Forward Is the Only Direction

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| This is the 454th story of Our Life Logs |


My name is Kelvin Johnson and I was born in 1961 on the Southside of Chicago to a family of six kids. My siblings and I were all one year apart, and I was the second oldest. In my early life, my father worked as a barber, and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. Those early years were rough on my mother as she was battling demons in the early stages of her alcoholism and drug addiction. Because of this, my father, the patriarch of the family, served as the linchpin that provided stability and kept everything together. Unfortunately, my father’s interminable presence within the Johnson family structure was cut short after he unexpectedly passed from a heart attack when I was nine.

In the aftermath of his death, we moved out of the family house into Hyde Park. My mother’s addiction had skyrocketed by then. Without my father around to help and with my older brother always running away to my grandmother’s house, I was forced to step into the caregiver role and take care of my sisters when I was only 10 years old.

Section Break-Mountains

At Hales Franciscan, an all-boys private high school that was predominantly black, many of the parents were involved in school events. I always felt like an outcast because not only did my classmates bring both of their parents and I could only bring one, but also, my mother was very open about her sexuality and would choose to dress in masculine attire. As a result, kids regularly teased me about it. “Why is your mom dressed like a man?” They would ask while chuckling. “Your mom is more man than you’ll ever be!”

Despite this ridicule, it did open up a door to explore myself. Out in the open, I dated women like my classmates, but I soon realized that deep down, the rapport I shared with them felt platonic; I just dated these girls because it was expected. Though I secretly had encounters with men from time to time, I never necessarily connected homosexuality to any of these thoughts. I figured I was just experimenting.

Confused about these feelings I was experiencing, I eventually decided to turn to someone who might know best about the topic: my mother. She was very open in her advice and even chose to reveal the sexual identity she felt she belonged to from an early age. But be that as it may, I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that she had six kids with my father. How could she give up 20-plus years of her life living a complete lie? Upon confronting her about it, she answered in flat out honesty.

“Well, Kelvin, you have to consider the times. When I was young and told my mother that I was gay, she told me the harsh truth. ‘You’re female, so you are already a second-class citizen and on top of that, you’re black. If you’re gay, you better go to your grave knowing this and not tell anybody.’”

Section Break-Mountains

Notwithstanding the heavy homophobia that was still around, LGBT rights were beginning to change in the 1970s, in light of the gay rights movement. And near my senior year of high school, I slowly began to realize that there was a strong possibility that I might be gay too, just like my mother.

Of course, given the class lectures I often heard at my Catholic school, I sometimes privately wondered if I was going to end up going to hell if I ever decided to officially identify as a homosexual. The bible had clearly stated that God created man and woman, not man and man. An authentic Christian is not to ever question God’s authority. So, did this mean that God hated my mother and potentially me? Perhaps we weren’t fit to live on this earth.

I slowly began turning to alcohol to resolve the inner conflict I was grappling with. Within months, it transformed into alcoholism. By my last year of high school, my alcohol dependency had reached the point where my family decided it would be best for me to attend my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. Little did I know, it would be the first of many.

In the fall of 1979, I started attending Lincoln College several hours away from Chicago, but my stay was brief. After two semesters, my drinking problem started interfering with my school work, so, upon flunking out, I returned home and began working at a bank. While the salary was great, I didn’t bring any authenticity to my work routine. Still, I pressed on.

Section Break-Mountains

By age 19, I had concluded that I was gay. But outside of my mother, none of my friends and coworkers were aware of the gay lifestyle I practiced in private. My decision to keep my homosexuality a secret prevented anyone from knowing who the “real” Kelvin was; they only recognized the image I had constructed and tried to present to the world.

Terrified at what lied ahead, I often contemplated just how realistic it was for me to attain genuine happiness and find my purpose. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. Being an African-American man, there are societal pressures one constantly faces to conform to heterosexuality and hypermasculinity. Yet in my case, by internally identifying as a “gay” African-American man, the masculine concept was simply an unrealistic standard for me to live up to.

There was a sense of feeling like an object of rejection and scorn for not living up to other people’s expectations of what I should be. Being caring, compassionate, and affectionate were all qualities I believed in and lived by, so I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “What do I have to do to be accepted? Why is feminine behavior only ascribed to gay men? And given my intersectional identity, what exactly is my place in society?”

A few months later in 1981, I discovered from my doctor that I had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Already struggling with alcoholism, the appalling news only added fuel to the fire and eventually my search for euphoria became an unconquerable force.

Section Break-Mountains

I had a good-paying job and the freedom to rely on my 401K Plan at the time. However, instead of using my salary to pay for my apartment’s monthly expenses, I chose to feed into my body’s cravings and spend it on alcohol and drugs. Consequently, I was evicted from my apartment and from that moment forward, I began staying at a homeless shelter on the Northside.

Had I approached a family member and asked them for a place to stay, I knew they would have told me to check into rehab, but I wasn’t interested in hearing their lectures or becoming a burden. One of my character defects at the time was my refusal to become dependent on someone else, so instead, I chose to “figure it all out” on my own.

