Tracey “Africa” Norman

Norman, Tracey Africa 2017 by Lacey Terrell
Photo: Lacey Terrell

Tracey “Africa” Norman was born on December 15, 1951. She is a model who became the first African American transgender woman to appear on a box of Clairol hair coloring in the 1970s, and, along with Geena Rocero, the first openly transgender model to grace the cover of “Harper’s Bazaar.” Norman was named one of “Out” magazine’s Out 100 in 2016.

Norman was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a father who worked as a barber, bus driver, and at a slaughterhouse; her mother held several odd jobs, including bartending, sewing at a coat factory, and working for a Newark city councilmember. Norman’s home life as child was tumultuous, having been molested by a neighbor when she was around three or four, and struggling with “being effeminate” and never feeling comfortable living as a boy.

“He [her father] tried everything he could. He bought me boxing gloves and was trying to teach me how to box. Kept hitting me on one side of my head,” Norman told “The Cut” in 2016. Her first clear memory is seeing her parents arguing on the front porch, and how she was transfixed by the beauty and femininity of her mother. “I saw my mother in this beautiful sleeveless black dress and high heels—she always wore her hair short, red lips,” Norman recalled. “She looked absolutely incredible to me. It was like a movie.”

Norman attended Clinton Place Junior High and Newark Tech High School, where all of her friends were girls, and she would study and emulate their behavior. “I would watch how they sit, listen to how they talk, how they communicate with each other. I would see how they walk. I would see how my mom would live her life and how she would move through the world,” said Norman.

When Norman graduated high school, she became the first in her family to receive her diploma. As she stood on the steps of her graduation ceremony, Norman told her mother that she was, in fact, a woman. Her mother hugged her, and told her she already knew. It was in that moment that Norman felt “unconditional love.” It wouldn’t be until years later—when her once-estranged father was battling cancer and Norman visited him in the hospital—that she felt accepted by both parents. “He saw that I have done something very exciting with my life. I think he was proud of me at that point. He was more accepting.”

Following graduation, Norman began to explore her gender identity and options for transitioning. She recalled going to a department store in downtown Newark and buying her first dress, and following the advice of transgender friends she met at clubs to visit a doctor on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. After beginning a regimen of injections, Norman’s breasts began to grow, and she noticed her body going from “thick” to more slim. Her friends showed her how to apply makeup and dress properly for her new physique.

Norman’s introduction to the world of modeling got a big jump in the mid-1970s when she sneaked into a fashion show at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, and ended up being interviewed by none other than “Italian Vogue” editor Luciano Soprani and photographer Irving Penn. They offered Norman a two-day shoot and a salary of $1,500 per day. She would become only the second African American woman to appear on the cover of “Vogue.”

Norman was signed by a top agency, photographed for “Essence” magazine, and secured exclusive contracts with Avon and Clairol’s Born Beautiful hair color. Although a few people knew Norman’s secret that she was born a biological male, she managed to walk the runways of Paris and around the world presenting as a woman. “Duct tape becomes a girl’s best friend,” she later quipped. “I had to do other things, yes. I’d like to keep some things private.”

It was her association with Clairol that thrust Norman’s face into the public consciousness. Her hair colored with Dark Auburn, Box 512, Norman signed a contract that allowed her image to be used for two years, with an agreement that she would be paid more if Clairol renewed. The box with Norman’s image ended up being used for six years, and Clairol customers were buying it to look just like her.

Despite her success, Norman began to notice that job opportunities began to wane. An incident at a photo shoot around 1980 led her to believe that her secret may have been found out and played a role. According to Norman, her agency blamed it on her weight and size. Eventually, a friend in the industry confirmed her suspicions. “It goes through the grapevine really fast. Really, really fast,” recalled Norman. “I kind of upset the fashion world for a while. “I had many black female models that I took jobs from super-angry at me.”

Over the next several years, as money started to dry up, Norman was back living with her mother in Newark, worked side jobs in modeling and retail, signed to a new agency, was featured in an ad for Ultra Sheen cosmetics, and even worked in a Times Square burlesque peep show featuring trans women. The show earned her enough money to move back to New York City. It also exposed her to the drag ball community—becoming a member and eventually “mother” of the House of Africa (the “Africa” in her name). She was inducted into the ballroom hall of fame in 2001.

