09 February 2007

My Dinner with....

One of my favorite movies is My Dinner with Andre, Louis Malle's intellectual talkfest with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, discussing life, art, and fauns (among other things) over a meal in an elegant New York City restaurant, while being served by a waiter who looks like he's seen and heard it all. I first saw the movie in college, and it had a powerful effect on me and my friends because many of the insights and comments made in the film were things we had also talked about and 'discovered' for ourselves (What can I say? I fell among Jungians in school....), and it helped to make my friends and I feel a little less strange in the wilds of Virginia. I've seen the movie many times since, and even have an underlined/highlighed copy of the screenplay on my shelves at home.

Last night, I was part of another, different discussion over dinner. I've been a long-time participant in the SHARE (Study to Help the AIDS Research Effort) project, a program that follows a group of men (HIV +, HIV- and those who have seroconverted) over time, keeping track of behaviors and physical and emotional changes. It is a reseach study, so some of the contributions SHARE has made may not be considered too glamorous to non-scientists, but much of the information garnered from us has lead to changes in treatment guidelines, and we also have an impact on various past and ongoing clinical trials.

Yesterday, a small group of study participants gathered for a focus group session, to talk about risk, sexual behavior, intimacy, "The Down Low," and a host of other issues. It was a thrilling and fascinating conversation -- as well as being an extremely rare event: eight black men sitting in a room talking openly and honestly about their lives, and what goes on in our community. (The Study decided, in order to avoid cultural or language misunderstandings, it would be best for the focus groups to be same-race). Most of us were middle aged (I believe the youngest man in the room was in his late 20s, the oldest in his 50's), and ranged across class, economic status, skin-color and hair (from dreads to bald/receeding) lines, as well as all those other 'markers' as well ('butch/straight-acting' and 'queens'; 'tops', 'bottoms', 'versatile/switch', extroverted and shy, silly and serious, etc). One black male faciliator did his best to guide and keep track of our wide ranging conversations, and two female doctors (one black, one Indian) observed and asked a few questions as well, and also provided medical facts when needed to keep us from passing on any false information.

None of us knew each other very well, if we had met at all, and no names were used until the end of the discussion to aid in the open flow of information. By the end of two hours, however, I think we all felt that we knew each other fairly well -- and we all hated for the eveing to be over, wishing the conversation could have gone on longer.

Men seldom talk about themselves and their lives with each other (or anyone) without a lot of posturing and member-measuring involved. Black men in particular seem to almost never share their feelings with each other. Gay/bi/MSM guys almost never get to meet in a place that does not have some 'I'm here to pick someone up' component to it. And few if any of us are willing to open up without alcohol being somewhere nearby to help 'loosen the tongue.' So this was an unusal night, and amazing and moving opportunity for us to eat, relax, talk, and be honest with ourselves and each other.

It's odd how you can miss something you've never had before. As I mentioned many of us would have loved to keep going, or to have a chance to come back and talk some more next week about other issues. The late and much lamented (by me, at least) Louie's Bookstore Cafe tried something like this once -- signing a random group of people up to get together to discuss a particular topic, with limited success. And the Washington Post did the same with a group of gay men for their Being A Black Man series. I'd love to see someone try something similar in communities around the country, bringing men together just to talk and share parts of their lives, focusing on different topics. I think there's an ache inside us as men, as African Americans, as LGBT people -- as humans -- and a lonliness that longs to reach out and have a warm, valuable, intimate, sharing experience with others; to listen to and to be listened to by someone else. To realize both your uniqueness and also how similar you and your experiences are with those of other men. It was a great evening last night, and I'd love to do it again sometime with another group of people. Maybe even at my place one day, over dinner.


Bernie said...

You're correct. I think there is a longing for these types of interactions, on an on-going basis. But who will take up the task of making it happen? That remains to be seen.

Peter said...

Wow. Sounds like it was a great focus group. A neighbor of mine has been going to a black men's church-based group for a while and likes it. But it recently hit a rough patch when the gay men in the group felt disrespected. Too bad.

John K said...

Reggie, I agree that it sounds like it was a great discussion. One aspect that's key is that the participants have been part of it for a while, right, so they feel more free to speak their minds. I think groups like Adodi foster this kind of intimate exchange, so it does happen, but not enough. I used to have these kinds of discussions with friends, well a few of them, but several have gone through difficult personal experiences (mental health breakdowns, etc.), so it's no longer possible. But with friends I do believe this can occur; friends, or incredibly open people. Otherwise people may feel they're exposing themselves too much, and to what end?

ReggieH said...

Thanks all for your comments. I do think there was the common element of us all being part of the Study that connected us, and our understanding of their longstanding confidentiality rules, that helped to make the conversation more open. And although much of the evening was audiotaped so the researchers could transcribe it later, there was a point where one person asked the tape to be turned off so he could even more freely discuss issues surrounding his past as being a gay married (...to a woman) man.

Peter: so sorry to hear about your friends' problem with his discussion group. Sad to say but that happens far too often! For many it's "okay to be gay -- I guess -- just don't talk about it." The other half and I ran into a similar problem a number of years ago with one of his cousins: cousin was 'cool' with his being gay but then he got into this long term relationship and it was no longer 'abstract'. There we were together 'in his face with it' and suddenly he had this 'problem'. Fortunately the rest of the family was with us, and sat him down and read him the riot act.