Every time his mom picked up the phone, Keith Boykin panicked — he could not find the right words to tell his mother that he was gay.
When he was a student at Harvard Law School, Boykin created a script in which he not only wrote out his responses, but how his mother would react as well. Only after this did Boykin find the courage to tell his mother the truth.
Boykin, who served as a special assistant to former President Bill Clinton, shared many of his experiences as an openly gay, black man yesterday at the Michigan League to a packed room of students, faculty and other interested individuals.
The lecture took place during Black History Month and was named after Audre Lorde and Bayard Rustin, both prominent figures in the gay and black communities. This year is the first that the Audre Lord-Bayard Rustin Lecture has taken place.
Boykin is president of the National Black Justice Coalition, a civil rights organization that fights against the spread of homophobia.
After the lecture, Boykin was available to sign his latest book, “Beyond the Down Low: Black & Gay in America.” The book is a response to previously published books that discuss men who have sex with other men but who do not identify themselves as gay.
Boykin said one of those books spread false information about who was to blame for spreading AIDS in the black community.
“We are pointing fingers at who is responsible. It takes two people to spread AIDS; only one to stop it. Every time we point fingers (at a certain group), we should all instead accept responsibility for the epidemic on our hands,” he said.
Boykin said it would be more constructive to stop obsessing about “The Down Low” and instead focus on campaigning against homophobia.
After graduating from law school, Boykin found a job working in the White House during the Clinton administration. He said it was while he was an advisor to Clinton that the issues of gays in the military reached the media spotlight.
Even though he said Clinton has been the most pro-gay, progressive president, Boykon said he was still disappointed with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that allows gays to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation to themselves.
“(‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’) was licensed deceit. It encouraged people to be silent. It was a colossal failure,” Boykin said.
Students in the audience echoed Boykin’s sentiment on the issue.
“I happened to have a class friend who was kicked out of the Army for saying he was gay. This is absolutely ridiculous because sexuality does not impede one’s ability to fight in the military,” alum Ravi Perry said.
Another moment in history that Boykin said he participated in was the Million Man March. He said he and approximately 200 other openly gay, black men chanted, “We’re Black. We’re gay. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The experience was a defining moment for Boykin.
“It made me realize if you have the courage to be who you are, people will not only accept you but respect you,” he said.
Boykin also discussed the similarities between the civil rights and gay rights movements.
“Some say you can’t compare civil rights. Yes, you can compare the two movements. You can compare apples and oranges. What people really mean is that you cannot equate civil rights with gay rights,” Boykin said.
Boykin said that is also possible to compare both movements because of the overlapping. “Some people argue that gay people did not sit on the back of the bus. Well, that’s not true — some of the black people were gay,” Boykin said.
Lydia Middleton, coordinator of the University’s Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, said she was impressed by Boykin’s speech
“I felt that Boykin enlightened everyone on the different distinctions and levels of oppression. I felt his personal account made the speech very interesting and entertaining,” Middleton said.
Dean of Students Sue Eklund said she was impressed with the number of students that came out to see him speak. “There was a lovely turnout. It was a great speech where he used humor and intelligence to convey serious messages,” Eklund said.