A BLACK GAY MAN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LAW
Before that moment nothing existed but black. The car doors swung open. The smell of cold Burger King fries on the backseat and the sound of Nikes bouncing across the pavement fleeing the scene.
My memory was born in the back of that ’91 Honda. I was four years old, but neither the haunting blue lights nor our Civic coming to an abrupt halt frightened me. I was alone; my father and his merry band of hoodlums (accomplices) had deserted the car–and me–to escape into the night.
Soon after my abandonment the beam of a flashlight invaded through the dingy windows. Everything was washed in whiteness: my stout ashy legs, my oversized sandals, and a stuffed Wiley Coyote doll that I clung to like he was the only man that would ever love me. The police officer peeked his head through the open door. He looked at me as if he were examining evidence. My eyes fixated on the gun on his hip. I had no idea what the toy in his holster was or what it was capable of, but I was drawn to its authority.
The cop dragged (rescued) me from the vehicle and put me in the back of the squad car. He promised that I wasn’t in trouble, but being caged in the back on our way to juvenile made me believe differently. Although he tried to keep his tone even, I could tell I was an inconvenience for him. My existence meant more paperwork even though his suspects had got away. It frustrated him more that I didn’t know basic information, like my address or my parent’s name. I couldn’t explain that my mother and grandmothers allowed my Dad to take me out with him that night, not knowing that Dad had multiple warrants or that Dad was going joyriding with his fellow menaces to society. They didn’t know he would desert his child to avoid justice. They didn’t even know I was spending the night in kiddie jail until the next morning when they were called to pick me up.
Ten years later I ended up just like my father. While he was now serving life in maximum security for homicide, I was being escorted to the back room behind the lay-a-way at Wal-Mart for shoplifting. All the respectable customers stopped enjoying the rolled-back prices to gawk at my delinquent’s walk of shame down aisle nine. I held my head high, knowing I’d only been caught doing something I’d seen my friends and cousins do for years, swiping candy bars, Pokémon cards, loose change or whatever we wanted. Children of low-income households learn very quickly that if you want something, you’ve got to take it. Nobody is going to give you anything.
So that’s how the Assistant Manager ended up grabbing me as I attempted to walk out of a supercenter with the new B2K CD in my jacket. I was completely in love with the lead singer of this particular boy band. My gay teenage hormones had me convinced that I had to have this album, and, because I had been too ashamed to ask for it and couldn’t pay for it, this was the only way.
I was aware that taking things that didn’t belong to me wasn’t right. I was a sensitive and intelligent kid. I could be easily taught morals, but first I’d have to learn what they were. What I needed was Carl Winslow from Family Matters or Uncle Phil from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to sit me down for a stern talking-to and explain why what I was doing was wrong. What I got was a gray-haired officer from the Memphis Police Department repeatedly slamming me across a patrol car because I refused to give him my mother’s name and number.
The weight of being a single mother had gotten to my mother and the beatings she doled out had only grown more severe and frequent with her changing moods. I shuddered to think what she’d do when she discovered how my latest stunt would inconvenience her.
So I preferred to endure Officer Old-timer’s primitive form of torture rather than hers. There were three of them that walked me out back by the Tire and Lube center, secluded like they were about to perform a late-night mob hit. His young black partner and the balding Wal-Mart assistant manager watched while the veteran cop did his thing. I struggling to keep my balance from the force of his thrashing, but I couldn’t fight back. I glared at his badge, that shiny arrogant piece of metal, resenting everything it stood for.
I snuck glances over to his partner, shaming him for allowing this to happen to me. There was a brief moment of friction between the two lawmen when the younger cop appeared as though he were about to intervene, but he never found his voice.
Old-timer roughed me up as if he’d done this to numerous suspects before: no real witnesses, careful not to leave any bruises and definitely picked the right victim. Who would believe me or stick up for my rights? I was just some hood who shoplifted awful R&B albums. Eventually I gave them my mother’s name and number but only when alone with the “good” cop. My minor victory came when he apologized to me for his partner’s actions afterwards, but my justice had already been served. My teenaged body ached like my bones and my pride had been bruised. I took my couple of hours of community service to repay my debt to society and never told a soul about that beating behind the super center.
