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The way he sees it

Keith Boykin, a Harvard Law grad, former White House staffer and author, urges black gays to emerge from hiding and respect themselves.

[Times photo: Jonathan Newton]


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 16, 1998

When it's time to stand up for your rights, Keith Boykin believes in going to the top.

The White House, for example. Or the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School. He has defended diversity in both places.

But real self-empowerment, for him, is more a spiritual than political exercise.

"If we're not willing to be personally open and honest about who we are, we can't expect people who deal with us to respect us," he said.

By "we," Boykin means black gay men and lesbians, a group he has come to represent with an intelligent and thoughtful voice. The author of One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America (Doubleday, 1996) speaks for a minority he says is reluctant to make itself heard.

"More black people need to come out. We're so far behind in this," he said.

Boykin, a 1983 graduate of Countryside High School, lectured this month at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He also spoke with the Times about his career as a crusader for black gay rights. It's still an uphill battle, he said, partly because of the church's influential role among African-Americans and its traditional opposition to homosexuality.

"Too many (gay) African-Americans go to church every week and their minister beats up on them in a sermon," he said. "And they believe it's true, because the Bible says homosexuality is wrong."

"He was a joy to work with. I couldn't give him enough to do. We went to all kinds of forensic competitions and he was always first place."

—Wilma Splawn, who taught Boykin speech and debate

But accepting one's sexual orientation is key to building a healthy life, Boykin said. He hopes his second book, Respecting the Soul, due out in April, will offer spiritual sustenance to black gays and lesbians. It includes a year's worth of virtues -- one per month -- that he thinks are important to developing self-esteem, values such as faith, love, honesty, responsibility and courage.

"It's not a religious book, by any means," Boykin said, "but an effort to encourage people to find their spirituality inside them. I want to show that you can be spiritually sound and be open about your sexuality."

From Clearwater and beyond

Boykin discovered his homosexuality in 1991 while he was a law student at Harvard. Until then, he had been too busy to consider his sexual orientation, he said. "My life was achieve, achieve."

At Countryside High School, he was student government president, a track star and a debate team member. He wrote several guest columns for the St. Petersburg Times, one arguing passionately for Florida's passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

"He was a joy to work with. I couldn't give him enough to do," said Wilma Splawn, who taught Boykin speech and debate. "We went to all kinds of forensic competitions and he was always first place."

Boykin also was a standout at Dartmouth College, setting indoor track records and editing The Dartmouth, the nation's oldest daily college newspaper.

After graduating in 1987 he worked on Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign and taught at a Georgia high school. When he entered Harvard Law School in 1989, he quickly became known as a radical, he said. Boykin edited the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review and was a leader of the Harvard Coalition for Civil Rights.

Along with 10 other plaintiffs, he sued the university for discrimination in the hiring of law professors.

At some point, Boykin took time out from his political activism to "address some personal issues in my life." A book on homosexuality helped him clarify what he needed to do.

He contacted his parents, who were supportive.

"(My mother) told me she loved me. Then she said, "Don't tell too many people. It'll ruin your career. And don't tell your grandmother. It'll kill her.' "

Boykin told everyone. His grandmother got over it, and his career took off.

"Two years later, I found myself in the White House working on gay and lesbian issues," he recalled.

Boykin's position was special assistant to President Clinton. He worked in the press office, focusing on minority press outlets. The first openly gay man on the White House staff, he drafted Clinton's letter opposing anti-gay state ballot initiatives and he was a key player in Clinton's meeting with organizers of the 1993 gay and lesbian march on Washington.

Boykin also was probably the first man to wear an earring to work at the White House.

"I just decided to do it one day to see what would happen," he said, grinning. "No one said anything at all."

Nadine Smith of Tampa, executive director of Equality Florida, an organization for gay and lesbian rights, met Boykin at that historic Oval Office meeting between Clinton and gay leaders, the first such gathering in the White House.

"Keith was very thoughtful, very insightful," Smith said.

In 1994 Boykin left the White House to become executive director of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, based in Los Angeles. In that position, he helped organize a contingent of about 250 gay men who attended the Million Man March in Washington.

"It really was a courageous thing to do," said Smith, "to encourage those men to take their place in the community, to say we are black and we are gay, both at the same time."

Writing and traveling

Since 1996 Boykin has devoted himself full time to writing and lecturing. He still lives in Washington.

"There's a large, active community of black gays and lesbians there, and I like being in the middle of that mix," he said.

His partner is a performance poet he met while lecturing in Detroit.

"We have a long-distance relationship," Boykin said, smiling. "But it would be that way even if he lived in Washington, because I'm gone so much of the time."

His writing now is a mix of fiction and non-fiction. He recently finished an essay on blacks in the gay rights movement that will be included in the Encarta Africana, an encyclopedia of black history compiled by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

He's also working on a historical novel about gays' contributions to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Its fictional main character is Langston Hughes' godson.

Boykin realizes that by speaking out, he inspires many gay African-Americans. He's happy to serve as a role model but doesn't want to be an idol.

"I don't believe in hero worship. If we expect another Martin Luther King or Malcolm X to come along and save us, we disrespect ourselves," he said. "Personal empowerment is the first step."

Boykin also is distressed by what he calls "infighting and backstabbing" among black lesbians and gays.

"We have this sort of unquestioning acceptance of dysfunctional behavior in our community," he said. "We're afraid to say what we know is right because we don't want to sound too preachy or say something that sounds like what the far right says."

While visiting Florida, Boykin was buoyed by the energy among black gays and lesbians here. At a luncheon in his honor in Tampa, people of all ages, races and sexual orientations eagerly plied him with questions.

The same thing happened after his USF speech.

"But then, I was talking to some people who I thought were out and they weren't," he said. "They were worried that even coming to hear my lecture would "out' them. It reminds me of how much work there is still to be done."

Some of the sponsors of Boykin's Tampa appearance are organizing the Florida Black Lesbian Gay Pride Network. For information call (813) 273-8769.


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