to myself, that should be me. I had things to say. I deserve eyeballs and ears of the public for forty-five minutes a day with advertisement for toothpaste and cleaning supplies running in between. As my youthful entitlement matured into a more socially accepted adult anxiety, I still look positively at that moment of possibility. I also think critically about what made that moment of possibility possible.
As you move forward, it’s gonna be a challenging walk, filled with bumps, bruises, scars, tears, hiccups, and awakenings. You are magical, powerful, and beautiful...even if you can’t see it right now. You are an alchemist. You are resilient. Fear is just an illusion. It’s gonna seem insurmountable at times, but it’s transient...like most of everything in life, EXCEPT LOVE.
There was a murder in Atascocita, Texas on Sunday night. Devon Wade was killed by his partner Mario Williams. The police reports say there were two arguments. One resulted in Williams asking Wade to leave. Williams obliged. The second, and final argument, also concluded with Wade asking Williams to leave. He did leave through the back door, but not before delivering two bullets to his romantic partner’s head. Wade’s twin brother was found holding him, begging someone to call for help. It was, unfortunately, too late. Devon Wade had died. And in a way, I’m sure Mario Williams is now dead too.
The possibilities that Knight birthed just by being willing to be seen is unable to be articulated or measured because you can't measure the importance of the moment when an artist witnesses something that affirms the possibility of their dream being reality. You can't articulate what it means to be of this transgressive space that is black gay men refusing to be hidden. You can only acknowledge it.
My name is Johnnie Ray Kornegay III, and I am the Network and Mobilization Director for The Counter Narrative Project. I’m happy to be here tonight to celebrate Pride and the local LGBTQ community with the help of American Express. As Pride kicks off, we are honored to be working alongside Amex, a company that has long stood behind the LGBTQ community, to raise awareness and funding for those who need it most.
After years in therapy and unpacking a lot of what’s at the root of my issues around self-worth, I’ve accepted that is that a lot of this stuff will most likely be with me for the rest of my life. So I've committed myself to working as hard as I can on paying attention to what goes on inside my mind as it pertains to my self-worth and how much I weigh on any given day.
As a black gay man, I’ve always been in search of a historical roadmap of who I am through learning about the lives of those who came before me. Discovering the works of other black gay writers and activists years ago helped me in unimaginable ways.
Earlier this year, I came to learn things about myself which can only be described as transformative. Before June, the name Craig G. Harris had no significance at all but by June 27th, 2017, all of that had changed forever.
I am a black gay man from the South. I came of age in the 90s and early-2000s. Like most of my generation, those of us in the gap between Generation X and Y, I grew up with a vague notion of what it meant to be gay, and none of what it meant to be both black and gay.
At the time of writing this, it has been 7 days since I met author and activist James Baldwin, albeit posthumously via a screening of the Raoul Peck-directed documentary I Am Not Your Negro. The film is based on an unfinished manuscript Baldwin penned discussing his thoughts on and relationships with three Civil Rights icons: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. Groundbreaking playwright Lorraine Hansberry is also referenced in the film, through Baldwin’s own words, of course. As narrator, Samuel L. Jackson wields his commanding voice to reanimate Baldwin’s.
In the mid-1980s Duncan Teague and other Atlanta black LGBT folks called a meeting in his living room to respond to the HIV epidemic and to increase the Atlanta organizing in the black LGBT communities. At the time the effect of HIV on the black community did not receive the needed public attention. In our communities, in our night clubs, and in our organizations, we knew and cared for the people being impacted. Teague understood intimately how this was changing black LGBT life, and he stepped up as a leader. That meeting contributed to the birthing of the African American Gay and Lesbian Alliance (AALGA). This meeting also helped set the stage for a lifetime of service and advocacy for our communities.