Around age twenty-one, I found myself in a busy police station, across from a disinterested cop who scribbled down most of what I said. In between my pauses, he kept repeatedly clicking his pen and the CLICK CLICK made me even more anxious. Somehow I found the ability to utter the words out loud that I hadn’t even said to myself yet.
I was raped. I honestly wasn’t even sure I was raped. I’d had a crush on the guy and our paths had crossed at numerous parties until he invited me over to watch a movie. When I arrived, he took me to his bedroom to watch For Colored Girls, and I laughed out loud at the scene where Anika Noni Rose was alone in her apartment with her creepy date. Tyler Perry’s over the top filmmaking made it painfully obvious how that was going to end, and I thought to myself, “Doesn’t this idiot know she is about to get raped!”
The air in the room changed color when my own Prince Charming revealed that he only invited me for sex. Still, I did things with him that I desired to do, but didn’t want to do only because I was afraid he wouldn’t let me stay if I didn’t. I noticed the aged bullet wounds on his sculpted tan torso. His skin was rough and covered in coarse, kinky hair. His body reeked of day-old funk and his mouth tasted like even older beer. The illusion of attractiveness had lifted. I grew disgusted with myself and with him. I told him that it didn’t feel right and I wanted to leave.
He began this rant about how I now owed him money for wasting his time and that I shouldn’t have come if I wasn’t going to participate in this sex for money transaction that had never been mentioned before. As a struggling student, I was in no position to pay for sex, and if I was in the market for it I’d like to think I’d be a better shopper. Besides, he wanted to have sex. I wanted to continue watching For Colored Girls and see how Anika Noni Rose was going to get herself out of this one.
Some moments are so horrible that my brain protects itself from accessing them. I remember the struggle that followed and how he wouldn’t let me leave. It felt like my wrist would break like clay in his grip. My tiny arms tried to defend myself, which only made him more vicious. When we crashed into the large mirror shards of glass pierced my skin. My attacker relentlessly held me down on the stiff mattress pressing my face into tattered sheets that smelled worse than he did. Ultimately we both grew too exhausted to fight and he just rested his weight on me as he entered me from behind.
No condom, no lube, and no mercy. I squirmed with all my might to stop what was happening, but after the initial tightening of my sphincter, he was inside of me. He’d already broken me, and with every thrust he was just ripping me in half. The friction made my insides burn and hot tears fell down my face.
For the first few minutes, I tried to go numb and block out the rhythm of him entering me. I focused on Anika’s incessant sobbing on the screen. Yet my anger kept boiling and I had to fight back, even if not with force. I concentrated on all the rage resonating in my core and I defecated all over my rapist. Victorious clumps of brown passive aggression ran out of me and between our bare bodies. I couldn’t prevent the sex from happening but I could make sure he didn’t enjoy it. It gave me the sickest sense of accomplishment but his reaction made me regret it. While still humping, he viciously dug his teeth into my arm like a rabid dog. He made sure that I knew that this sex wasn’t for enjoyment. It was to punish me for wasting his time.
In his final thrust of climax the wet words, “I love you,” came from his lips and into my ear lobes. The comment confused, enraged, saddened, and disgusted me. Even after he pulled out, leaving me hollow on the inside, that “I love you” was the cruelest act.
After cleaning himself up, my rapist took my cell phone and my wallet as payment for his “services.” I had no pride left. I begged this man, “You just raped me. Don’t rob me, too.”
The detective grew impatient with my hesitations and the CLICK CLICK of the pen became more rapid. I couldn’t continue because I felt so pathetic and so guilty. I shouldn’t have gone to his house. I shouldn’t have led him on. I should have been stronger.
A week after that horrific retelling of my story, the police decided there was not enough evidence to pursue the case. I didn’t ask why and just assumed I wasn’t a good witness—even though I had injuries and there was a prior police report of him doing almost the exact same thing to another guy, the one who had put those three bullet wounds in him.
Six months after my experience, I’d met another young man on campus who confessed to me that my rapist had also pinned him down in the back room of a party and raped him. But today, I still see this monster free and walking the streets of Memphis. Each time I lay eyes on him, the permanent scar that his mouth left on arm stings as if the wound were brand new.
I stood barefoot in my own kitchen with blood leaking from my mouth and my arms in handcuffs behind my back. Disoriented and exhausted, I pleaded my case to the portly police officer while his partner questioned my roommate in hopes of determining who was at fault for the assault that had just taken place. I attempted to control my emotions, recounting how I had gotten myself there.