Most days consisted of me walking around looking for places to keep warm during the winters. Even though I invariably had the option of being able to sleep inside a warm home, in the end, instant gratification always won, and the moment of peace these hazardous products provided were inimitable. In a world that refused to acknowledge me for who I really was, I felt whole, at least for a couple of hours.

Alcohol served as a gateway drug for me by virtue of the abused substance drawing me towards freebase cocaine (at the time, I didn’t know there were two distinct cocaine versions), crack, pills, acid, and even experimenting with heroin one time to see what it was like. My addiction naturally worsened over time until I couldn’t live without my vices.

Section Break-Mountains

Interestingly enough, around 1986, while I was still battling my addiction, my mother was in recovery and had turned her life around. And just like how I had helped her as a young 10-year-old boy, the roles were now reversed with her being the one attempting to help me. Since she was working as a health educator in the HIV field at the Cook County Department of Infectious disease (Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center), she tried convincing me to join her and overcome my substance abuse. Of course, my stubbornness prevented me from agreeing to her proposal at first, but I eventually came around to the idea. I finally began to realize that I did need help, and assistance from others was not something to be considered a weakness.

While being employed at the Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, I simultaneously attended various AA meetings on my own and enrolled in—but sooner or later also wound up dropping out of—several college courses. Within that six to seven-year span, I practically ended up going to every city college in Chicago you can think of. At that point, I had been in recovery for about a year and a half, and my hard work gradually appeared to be paying off.

And yet, every time I felt I was making progress, fate seemed to point me towards a never-ending cycle of constant misery. These negative forces became most prevalent in 1995 when I found out I was HIV positive and relapsed. Given the HIV/AIDs epidemic at the time, and how the virus was viewed as a “homosexual disease,” I feared my death was imminent. That my contraction served as punishment for my sexuality. I was given treatment to help keep it at bay, but my self-hatred led me back into the jaws of addiction.

Section Break-Mountains

My relapse lasted about 13 years with my daily routine mimicking my pre-sober one: staying at a homeless shelter (only this time near Evanston), eating my meals there, resting/taking quick naps near the lake, getting drunk and high, and indulging in unhealthy sexual activities to try and turn off the daily mental struggles that were inside my head.

Witnessing my ongoing struggles all those years, my mother one day told me, “Kelvin, you were doing well. I don’t think you should start drinking and drugging again because of your HIV. There are some good gay people on the Northside, living happy and healthy with HIV. Maybe you should go see what they are doing and do the same.”

After careful thought, for the second time in my life, in 2008, I took her advice. I joined Brothers United In Support: a support group for HIV-positive African-American men who identify as gay or bisexual. There, I learned more about HIV and later became an HIV counselor.

Like me, many of the members of the Brothers United In Support community had been ostracized by society and attempted to tune out self-loathing thoughts using negative coping mechanisms. In the time I spent there, I couldn’t help but admire the courage many clients had to seek out help—unlike myself at a young age—and the resiliency they demonstrated by refusing to believe that HIV was their breaking point.

Section Break-Mountains

In the neighborhood I come from, as well as in many other inner cities across the U.S., the old saying is that “education is the way out.” To their point, it is the God’s honest truth. It would take me years to make peace with my sexual orientation. But the more education I received and the more cathartic conversations I had with my HIV gay peers, the more I began to find inspiration and realize that I had the right to be happy, regardless of what religion and social norms had told me about my identity. After attempting to rid myself from the enormous amounts of shame and remorse all those years, I finally learned that there was no need to hide that side of me and continue to let it live in the shadows. My homosexuality was a part of me.

You should never feel guilty about being your true self, regardless of what society tells you is “abnormal.” Everyone in this world has their own set of idiosyncrasies and traits that separates us from one another. I am now finally proud to admit to myself and to the rest of the world that I am Kelvin Johnson, a recovering addict, who is now seven years sober, and an openly gay man.

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This is the story of Kelvin Johnson

Kelvin currently resides in Chicago where he works at a family shelter called Good News Partners New Life. Growing up in Chicago during the 1960s, Kelvin spent most of his days taking care of his younger sisters in light of his mother’s addiction and father’s death.  Around late adolescence, he began to realize that he was gay, but as an African American he didn’t want to face the judgement and kept it hidden for years, diving into alcohol and drugs to cope. It wasn’t until many years later that he found the strength to get sober and stay sober. In 2017, at age 56, Kelvin graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. By then, he felt it was finally the right time and the right place, both physically and mentally. Kelvin’s dream is to get his master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D. to open more doors for him. One of his biggest heroes is Bayard Rustin, an American leader in social movements for civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and gay rights. To Rustin, the world was more important than his recognition, which is a philosophy Kelvin utterly respects and believes in.

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Kelvin, 2019.

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This story first touched our hearts on September 16, 2019.

| Writer: Brian Quevedo | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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