In 2015, Norman enjoyed a comeback when a biographical story of her life and career was published in “The Cut,” the digital fashion site of “New York Magazine.” Suddenly, an entirely new generation learned about Norman’s remarkable career. As a result of the coverage, Clairol announced that Norman would become the face of its “’Nice ’n Easy Color As Real As You Are” campaign. According to Clairol global associate brand director, Heather Carruthers, they were “honored to bring back Tracey Norman as a woman who no longer has to hide her truth.”

Norman’s accomplishments as a Black, trans woman would be extraordinary even today, but the fact she enjoyed success with Clairol and modeling in the early days of the LGBTQ rights movement makes her feat even more impressive.

“As a model, I was hiding my truth, and when I got the [first] job it was very exciting for me,” Norman said. “It was different because we were back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, so it was something that wasn’t spoken of, and at that time it wasn’t acceptable for me to be out.” [Now] I was being accepted for who I am and they wanted me as the person that I am today to represent them. And I just thought that was fantastic.”

We thank Tracey “Africa” Norman for being a trans trailblazer, and for her support of her community.

Mikel Welch

Welch, Mikel 2017

Mikel Welch was born on December 14, 1979. He is a celebrity interior designer, a season seven contestant on HGTV’s “Design Star,” and an on-air personality, design expert, and senior set decorator for the Emmy Award-winning “The Steve Harvey Show.” Welch has designed rooms for such luminaries as First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Bishop TD Jakes, Tyler Perry, and Halle Berry.

Mikel Welch was born in Detroit, Michigan, the son of Winston Welch, who was a minister, and Kathy Young-Welch, a radio personality and talk show host. As a young boy living in Southfield, Michigan, Welch busied himself with the construction of sofas and dining tables for imaginary houses. It was evident to his family that creativity and a passion for design were embedded in Welch from birth.

Welch attended Southfield Lathrup High School, graduating in 1997. Following high school, Welch enrolled at Morehouse College, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in business administration. He came out as a gay man in his sophomore year of college, and found it to be a very challenging experience. Growing up in a very conservative household headed by a minister only intensified the conflict. Welch’s parents initially tried to pin his attendance at an all-male college as the source of his sexual orientation, but according to Welch, they “eventually came around, over time.”

After stepping away from work in corporate America, Welch followed his passion to begin working as an apprentice for several interior designers. At just 27 years of age, he opened Dwell Interior Design Solutions in Atlanta, which he maintained until making the decision to relocate to New York City. In Manhattan, Mikel worked for interior design firm Valerie Onor Designs, among others.

The early years were not easy for Welch. “In 2010, I was living in New York City and struggling, living on food stamps,” he recalled. “I had given up everything I had with my corporate job to chase a dream because I always knew God had a greater plan for me. So now, I want to encourage others to step out on faith and trust God. I want people to feel the same joy that I have when I’m out designing homes for my clients. My road wasn’t easy but I stayed the course, and God has now opened up doors that I never could’ve imagined.”

The public first became familiar with Welch’s signature style—his bow tie, and relaxed, fun and enthusiastic personality—when he appeared on HGTV’s “Design Star” in 2012, where he finished as a top four contender. That same year, Welch joined “The Steve Harvey Show” as a set designer. But this wasn’t his first brush with television. Welch worked behind the cameras as a set designer for the Style Network’s hit reality show, “Jerseylicous,” in 2011.

Welch was chosen to be one of 26 designers participating in the 2015 Lake Forest Showhouse & Gardens, one of the country’s top showhouses. As part of this, he reimagined the office suite of the late filmmaker, John Hughes. Welch served on the Inaugural Designer Committee of the 2015 Antiques, Garden & Design Show at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

Welch has appeared as a design expert on WGN-TV, and CBS-TV’s “The Talk,” and has made special guest appearances on behalf of West Elm, CB2, and Pottery Barn. Welch and his designs have been featured by “The Huffington Post,” “HGTV Magazine,” “CS Magazine,” “Modern Luxury Interiors,” “Essence,” “Crain’s Chicago Business,” “Splash,” Chicago’s NBC-TV, HGTV’s “Shop This Room,” and The Fabulist on E! Network.

In 2013, Welch served as the master of ceremonies for the Ruth Ellis Center’s Voices Benefit for LGBTQ youth in Detroit. “I think it’s important for the Black SGL/LGBTQ community to have a voice,” Welch told the Ubuntu Biography Project. “I feel like the media portrays us in such a negative light, so it’s always great to see positive images of Black gay men represented in our community.”

