Edwin Bodney was only 8 years old when Matthew Shepard was murdered -- and the host of Los Angeles's Da Poetry Lounge recalls not being able to grasp the weight of the tragedy until years later.
"I probably was like a teenager when I realized what Matthew even looked like. Especially as I was growing up and not being [myself] because of what society's expectations are. You don't really explore your community as much as you'd like to."
Bodney began attending Da Poetry Lounge (which boasts one of the longest-running poetry open mics in the country) when he was about 15. He says he "fell in love with it immediately."
The Los Angeles-based poet and educator has authored the poetry collections A Study of Hands and Good Morning: A Story of Flight in the Making. He says Da Poetry Lounge (@Da_Poetry_Lounge) is "a place of refuge, contemplation, and hope through art," which brings in "about 250 to 350 people every week, especially during the summertime when everyone is out of school." The poet says he contemplates life from a very intersectional perspective.
"I navigate my world that way. I'm very queer and I'm very black all at the same time, and it all encompasses who I am and it doesn't change regardless of what people notice first or last about me. It's all happening at the same time."
Bodney adds "there is a difference," in his experience, observing that racism colors one's daily life. "And, more often than I'd like to admit, that racism comes from cis white gay men. That's always tremendously disheartening."
For example, Bodney recalls recently being at an annual birthday bash in Palm Springs, Calif., with a bunch of close friends. "We're all drinking, hanging out, having a great time," when the host's friend, "who's a guy, straight, cis," used "the n word -- and he's not black."
Bodney says he responded, "I obviously can't police the language that you use, but when I am around can you not use that word? This is literally a word that white people and racists and people who are rooted in white supremacy will use against me to harm me, or to threaten me, or to threaten my safety, or to oppress me, or to keep me down ... so I don't want you to use that if you are sharing the same space as me."
Bodney points to the incident as an example of "what racism really looks like" for him. One moment he's relaxing with friends, floating in a pool, having a good time in the perpetual summer of the Southern California desert, and the next, "I'm debating a white, heterosexual, cis man about the n word and about racism and about black culture and music and -- just America."
Moments later, the party dispersed and Bodney was left to confront the racism alone. "I tuned out for a second to look at my environment," he recalls. "Nobody was there, except for me and the guy I was debating this with. It was just us for a moment at the pool. It occurred to me that this was a problem within my own community of gay people, of queer people who also don't get it."
Bodney seems to be saying that we can't leave racism and bias within the LGBTQ community for black gay men to confront alone. We all need to confront it, and to support others who are confronting it."
"I stand up for things that I believe," Bodney says by way of example. "I am unapologetic in the space that I take up. I don't just host an open mic venue for people to share their opinion, but so their voice and opinion is validated and can be heard by a community of people."
Above: Shayna Marci Warner and Edwin Bodney
Twenty years after Shepard's horrific murder, Bodney thinks it's still important to talk about the college student, and how his death marked a definite shift in cultural values. "It was pivotal in the sense there's now history of a case in which justice actually leaned in favor of the victim, and the victim being a homosexual male."
But what about all the black and brown bodies of color (queer and straight, trans and cisgender) that have piled up since? What about Trayvon Martin, who died just six years ago, and yet people often say, "Move on, already"? What about all of the trans women of color who have been murdered, whose names we barely remember? You can view these deaths as archetypal representations of how the American body politic deals with tragedy and expresses grief and the priority and importance it places on certain lives as opposed to others.
But the poet doesn't want to dwell on the negative: he says it's important for him to focus on the joy found in the black LGBTQ experience, too. He hopes his work inspires others to share their own stories. "I am a queer black man in America, and I invite you in, in a very intimate way, through my work. ... So you take that and you either uplift that message and spread that, or you get inspired and write your own. I obviously can't control my audience, but what I can do is hope that ... [they] get what I'm trying to do to better my community, and to help everyone get the rights that everyone deserves -- these human rights -- for marginalized communities everywhere."
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