Written by Mwabi Kaira
I didn’t know what gay was growing up. It wasn’t discussed or poked fun of, no disparaging comments made at the dinner table, and we indeed weren’t warned to stay away from gays. There just wasn’t a reference point. In my early teens, a group of teen boys formed a dancing group and the scandal in my town was that the man behind the team was a pedophile because he was a much older white man in a foreign land, who took in five teen boys and funded their dancing. I was at a comprehending age by this time but still didn’t correlate this alleged pedophilia to being gay. Never mind the grown men inappropriately touching young girls in my town, but that’s a whole other story. It wasn’t until my sister left for the US in 1991 and returned the following summer that she questioned if one of my friends was gay because of his high pitched voice and mannerisms. She had to go to a whole new continent to learn what gay was and bring it to us.
I arrived in Kentucky in 1993 as a wide-eyed and very shy 17-year-old. I was more concerned about adjusting to this new world and keeping my head above water. I was holding on to my culture while desperately learning a new one. It took a while, but I eventually found my footing. I’m ashamed to say this, but I didn’t discover books by African-American authors until 1994. I’ve always been an avid reader. I graduated from Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl to reading novels in the 6th grade, but all I knew was Sidney Shelton, Danielle Steele and every Mills and Boon romance novel. We moved next door to an African-American family in Lexington, KY and I will forever love Stephanie Jones for introducing me to Terry McMillan. After that my world opened up and I boycotted white authors for a decade just to catch up.
I have tried hard to remember how I came across E.Lynn Harris’ debut novel Invisible Life and I can’t. I am so thankful that book came into my life. Raymond and Kyle became my friends instantly. I didn’t care who they slept with, and I was just so happy to have a human connection with these men on the pages as I turned them. I celebrated their successes and cheered for them as their story unfolded. I bought and read every E.Lynn book on the day they released after that. I even remember getting a CD with a catchy R&B tune with one of them. He was ahead of his time.
I met my ex-husband sophomore year in college. He was a football player. I was quick to dead any homophobia and let him know where I stood; we had no right to dislike a human being just because of who they loved. I told him he probably had gay teammates and although he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, he did change his tune on being homophobic. Why do heterosexual men always assume gay men want them anyway?
We were a young married couple with small children in the early 2000’s when I saw that E.Lynn would be at a book signing in Cincinnati. I made plans to go since we had family in the city who could babysit. We were happy to have a childless date night, but I forgot to tell my husband which author we were going to see. I was just so excited to meet this beloved author. We got to the bookstore and looked around and eventually found some seats. My husband tapped me on my shoulder right before the reading and asked, “Where have you brought me?” Looking back, it was hilarious. I should mention that my husband was hard to miss, he was 6’3 and over 300 pounds of football muscle. He stood out in this crowd and was the thing who didn’t belong. He was way out of his element. He was my hazel eyed gentle giant and knew this was important to me. He held my hand and enjoyed seeing me in my element among an author I loved and fellow book lovers.
After the reading, E.Lynn was gracious enough to pose for a picture with me that my husband took. He joked and asked my husband if he had been tricked to come. It is a memory from my marriage I will always cherish.
Because of E.Lynn Harris, this girl from a small Zambian town learned about good-looking men with beautiful hearts who loved life. Because of E.Lynn Harris, I love these men and don’t approach them with preconceived notions of hell and damnation. Because of E.Lynn Harris, I have taught my sons that love is universal and about way more than just who you share your bed. I have prepared them never to make anyone feel sorry for who they are and to never engage in the foolish toxic masculine rhetoric that has been passed down for centuries.
E.Lynn deserved all the things, I wonder if when he sat down to write after he attempted suicide and was in a deep depression back in 1990 that he ever imagined that his words would transform people all over the world and humanize an entire group of people. I hope he felt all the love while he was here. Seeing E. Lynn Harris at the book signing many years ago was me giving him his flowers.