The Killing of Calvin Williams: If You're Black and Gay in South Florida, Down-Low Sex Is a Deadly Gamble

In the Riviera Beach neighborhood where Calvin Williams lived, the houses are plain, single-story concrete blocks painted in drab greens and tans. Air-conditioning units poke out of windows, satellite dishes dot the roofs, and flannel sheets serve as window shades. Nine miles away, Donald Trump and Rod Stewart have built millionaires' playgrounds on Palm Beach. But in this part of town, grown men pass the afternoons on their front stoops. A .38-caliber pistol sells for 50 bucks on the street.

On the night of May 13, Williams hosted a card game at his apartment. Men played tonk; women dealt hands for spades. Bottles of beer emerged from a cooler, and cigarette butts burned in the ashtray. It was NBA playoffs season, and a Cavaliers-Celtics game blared on the TV.

Williams, 41, was 6-foot-4 with a confident smile, a schoolteacher with a well-muscled, basketball player's build. As the night wore on, Williams was engrossed in his cell phone, drifting away from the card game. His friends had no idea whom he was texting, but they badgered him for being distracted: "Are you going to play cards or talk?"

By 11:30 p.m., the game ended and the crowd broke up. A man who was later identified in police reports as Williams' boyfriend (New Times is withholding his name to protect his privacy) left for the hospital, where his grandmother was having surgery. Sometime after 1 a.m., Williams, drunk and bored, decided to visit the lover he'd been texting all evening.

His friends never saw him alive again.

Soon, an investigation into his death would unveil Williams' most intimate secrets. It would remind his community of an AIDS epidemic it would rather forget. And it would raise a tangle of medical and legal questions about the price of his silence.

In some parts of America, gay men and women are doing well in their struggle for acceptance. They serve openly in Congress, star in hit TV shows, and can legally marry in five states. But in Riviera Beach, not much has changed since the days of Rock Hudson.

Here, as in many other black communities around the country, the stigma attached to homosexuality is stubbornly persistent. In church, it's labeled a sin. At home, young boys are taught that sleeping with women is essential to their manhood. Admitting their feelings for men can lead to getting beaten or kicked out of the house.

To navigate the land mines of hostility, many gay or bisexual men like Calvin Williams have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" creed. They don't talk about the men they sleep with when their girlfriends are away. They don't show up at family dinners dressed in drag. And they don't explain that their newly formed six-pack abs come courtesy of the steroids they're taking to treat HIV.

That silence can be particularly dangerous here in South Florida. According to 2008 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (the most recent data available), the Miami metro area has the highest AIDS rate in the nation, with 42.8 out of every 100,000 people infected. For black men, the situation is even worse. In Florida, the HIV/AIDS rate for black men is nearly five times the rate for white men, according to the state health department. In 2008, 1 in 31 black men in Palm Beach County had HIV or AIDS. In Broward County, 1 in 41 black men were infected; in Miami-Dade, 1 in 29.

The numbers are particularly damning for men who sleep with men. This diverse group — encompassing men who are openly gay, bi, or call themselves straight but have "down low" sex with men — comprised more than half of the 219 male HIV cases reported in Palm Beach County last year.

A 25-year-old man who asked to be called "Love" offers himself as a cautionary tale.

Love, clad in leopard-print satin pajamas, black slippers, fake eyelashes, and diamond earrings, speaks in soft, honeyed tones. He expresses no anger when explaining how being black and gay in West Palm Beach made him an outcast.

He says he was attracted to men by the time he was 11 and began dressing "like a lady" a year later. But his mom would not accept him, so he made the streets his home. He quit school at 16, hit the club scene, and traded his body for cash.

When he was 20, Love and a friend got tested for sexually transmitted diseases at a gay club in West Palm. Love discovered he had HIV. But for years, he ignored the bad news. He kept working the streets, even neglecting to use condoms. He says he didn't have any symptoms, and denial was easier to swallow than the fear of retaliation if the wrong person found out.

"I lived in a mind frame that I didn't have it," he says. "It just felt fake."

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab