LGBTQAI+ History Month: Remembering Uncle David
Updated: Nov 18, 2021
My name is Octavius Jones. I am originally from Los Angeles, California. I have degrees in African Literature and Languages, Ethnic Studies and Women's Studies. I am currently pursuing a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. I do science writing, poetry, and creative writing. I am the Wellington and LGBTQIA+ Lead. If you are coming to Wellington and need someone to show you around or come support you please do let me know. I identify as non-binary/genderfluid and don't have any pronoun preferences; I respond to kindness.
“LGBTQ+ History Month is in October and each year we mark it with spectacular events celebrating the history and achievements of the LGBTQ+ community. When the observance was started, it mainly served as a call to action for the movement and its prosperity. But over the years, LGBTQ+ History Month has evolved into a national collaborative effort to bring extraordinary figures from the LGBTQ+ community into the spotlight.”
I have been doing research and gnawing over which queer icons I could highlight to show the breadth and depth of LGBTQ+ involvement and significance within the African Diaspora. One of the greatest barriers to accepting my own queerness was the fear of erasure. I was afraid that by being queer I would be deemed unwanted, insignificant and forgotten by the people I wanted acceptance and love from the most.
So instead of telling you about someone famous and instead of highlighting someone at the start of the month. I wanted to end the month honoring someone who has been on my mind and heart this entire month. (Sidenote: I don’t really celebrate holidays and grew up Christian so I forgot that this is Halloween, a holiday we often were on our knees and praying for the souls of “heathens” and getting discount candy to gorge on the following week. Now, I am apathetic towards it and even jealous that many kids and adults get to dress up when I would have loved to be a ninja turtle or samurai as a child in costume. Frugal budgeting doesn’t allow me to indulge in any costuming now. But if you celebrate Halloween, I hope you had a good weekend!!!)
I would like to honor David Bell. He is my uncle. He was a gay man, but there is no confirmation if he was gay, bisexual, trans or other identifier that may or may not have been available to him some 20 years ago. He is no longer with us so I have no way of knowing now. He was a musician, playing the organ and piano. He was gifted and played for many churches across Los Angeles, California. He could draw, and as my father recently told me, pretty well by his recollection. It stings to learn these tidbits about him because those are all the talents I wanted to cultivate in my own life. He wrote plays and he was also writing a book on African-American actors but didn’t finish before he passed away. My family has not kept any known belongings of his that I know of. I have no pictures and no memories of him. He was HIV positive and seemed to have died alone and isolated. I remember my paternal grandmother telling me that he felt shame and judgement for his “lifestyle” and stayed away, but I know how my family is. I learned to be silent about anything close to my real feelings and thoughts for over 30 years in my family so I know his feelings of otherness were not unfounded. His erasure from memory and mention in my family is evidence that his abandonment and banishment was real and painful. My grandmother was older than he was and as the eldest child of three siblings and the eldest child of my cousins I can’t imagine actively abandoning one of them. Erasing them from the family. Being the eldest meant certain responsibilities. As time has progressed, my grandmother has softened some and now my Uncle David will get a cursory mention but those make him seem even more unreal. I feel shame within myself that I can’t find any memories of him in my own head
I remember writing poems for my family as gifts for a holiday (Christmas maybe), because I didn’t have money for the things they really wanted. I remember the papers on which I used to carefully write legible lines of prose were thrown on the floor of our house. Discarded as trash. I promised myself that I would never write or show them anymore of my poetry and I never did. I would prove to my family how great of a person I was by becoming a doctor instead. That was a job with power, prestige and money that they would not be able to deny. I would show them. They could throw away my poems but see how they would respect what I write as a doctor! And even to this day, I see the problems I have with fully leaning into my artists desires. It is so easy to fall back on, “the arts are a selfish indulgence and our families/communities need men with ‘real’ jobs.” The Black, queer martyr is a tried and true trope in the African Diaspora. We, Black queer people, learn that community can mean self-sacrifice, self-erasure, especially if you already have strikes against you of being queer. So I wonder what it must have been like for Uncle David. How did he keep going with his artistry? How did he not give up?
In my fantasies this month, I have been thinking about all the lessons my uncle David could have given me on voice, drawing, playing piano and writing. All the edits and tricks of the trade he would have been able to offer me. So much of my current bitterness, regret and frustration, that often leads to burnout, is over my lack of artistic refinements. The fact that I am so drawn to the arts and yet feel so far from them. Maybe Uncle David would have been the mentor I read Maya Angelou, Denzel Washington, James Baldwin, Kirk Franklin and many others had. If not famous, maybe by now I would know how to put all the things I feel about life, love, being Black, being queer into such beauty and clarity that others would relate and connect with me even if they didn’t fully agree with me and my choices. Yes, he would have still died from AIDS, but before that, I dream that he could have taken me for a walk or I would have sat beside him at the piano and he could have told me years ago, “you are perfectly okay. God loves you. I love you. Be you….all of you and don’t let anyone take your light, your talents, your voice.” I have been imagining him to be the fairytale prince in my story that would save me from the depression that incapacitated me for months on end or the anxiety that keeps me from reaching out for intimate partners. It’s a new feeling for me to long for someone that I should know but don’t. He was in my life but I cannot find him in my memories. For him to be so gone from my reality makes me hurt beyond tears.
