Writer & Long-Term Survivor Randy Boyd Revisits His Journey So Far in a New Collection
by Chael Needle
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Jalandhar Nayak, a man living in Gumsahi, a village in eastern India, had become concerned that his three sons were having a difficult time traversing mountainous terrain to make it to school. It took them three hours each way, he said in a recently published newspaper report. Two years ago, with nothing but hand tools, he set about creating a shorter, more passable, and safer route through five mountains. So far, he has managed to tackle three of those mountains, clearing an eight-foot-wide road.
A different but similarly important kind of pathbreaking has been an ongoing project of writer and advocate Randy Boyd. Through his fiction and essays, Boyd has been cutting through social terrain, offering readers a way to find their footing on the uneven ground created by homophobia, racism, HIV stigma, the stones thrown in our way by systemic forces from individual hands.
Unlike Nayak, Boyd may have not had a clear goal in mind when he started writing at age twenty in the 1980s, but over the years he has found himself mining his experiences as a Black gay man living with HIV in order to map his insights about social inequities and injustices, as well as transport us through the emotional landscapes of his heart. He has collected ten pieces in a new book, The Essential Randy Boyd, Volume 1, and they will resonate not only with readers who are long-term survivors but also those who are less travelled in the fight to end the pandemic and to care for individuals who are affected by it.
In passage after passage, whether excerpted from his five-time Lambda Literary Award-nominated novels, such as Uprising and Walt Loves the Bearcat, on his blog, or in nonfiction pieces for Poz, Outsports, and our own A&U, Boyd teases out what these intersections of social locations mean for him and what they could mean for others experiencing similar animus.
In “Update from the unlovable n—– faggot” (2008), framed as a letter written to an unnamed therapist, he searingly rejects what the world asks him to internalize: “But there was one question you often put to me for which I had no answer. ‘You must be doing something wrong,’ you pondered aloud when I droned on about my loveless love life, ‘what is it that you’re doing that makes you always single?’
“After further review, the 46-year-old former patient has the answer.
“What I was doing wrong was living under the false assumption that the people of my generation—my peers, my classmates, my co-workers, the guys at the gym, the clubs, the bar—I was living under the false impression that they were open to falling in love with someone like me.
“Which me? Let me put it this way: when’s the last time you heard anyone say, ‘I just need to find the right black gay guy with AIDS to settle down with?’”
But one of Boyd’s points is that he is a survivor; he has found a way to “keep living and dreaming.” He is sustained by empowerment. He has found a way to face himself in the mirror, and his question to the world now is: Can you?
Boyd probably wouldn’t consider himself a pathbreaker. He is too humble. And as he points out in his collection, he had absolutely no idea that he would live very long to see any long-term project come to fruition, let alone a career in letters. People who acquired HIV in 1985 were choked by constricting horizons. And we can only imagine the other paths that would have been broken by writers from that same era who did not survive their AIDS diagnoses—Melvin Dixon, Assotto Saint, Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill….But here is Randy Boyd. And here is his path he has cut through the mountains. It’s not finished yet. Perhaps others who have not yet learned to smash rocks and smooth-out depressions will join in.
“From this collection, I hope people have a better understanding of me, both as a person and as a writer,” the Long Beach, California-based Boyd stated in a press release. “You know the old saying, walk a mile in my shoes. This is the readers’ chance to go on a very unique walk with me.”
A&U had a chance to correspond with Randy Boyd about his new collection and his life of writing.
Chael Needle: What works or writers are essential to you, and why?
Randy Boyd: My essential reading list is pretty vast and varied, but at this very moment, I try to read everything written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the former basketball player). I’m very much in awe of their brilliant minds and the way they express themselves, especially on matters of race in America.
I’m also reading Hillary Clinton‘s book about the 2016 election because she changed the course of history and her experience and point of view is important.
On the HIV/AIDS front, I follow essential voices like Josh Robbins, Mark S. King, John Francis Leonard, Hank Trout, Justin B. Terry-Smith, and Larry Kramer, to name a few. They challenge and inspire while bearing witness with courage few possess. And I love Neil deGrasse Tyson because he’s Neil deGrasse Tyson (and I love science).
As soon as I see Kareem Adbul-Jabbar’s byline, I immediately read whatever he has written. He is so insightful. Speaking of sports, you write about the stigma you faced for being a cheerleader, a skill honed in childhood that came to fruition during your college career, both at USC and UCLA. In your essay “Dear Magic Johnson…,” which delves into your mixed feelings toward the advocate and how they evolved, you write: “You, Magic Johnson, turned out the be the world’s greatest cheerleader for conquering AIDS.” What is the connection, for you, between cheerleading and the fight against AIDS?
Cheerleading is spirit leading. More precisely, it’s about lifting spirits. We’ve needed a lot of that in the AIDS community since the early 1980s. But another connection comes to mind. Many people have two assumptions: all male cheerleaders are gay, and all men with HIV/AIDS are gay. Both are so not true. But even if they were, so what? What’s wrong about homosexuality, male cheerleaders, or persons living with HIV/AIDS? Absolutely nothing, unless one has preconceived and negative notions about such things.
