Imagine you’re a five or six year old boy who wants to play hopscotch instead of football. You prefer jumping Double Dutch over the popular basketball game, H-O-R-S-E. You’d rather listen to music and create art than to aimlessly chase after girls because this leaves you feeling weird. At this age, you have no idea why you’re different; you just know you are. Fear not! Because your family and their friends are going to inscribe on you who and what you are, as soon as they detect it in most certain terms, saying things like, “he’s got a little sugar in his tank” or “he’s going to be soft”. While you don’t exactly draw a correlation between either of those things, since sugar is delicious and soft pillows are designed to improve sleep, you continue growing, finding yourself. The older you get, the more direct the descriptors of who and what you are become from friends and family. Gay. Sissy. Queer. Faggot.
Gay and queer are two terms that mean certain condemnation in the African American community. So much so that, even at 31 years old as of this publication, I fear the backlash I could face just writing about it. That’s exactly why I’m writing it.
The fear and anxiety that black, queer men feel as a result of physical and emotional violence begins the moment a difference is detected. In fact, studies indicate high rates of violence, discrimination, and harassment against sexual minorities. This can lead to anxiety and depression for a plethora of reasons and people. Multiply that by being a black man in America, during a pandemic, and you get quite the conundrum worth unpacking.
For the sake of this piece, envision the black man’s queer experience as a new house; one you’ve only driven past before. You’re being invited to an open house and you’ll get to tour three rooms with extravagant labels on each door reading: balance, strength and representation. Together, we’ll explore each room as a topic of discussion in what I’m calling the House of Divination, through the eyes of three queer real estate agents.
Growing up as a black boy who presents as different or queer comes with a unique set of challenges. You struggle trying to understand yourself alongside trying to understand people’s responses – both black and white – to what you’re desperately fighting to figure out: your sexuality. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t always as cut and dry.
“It just happened,” recalls Brian B., a mental health professional in Columbus, Georgia. “The same way I remember looking at a female and saying wow she’s gorgeous, I’m attracted to her, is the same way I recall noticing my attraction to a dude.” According to the 1948 Kinsey Scale, sexuality falls on a six category spectrum. This is a paradigm shift from the commonly accepted three-preference idea of heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
The Kinsey Scale identifies that people fit into six main categories of sexual behavior, to include:
1. Exclusively heterosexual
2. Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
3. Predominantly heterosexual, more than incidentally homosexual
4. Equally heterosexual and homosexual
5. Predominantly homosexual sexual, more than incidentally heterosexual
6. Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
Still, Kinsey’s constructs haven’t quite made their way into the Black community. Boys and men who identify as anything outside of the cultural status quo are often ostracized and at a higher risk of being discriminated against. Jeremy H., a cosmetologist from north Georgia shares, “as a child, I was very outspoken and flamboyant. My peers and some family members provoked me about [my sexuality]. As a grown man, it still happens.” He isn’t alone. In fact, violence may very well be a synonym of rejection or hate in some cases. In 2018, FBI data revealed that nearly 60 percent of the 1,200 incidents targeting sexual orientation, were inflicted on gay men. Further, the National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) reports that Black members of the LGBTQ+ community are twice as likely to experience physical violence, threats or intimidation.
For many same-gender loving men of color, this revelation alone can spawn spirals of stress and anxiety to span decades. “There have been times when I didnt want to go outside or step foot in certain environments like barber shops, etc., because of the anxiety of being an openly gay man,” explained author, D. Rashad Battle, from Raleigh, North Carolina. As a black, queer man, the struggles of inacceptance, post traumatic stress disorder, abandonment, suicidality and even mental health stigma are observed along the same rates as our white counterparts. However, as the National LGBTQ Health Education Center reports, these stressors are likely to be exacerbated by racism, ethnocentrisim and poverty. The black birthright struggle isn’t an aside to sexuality. Yet, oftentimes it’s view as such by the black friends and loved ones. Why is this, you ask? Lack of balance. I also like to think it’s because of the flick of the wrist.
I’m not talking about the Chedda da Connect song, “Flicka Da Wrist”. I’m talking about gender norms. It is a human emotion to categorize things to make sense of them. If you’ve got left, you have to have a right. If you’ve got a woman, then you must certainly have a man. However, looking at femininity and masculinity in men may not be as black and white. Brian B. adds, “I had a professor who said one of the most profound things in the world, but it was so simple. He said, lions eat zebras. That’s just the way the world works. It’s not good, it’s not bad. Lions simply eat Zebras.” Brian went on to say, “I look at masculinity and femininity the same way: they both exist. they’re not good, they’re not bad. They just both exist. When it becomes toxic is when you use these particular traits to oppress someone.”
Although sometimes unconscious, toxic masculinity is rooted in the misogynistic ideology of masculinity identity validation. In short, the whole idea is perpetuating an image of masculinity to oppose femininity, says the University of Pittsburgh’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies’ program article. For Black men, it’s much deeper. Black men have been portrayed as aggressive and physically and sexually violent since the Jim Crow Era of 1865-1877. Then, Brute, Piccinanny and Coon were among the misused adjectives thrown on images as proper nouns to degrade and undermine Black men. Today, it’s thug or activist, and we’ve joined in on the stigmatization. If a boy cries when he falls, the first thing our fathers or uncles do, is tell us to hush because big boys don’t cry. If we complain about a problem or issue we’re having, it’s often met with gaslights such as ‘man up’. If a boy prefers art over football, we immediately call him soft because he isn’t the image of what we’ve been told and shown of masculinity, and you want to toughen him up. This is toxic and, as such, is also hateful.
Cultural disparities make this topic particularly trying to discuss. There are Asian cultures, like Thailand, that glorify transgender women – called lady boys – and their femininity. Surely, this is the exception and not the rule, but is the paradigm shift one worth exploring? It’s believed that, as a result of being excluded systemically, Black people have begun excluding one another. The notion of not being black enough or straight enough to pass among your own race creates an intersectional point of view. Enter the Black Lives Matter movement.
Indeed all black lives do matter. That’s inclusive to those who identify as LGBTQ+. Yet, as of late, social media hashtags such as #allblacklivesmatter have gained traction due to stories of discriminated members of the LGBTQ+ community going largely unnoticed and uncovered in mainstream media. Author, D. Rashad Battle, chimed in with, “I don’t think it [Black Lives Matters] includes the community enough. When a straight, cisgendered black man is killed, it’s never really questioned about his sexuality. Let a man or woman from the LBGTQ community get murdered, and there is hardly any coverage by media outlets or even the people who we would think would be there for us when one of our own is murdered.” Cosmetologist, Jeremy H., added, “although laws have passed for the LGBT community, it is still not talked about enough inside of the black community.” How could this be, when one of the Black Lives Matter co-founders, Alicia Garza, identifies as queer?
Black Lives Matter was started circa 2013, after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted, by three incredible visionaries: Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors. The Black Lives Matter website boasts that the movement is “an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” A movement founded by three black women, who understood the struggle of injustice and oppression, had to have been inclusive, as black women are always the strength and pillars of support in the Black community. However, as the organization expanded to more than 40 chapters across the world, geographical and moral differences (or ignorance, you decide) began to seep their way into the community’s positive cause.
“I think the movement developed way more quickly than other organizations, with less formality,” Brian B explained. “It started out in one region and, when multiple people were brought in, they came with their differences of opinions. And they were loud. Like they say – people can be loud and wrong. We get a lot of loud and wrong opinions, but I think it has less to do with the movement and more to do with the members of the movement.” Unfortunately, the members are connected to the movement and, for some queer members of the Black Lives Matter Church of Right, it begs the question: are black, queer and male not allowed to coexist in 2020? I believe the answer comes down to representation.
“If you are masculine presenting and you identify as bi/gay whatever, people automatically think you’re DL. Or if you’re feminime presenting, people think you must want to be a girl. And that’s not everyone’s experience,” cautioned Brian B.
Jeremy H. added, “all [queer] black men are not weak or in closets. We exist, black gay men create outlets for many different situations and people.”
D. Rashad Battle explained, “we aren’t out to push some sort of agenda to feminize boys. Every black, gay man isn’t the same, especially how gays have been portrayed on television and movies all these years.”
Three different perspectives. Three different age groups. One resounding principle of a common misconception of black, queer men in America that all boils down to representation. Whether it’s as an Uncle Tom or an Uncle Clifford, we have to show all the faces of black and queer in this country. As brilliantly outlined by Byrant Keith Alexander’s article “Good Man-Bad Man: Performative Agency and Choice”, “the diversity that exists within the character of a black man is not acknowledged, hence he is relegated to a stereotypical pathologized position in which any variation might be construed as inauthentic.” A black man who is queer is no less a man than the rapper with gold teeth who fathers and abandons children by different women. It’s just that we haven’t quite evolved to a place, as a community, where an effeminate presenting man is viewed as an equal.
Brian B. exclaimed, “representation for our white counterparts is so much more colorful. You see a gay man and he’s represented five different ways. Versus, black media – He’s very feminine, keeps all the DL secrets and helps raise the little girls when mom’s away. None of the community really bump with him like that, but he holds the community together.”
Think back to 2016, when the movie Moonlight shattered glass ceilings in paradigms among gay, straight, and inbetween communities. It was considered groundbreaking for its raw portrayal of a Black queer man simply existing in his normal environment. A popular United Kingdom movie critic, Geoferrey Macnab, even referred to the film as “a sensitively rendered, evocative, or surprising coming-of-age film.” While outright deserving of such adulation, the underlying concern here is this type of story isn’t a surprise for those living it. It merely dusted off the unfortunate truth that popular culture and cultural constraints have marginalized an entire subculture of an already oppressed race.
Much like Black people as a race, the spectrum of the types of queer presentations vary just the same. Despite heteronormative sitgmas, Black queer men are politicians and football players; female impersonators and car mechanics; drug dealers and cops. There is no agenda to corrupt younger queer men of color. Anatomically, queer bodies are built the same as many of your husbands and fathers. (or better) And yes, our language is catchy and our fashion trendy, but we are more than your hair dressers and fashion consultants. We’re choir directors and fathers; barbers and cosmetologists; husbands and pastors.
Our differences make us that much more human.