A recent college graduate, I moved in with a friend in Nashville for a fresh start. We’d become friends years earlier, when his mother was in the nursing home dying of cancer. I’d watched him comb that fragile woman’s thinning gray hair. The sight was so tragic and beautiful that it imprinted this man into my heart and I vowed to always be his friend. I was suffocating in Memphis and needed to escape my hometown. I’d always wanted a roommate. I grew up watching Golden Girls reruns, so I envisioned late night talks over cheesecake and wisecracks about each other’s love lives.
He was a middle-aged gay man who enjoyed the company of teenaged boys. They were over eighteen (as far as I know), but still too young to be at our place for days at a time. He’d leave them there while he was at work, give them keys, or even allow them to have guests over while he was gone. These boys were opportunists, using my friend for money, a place to stay, alcohol and drugs. Our condo became a haven for homosexual delinquents.
Still recovering from my past, I was anxious about strange boys that my friend had met at bars or online sleeping over. Almost nightly, I suffered from recurring nightmares about those boys coming into my room and whispering, “I love you” like my rapist had.
The real problem was that my roommate wanted a romantic relationship with me. He wasn’t satisfied with my platonic love. I didn’t see him that way, and though I cared for him, the things I’d witnessed in that house made it difficult for me to respect him, let alone be attracted to him.
The first time he put his hands on me, we were having a petty dispute about one of his boys drinking the last of my soda. He got heated enough to shove me into a wall. We quickly made up, but that started a pattern. Every time we had an issue, his solution was to get physical. He couldn’t argue with my logic, but he could overpower me. Later he’d feel guilty, whimpering about being lonely or missing his deceased mother. I should have left but I loved him like a brother, and, though I was an only child, I figured brothers fought. I assumed this was what male bonding looked like. He was the closest thing to family I had in Nashville and I was not going to return to Memphis with my tail between my legs.
But I grew tired of the pattern of violence and remorse, hiding bruises at work or making excuses about why I was so sore. I was too proud to leave. Another man was violating me and I wasn’t going to be a cop caller. Nobody would take my manhood again, so I began to fight back. After months of living like Ike and Tina, things were bound to implode.
On the day the police ended our living arrangement, I came home to three of his young friends enjoying a group shower in our bathroom. They were openly defiling the sacred space where I took my bubble baths, lit my candles, and listened to Sade. I went downstairs and ran all the hot water in the half bathroom and kitchen.
The man of the house did not appreciate my ingenious problem-solving skills. He was livid and we argued to the point of his guests leaving. Once they were gone, he wanted to extend the dispute and followed me into my bedroom. He attempted to force his way inside, but I pushed all my weight on the door and it slammed shut on his hand. It was an accident, so after I heard him howl, I opened the door to check on him, but he began punching and thrashing.
I was completely unprepared because the violence between us had never been this intense. Maybe a hit, a push or a kick ever so often, but he was assaulting me with intent to do real harm. It took me a while to even realize that’s what was happening, and one of his blows knocked out one of my teeth. I struggled not to choke on the missing tooth as I fought back against my friend. The barrage of fists that kept pummeling me clouded my thoughts, so I did the only thing I could think of at the moment.
Above the bed, I had this collection of framed portraits that I would lovingly refer to as the Great Wall of Gay Men: Langston Hughes, Oscar Wilde, and Harvey Milk, among others. He’d knocked a few photos down, but luckily I was able to take the RuPaul and bash his head in. I smashed him with the wooden frame repeatedly until nothing remained of it, and he didn’t want to fight anymore.
From that point, we both called the police. We were each injured and there was no possible solution between the two of us. The two officers separated us to hear both sides, but they only seemed interested with him being hit with the picture frame. I didn’t attempt to hide that I done that or why. Their exact words were they didn’t care who hit whom first, but the use of the weapon elevated the situation, and that was the crime.
I wondered would the outcome have been the same if I were a female. I was flabbergasted that the final moments of that entire altercation overshadowed everything that I’d endured before it, and the unreported but numerous times he’d attacked me before.
Besides, who would be my witness? One of the many young men he’d let live there?
Just like that, I was arrested, while they rushed the “victim” to the hospital to get that head wound of his bandaged. I wanted to yell and scream at the injustice. If I don’t defend myself, the police won’t protect me, but if I fight back, they lock my black ass up. So I didn’t object at all, because nothing makes a black man look guiltier than declaring his innocence.