Today, Welch oversees his interior design business, Mikel Welch Designs, and divides his time between several cities. Welch is a huge fan of hip-hop and house music, and is quick to add, “Don’t let my bowtie fool you. In my next life I would really like to become a DJ. If interior design does not work out for me, I am definitely going to learn how to spin records.”

Interior design is very much working out for Welch, who dreams of having his own home makeover show in the future. “I love being able to visualize a space in a manner that my client’s wouldn’t have anticipated. The pleased look on a client’s face after the room is revealed is the greatest compliment.”

We thank Mikel Welch for his lifelong commitment to design and creating exciting spaces that evoke beauty, classic elegance and comfort, and salute him for his many contributions to our community.

James Earl Hardy

Hardy, James Earl 2017

James Earl Hardy was born on December 14, 1966. He is an award-winning feature writer and cultural critic best known as the author of the bestselling “B-Boy Blues” series.

Born and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York (just a block from where Spike Lee filmed “Do the Right Thing”), Hardy is the oldest of six children. Fascinated by the power of words, he began writing poems at the age of eight. When he realized that people could actually earn a living as writers, he took the traditional route into journalism by working on student newspapers at Edward R. Murrow High School and St. John’s University, in addition to serving as a staff writer and mentor on “New Youth Connections” (a New York City-based newsmagazine for teens) and freelancing for “Essence” and the “New York Daily News.”

Cranking out all those $25 music reviews and $50 feature stories paid off, as Hardy won grants from the E.Y. Harburg Arts Foundation, and the American Association of Sunday & Feature Editors. That led to a fellowship at the “Village Voice,” and a two-year stint as an editor of “Update” magazine (known as “the ‘Time’ for teens”), where he earned back-to-back Educational Press Association Awards.

Two weeks after graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism with honors in 1993, Hardy landed his first real job in the world of publishing, in the arts department at “Newsweek” magazine. He was hired as a research fellow, which he describes as a “fancy euphemism for intern.” But that didn’t matter to him. Hardy may not have been doing what he wanted to do, but he was certainly where he wanted to be.

One of his “pay your dues” tasks was to read “b-list” novels, and recommend any interesting titles to the book editor. After zipping through close to three dozen books, Hardy said he became depressed. “I didn’t see the Black gay me, anywhere,” he recalled.

So, Hardy spent the next three months writing “B-Boy Blues,” released in 1994. The basic story had been told a million times before—opposites attract and fall in love—but not with two contemporary Black men (a middle class journalist from Brooklyn and a bike messenger/high school dropout from Harlem). These were not the stereotypical Black gay men usually found in gay or African American fiction, which is why nearly every single editor approached about publishing the novel balked. Because the characters unapologetically challenge white gay racism and Black heterosexual homophobia, some felt the novel was “too political.” Others even doubted the places and people depicted could possibly exist (“a gay homeboy from the ’hood?”).

After signing a contract with Alyson Books, Hardy said that he was content. He didn’t believe that he could write a novel, and just considered this a brief detour on his journey as a journalist. He settled back into his routine at “Newsweek,” his eyes still fixed on earning that staff writer prize.

But then bestselling author E. Lynn Harris dubbed “B-Boy Blues” as “the first gay, hip-hop love story,” and the mainstream (white hetero-defined) media ran with it. “Entertainment Weekly” gave the novel an A-minus. “USA Today” profiled Hardy, and he appeared on “Donahue.” The accolades (a 1995 Lambda Literary Award finalist for Best Small Press Title) and acknowledgements (“B-Boy” is prominently displayed by Kyle, a character portrayed by Isaiah Washington in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus”) poured in. All the attention was exciting but presented Hardy with a dilemma: should he walk through this new door that opened, or play it safe and collect that steady paycheck?

Beloved by readers and advocates around the world, Hardy said that receiving handwritten letters stuffed into envelopes with postage stamps honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald made that decision for him. “Thank you for…telling my story; letting me know I’m not alone; showing me I can be Black, gay, and proud,” read one. And, Hardy had his own testimony: “B-Boy” was his coming out—the tool that helped him to free and embrace himself.

Nearly twenty-five years after its release, “B-Boy” has given birth to seven sequels: “2nd Time Around”; “If Only For One Nite” (a 1998 American Library Association Gay & Lesbian Book Award Honoree); “The Day Eazy-E Died”; “Love The One You’re With”; “A House Is Not a Home”; “Is It Still Jood To Ya?,” a novella featured in “Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris,” which received a 2010 African American Literary Award nomination for Best Anthology; and “Men of the House aka Li’l Brotha Man’s Story, which is scheduled for release in June 2018. It follows the 15-year-old heterosexual son of main characters Mitchell “Little Bit” Crawford and Raheim “Pooquie” Rivers.

In addition to being used to examine the intersections of race and sexuality in queer studies and African American literature/multicultural college curriculums, “B-Boy Blues” continues to inspire others to find their own voice. James Earl Hardy notes that each month he receives at least one Facebook message from a budding Black SGL author, some as close as Harlem and others as far away as Johannesburg, South Africa.

In September 2017, “B-Boy Blues” passed the 200,000 sales mark; a 25th anniversary edition will be released in February 2019.

The stage adaptation of “B-Boy Blues” (which won the 2013 Downtown Urban Theater Festival’s Audience Award) played out to sold-out crowds in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Atlanta. The show made a triumphant return to New York in 2015, playing to packed houses at both the National Black Theatre in Harlem and Playwrights Horizons (its official Off-Broadway debut). The play will be returning in 2018; for updates, visit www.Facebook.com/BBoyBluesThePlay.

In addition to the “B-Boy Blues” series and play, Hardy has penned biographies on Spike Lee and Boyz II Men; a short story collection, “Can You Feel What I’m Saying?,” a 2013 Rainbow Award Finalist for Best LGBT Erotica; and a one-man show about adult film actor Tiger Tyson, “Confessions of a Homo Thug Porn Star,” which was also recognized by the Downtown Urban Theater Festival (Best Short – 2010), and played to sold-out audiences in New York, Boston, and Washington, DC.

Hardy’s advocacy as an author and journalist has earned him a 2005 GLAAD Media Award nod for his tribute to disco legend Sylvester (“Living Proof”), and Lifetime Achievement Awards from Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), and the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC). In 2017, Hardy received the James L. Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize from Lambda Literary, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Better Brothers Los Angeles.

We thank James Earl Hardy for his empowering words, his enchanting storytelling, and for his considerable contributions in support of our community.

Peter Sewally (Mary Jones)

Jones, Mary 2017

Peter Sewally was born on December 12, 1803 (date of death unknown). Sewally, dubbed the “Man-Monster,” was a New York City prostitute and pickpocket who wore women’s clothing and went by the name of Mary Jones. Sewally was convicted of grand larceny during a sensational 1836 trial that gave observers of the era one of the earliest recorded insights into men who dressed as women, and men who had sex with men.

Although the few biographies that have been written about Peter Sewally/Mary Jones generalize a birthdate as 1803 with no month or day, Sewally was recorded in a legal affidavit from June of 1836 as stating, “I will be thirty three Years of age on the 12th day of December next, was born in this City [New York]…” Information about Sewally’s childhood and young adult years are lost to history, but newspaper accounts during his trial implied that Sewally had been a prostitute for some time as an adult, and served in “State service,” or the military.

“Sewally has for a long time past been doing a fair business, both in money making, and practical amalgamation, under the cognomen of Mary Jones,” declared the New York Herald on June 17, 1836. The term “amalgamation” was used often at the time to refer to sexual relations between people of different races. The New York Sun added, “During the daytime, Sewally generally promenades the street, dressed in a dashing suit of male apparel, and at night prowls about the five points and other similar parts of the city, in the disguise of a female, for the purpose of enticing men into the dens of prostitution, where he picks their pockets if practicable, an art in which he is a great adept.”

Sewally’s relative life of obscurity came to an end on June 11, 1836, when a white man, Robert Haslem, met a Black woman named Mary Jones on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. According to published reports, Jones was dressed “elegantly and in perfect style” with white earrings and a gilt comb in her hair. Following a conversation, Jones and Haslem went to an alley off Greene Street and proceeded to get intimate.

On his way home, Haslem discovered that his wallet had been stolen, along with nearly a hundred dollars. Another man’s wallet, with a bank order for $200, had been placed on Haslem’s person. The man initially denied owning the wallet when Haslem tracked him down, but later admitted that he had been pickpocketed by Mary Jones. Afraid to expose his activities, the man did not call police to report the crime.

Haslem, however, was intent on pressing charges, and went to the authorities the following morning. While searching for Mary Jones, a constable (police officer) passed a Black woman on the Bowery, and asked, “Where are you going at this time of night?” Jones replied, “I am going home, will you go, too?” The constable went with Jones to a nearby alley, where she “proceeded to be very affectionate.” Jones was placed under arrest, but resisted—getting into a “tussle” and allegedly tossing two wallets, including Haslem’s. After Jones was locked up, police found several other wallets in her apartment.