Male cheerleaders get zero respect in our culture or the media, where they are often the butt of jokes. People living with HIV/AIDS are so feared [that] one having sex without disclosing one’s HIV-positive status is criminalized. Few and far between are examples in art of positive portrayals of male cheerleaders or people living with the virus.
So you can imagine, being gay and a male cheerleader living with HIV/AIDS makes you a triple threat to some. Then there’s being all the above while being black, LOL.
Yes, reading through your collection, I noted how amazingly insightful you are about intersectionality. Was there a moment that prompted you to write about social justice and share your ideas with the world, or was it a slower evolution?
I’ve been a storyteller for as long as I can remember, dating back to childhood, when I used to write stories for myself. Writing about social justice has been more of an evolutionary process dictated by life. For example, Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991 prompted me to write about living with the disease for the first time. The L.A. riots of 1992 prompted me to write about race for the first time. The desire to kick the ass of every homophobic and AIDS-phobic politician alive prompted me to write Uprising, my first novel, a political assassination thriller. Tackling homophobia in sports prompted me to write Walt Loves the Bearcat, a novel about the first openly gay pro quarterback and his cheerleader buddy. And so on.
I loved the juxtaposition, too, of your fiction alongside your non-fiction. All together, the pieces create a beautiful arc. What was the process like putting this volume together?
So I asked myself, if someone was only going to read a handful of my writings, what would I want them to read? Which pieces best tell my story? Which experiences (that I’ve written about) have had the most impact on my life? Which have made me who I am? The goal was to create a small, accessible collection that defines me as both a person and an author.
I started with a list of all my published pieces, starting with the first one, which was my reaction to Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement in 1991. Then I whittled it down to a list of greatest hits, so to speak. Next, I combed through passages from my novels that were either very personal and autobiographical or spoke about feelings deep inside my soul. After that, it was a matter of narrowing it down to the ten most essential things I could review about myself in one collection.
Short of that best case scenario, the scientific facts around HIV/AIDS are pretty miraculous as they stand now. It’s far from a death sentence: it’s a manageable condition that can be untransmittable to others. That’s a very long way from a life expectancy of twelve to eighteen months.
Writing about acquiring HIV in 1985, at twenty-three, from the vantage point of now, you explain, “I knew I was going to die. That was science fact. Living in the Los Angeles area, the evidence was all around me. Gay men morphing into withered, zombie-like versions of themselves. Nothing on earth could combat the carnage. That was science fact.…Living long enough to see myself turn into a 55-year-old black gay man eligible for senior citizen discounts in 2017? Pure science fiction. Until it became science fact. And a miracle, thanks to science.” What else would you like to see become “science fact” in terms of HIV?
How about a single shot of medication that both vaccinates one from getting HIV while eliminating it from the bodies of those currently infected? And it’s inexpensive to make and freely distributed around the world? Short of that best case scenario, the scientific facts around HIV/AIDS are pretty miraculous as they stand now. It’s far from a death sentence: it’s a manageable condition that can be untransmittable to others. That’s a very long way from a life expectancy of twelve to eighteen months.
In that same essay, “Left for Dead,” which first appeared in A&U, you point out, people living with HIV/AIDS or those at risk for acquiring HIV are still facing barriers—stigma, media blackouts about communities of color, and isolation among long-term survivors, among others. What do you feel is most effective in dismantling these barriers?
What needs to catch up to science is society at large, because nowadays stigma has the potential to do more harm than the virus itself. It’s going to take a lot of time and effort to break down those barriers, maybe decades. We’ve come such a long way with LGBTQ rights because in the last forty years, so many people have come out and live their lives openly, providing living proof that gay people are too numerous, diverse and productive to be stigmatized and marginalized into one shameful and dark closet. It’s going to take similar effort by the HIV/AIDS community. The more people who come out and live openly, the more we chip away at false assumptions about us.
What would you say to a young writer living with HIV and who might be hesitant to express themselves?
To the young person living with HIV who’s hesitant to express themselves, I would say: I get it. I remember a time when saying you had HIV could mean losing everything, friends, family, job, housing. I get that others still freak out, that people still think of us as different. Dirty. I understand the fear of expressing yourself to others, and you should only do that when you’re ready, but don’t prevent yourself from expressing yourself…to yourself. Write any and everything you need to write about living with HIV (with the idea that you’re writing it for yourself and that you may or may not share it with others). First and foremost, the most important thing is that you express yourself. Whether or not you share that expression with others is a separate journey you can undertake when and if you ever feel ready. Chances are, expressing yourself (to yourself) and becoming comfortable with that expression will help you get there.
Randy blogs at RandyBoydsBlocks.com and can be found on Instagram and Twitter as @RandyBoydAuthor. The Essential Randy Boyd is available now through various booksellers. Visit: http://randyboydsblocks.com/randy-boyds-books/essential-randy-boyd-volume-1/.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter at @ChaelNeedle.