The arresting officer promised me I wasn’t in trouble. I’d just have to go to the station. More than likely this wouldn’t even go to court. He spoke as if this was the solution they typically worked for rather than a real investigation. The cop told me that court was where my roommate and I pleaded our cases, but until then we were both assumed innocent. As he said this, he was tightly latching the handcuffs on my wrists. I was detained downtown for twelve long hours. I didn’t go to jail, but I was definitely in the waiting room heading towards jail.
The weeks after I was released were the darkest of my life. Everything had been in my roommate’s name, so now I was homeless after paying half the rent and bills in the condo. I was defeated and just wanted to die. I stayed at a disgusting pay-by-the-week motel with amenities like local street workers and a crack den next door. My life had hit rock bottom, but I still had my job, my car, and my tenacity. I worked hard, and within a few weeks I had my own apartment and was ready to fight all the injustice I’d endured.
The sixteen months that followed were spent going back and forth to court. Half the time, my former roommate didn’t show up, often my public defender didn’t show up, and once even the judge didn’t show up. My faith in the legal system was now nonexistent. I just decided to take a deal: a year of expungeable probation, no fines, no medical bills, no domestic violence classes, and no more court. I sold a piece of my soul the day I got up on that stand and declared myself “guilty.”
But I didn’t want to continue reliving that situation every few months. I couldn’t keep taking time off of work to sit in courtrooms all day. Most of all, I feared actually going to trial and having to tell my story to a jury. I feared being judged because I felt guilty. I did provoke by turning on the hot water and hurting his hand. Maybe I deserved this.
After two years of living by myself in Nashville, I came home to Memphis and was working my way through graduate school. I was finally on a path to finding some real joy. I’d completed my mandatory probation meetings every month, my bills were paid, I had career plans, and I even had a savings account. I was winning.
One evening, I had thirty minutes between my Monday class and my part-time job. I was pulling out of the local burger joint with what would be my dinner when flashes of blue filled my rearview mirror.
This is a new era of police relations with young black men. The nation is still up in arms about the liberties law enforcement took with boys they perceived to be threats. The reality is that we live in a country where the laws aren’t made to protect us but to keep us in line. My entire life until that night had been a testament to that.
I parked my car in a nearby parking lot and rolled my window down. I noticed the Officer was middle-aged, huge, and African American. He walked over to the driver’s side. The light hit that badge, that shiny arrogant piece of metal. I said to the officer, “What is it that you want?”
“I stopped you to tell you that you forgot to cut your headlights on,” he replied.
“And you had nothing better to do in this neighborhood?” It was as if I’d been possessed by the ghost of Huey Newton or NWA.
“License and registration.” He scribbled something onto his little pad and the CLICK CLICK that came from his pen afterwards made my body temperature rise.
I handed him the required documentation. He kept a side eye on me as he went to the squad car to write the ticket. My leg wouldn’t stop shaking and the adrenaline was making it hard for me to remain seated. I was about to hulk out; the scar on my arm just wouldn’t stop itching. Every time I tried to live my life, the boys in blue made it difficult for me. I was sick of it, and this cop would hear it. Even though I was currently living on probation, I jumped out of my vehicle like a mad gay black man.
“Get back in the car, Sir.” The Officer cautiously stepped out with his hand over his gun, ready for anything.
“Go ahead and shoot me. It doesn’t even fucking matter anymore! I’m a criminal, right?” Before I knew it, I was releasing a profanity-laced lament to him, accompanied by a stream of tears that had been waiting to escape my eyes for years. I paced back and forth like a caged animal until I fell to my knees, broken.
“Come here,” the overwhelmed officer said with a sigh, as he tried to grab me. I defiantly pulled away, but he wrapped his arms around me for a hug. The sincerity felt bizarre. Still, I didn’t fight because the same tears rolling down my face were rolling down his.
“You’ve had a bad experience with a cop, huh? We all have. Just remember that all police officers aren’t the same.”
That burly man and I wiped our wet faces together. He gave me back my license and sent me on my way. I nodded like a pathetic four-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body. With its lights dimmed, the squad car rolled off into the night.
I was alone.
I walked back to my car. I sat with my door swung open and noticed the faint smell of my now cold Burger King fries before I drove to work.