Charged with grand larceny, Sewally went to trial on June 16, 1836. He arrived at court “neatly dressed in female attire, and his head covered with a female wig,” reported the New York Sun. Whether Sewally chose to dress that way or had been forced is unknown. What is documented is that the proceedings turned into an opportunity to ridicule Sewally, with spectators and court officials laughing at his expense and, at one point, a courtroom observer removed Sewally’s wig.

From records collected during Sewally’s arrest and subsequent trial, we learn that he began to dress in women’s clothes while “…in the practice of waiting upon Girls of ill fame and made up their Beds and received the Company at the door and received the money for Rooms &c [an abbreviation of et cetera or etc.] and they induced me to dress in Women’s Clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own Colour dressed in this way—and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way…”

The arresting constable also claimed that Sewally attempted to pass as a biological woman by fitting himself with a piece of “cow” (presumably slabs of meat, which led to Sewally being called “Beefsteak Pete”), cut open to resemble a vagina and held up by a girdle. It remains unclear whether Haslem and Sewally’s other clients failed to realize that Mary Jones was a man, didn’t care, or were aware but afraid to admit that they enjoyed her company.

Sewally denied ever seeing Haslem and stealing his wallet, but the jury saw it differently. After deliberating for a short time, the panel convicted Sewally of grand larceny, and he was sentenced to five years in Sing Sing prison. Because Sewally never had anal intercourse with Haslem (or Haslem did not want that made public), he was not charged with sodomy.

Following Sewally’s release from prison (presumably around 1841), very little is known about the remainder of his life, with the exception of two published reports that appear to refer to “Beefsteak Pete.” On August 9, 1845, the New York City-based Commercial Advertiser reported that “a notorious character, known as Beefsteak Pete, was arrested on Thursday night, perambulating the streets in woman’s attire.”

On February 15, 1846, the New York Herald published a story about “Pete Sevanley [sic], alias ‘beef steak Pete’; a notorious black rascal, who dresses in female attire and parades about the street.” The piece referred to Pete being released the previous Sunday from Blackwell’s Island (at the time the site of a “lunatic” asylum, later renamed Roosevelt Island), and being arrested for “playing up his old game, sailing along the street in the full rig of a female.” He was reportedly sent back to prison for six months.

Besides the sensational life story he left behind, Sewally’s legacy was made permanent in a lithograph of him dressed as a woman with the words: The Man-Monster; Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones, &c&c; Sentenced 18th June 1836 to five years imprisonment at hard labor at Sing Sing for Grand Larceny. There is debate to this day about whether the term “monster” applied to Sewally being Black, engaging in prostitution, dressing as a woman, or a combination of the three.

In the book “The Amalgamation Waltz,” Professor Tavia Nyong’o surmised that it was because of Sewally’s testimony and defense of the way he presented that “the queer subject transforms shame and stigma not by transcending them or repressing them but by employing them as resources in the production of new modes of meaning and being.”

We remember Peter Sewally aka Mary Jones for adding an interesting, important, and relatively unknown chapter to LGBTQ and African American history.

Michael Johnson

Johnson, Michael 2017

Michael Johnson was born on December 11, 1991. He is a former college wrestler, fitness professional and trainer, and house ball performer known on social media as Tiger Mandingo. Johnson’s high profile arrest and conviction on charges he knowingly transmitted HIV turned a spotlight on controversial HIV laws that make it a crime for HIV-positive people to have sex without first disclosing that they have the virus.

Michael Lewis Johnson is a native of Indianapolis, Indiana, the youngest of five sons born to Tracy Johnson. He didn’t know his father, and was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, enrolling in special education classes through grade school and high school. Johnson said he always identified as gay, but his mom was “afraid for him” and urged her son to stay in the closet because he was too young. Johnson recalled that in all of his years of health education (even in college where he was pursuing a physical education teaching career), he never had a class mention homosexuality, which he took to mean that “it’s wrong to be gay.”

Johnson knew from a young age that his best shot for success despite a learning disability was through athletics. While he tried other sports, he enjoyed wrestling, saying that unlike “a team sport, you can’t point the finger at another person…you can only point the finger at yourself.” By high school, Johnson set his sights on a successful wrestling career that would get him into college, the Olympics, and a career in professional wrestling.

