Growing up in Rainier Beach, De Aunté Damper said he felt affirmed as a black man. “But don’t you be gay.”
As he finally admitted to himself senior year of high school, he was. Though a popular kid, the now-34-year-old said he was teased and called names.
Then he would go to Capitol Hill and sneak into the gay-friendly dance club Re-bar. People there, he said, would care about his sexuality but not his racial and cultural identity.
“I couldn’t be all of me anywhere.”
“It’s a full-circle moment for me,” said Damper, who expects about 30 people, including old friends from Rainier Beach, to ride or walk alongside a yellow truck with an NAACP banner.
While other chapters may have participated in Pride parades, it’s far from the norm, according to the Rev. Keron Sadler, the NAACP’s national LGBTQ liaison, based in Baltimore. She said she hopes Seattle will help drive momentum.
“I send them huge accolades,” Sadler said. “It’s important to be visible.”
The NAACP is finding its way on LGBTQ issues, she explained. “We are there on a policy level 150 percent.”
As far back as 1993, the NAACP marched for gay rights in Washington, D.C. It formed an LGBTQ task force 10 years ago, and endorsed marriage equality in 2012, following then-President Barack Obama’s lead.
James Bible, Seattle King County chapter president at the time, recalled he was also deeply involved in advocating for same-sex marriage. In the circles he was part of, he said, most agreed it was the right thing to do.
Nationally, though, the NAACP’s position stirred controversy in a community rooted in churches historically opposed to homosexuality. Some NAACP chapter officers resigned, with one reverend telling gays to “stop hijacking the civil-rights movement.”
Sentiments have evolved, Sadler said. Yet community involvement in LGBTQ issues still lags behind the NAACP’s official statements, Sadler said.
Locally, the election in November of a new chapter president, Sadiqa Sakin, brought change. As a Muslim, she said, she felt the need to counter ideas of who belonged.
“It is not just Christian-based,” she said. “We welcome everyone” — not only people of different faiths, but of different sexual orientations.
She met Damper in 2018 at Umoja Fest, an annual Seattle celebration of African-American culture. Sakin runs a consulting company that managed the event. Damper, a peer navigator for POCAAN, a local nonprofit that provides social services largely to people of color, including those with HIV, was eager to help.
“I was just really impressed by him,” Sakin said.
At her invitation, Damper joined the board in April as LGBTQ chair.
She told the story this week sitting with Damper in the pews of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in the Central District. Damper grew up in the church, left it when he was 18 and headed to a Florida junior college, and returned to it this past October.
By that time, he had been living with HIV for five years. In some quarters, it would be a double whammy — gay and HIV-positive — but not at New Hope, Damper said. The Rev. Dr. Robert Jeffrey Sr. welcomed him warmly.
“I’ve never felt so home in my life,” Damper said, tearing up.
Recognizing that such acceptance is not universal, he recently asked to meet with a number of faith leaders, including a rabbi and a Catholic priest, to discuss their views. A couple turned him down. Others agreed but, he knows, not all approve of same-sex relationships.
“If I’m going to be the LGBTQ chair,” he said, “the first thing to do is to knock on the doors that tell us we can’t be there,” and ask for an explanation.
He also wants to use his role as LGBTQ chair to educate people of color about the risk of HIV and the benefits of treatment. As he notes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in two black men who have sex with men will be diagnosed during their lifetime.
In Washington, blacks account for 4% of the population but 26 % of new HIV cases in 2017.
Damper said some people are so scared of others learning they have HIV that they don’t take medicine. He can point to personal experience: A pill can change your life. In contrast to the days of old, when HIV patients took an exhausting regime of drug cocktails throughout the day, he takes just one – Symtuza – and it has kept the virus undetectable in his system.
Ebullient and filled with purpose, Damper seems in a good place. It’s been a tortuous journey to get there.
In his 20s and out of work while living in Florida, he said, he shoplifted, more than once, and served 17 months.
After being diagnosed with HIV, he moved to Philadelphia, where he got help and eventually trained to be a peer navigator. Yet, living on his own, he felt isolated, and started using methamphetamine. He was still using in early 2018 when, back in Seattle, police said they found him passed out in his car with meth in his system.
“I’m not a perfect person,” Damper said, adding that a lot of black men go through the prison pipeline.
Still, he knew he needed to get out of his own way, as he put it, especially as he took on a job at POCAAN. “You’re in a space of leadership, De Aunté, get it together,” he told himself.
His mistakes are part of his story, he said, and he plans to draw upon them as he tries to help others.
In August, POCAAN will hold a black Pride event for the second time, encompassing several days of workshops, music and celebration. Damper, who said he’s been clean since the 2018 incident and attending Narcotics Anonymous, will lead a session on meth, whose use among men who have sex with men has long been an issue of concern for health officials and HIV activists.
For now, though, he’s focused on the Sunday’s parade. Whatever controversy might still exist in churches or elsewhere, Damper said he’s gotten no pushback for the NAACP’s participation. “Walking with people of color, with my high school friends…” he said, “you don’t even know what I’m doing for my heart.”