Family Portraits: Robert Burns

Robert Keith Burns began to focus his energies around HIV/AIDS work when he was barely out of his teens.

In the subsequent years, he has become a presenter, trainer and educator, both within academic and local/regional/national conference settings on cultural competency, LGBTQ of color identity, HIV/AIDS/STIs, effective behavioral intervention and public-health strategies. Burns is a fellow of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Institute on HIV Prevention Leadership, a founding member and treasurer of the Philadelphia Black Gay Men’s Leadership Council and current executive director for Colours Inc. He has received the “Leaders of Today and Tomorrow Award” from the NAACP and African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute, the “Vanguard Award” from the Brother Circle of Cleveland and the “Brother’s Excellence Award” for his work for the community.

PGN spoke to the outspoken activist about his amazing journey.

PGN: Tell me a little bit about growing up. RB: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio. I am one of three kids from my mother and one of 10 from my father’s side. So, we have a pretty big family. I was primarily raised by my mother, so I’m just starting to get to know more of my relatives on my dad’s side. There was a party this [past] summer for my twin brothers and it was the largest gathering of my father’s children in the same place at once that we’ve ever had.

PGN: What was childhood like? RB: It was all about school. I was involved in major honors classes and school government from elementary school on. I was always a techie guy, so in junior high I got into a communications technology thematic program. I love computers or anything dealing with technology. PGN: What did your mother do? RB: My mom was in the nursing field and she bartended on the side.

PGN: She must be outgoing. RB: Oh yeah, she has a lot of personality. She’s one of the most popular bartenders in Cleveland. A lot of folks know her. My father managed a number of the clubs in Cleveland so that’s how they met. He was in and out of my life until I was about 13 and then I didn’t see much of him, but we’ve recently reconnected. I think I absorbed some of their entertainment enthusiasm because I’ve been a DJ on the side for the last 13 years. I’ve worked in bars and clubs across the country.

PGN: What’s the most annoying thing people do? RB: When you play a song that someone requested and they miss it because they weren’t paying attention and they start pestering you to play it again. I pride myself on not repeating songs so that’s irritating. I like to try to play things that you don’t typically hear on the radio.

PGN: Name three artists you like. RB: In the clubs I play a lot of house, but personally I’m a neo-soul kind of guy, so I listen to a lot of Jazmine Sullivan and Erykah Badu, artists like that. When I was younger, I was a bit of a DJ groupie and was able to see some of the old-school DJs from back in the day. I saw how they were able to move people through music and it really resonated with me. I wanted to get involved and finally was able to convince someone to let me carry his records so that I could learn the business.

PGN: Any sports? RB: No, I was a big nerd. I was involved in yearbook, math club, computer club. I was the kid you could always find in the computer lab. I was very interested in learning programming … and hacking. A few friends and I were always challenging each other to see who could get the farthest past the firewalls. I once got to go “behind the scenes” of the Board of Education’s entire network.

PGN: I’m assuming that “behind the scenes” means you hacked in. Did you change any grades? RB: Oh no, we were too scared to do anything. One of the things you learn early on is that everything is trackable. So we didn’t ever mess with anything; it was more about the challenge of getting in.

PGN: Where did you go to college? RB: While I was still in high school, I went to Case Western Reserve University as part of the outward-bound program. I was interested in engineering and architecture. I’d hoped to design magnificent buildings and homes, but that changed when I started doing nonprofit work.

PGN: What switched? RB: I got a job at the free clinic of Greater Cleveland and began working with men with STDs. I noticed how cyclical it was — we saw the same patients every three to six months — and decided that we needed to do more education. I began to teach preventative care and found it very rewarding. That was the start of my journey. Soon after that, I was working with homeless high-risk youth and, at age 22, my boss promoted me to be the coordinator for a new program working with African-American men who have sex with men, which quickly grew and eventually got federal support. I left architecture behind for good. I did go on and get my master’s in human services from Lincoln University and I’ve started to pursue my Ph.D. in human development at Fielding Graduate University.

PGN: A memorable moment from your line of work? RB: Any time someone tells me that I gave them information that helped change their life or the way that they live, it always has an impact on me. It moves me to continue what I’m doing.

PGN: Other than DJing, any hobbies? RB: I love to travel. I love to see new spaces and learn new cultures, experience new environments. I’m also a big Mr. Fixit. I redid the home that I’m in now from top to bottom. And I watch all the home-improvement shows! “Design on a Dime,” “House Hunters,” “Yard Crashers,” “Holmes on Homes,” you name it.