As a teenager, Johnson presented as straight, becoming “Tiger” the wrestler after he started wearing what he calls his “lucky tiger shirt” to matches. But he also started publicly exploring his identity as a gay man by walking in ballroom drag house balls in Indianapolis. Joining the House of Mizrahi, he was very “butch” and walked a style known as BQ (“Butch Queen”) Body. In the ball era of his life, Tiger became Tiger Mandingo.

While Johnson kept Tiger Mandingo and his ballroom wins on the DL, he became quite successful in the wrestling world. He won the Indiana State Wrestling Championship in 2010, his senior year of high school. His high school coach later praised him as a “dream,” telling a reporter, “From the time that I met Michael, I didn’t think I could have a more dedicated and committed wrestler.”

Some of the top schools in the Midwest wanted Johnson on their wrestling teams, but his learning disabilities got in the way of him meeting minimum academic requirements. He was accepted at Lincoln Junior College in Lincoln, Illinois, where he earned an associate’s degree and came in first place at the National Junior Wrestling Championships in 2012. He was then recruited to wrestle for Lindenwood University, a private, coeducational, liberal arts university located in the St. Louis suburb of St. Charles, Missouri. His mother and friends expressed concern that Johnson was accepted on scholarship, even though he could barely read or write.

Johnson was very popular with girls on campus, so many observers, including those on the wrestling team, assumed Johnson was straight. When word got out that Tiger was gay, he wasn’t shunned by the team, but a former teammate said that at least one person on the team didn’t want to practice with Johnson, and no one was volunteering to wrestle with him, either.

Meanwhile, on social media, Johnson presented himself as Tiger Mandingo, later revealing that he was unaware of the history and connotations of the name, believing it stood for “a Black man who is hung.” In a ballroom drag YouTube show called “The Barbecue,” recorded in 2012, Johnson is asked by the hosts, “Tiger Mandingo, what made you choose that name?” He answered, “I heard about the definition of Mandingo,” which he said, “came from Africa, and in Africa, big dick, Mandingo!” He was especially popular with young white male students on the St. Charles campus.

On January 7, 2013, Michael Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, and as is customary, signed a legal form acknowledging that he understood his diagnosis. From this date forward, any time he had sex with someone without disclosing his HIV status, he would have been committing a felony. His mother, Tracy Johnson, later said, “No one told him, ‘Before you sign this legal document, you need to get counsel. This is a legal document, and if you go against this legal document, you can be incarcerated,’ and be given years in the penitentiary if he is dishonest about his medical situation.”

Johnson allegedly continued to have unprotected sex with men he met in chatrooms and on social media. An intimate partner of Johnson’s believed he contracted the HIV virus from him, and went to the authorities. On October 7, 2014, Johnson had a “non-custodial interview” with St. Charles Police, according to the prosecuting attorney’s probable cause statement. He had no lawyer present. Investigators also seized Johnson’s computer, but it was not searched until after a warrant was issued specifically to do so, on November 19. They also seized Johnson’s cell phone, though on an unrecorded date and, once again, without a warrant.

“Michael is very trusting and very naive,” said Meredith Mills, a friend from Indianapolis who met Johnson when her stepson played soccer with him and considers him part of her family. “I’m sure he didn’t know if he was doing anything that was criminal.” The day before Johnson was arrested, it’s unclear if the magnitude of his fate was clear to him, but he posted on his Facebook wall: “I missed up big time but I learn to never miss up again.”

Johnson was arrested on October 10, 2014, after he was pulled out of his class and led away in handcuffs by the St. Charles police. The University immediately expelled him, and news of Johnson’s arrest, coupled with reports of more than 30 videotaped sexual encounters on Johnson’s laptop, quickly made local, national, and international headlines. At the time, Missouri was one of the dozens of states that have HIV criminalization laws, which activists have slammed for being outdated and unfairly targeting Black men.

Johnson was accused not merely of keeping his HIV status to himself, but of willfully lying to his partners, telling them he was HIV-negative before engaging in what the prosecutor would call the most “dangerous” form of sex: ejaculating without a condom into the rectums and mouths of his sex partners.

As his lawyer tried to negotiate a plea deal, the 23-year-old Johnson rejected the idea, even after a friend visited him in jail and begged him to reconsider, and even though Johnson said he had spent months in solitary confinement and was not allowed to attend church. He was innocent, he said, and had confidence in the American criminal justice system.

