A Death In The Family

I first met him at Pride, right here in Philadelphia, three years ago this very weekend. He was at the Sheriff’s Office tent, where he was encouraging young LGBTQ people to join the department. His name was Dante Austin, and as I struck up a conversation with him, I quickly became impressed with the breadth of his knowledge and his passion for our community. Not yet 25, Dante had already found his calling, not just as the city’s first openly gay deputy, but as a leader in his city. As a LGBTQ liaison with the Sheriff’s Office, Dante built bridges between the police, gay, lesbian, and trans Philadelphians, while also putting a very human, very real face on LGBTQ people for his fellow deputies. Dante understood the two worlds in which he moved, and by understanding them, made their orbits move a little closer together.

His life was one of service; by and by, I learned that Dante was a US Army veteran, serving his country even as his country didn’t fully support him, or his LGBTQ siblings. Nevertheless, I encouraged him to help us in a veterans’ charity with which I had become involved. I felt his would be an uplifting presence among other soldiers and sailors like himself; in fact, Dante was also active in the Pennsylvania chapter of OutServe, the national LGBTQ veterans’ advocacy organization. His was not a quiet presence in these groups. When, two years ago, President Trump Tweeted that transgender troops would no longer be allowed to serve in the military, Dante was at the forefront of the outcry against that ill-conceived policy. Under the broiling August sun, he spoke out in earnest before all America, right from the courtyard in City Hall. He did not shrink from expressing what he knew to be right; his oratory reverberates with me still.

I could always count on seeing Dante where the need was great. He was there for the salute to LGBT Veterans at the Toasted Walnut. I was proud to present him with an award there, for his selfless contributions to our work. I saw him standing firm as the inevitable rollback of our hard-fought rights began. I was there to witness him at another Philly Pride, just last year, electrifying everyone present as he proposed to Tito, the love of his life, on the big stage in Penn’s Landing. There really was no limit on this vibrant, erudite young man’s future. Diligent, thoughtful, always kind and quick to smile, Dante had, in his short life, already made such an impact in the city of Brotherly Love, as will live on long after his face becomes a fading memory in the winds of time.

Over the past months, there were whisperings of turbulence in Dante’s life. As with many young, successful gay men, the road forward sometimes reveals bumps, but Dante had enjoyed unusually smooth sailing. It was his gift to navigate his life in a way that belied his tender years, he had an insight normally reserved for people approaching middle age. Affairs of the heart in our community can be complex, even more than for our straight counterparts, who enjoy society’s nearly universal acceptance and assent. Yet, no outward sign of this did I see in young Dante. In fact, I was with him just this past Monday at the LGBTQ State Of The Union, and he was as ebullient as ever, full of excitement about his future. He was on the board at nonprofits Delaware Valley Legacy Fund, and board candidate at My Brothers House. There was a promotion to sergeant in a couple of weeks, and his work among LGBTQ veterans was continuing apace. All, it seemed, was looking up.

This morning, hard on the eve of Pride Weekend in Philadelphia, we awoke to news of the most blood-chilling kind. Dante, our Dante, a son of his city, and leader of his community, was gone. A man of service, a man of help, always there in readiness for us, fell victim to demons most foul which assailed Dante beyond his ability to overcome. Perhaps it was the upcoming anniversary his heart could not tolerate, maybe it was the overarching pressure that young success can bring to bear, or we may imagine that, being in two very high risk groups — gay men and police officers — this confluence worked its dread will on a gentle, studious soul whose only desire was to improve our world. Young Dante, alone in a cold office in the middle of the night, succumbed to the darkness incomprehensible, and ended a life of such promise as to magnify a tragedy already monstrous in its impact.

It’s Pride Weekend again in Philadelphia. Yet, it is missing a part of its very essence, for a man who signified its meaning is now walking with God in His Heaven. A part of me, a better part for having known Dante Austin, is up there too, forever to reside with him in the life that surely awaits beyond this life. We who knew him and loved him, will never quite be whole again, but we are buoyed by the realization that in his works, there will always be something here and manifest about him, in the lives he touched in the home he so loved. There has been a death in our family, and it will be keenly felt by us the rest of our days. We mourn and honor his memory. We cherish the privilege of having known him.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please ask for help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1–800–273-TALK. You can also text “talk” to 741–741.

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Nathan James is an LGBTQ, journalist, playwright, and radio personality. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/nathanjamesFB, or on Twitter as @RealNathanJames

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Nathan James

Nathan James

Nathan James is an LGBTQ, journalist, playwright, and radio personality. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/nathanjamesFB, or on Twitter as @RealNathanJames