Pleas ring out during week of remembrances
“I understand suicide. I attempted it once, so I understand the pain that takes someone to that breaking point,” said Renee Brown-Worrell, at the funeral service for her stepson Joseph Jefferson, on Sunday, Oct 31 in Brooklyn.
Around the country, many were celebrating and honoring those who died, and despite the commercialism and costuming, for All Hallows or Halloween and El Dia de Los Muerto, it was a day when the family and members of the Black gay community in New York City gathered to remember, celebrate the life of 26-year-old Jefferson, who hung himself on Oct 23, and to say goodbye.
It seemed fitting for someone who was involved with the party promotion and with the Ball community to hear sounds of house music through the speaker system, at Ponce Funeral Home on Atlantic Avenue. Since his death and leading up to his funeral, at other occasions during the week, many who knew him, some closer than others, panegyrized him. Some common themes uttered in public or to each other, included, “He was a kind and generous young man”, “He was outgoing”, “He was angry at the state of the Black gay community”, and “He always had an uplifting or inspiring word to give someone.”
On a day celebrated for the dead, when many wore costumes and masks, symbols of hiding, that the Black gay community stripped away pretenses and covers to reveal the pain and suffering, and the extremes to which many resort, thinking there are no other options. Jefferson’s death upstaged many planned events. It was as if he was saying: “By my death, giving my life, I’m drawing attention to a serious issue in need of addressing in the community; it’s not about the parties, “ki-ki-ing” and “shade”, it’s about many like me who are in pain and need help.”
“When you see someone and they’re not talking, they’re likely in pain. When you see someone and they suddenly stop, check in with them, they may have reached or are near that breaking point. Find a therapist and speak with someone. Remember, what you tell a therapist is between you and that professional, by law they can’t tell anyone,” said Brown-Worrell.
Over the past two months, in the African-American LGBT community, Jefferson’s suicide followed 19-year-old Raymond Chase and 19-year-old Alyisha Hassan in September. Two mourners at Jefferson’s funeral service, who choose not to be identified, said that sometime soon after Jefferson took his life, there were at least two more deaths, including a Black gay young man from a high school in Ohio.
But, Steven Welch, LCSW, a New York City-based therapist said that he’s not sure why these suicides are getting more public attention. These occurrences seem high for LGBT people and higher for LGBT youth, because many youth are dealing with the angst and conflicts with their identity as they grow into adulthood.
“When they don’t see other options for life, they take themselves out. Suicides in the LGBT community is high because many have a higher sense of hopelessness, there are many who are rejected by their families, and are homeless,” said Welch.
From a child development perspective, he added, a young person has to deal with changes in his or her body, and sexual identity that is still developing.
“Many have been rejected by their families, churches, and peers, and for many who turn to churches for comfort, they find that when they identify as gay or lesbian, suddenly the church has turned against them. Many suffer in silence because of this rejection and betrayal, leading to feelings of hopelessness, which leaves many struggling alone to negotiate and navigate their feelings, without any support,” Welch said.
Rev. Stacey Latimer, pastor of Love Alive International, Inc., said that churches have gained a bad rap with the ways in which they have responded to their LGBT members, “But I want you to know that there are many churches that are sanctuaries for anyone who needs to talk, to unburden, to come in and seek help.”
It isn’t difficult for another to follow after someone else had done it, Welch said of the recent spate of suicides as copycat, since many identify with the person who had succeeded in finding a way out. This he said is similar to someone who mutilates him or her self, as a way of obtaining release, which another would do to achieve the same result.
At the funeral, a young man named Vasquez said that Jefferson took him under his wings about 10 years ago, and together, they worked, laughed, and played.
“I miss my great debater. Joseph didn’t like us to be hating on each other. He accepted everyone for who he or she is, but I knew that he couldn’t take the pain anymore.”
Another young man said that Jefferson was proud, “Every time I hear a Brittany Spears song I’ll remember Joseph, every time I feel the sunlight on my face, I will know that Joseph is smiling down on me.”
The news of Jefferson’s unexpected death rocked the NYC Black gay community, especially, the different smaller communities in which he was involved. With surprising speed, all came together to console each other, remember him, and pleaded that anyone suffering pain in any way to reach out and ask for help. At the panel discussion at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) on Monday, intended to determine the continuation of the “I love my boo” campaign, news of Jefferson’s death overshadowed and replaced the agenda. The tears flowed as many clung to each other for support. They remembered him, and spoke of his involvement in the Ball community, working with party promoters, with GMHC and Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), and HIV prevention with the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force.
On Thursday evening at the “Stop the BS” rally, planned by GMAD in NYC’s Washington Square Park to call attention to the bullying many LGBT suffer and the spike in suicides, tried valiantly to stick to its agenda with invited speakers such as State Senator Tom Duane. Instead, as many remembered Jefferson, a more than usual somber mood hung over the estimated 200 people who gathered for the rally. Following the rally, many of the young gay men reportedly went to GMHC for a special “ki-ki” celebration to honor and remember him, for he was one of their own.
Party promoters, James Saunders and Laurence Pinckney, convened a memorial celebration, “Celebrate Life-Stop the Madness” to which more than 300 people attended at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center on Friday evening, to commemorate Jefferson’s life and to call for anyone who was suffering to reach out and talk to someone. This memorial was different, not given to dirge like singing and exhaustive praying, but reflecting on who Jefferson was. While there weren’t many opportunities for people to share their thoughts of Jefferson, several Black gay entertainers, including spoken word artist Rennair Amin, hip hop singer Lester Greene, and R&B performer Jesse O showed their support to raise awareness of the need to seek help. But the miming performance by Diamond Saunders to Shekinah Glory’s rendition of “Yes”, which in those moments when there was a rest in the music, that the sound of sniffling from many in the audience who couldn’t stifle their tears filled that space. To assist with the funeral expenses, a raffle of several items, including dinner for two on the Spirit Cruise, tickets to Daniel Beaty’s “Through the Night”, and artwork by Ricky Day, raised approximately $671. D’Von Christopher of Blue Magazine offered to add the balance to bring the amount to $1,000. Following the memorial, all who attended were treated to dinner prepared by party promoter Amir Mohamed.
Understanding why someone commits suicide, Welch said, does not follow a logical path, rather it calls for considering the dynamics of depression and how culture influences and affects a person. People of color, he adds, generally don’t believe in therapy, in counseling, in talking about issues to a mental health professional, which inhibits receiving assistance.
“The community can intervene by promoting opportunities for those who are in pain to feel comfortable to open up and talk about what’s troubling them,” Welch said.
As the funeral service came to an end, Rev. Melvin Poindexter Miller in his eulogy said, “Now the curtain falls. He is now committed back to eternity from which he came. Joseph made that choice. He gives us a message and a choice, to love more deeply. Joseph’s death is a call, that no one else has to choose to end their lives too soon. His life must compel us to stand up to the cultural and political bullying that daily beat down on anyone who is different.”