When the jury was finally selected, it was made up of four white men, seven white women, and a single black female, a retired nurse. Of the 51 potential jurors screened, only the lone retired nurse appeared to be nonwhite, and all identified as straight. During questioning, about half of the would-be jurors said being gay was a “choice.” Only a third agreed that being gay was “not a sin.” No potential juror acknowledged having HIV. All said they believed HIV-positive people who do not tell their sexual partners that they have the virus should be prosecuted. When asked, not a single person said they had any distrust of the police.

No one had shown up to support Michael Johnson. His own mother wasn’t there; she would arrive late and leave before his trial ended. His only ally that morning was his public defender, Heather Donovan, and she stood up in front of the pool of potential jurors and told them that her client was…guilty until proven innocent. Amid groans in the courtroom, the judge, Jon Cunningham, reminded Donovan that she’d meant to say the opposite—that her client was innocent until proven otherwise.

Things continued to get worse for Johnson, who had become one of the most highly publicized targets of America’s controversial HIV laws. As “BuzzFeed” contributor Steven Thrasher stated in his coverage of the trial, “The soft-spoken former university student had shown up to court in a blue shirt and a bright red tie, but standing trial was his black, ejaculating, HIV-positive penis.”

Many prosecutors defend HIV laws as offering just punishment for behavior that can help transmit the virus. But critics say the laws unjustly place all responsibility on the person with the virus—that while Johnson faced up to life in prison, his partners bore no legal liability, even though they all willingly engaged in unprotected sex acts during casual hookups with Tiger.

A Missouri court heard that the former Lindenwood University student continued to have unprotected sex until he was arrested. “He didn’t just fail to disclose his status,” the assistant St. Charles County prosecutor told the jury. “When he was specifically asked if he was clean…he lied.” On his laptop, police found videos of him having unprotected sex with 32 men, two of whom testified against him.

Following a three-day trial, the jury reached a decision after just two hours of deliberation. Johnson was convicted in May 2015 of one felony charge of “knowingly” transmitting HIV to one man, and four charges of exposing four other men to the virus who did not contract it. He was sentenced to thirty years in prison, a longer sentence than average for second-degree murder in Missouri.

While Johnson served his prison term, activists and supporters on the outside were blasting the trial and sentence, including 89 Black gay men who penned a letter to Michael Johnson.

“We write this letter to you, understanding the actions taken against you have come at the expense of your humanity. And we write this letter to you, acknowledging that you are a part of our community. You are our brother and we support you. There are less and less spaces dedicated to Black gay men. And our bodies are being beaten, policed, and pushed into prisons. Yet, we remain steadfast in the belief that our bodies, desires, intimate relationships and communities are not criminal. We are loving, living, and worthy Black people,” they wrote.

The letter went on to state, “We are aware that you have been charged with felony HIV-exposure in Missouri for allegedly not disclosing your HIV-status to your sexual partners. However, we also know that HIV criminalization laws unfairly impact Black people and stigmatize people living with HIV. HIV criminalization laws push people living with HIV further and further away from HIV treatment and care and make HIV prevention efforts more difficult. As Black gay men, we are deeply impacted by HIV; and these laws harm us and damage our relationships and communities.”

In December 2016, a Missouri appeals court found “fundamental unfairness” in Johnson’s original trial, ruling that prosecutors withheld evidence from the judge until the morning of the trial. By withholding evidence, the prosecution “prevented Johnson from preparing a meaningful defense.” The ruling to throw out Johnson’s conviction was upheld by the Missouri Supreme Court four months later.

Prosecutors said they would retry Johnson, but instead agreed to a plea deal that Johnson took in September 2017. He pleaded no contest to one count of knowingly transmitting HIV to one man, and four counts of exposing four others to the virus. He accepted a sentence of ten years, and could be eligible for parole within six to eighteen months. Additionally, because he pleaded to charges under a health statute, he will not be required to register as a sex offender in Missouri, where he’s incarcerated, or Indiana, where he’s from.

At the court hearing, Johnson asked his guards if he could address his friends in the courtroom. “I just want to say thank you all, I appreciate your being here, and I love you,” Johnson stated.

[Special thanks to Akil Patterson and Athlete Ally for their assistance in compiling the original biography, which has been edited for space and updated. Portions were taken from Steven Thrasher’s 2014 “BuzzFeed” story and trial coverage.]

G. Winston James

James, G. Winston 2017

G. Winston James was born on December 11, 1967. He is a widely published Jamaican-born poet, author, essayist, editor, and publisher.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica as the last of five children, James’s father was a carpenter by trade, and his mother a domestic. James attended Paterson Catholic Regional High School in New Jersey, where he graduated in 1985. Following high school, James enrolled at Columbia College of Columbia University, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Latin American/Iberian studies. He went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from Brooklyn College, and a Master of Business Administration from the honors program at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College.

