Full disclosure. Let’s just get this out of the way up front ok? I’ve been gay my entire life and I’ve never once attended gay pride. Well not the mainstream gay pride. It just never felt like something I wanted to attend because as a Black man I’ve never felt welcomed, embraced or celebrated by gay pride. It’s just too white for me and let’s just be honest, West Hollywood doesn’t represent the fullness of gay life and it certainly does not represent the City of Los Angeles either.
Now I’ve attended a few pride parades with friends, but not even that convinced any of us to go to the festival. However, way, way, way back in the day, I did attend Black gay pride when it was out in Malibu. Now that fully embraced, celebrated and welcomed me. It was like a huge family picnic with all your favorite and not so favorite family members, extended family members and all their friends. Those were the days.
I really can’t explain why I had this burning desire to cover Pride LA this year. It was like this nagging itch that would not go away. As a native, born and raised in Santa Monica and as a photographer constantly documenting Los Angeles through street photography, community work, red carpets, event photography and magazine covers, I decided that I should cover pride here in the city I love so damn much, Los Angeles. So, I applied for media credentials and several emails later I was finally granted access. (#sideeye - head tilted over the rim of my glasses)
From the second I stepped out of my UBER I was excited and really looking forward to the next two days of covering Pride LA. I made it through the security area fast and was just about to walk away to find a place to get my camera gear ready when I hear my name being yelled from across the way. I look over to discover it was my friend and fellow street photographer Gabby. I was very excited to see hear, but as we were talking another person walked up and said, “I hate to interrupt but I heard her scream your name and I was hoping it was the same Kengi” I was smiling, but had no idea who this person was.
He introduced himself as Jeff and began sharing his story with me. He started watching my YOUTUBE channel a while ago after he tested positive for HIV. As he told his story his eyes began to fill with tears. I reached out to hold his hand and did my best to fight back my own tears. He said, “I’m in care and taking much better care of me because you shared your story” As he went on sharing and I stood there holding space for him, allowing him to express and release what he needed. When finished I gave him the biggest hug and encouraged him to “keep it pushin” (thanks Tiana). Although he already had most of my information, we still exchanged info and I wished him a happy pride. I turned to look at Gabby and as Jeff walked away my tears began to fall.
“Kengi, dude, everyone loves you. The work you do for our community is so incredible. You should be very proud. Without even knowing it you’ve made a huge difference in people’s lives just by sharing your story”
“Okay Gabby, I’m already in tears. Don’t try to get me to all out ball up in this bitch” we both broke into laughter.
This was the start of my first ever pride. My spirit felt great and I was completely happy I made the choice to apply for media credentials. Several more times the entire weekend complete strangers to me walked up and shared their awesome stories of surviving the harshness and disrespect of homelessness and the stigma, guilt and shame of being diagnosed with HIV. They thanked me for the work I do, saying “Thank you for being brave enough to share your story with the world.”
As an activist and community organizer the greatest thing for me is to hear that people are advocating for themselves, taking ownership of their lives and moving forward as best they can with their heads held high. I don’t do what I do to be recognized or have my name called. I do it because this is how my parents raised me. I do it because it is the right thing to do and because I am a human who knows from firsthand experience what it is like to suffer through bullshit and feel so freaking isolated. I know exactly what it feels like to one day be sitting on top of the world without a single care and then have everything completely fall apart all at once. I know what it feels like to want to give, give in and just check out. I know what starting all over again with absolutely nothing feels like. I know the joy of traveling all over the world and I know the horrors of fist fighting for my life on Skid Row.
As a photographer, I always try to use my gift to tell stories of folks who are seen, but not heard and those that are spoken about, but never spoken to. It was so cool to have so many folks walk up to me and mention my books, magazine covers and community wor, but it was completely magical and even mind blowing to know how my blog, videos or activism has changed their lives.
Sunday night as I walked out of Pride LA, I had a huge smile on my face I thought to myself what a great weekend this was and what a great time I had. I Hung out with some photographer friends, laughed with long-time friends, met some amazing people and heard some awesome stories of survival from some brave human beings and took some awesome pictures.
This year I celebrated some pretty incredible milestones. Ten solid years of Project KengiKat, an outreach I created in Santa Monica while I was homeless battling cancer. Nine years of LIVING with HIV and refusing to become another statistic on some damn CDC chart and in two days, June 29th, I will celebrate eight years since 29 months of homelessness ended.
Pride LA reminded me that I must continue on my own path doing the work I’ve been called to do. It reminded me that success isn’t the BMW or AUDI I once owned. It isn’t all the lavish trips or shopping like there’s no tomorrow I once enjoyed. Pride reminded just how truly powerful I am and what I can accomplish by simply believing I can do all things I set my mind to. I don’t need to be fancy, have a title or position to make a lasting and real change in this world. Pride reminded me to Keep Love Center, keep raising my voice, living my authentic truth and embracing this amazing journey we call life.