And then the other thoughts come. The cynical side, that recognizes there are no heroes or angels when it comes to humans. I think, did he touch me or someone else? That must be why he was banished to obscurity in our family. Was he a pedophile or pervert in some way? Was my family actually protecting me from the hard truth that he was actually a horrible person and his erasure was necessary to prevent further scarring? I’ve seen so many Hollywood stories and real accounts of repressed queer men who lash out or practice heinous crimes on vulnerable bodies. Maybe my family did the right thing and I should be grateful. He might not have been worth knowing at all, talents be damned!
But I remember that for many years I didn’t want to be queer because of those same stories. I was so aware that people in my community and family would think of me as a child molester or potential rapist; men would be scared to be naked around me for fear of being touched or hit on; women would call me lowdown and downlow for having the audacity to sleep with men and women; my life would be constantly threatened with violence and death; God would condemn my soul to hell. I made sure to not ever steal money from my parents, raise my voice to the elders in my family and be on the best behavior in and outside of our home. I worked to be a model Black boy. I studied the Bible, prayed for hours and fasted for weeks to prove to all who were looking, including God, that my soul was worth saving, that I was a good person in spite of the “unnatural desires” I had. So if that was the case for me, what is the likelihood of my Uncle David believing and doing the same? I was told growing up I was supposed to be a pastor and that there is a calling on my life. “God has work for me to do.” Uncle David also had a calling and he fulfilled it by singing and playing in the church. He also loved his Blackness and was interested in the accomplishments and beauty of Black artists. And yet, for all that he was and did, why is his memory gone from my life? Why have I felt a haunting this entire month as I try to figure out who this man was?
So why am I telling you all this? Letting you into the ocean of my own thoughts? Because often on months like this and many other celebratory days we are asked to highlight one group or another and demonstrate why they are worthy of not being erased, scorned or condemned by the majority. That is often the debate around Mother's Day or African American History Month; do we only love them during their designated calendar time? Is that when someone matters? If a person never did anything extraordinary, are they important? Are mothers and Black people worth loving and honoring everyday; even the ones who were not MLK or Nelson Mandela? In the past, I have been guilty of using these months to focus on celebrities and extraordinary humans to say, “yeah those are the best examples of what I should be.” I haven’t been taught to really take time and reflect on those known and unknown in my own life.
So I encourage you, not just during a history month, to think about those people in your families and communities. Particularly those who are marginalized in the African Diaspora. I am still scared of being so public about my queerness because I want to be accepted here. I wondered if being asked to be LGBTQIA+ Lead has shot me in the foot for being accepted. I have always wanted to be loved within my own community, especially in a world that sees Blackness so negatively. I still see the comments online from Black women who say all the good Black men are dating white women or gay. I still love listening to gospel music, but now I go from feeling close to God to feeling disappointed when the worship song goes into a prayer to take the spirit of homosexuality out of the Black community…“God restore the men of honor and strength in our lives.” I am not trying to change anyone’s thinking but I do ask that whatever you believe, consider that queer people have always been and will always be a part of our families and communities. Whether hidden or not, whether accomplished or unremarkable, the queer people in our lives are human and deserving of being remembered and included. For all my fears about being open for my own safety and comfort, it wasn’t until writing this that I realized that, instead of my Uncle David haunting me, he was encouraging me and providing strength to tell our story. I have an Uncle named David Bell. He is no longer alive, but I feel like he has been a guardian angel for me watching over me all this time. I just didn’t know it. But now I do and I thank him so much for it. I send him my love. I honor him in remembrance that as I live and walk in my truth I take him with me, proud to be his nephew.
Knowing that brings new meaning to my life and my experiences. I always wondered why I got into HIV/AIDS work. I thought God put me in those positions to be like Jesus and learn to stop stigmatizing and being afraid of people with HIV/AIDS, and though I still believe that was one reason, I also believe my Uncle David wanted me to know that he was more than that disease. He was more important than how he passed away. And though I couldn’t be a friend to him and offer him love and acceptance before his death, he helped me to offer it to others in our own community. So maybe it is appropriate that I am doing this on Halloween. Because I feel closer to him than ever before. I pray you love and remember those past and present who are queer in your own families and communities. With love, Octavius.
My grandma says Uncle David played with Clara Ward and the Ward Singers. I wish I could hear his voice, but part of me imagines he is one of the musicians on this song I found: