Our Brave Soul Artist Feature for February 2011 is a maverick, as well as an inspiration for all those who aspire to greatness. Award-winning writer, public health and youth advocate, L. Michael Gipson has worked on HIV/AIDS, youth and community development programming on the local, state and national level for 17 years.
As an author, his short stories, speeches, public health and socio-political essays have also been published in three recent anthologies: Poverty & Race in America: The Emerging Agendas (Lexington Books), Health Issues Confronting Minority Men Who Have Sex with Men (Springer) and Mighty Real: Anthological Works By African American SGLBT People.
As an essayist and cultural critic, his work has appeared in Clik, Pulse, Arise, Pride, Amplify, Swerv, Urban Dialect, Port of Harlem, Gay People's Chronicle and Creative Loafing Atlanta. He is the Music Editor of SoulTracks.com and was Soul Sessions Blog Leader at BET/Centric.
In the autumn of 2010, Mr. Gipson became the Executive Director of the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA). There, he presides over a 25-year institution supported by a small but dedicated staff and a virtual army of artists and legal services volunteers. WALA's program portfolio includes: pro bono legal services, arts-based legal education clinics and workshops, and arts policy advocacy serving artists and small non-profits in the Greater Metropolitan Washington, DC area.
Michael holds a BFA in Writing from Goddard College and resides in Washington, DC.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Michael about his soon-to-be-released debut book, Collisions: A Collection of Intersections (Red Dirt Publishing), as well as a host of other interesting topics. He is someone whom I consider not only a good friend & fellow music lover, but also a beautiful brother & spirit. Read on & take a look into the world of L. Michael Gipson.
"I'm willing to be ugly, even violent in my work to strike that right chord to affirm, confirm, or cause reflection. Our lives aren't one long pretty boi circuit party, and our stories shouldn't be either."
Please tell us about the creation of your latest artistic offering, Collisions: A Collection of Intersections.
"Collisions" is a collection of stories, some dark, some loving, all honest about the ways our multiple identities collide to create circumstances and experiences unique to Black gay men. The decade-long work was borne out of a Centers for Disease Control meeting with the feds in which I and other activists were advocating on behalf of LGBT youth of color. We were being challenged by these "experts" on whether the lives, culture and experiences of our youth were "really all that different from white gay youth." I realized in our efforts to articulate who we were to those in power that so much about our culture remains in the dark and that the differences are more nuanced, textured, and circumstantial than obvious at first blush. It was then that I decided to try to create stories that could not be any other stories but ours in ways that would read authentic to us, even when insanely dark or fantastical.
How much weight do truth & honesty hold for you in the process of your work as an author?
Honesty is the heart of art, good art at least. James Baldwin's philosophy is if you aren't willing to be ugly, to be downright soul bare in your work, then you shouldn't write. Honesty is the only true tool you have as an artist to genuinely touch someone else. The same rules apply in singing: sometimes you gotta be willing to get ugly to hit just the right, resonating note. In most thought-provoking art, what I try crafting, you have to be willing to offend with your honesty. I'm willing to be ugly, even violent in my work to strike that right chord to affirm, confirm, or cause reflection. Our lives aren't one long pretty boi circuit party, and our stories shouldn't be either.
Can you speak briefly about the process of publishing "Collisions" & how the partnership with Red Dirt Publishing came about?
Though my first published debut, "Collisions" is my second collection of fully developed stories. My first collection, "Reckonings" had been picked up by a small press in Florida back in the '90s, but the press folded shortly after I received my galleys. I was 25 and the experience was pretty traumatic for me at the time. I said the next time I'd have greater control and ownership of my experience, fast forward ten years and enter Tim'm West and Red Dirt Publishing. We entered more of a business partnership than a traditional publishing deal, one that works for both and allows for every aspect of this work to have the loving involvement of Black gay men--from publisher and photographer to model and book artist--at every juncture of this process. I love it.
What is the primary purpose & mission of Faithwalk Enterprises, LLC?