PGN: What’s a conversation piece in your house? RB: Probably the number of records that I have. They take up whole walls. I have several thousand, though now I’m converting a lot of stuff to digital. It’s a lot easier on your back when you’re DJing. And I have an article framed on my wall that was written in the “Cleveland Scene” paper about my former partner and me. It was titled “Hell to Pay” and it was about the lives of black gay men and the church. He was not out at the time and the article had us as a couple on the front page and included a photo spread of us together and kissing each other. He came out to his family with the article. The paper was the equivalent of the City Paper, so there was one at every newsstand in town. His mother was a 911 dispatcher and when she walked into work all her coworkers were all asking if she’d seen the paper. She pretty much knew that he was gay, but they’d never spoken about it. His father was from the islands and definitely not happy, but we got through it. He was glad to have it out there.

PGN: Tell me about coming out for you. RB: It was interesting. I didn’t come out until I was 17 or 18. I went into foster care when I was 16. My mother was dealing with some issues surrounding substance abuse. When I was getting ready to be discharged from the system at the age of 18, the therapist thought it would be a great thing to do a family session with me and my mother — that it would be a good chance for me to tell my mother about sexual abuse I’d suffered that she didn’t know about and also about my sexual orientation. It didn’t go so well. After I told my mother about being molested, she was very upset that I hadn’t told her before. I explained my reasons to her and then added that I was gay. She made some disparaging remarks and walked out. It happened in under 15 minutes and our relationship was never the same. Six months later, when I left the group home, I was on my own. I’m now 35 and have always taken care of myself. My father was a different story. I was 21 and DJing in a gay club in the evenings and running a health program for black gay men and working with the AIDS Taskforce by day. One evening, I walked into the club at 11 p.m. and I heard a voice say, “Hey, son.” I turned around and it was my father sitting at the bar with his girlfriend. I’d never come out to him, mostly because we hadn’t seen each other much, so I was shocked to see him there. I asked him how he knew where I worked, and he said, “I’m a man of many resources. Being in the bar business, it wasn’t hard to find you.” Then he told me, “I just want you to know that you’re my son and I love you and I don’t care who you love or who you’re going to be with, you’ll always be my son.” It was very affirming. We embraced and our relationship has been good ever since. My mother later apologized for the words that she said but I’d already made the decision to live my life for Robert and not go back. She’s still in Cleveland, so we communicate occasionally but it’s from a distance. With acceptance on my father’s side, including my grandmother and my sisters, it was not hard coming out with the exception of the experience with my mother.

PGN: How do you think some of the challenges you’ve faced — foster care, etc. — have had an impact on you and what you do? RB: It’s had a significant impact. I’ve had opportunities to see what I don’t want my life to look like and it’s helped me define what my life is now.

PGN: What’s a historical event you wish you could have witnessed? RB: The first Million Man March. I’m really into the importance of civil-rights activism and the social-justice movement era; in fact, I wanted to go to Morehouse because that’s where Martin Luther King Jr. attended, though I never got there. There have been subsequent MM marches, but I don’t think they’ve ever captured the power and intensity of that first march. I think I would have felt like part of history.

PGN: One thing you’d like to learn how to do? RB: Play an instrument, preferably the piano. And/or learn the studio side of making music. I love what I do with the records on the turntables, but I’d like to learn the creative and producing side.

PGN: Do you have a partner? RB: Nope, single.

PGN: Who would you contact in a séance? RB: My grandmother on my mother’s side. She was my protector. When she passed away in 1984, I was devastated: It was the most I’ve ever cried. I ran to her house when she was dying and held her in my arms so tightly the paramedics had to pull me off. I would love to be able to have a conversation with her again.

PGN: What did she protect you from? RB: When my mother was having problems with substance abuse, she became physically abusive.

PGN: Ever been in a car crash? RB: Well, coming from Ohio, we have a lot of sleet and snow, so I’ve had my share of sliding into bumpers and median barriers, but nothing major.

PGN: Other than sliding on ice, what was your most dangerous stunt? RB: When I was 10 and 11 years old, I used to run away from home. The first time I left, I got 22 miles out of the city of Cleveland in the winter. I was picked up by police and they were baffled at how I made it that far in the snow. There was a lot of emotional stuff going on in my life at that time and I would just start walking. No destination in mind: I would just pick a direction and walk until someone, usually a cop, would stop me.

PGN: And look at how far you’ve come now. What is your current title and what are you responsible for? RB: I’m the executive director of Colours Organization Inc., which focuses on building community among LGBT people of color and fighting HIV disease in communities of color. I’m responsible for funds development, advancing the mission of the organization and facilitating the coordination of programming. We do a lot of programming from initiatives like health workshops and intervention and testing to social programming like our Positive Brothers empowerment group for sexual-minority men of color living with HIV/AIDS to Sistah 2 Sistah, a social/support group for lesbian youth of color, ages 13-24, and many, many more.

PGN: And you’re doing a big event on Dec. 29? RB: Yes, we’ve partnered with 25 other LGBTQ groups to have a Kwanzaa Extravaganza at the African-American History Museum. It’s a free event and we’ll have light hors d’oeuvres, Kwanzaa education, music and lots of celebrating. I hope you’ll join us.

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