In 2001, I met Michael Peterson at a janky food spot on 12th Street called Cheap Art Cafe. It was after 9 p.m. and I had been roaming the Gayborhood for hours, mesmerized by the plurality of people who seemed to be just like me.
I noticed Michael glistening in the street lights. He locked eyes and came to join me inside. Michael had buttery skin and the presence and softness of a dancer. When he sat down at the table it was all shade, until he warmed up to getting to know me.
To me, Pride, which we celebrate this month, is about refuge. In my early days in the Gayborhood, I found safety in new friendships. I didn’t have to just imagine a world where I could truly spread my wings; I had an up-close master class in a life lived freely. I needed to see Michael’s brightness in order to step into my own spotlight.
I had just happened upon the Gayborhood the night we first met, and to me — a Black Muslim teenager from West Philly — seeing a large group of Black LGBTQ folks after the “let out” from clubs at 2 a.m. was an affirmation that saved my life.
I had been deeply depressed about my sexual identity for years. A few years before this, my mother had asked if I wanted to be a girl. She was gentle and sweet when asking me this, but I didn’t know that my family would accept me. I couldn’t then disclose to her what was happening in my body and mind.
Seeing Michael be visibly Black and gay in the early aughts — years before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and before marriage equality — was something to behold. Michael was from the Hill District in Pittsburgh and came to Philly to study ballet. He would wear tank tops, skin-tight Betsy Johnson jeans, and a fierce pair of boots from Eternity Fashion. Michael’s femininity transfixed me.
Michael and I became inseparable. I’d go to his place after school, and we would wander around the city, go to the Gallery, catch a movie at the old 69th Street movie theater — the one with Popeyes inside. My scent memory can recall Michael wearing Sweet Pea by Bath & Body Works or Love Spell by Victoria’s Secret.
I cherished every bit of our first hangs, learning that he deeply loved musical theater, of which my only reference at the time was Little Shop of Horrors — the movie adaptation was a childhood favorite of mine. I remember Michael being shocked that I didn’t know much about Stephen Sondheim’s lyrical canon.
We would eventually work together at TGI Friday’s, live together as roommates in West Philly and North Philly, and I would take the bus or drive to Pittsburgh with him to meet his family and friends.
I remember a funny moment when I first met Michael’s family. I didn’t know what pop was and kept declining to drink it, until I finally realized they were talking about soda. We went to Michael’s old stomping grounds: the GLCC (Gay & Lesbian Community Center), Pegasus Nightclub, and Eat’n Park.
All these years later, our friendship is still strong. I’ve never told Michael how much our chance meeting changed the course of my history. His ways of being provided tutelage for my struggling 17-year-old self.
“I needed to see Michael’s brightness in order to step into my own spotlight.”
Michael and I have seen each other through some joyful, painful, and downright tragic times. We were together on 9/11 — we both had work that night at Friday’s and spent time processing our shock. Michael was there for me when I tested positive for HIV in 2008. He also bore witness to my blossoming into the queerdo I am today. He provided space for me to grow in our friendship and never judged my decision-making.
This Pride Month, I celebrate the refuge of queer friendship. Pride is about the deep tentacles of mutual care, messy learning, and shared memories.
In my family we have a saying that makes me think about Michael: “It’s nothing to it, but to do it.” My friend didn’t need instruction to be himself — he did it naturally. It took me time and practice to come to the same place.
Abdul-Aliy Muhammad is an organizer and writer born and raised in West Philadelphia. @MxAbdulAliy