Originally, it was founded to create a path for me to leave my good gov'ment job. Conventional wisdom is that you don't walk away from a senior administrative position with benefits at DC government. But, the dysfunction I was witnessing and the toll being there was taking on me was damaging me as a person and an artist. I couldn't think or create with any freshness while I was there. So, I had to believe that if I walked out of that space on faith--one that was stealing my joy daily--that I would be taken care of, thus the name: Faithwalk. At Faithwalk, we cultivate any kind of writing product you can imagine--from grant writing to corporate marketing copy. My associates and I all have strong non-profit and government administrative backgrounds; so, we also engage in a lot of non-profit program and organizational development work. The firm frees me up to work more with those who inspire me and support the impacts I'm interested in contributing to.
Our BSC Discussion topic to kick off 2011 is identity. What are your thoughts about identity as it relates to you personally & professionally? Additionally, can you speak about the importance of this topic particularly as it relates to members of the black LGBT community?
I've lost family and been temporarily denied opportunities because of my embrace of my identity. My own has caused me to bleed and be humiliated because of my identity. I've been professionally belittled, dismissed, paternalized and patronized because of my identity--as a black person, a gay person, a young person and a person of size. But, I've also experienced clear privileges because of my identities too, particularly as a male, as someone tall, as someone learned and able to articulate that learning, as someone perceived as non-threatening, as someone with emotional intelligence, and--at least for a time--as someone traditionally attractive. What most excites me artistically are these dichotomies, these struggles with multiple identities that at various points makes us both the victim and perpetrators of oppression as Black gay men. None of us are immune to playing both roles. My work reflects these tensions we experience as Black LGBTs of differing classes, privileges, and opportunities and how ripe it all is for storytelling.
What has your experience been working as Music Editor for www.SoulTracks.com & how does your love and appreciation for music factor into the work you do in conjunction with the website?
SoulTracks has allowed me that space to unabashedly be myself, but also given me an opportunity to be more than just "that Black gay guy." Being a music critic and journalist for various sites and publications over the last decade gave me an outlet to express myself and be part of a community outside of the confines of my gay life. For a time, this was very important to me. As a 16 year old displaced gay street kid, my world for a frightfully long time was almost universally Black and gay; this was then for my own protection, until it no longer served me. As I matured, I wanted to be received as more than just my sexuality. I wanted to be received as a man and a thinker whose life and experience was informed by being gay, but not absolutely defined by it. Music criticism helped me do that. I'd studied voice, music, and performance for several years both formally and through a jazz quartet I once sang with, and I come from a family of musicians on all sides. So, writing about music came naturally for me and I've luckily earned something of a reputation for my opinion in certain soul music circles.
Who are some of your artistic inspirations and influences & for those that you list, can you share one particular work of theirs that has a significant meaning for you?
I'm influenced by so many mediums and talents. I'm an art nerd. So, I'm as influenced by filmmakers and musicians as I am by writers: the madcap humor of Joe Keenan, Preston Sturgis, Bobby McFerrin, and Oscar Wilde; the playful language of Paul Beatty, Damon Runyon, Thelonious Monk, and Zora Neale Hurston; the noir of Kenji Jasper, Fritz Lang, and Jules Dassan; the lyrical honesty of Albert French, Lewis Taylor, Donny Hathaway and Ernest Gaines, the macabre of Stephen King, Anne Rice, and Alfred Hitchcock all of it informs my voice. More directly, Baldwin's "Just Above My Head", Gloria Naylor's "Bailey's Cafe," and the early works of Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam have the most baring on "Collisions" in their brutal fearlessness and truth-seeking explorations. These artists set a bar I'm forever aiming to reach.
What are your views regarding current representations of black LGBT culture in mainstream media & society?
I'm ambiguous about it. I love sissies and transies and knuckle-draggers and butch queens. But, I also have moments of disquiet when I see dominating images of designer heels and pocketbooks on one end and DL boogeymen in Timbs on the other, rendering all others invisible or encouraging the more traditional among us to remain unseen. I recognize that some of that disquiet is my own internalized homophobic shit, but I also believe that we must create space for others to emerge, for the many that cannot identify with the "ROHA" ghurls or the married DL preachers, but need affirmation too. I also feel we adopt the worst excesses of the white gay community over time, be it using crystal meth or raising twinks to celebrated status above all other body types. Those values and habits weren't of us before, not in mass, but because of our inability to find value in a self-determined culture, we embrace, even chase that which had never been of us before, often to our own destruction.
Please speak briefly about your feelings regarding body image, specifically as it pertains to black gay men.
I've been writing about it more; coming out--however reluctantly and uncomfortably--as a Big Boi spokesperson against body fascism in our community. I've been every waist size from a 29 to a 42, thin to muscular to fat and I can tell you life is different at every size, each with their benefits and trade-offs. I've struggled with weight and body image since age 10, having lost as much as 75 lbs and gained 100. Bears and cubs are not alone in that yo-yo battle, the "beautiful people" are often in that battle too. I know from personal experience the privileges of being traditionally-bodied does not mean one's self-image matches that shell. A lot of us, not all, but a lot who are talking "healthy living" are actually overcompensating for rejection, disease, being ostracized, past bullying traumas, the need to see themselves as masculine through might, all reactions to oppression, all handing power over our self-lens to others who aren't thinking about us with the fervor in which we're thinking about them. I don't have the answers, beyond therapy. I still struggle, but I think it's important we have the discussions and better affirm our physical diversities. We're every size and there are people who find people at every size point sexy. I try to shed a light on that through my characters' physicalities and my book's chosen cover art.
Will you please share with us how (& why) you first became involved with working as a public health and youth advocate? What valuable lessons have you learned over the past 17 years as a result of your work in this field?
I became involved in youth work because at age 16, some 20 years ago, I was displaced from my Christian family and forced out into the streets. Now, I survived, but many around me from that time did not. I survived based on grace and the consistent mentorship of heroes and sheroes who intervened at crucial moments. Through their example, I felt an obligation to give back by paying it forward, thus my national youth advocacy work and co-founding of the Beyond Identities Community Center in Cleveland, Ohio, the only comprehensive social service youth drop-in center intentionally for both LGBT and straight allied youth of color in that state. My HIV/AIDS work came at around age 21 through the loss of my lover, the USA Today Music Critic, James T. Jones IV, who died at the age I am now due to complications related to his status. James died feeling like he'd been cursed by HIV, and I deeply wanted to make sure that no one ever felt like that again. I wanted people who were positive to see that someone young and HIV negative could care about this fight too, could recognize it as my fight, and see HIV positive people as an integral part of my community. Some who mentored me best, like Thomas Gleason and Chauncey Lyles, were stolen from us because of AIDS. But, back then, there were only a handful of young people involved in AIDS work. Now, partially because of our funding advocacy and push for youth HIV programs, there are hundreds who've taken up this fight.
Aside from the promotion of your current project, are there any other artistic endeavors that you plan to tackle in the immediate future? In closing, what can we expect from L. Michael Gipson next...?
Well, I'm working as the Executive Director of the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, a pro bono legal services organization for the creative community in DC. So, that and Faithwalk keeps me fairly busy. You'll see me at readings for "Collisions", of course; and still writing profiles for Swerv and criticism for Creative Loafing Atlanta and SoulTracks.com. Creatively, I'm in a few forthcoming anthologies. I'm also putting together a collection of early essays, articles, and short stories called "Early" for Autumn 2011 release with Red Dirt and working on a play or novel for next year called "What I Owe" (which hasn't yet decided how it wants to exist in the world, maybe both). So, I still have lots to say while I'm young enough and energetic enough to care to say it. I just hope you want to hear it!
For more on L. Michael Gipson, please visit:
L. Michael Gipson at Red Dirt Publishing