Family Portraits: Kevin Trimell Jones

When he was in third grade, Kevin Trimell Jones told his class that he wanted to become an archaeologist and uncover great and important relics in Egypt.

Lucky for us, he came to Philadelphia and has been searching for relics here, and not just the late-night crowds at some of the local watering holes.

An accomplished young man, Jones is a national trainer with the Gay Men’s Health Leadership Academy and a founder of the Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council. Between 2008-10, he served as a humanities scholar/facilitator for Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Community History Project. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Michigan, and graduate degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2007, he founded the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia and currently serves as its lead curator.

PGN: Where do you originally hail from? KTJ: I was born and raised in and around Detroit, Mich., and lived there through college. I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan.

PGN: What was your major? KTJ: [Laughs.] I had a few of them. At one point I was interested in religion, then business, but I ended up with a major in American studies. The humanities have always been a great interest of mine. After Michigan, I went to the University of Massachusetts. Then I worked for a few years in Connecticut before coming to Philadelphia about eight years ago.

PGN: Any siblings? KTJ: I have a blended family with two brothers and one sister. My one brother is my twin. He’s also gay. They all still live in Michigan, except for my twin who is in Atlanta.

PGN: Ever get into double trouble in school? KTJ: People tell us wee look alike all the time but we’re fraternal twins, so there was no switching clothes and pretending to be each other or that kind of thing.

PGN: Who’s older? KTJ: My brother is 12 minutes older than me. He also came out as gay before me.

PGN: What were you like as a kid? KTJ: I was kind of bookish. I was very inquisitive, probably a bit quiet as well. I think being the youngest sibling, I was able to learn from my siblings. I learned how to get away with things by observing their mistakes. I mean overall I was a good child and never caused any real trouble. It was interesting: In my early years, we lived in Saginaw [Mich.], in a very multi-ethnic neighborhood. I had friends of all different races and backgrounds. I think that diversity and harmony between all types of people influenced a lot of who I am now. Then at about 10, my parents got divorced and I moved to Detroit with my mother. We lived in a predominantly black neighborhood and I learned a lot from that as well. I leaned the reasons why social justice was so important.

PGN: What did your parents do? KTJ: My father worked and still works for General Motors. Being from Detroit, a lot of the family worked in the auto industry. He’ll retire soon after over 50 years there. My mother had various jobs. She worked by choice, so she did whatever interested her.

PGN: As someone with family in the auto industry, was the bailout a good thing? KTJ: I think it was. The funny thing is that people were critical of it when, in reality, the financial industry got a much bigger bailout. People were ready to let the auto industry fail. I think the blue-collar workers were not given the same respect as Wall Street. But it worked and General Motors is back trading publicly now, so hopefully some of the money will filter back to places like Saginaw and Detroit that have really been suffering in past years.

PGN: You are a big fan of the written word. Do you remember your favorite book as a kid? KTJ: In third grade, after we finished our work, we were allowed to go to the library and pick out a book. There was a short story by Langston Hughes called “Thank You, Ma’am” that I just loved. I memorized the whole thing. I still have it memorized to this day! It was about a young black boy who tries to steal a woman’s purse. She scolds him but also shows him compassion and invites him into her home for dinner. He has to figure out why she’s being so nice to him and, in the end, parts with a “Thank you, ma’am.” I try to pattern myself after the woman, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones, and show compassion in my life. By the way, you didn’t ask me yet but “Fraggle Rock” was my favorite TV show growing up!

PGN: “Fraggle Rock”! You’re just a baby. KTJ: I’m 33; I’ll be 34 in December. Sagittarius.

PGN: The Archivists Society collects personal notes and letters to record our history. What was the best or most recent letter you received? KTJ: About three years ago I was at home in Michigan. My mother’s taken a while to accept me and my brother’s sexuality — not that we ever had any major problems with her, but she was always concerned. I think it had a lot to do with her fear of HIV and AIDS. When I got home from the trip, I found a note in my briefcase from her telling me that she loved me and that though she didn’t necessarily understand it, she just wanted me to be happy and to know that she loved me. She’d said those things to me before, so it wasn’t out of the blue, but to go into my bag and have it there written down was so sweet. It was the best note I’ve ever received.

PGN: Tell me about first realizing that you were gay. KTJ: I think I always knew. My twin brother and I both always knew we were different from our other siblings and very much like each other. I always noticed other boys and had some experiences with playmates growing up, but I still dated females through middle school and high school. Even on a spiritual level, I knew that dating girls was not who I was. But growing up in the ’80s, hearing so much about HIV/AIDS, it was scary. I clearly remember sitting in church and hearing that HIV was God’s gift to the gays and that they were all going to hell. It was hard, knowing that there was something inside me that I couldn’t change while all the people who were important to me were telling me these terrible things. But in my heart I knew what I felt. I loved being around sissies. I would love hearing stories about effeminate black gay men, even if it was my mother talking about this person at church or that one in the beauty salon. Or someone talking about the fags that lived down the street. I loved hearing about them and I wanted to be like them. In terms of coming out, my twin told my mother when we were undergrads together at U of M. Right after he told her she called me crying and asked me if I was gay. I told her I wasn’t, and that was the hardest thing. I could have used it as an opportunity to open up but I was afraid that she couldn’t handle having two sons come out to her back to back in the course of minutes. About a year later, I came out to her and our relationship was definitely impacted. It took her a while to get to the point that she could write me that note saying she just wanted me to be happy.

PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia? KTJ: After grad school, I worked in Massachusetts and Connecticut for a while. I really felt a desire to do work around health issues for gay men of color and I knew that Connecticut was not the place for that! There was not a lot of diversity in Amherst or even in Hartford. I looked at going to D.C. and to Philly. I applied for a job in research at the Public Health Management Corporation and they hired me, so Philly it was. I was also going through a break-up so I figured it was a good time to get a fresh start. It was hard since I didn’t have any family here. I had a cousin who had lived here but he died a while back. He was older than me and also gay. Sometimes I feel I moved here to get closer to him in a way. Working with the Archivist Society, when I see old photographs, sometimes I wonder if any of the people in the pictures were people that he knew or places that he hung out.

PGN: And what do you do at work? KTJ: My official title is manager of research projects and we do HIV-vaccine development. I help design recruitment and research for vaccine trials with the University of Pennsylvania.

PGN: And you founded the Black LGBT Archivists Society of Philadelphia. KTJ: I’ve always had a love for history and spoke to some people about doing an exhibit for Black Gay Pride. We got community members to bring items together to make a collection. In three months, we collected close to 1,000 items. The exhibit was a success and I realized how much information and history there was that many people had never seen. That was the beginning of the Archivists Society.

PGN: Where is it housed now? KTJ: Right now it’s in my home, so we’re trying to find a place for it. I want to make sure that the items are stored safely and also want to get them to a place where they’re accessible to people. I’ve started a blog and a website so that people have a way to contact and connect with us. We’ve already had requests from people looking for certain items or information.

PGN: What was the most interesting or moving item you’ve received? KTJ: We have a collection of photographs. Four of them are from the Penn Relay weekends in the mid-’50s. The relays were always a gathering time for black gay men with people coming here from all over the country. The pictures are from house parties and show men dancing with each other, hugging and being affectionate with each other. I look at them whenever I need encouragement: I think of the men in the pictures as my gay uncles or grandfathers. I also recently returned from Seattle and one of my coworkers from our Seattle site gave me about 80 adult magazines of black and Latino interest. So I’m going through airport security trying to explain why I’m carrying on a suitcase full of porn! That was one of our more interesting donations.

PGN: Tell me three LGBT people of color that we’d be surprised to know. KTJ: Well, that’s a tricky one. There are people who have been named as members of the LGBT community but it’s a struggle for me. If people didn’t talk about it in their lives, how much do we reveal once they’ve passed on, particularly if there’s no public record of it? Even with people like Langston Hughes, there’s been pushback from the families about the sexuality, so I’m reluctant to answer the question. Even currently it’s an issue. If we were not on record, I could give you names of people you’d be shocked to hear, but I think that’s one of the responsibilities of maintaining history: to get the information on record so that there’s no question. Or we try to put it in context that the person was involved with or around the community without definitively saying that they were gay. I’ve already had family members call me to say, “Why are you saying so-and-so is homosexual? Just because they are standing in a picture doesn’t mean they were gay.” It’s a struggle.

PGN: Do you think that it’s going to be harder for future historians? In the past, you would go back and look at old bills and sales receipts to see what people were doing, buying, what things cost, etc. Nowadays, everyone shreds everything. KTJ: There won’t be any paper left, but we’ll have a lot of things digitally archived. There’s always the question of where things go once you post them on the Internet, that once something’s there it can never truly be removed. I believe that 100 years from now, most of our archeological searches will be digital. I also think that there will be a lot of printed history to discover. I’m always amazed at how many people don’t shred their information.

PGN: There was a special on the Library of Congress recently and the head curator was saying how ephemeral we were, having everything on paper or computer, whereas the ancients have their records in stone for all eternity. KTJ: Unless they drop it! I do think we need to be more intentional about preserving our history. I think the ancient Egyptians or the ancient Greeks and Romans were very deliberate about making sure they left a record of their experiences and explaining who they were. That’s why it’s important for us, especially marginalized communities like the LGBT community and the LGBT communities of color, to really make sure we leave a record of how we want to be remembered.

PGN: OK, random questions. Ever play any sports? KTJ: I ran track in eighth grade and that was it. I was more the bookish type.

PGN: If you could trade places with anyone for a month, who would you pick? KTJ: My twin, because people always say we’re so much alike and yet I think we’re totally different. I’d just want to see what his life is really like. If not him, I’d love to be Langston Hughes for a month during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Just to experience that time of great creativity and also to know what it was like to express yourself so freely as a gay man during a time when it wasn’t considered acceptable.

PGN: What question would you ask a psychic about the future? KTJ: When can I get legally married in Pennsylvania?

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