Friday, September 13, 2013

The Power of Perseverance: a Black Gay Man Reflects on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

David Wilson in front of the
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in DC
Fifty years ago I felt like I was living in two countries, two communities, two neighborhoods; among two distinct races and cultures, but in one class of poverty. I was born in an all- black housing project, but my parents thought opportunities would be better in an all-white housing project so we moved from the South End to Roslindale when I was five years old.  My parents, both Pennsylvania transplants, worked as domestics for white families west of Route 128, a secret I held closely because of shame, guilt and pride.

The message to this only child was keep your head down, fit in, get along, study hard, go to college, get a good job, marry, have children and you’ll be equal. During those formative years in this predominantly white environment, I felt pretty equal to my peers, attending school, playing sports, and accepting invitations to hang out with friends after school. We were all poor and living on some form of government assistance.

Our family moved to Dorchester when I was 16 so I could meet other black kids and experience black culture. My mother was hopeful that I’d date black girls and attend church on a more regular basis. For the first time in my life I felt un-equal. The clothes, shoes, music, cars were not the same as in my old neighborhood, and for the first time in my life class differences and cultural differences were very evident. Neighborhood and racial disparities were reflected in our stores, food choices, streets, and city services that I had taken for granted in my old neighborhood but now understood were absent in my black neighborhood.

At the same time, my brothers and sisters south of the Mason-Dixon line not only lived in segregated, marginalized neighborhoods like I did, they suffered under local, state and federal Jim Crow laws that prohibited equal access to housing, employment, education, full citizenship and basic human rights.

Having been awakened to racial injustice at home and in the South, I wanted to join the Civil Rights Movement. Well, Mom and Dad made it very clear that the road to success for their son did not include the March on Washington. So I went off to college, got a good job, got married, had three children and quickly realized I was still not equal in either my personal or professional life.  At work, I helped organize a black employees group that fought for better working conditions for union members, equal pay for management employees, promotions to all levels of management, hiring and firing protections, healthcare, medical leave, and pension equity.

But something was missing in my personal life. After extensive therapy and self-assessment, I finally came to terms with being a gay man.  My wife and I separated and then divorced after my youngest daughter graduated from high school.

But I did not have the courage to come out at work and risk losing my job and my ability to provide for my family. It was the death of my first partner that jolted me into full disclosure. How could I return to work after a six-week leave of absence and not tell the entire company that the person I had loved and lost was a man?

After a year of grieving and coming out to everyone from the company president to the very last employee in my work group, I resigned/retired. I needed a new beginning as a black, openly gay man!

Three years later I met Rob Compton. Rob was fired from a job in Michigan for being gay; he came to Massachusetts because of our state law prohibiting such discrimination. After an early recognition that we had fallen in love and a brief courtship, Rob and I began a journey to secure full legal protections for our family. One of the highlights of our journey was being a plaintiff couple in GLAD’s Goodridge lawsuit, which resulted in the 2003 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that said we could not be denied a marriage license under our state constitution. Another was seeing DOMA struck down by the United States Supreme Court in July. The love and commitment Rob and I share is now recognized and respected by both our state and federal government.

Growing up in the segregated City of Boston, it took the physical move from an all-white to an all-black community and the 1963 March on Washington for me to see the stark reality of being black in America. Dr. King’s, “I have a dream speech,” the civil rights laws in ’64, and the voting rights laws in ’65 emboldened me to break out of my risk-averse upbringing and begin my journey towards personal freedom and professional equality. My church had been the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement, but my coming out defied those beliefs. My family initially resisted my quest to live an open and honest life as a gay man but evolved over time.

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial alongside the National Mall reflecting pool 50 years later, I could see and hear the voices of clergy and faith leaders, civil rights heroes, generations of families from across the country, LGBT leaders and throngs of people of all races, ethnicities, religions, and ages re-committing themselves to racial, social and economic justice. The 2013 March on Washington was a moment of full disclosure for me: I am a black, gay, husband, father, and grandfather pursuing my quest for full equality.

1 comment:

Don Strange said...

David - You continue to make a powerful difference in the lives of so many around the world! Thanks for being the man you are and investing so much in others!