James is a former fellow of the Millay Colony for the Arts, and the author of the poetry collection, “The Damaged Good: Poems Around Love,” and the Lambda Literary Award finalist collection, “Lyric: Poems Along a Broken Road.” In 2010, his short fiction collection, “Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories,” was selected as a finalist for the 22nd Annual Lambda Literary Awards, as well as the Ferro-Grumley Literary Awards.

Most recently, his essays have been included in the collections, “For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough,” “Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of Gay New York,” and as the introduction to award-winning photographer Thomas Roma’s monograph, “In the Vale of Cashmere.”

James has worked professionally in a variety of fields, including in international relief with CARE, Inc.; in corporate law as a legal assistant with firms such as Arnold & Porter and Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett; in finance with the former Bear, Stearns & Co.; in development with the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center of New York; in diagnostics and cancer research with IMPATH Predictive Oncology; in transnational community organizing with the Fluid Bodies Project of the New York State Black Gay Network; and currently in international business with M.R. Forest Technologies as the company’s vice president.

Aside from his professional life, G. Winston James has been affiliated with such community groups as Gay Men of African Descent, and the Other Countries writers’ collective, for which he served as executive director, grant writer and co-editor of the group’s third anthology, “Voices Rising: Celebrating 20 Years of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Writing.” He served as co-chair (in 1999 and 2000) and one of the founders of New York City’s Black Gay Pride celebration, and was an integral part of the Arts and Cultural Programming Committee of the Audre Lorde Project Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two-Spirit & Transgender People of Color Communities.

James co-organized the 1999 OutWrite, an LGBTQ literary conference, was a steering committee member of The Publishing Triangle: Lesbians and Gay Men in Publishing organization, and is one of the founding members of the Fire & Ink, the Black LGBTQ literary festival and organization. Currently living in South Florida, James was also an organizing committee member with BrothasSpeak-Ft. Lauderdale, a Black gay social group.

As a child, James often felt isolated and alone, as his interests in nature, science, spirituality, the occult—and other boys—were at odds with most young people around him. It is this solitude and the difficulty he felt with communicating verbally—particularly when upset—that he credits with engendering his initial desire to write.

For a time, Black and LGBTQ organizing meant everything to James, as it is these communities to which he came to belong, and that gave him a home and a sense of purpose in New York City as a young, gay, creative man navigating a world that was increasingly shadowed, and, in ways, defined by the specter of HIV. As an adult, however, James discovered that the sense of solitude that he experienced (and that saddened him at times) as a child is an intrinsic and important part of his nature that he has learned to embrace and affirm. As such, James is currently less involved in community organizing and activism as he is in the equally important work of self-discovery, and the development and defense of individual identity.

G. Winston James was most influenced by the community leaders, artists, and individuals he encountered throughout his life (most of whom remain unsung heroes), including GMAD founder Elbert Gates, authors and Other Countries members B. Michael Hunter and Yves Lubin (aka Assotto Saint), choreographer Ronald K. Brown, author Sapphire, acquaintance Ed Shepherd (who probably has no idea how much of an impact he had on James’s outlook on life), and the man (whose name James has forgotten) who promised to eventually make James orgasm without having to touch himself. These individuals entered James’s life during his formative years, and showed him what it meant to be passionate about one’s purpose, one’s voice, one’s person, and one’s sexual preferences and erotic identity.

James recognizes the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” as works that early on inspired his own creations. Additionally, the novels “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, “The Immoralist” by Andre Gide, and “Our Lady of the Flowers” by Jean Genet have all impacted his life philosophy and writing.

G. Winston James and his husband make their home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. As a child, James dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, so he spends much of his free time as an adult rescuing and caring for animals, and is surrounded by cats and more trees and plants in his home and yard than one can easily count.

James describes himself as a “sex positive” person—he embraces and defends his right to have sex with whomever, whenever, however, and why ever he chooses, regardless of the judgments of others. It is after accepting the facts of his own desires (and shedding fear of others’ opinions) that he believes he has been able to elevate his own honesty, and create and attract lasting happiness in his life. Today, James’s cause is honesty (around which he believes all justice revolves), and his passion is living.

We thank G. Winston James for his transformative writing, his exemplary advocacy for Black SGL/gay men, and for his many contributions to our community.