Written by: Kendall Bazemore
Being Black and queer, at the intersection of homophobia and racism, I’m very removed from white heteronormativity, while also searching for a place in the hetero-dominated Black community and the white queer community. My journey has been to find a space that allows for my complete self to be free and nuanced and diverse. At the young age when my queerness began to blossom, I lacked the language to articulate what I was experiencing but more than that I lacked the space to express these feelings. The Black community, in all its beauty, strength, and persistence, up until recent years held very little space for queerness.
You Can’t Be Both
Growing up in the community, a working class Black neighborhood, being queer was understood as being deviant. Queer men are seen as feminine, sinful and weak. The media we consumed, the church, and our music all informed our understanding of queerness. The prevalence of characters like Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather of In Living Color, Black gay characters created to be laughed at for their feminine and flamboyant mannerisms, shaped the way the community thought of queerness. Blackness is often associated with masculinity. Black men are athletic, providers, leaders, dominating in almost every way. Being queer was the complete antithesis of these ideas. Queerness was automatically associated with femininity and could not exist at the same time as blackness, especially in Black men.
Growing up, any display of femininity or queerness was immediately squashed by those around me. As a child, I had an obsession with men like Freddie Mercury and Ricky Martin. At the time their queerness wasn’t known, especially not by a ten-year-old like I was, but many had suspected it all the same.
"My journey has been to find a space that allows for my complete self to be free and nuanced and diverse."
I remember once dancing to “Livin’ la Vida Loca” and my father quickly punished and chastised my actions. He said, “I can’t have a gay son,” as he beat me. Thereafter, he’d quickly respond to any perceived queerness with stern rejection. In fact, on more than one occasion he’d suggest my mother put me in football practice or boxing as an antidote to the behaviors I expressed. My behaviors fueled my father’s panic partly because they were a slight on his own pride, and partly because he feared what they revealed about me. The consequences of living openly as Black and queer can mean bodily harm as we’ve seen over social media. But a more subtle from of violence also existed and was much more prevalent: erasure.
The community focus on cishet Black men has been duly noted by past political freedom movements. Retellings of both the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panther Party feature cishet Black men as the victims of police violence and the leading organizers and members, while in reality Black women and Black queer and trans folx were just as involved, if not more so, in these movements and also targeted. The Black Lives Matter movement, started by Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia Garza, three Black queer women, unfortunately follows this androcentric legacy. The 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin sparked a nationwide conversation and focus on the American justice system and the indifference it shows when a Black person is killed. Names of cishet Black men taken by law enforcement officials and vigilantes were very prevalent in the media while names of Black cishet women and Black queer and trans folx weren’t and still aren’t. My eagerness to be involved in these spaces quickly soured. In this movement meant to fight for the liberation of all Black folx, I was still invisible. My queerness wasn’t acknowledged or appreciated—I could only be a Black man. So many experiences taught me that existing as Black and queer couldn’t work.
This community would never accept me unless I renounced or hid my queerness away. This isolation led me to think that if the Black community wasn’t safe and supportive of growth, then the LGBTQ+ community would be. That community’s message seemed to want acceptance and freedom to exist for all. But what I found in the queer community, was more of the same—the demand to sacrifice a part of my identity for the sake of the collective.
"I found a community of others who lived the same truth as I did and together we created a booming voice too loud to go unheard."
A Community That Welcomes Rainbows, but Not Color
As I found a community of LGBTQ people, I was greeted with a warm enthusiasm. I could express my sexuality freely though it took time to allow myself to do so. Queerness, being something that cut across race, ethnicity, and nationality, is thought to be a unifying identity where everyone in the community was unconditionally accepted. For all the liberation I found in these spaces, I found it at the expense of my blackness.
The queer liberation movement began with the Stonewall riots of 1968, a protest of the over-policing of queer and trans space, led by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. Two trans women of color were at the forefront of what eventually became the LGBTQ+ rights movement. But over time that movement and community slowly morphed into one that was almost identical to mainstream America, one that featured white, cis, middle class people. This was personified in the 2015 movie Stonewall, where the transgender folx and people of color involved were marginalized so a white gay man could be at the center.
This whitewashing of the community has very real consequences for Black queer and trans folx and queer and trans people of color. Violent hate crimes perpetrated against the community disproportionately affect Black queer and trans people. In discussion about the 2016 Pulse shooting where over 50 Black and latinx queer and trans people were killed, it was often referred to as an attack on the queer and trans community, not acknowledging the racial angle of the attack. News story after news story would speak on this shooting as an anti-gay attack, situating its timing during Pride month, as the only important aspect of this attack. I found it convenient for white queer folx to attach themselves to this narrative yet remain noticeably absent when Black and latinx queer and trans people talk about deportations and police brutality.
I’ve always felt this painful exclusion, no matter how subtle it occurred. The community’s message of inclusion was revealing itself as only being inclusive on the basis of sexuality. Paradoxically, as the erasure happens, the fetishization of Black queer folks happens at the same time. Fetishization is the way our bodies are sought after as a site of exoticism or experimentation, but more than that, it represents how the white queer community relates to us. Claims of racism are often repelled by statements of “I have a Black friend” or “I date Black men.” Take for example, disgraced alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulus. Yiannopoulus, who participated in misogynoirist attacks at comedian Leslie Jones and has openly endorsed police and disavowed the BLM movement, staves off accusations of racism by saying he has a Black boyfriend. To him and others like him, my body is a toy. I could be lustfully sought after and used to display a false solidarity and then put down when I was no longer needed. The LGBTQ+ community prides itself on being diverse, but the actions of many in the community say otherwise. Every time a new a story of a racist gay bar circulates through the media, every time a dating app profile springs up with “No Blacks, No Asians, and No femmes” listed so boldly in its bio, the shallowness of that “diverse” claim becomes more and more obvious.
Finding Myself in Artists Who Never Compromised
So where do we as black queer people go? Caught between three crushing realities, two that demand us to relinquish a part of ourselves and assimilate and the other ubiquitous white heteronormative reality that would subjugate us regardless, where do we go? It seemed as if hiding my queerness or ignoring my blackness were my only options to have any kind of community.
One of my oldest memories from middle school is being assigned to research Langston Hughes for a written report on his life and work. Nowhere in all the research I did using my school’s database or online resources was his queerness mentioned. It wasn’t until later in my life, revisiting his life’s story and work, that his queerness was revealed to me. The poem Cafe:3AM has a very clear pro-gay message considering its timing before the Stonewall Riots. Langston Hughes, the renowned poet of the Harlem Renaissance and Black culture, was gay, like me. Living in the time period he did, being Black was
consequential enough but to be openly gay as well was egregious. But there it was, right under my nose, yet I couldn’t pick up its scent. From that realization, I found the writings of James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, Barbara Smith, and Audre Lorde, all of whom wrote with such freedom about their lives and experiences. Their writing gave me the language I needed to understand the position I found myself in at this intersection and a roadmap to property navigate this precarious placement.
So much of our story is about belonging. We find ourselves at the mercy of racism, homophobia, and transphobia, as well as in the middle of identities and communities that demand assimilation. Sacrificing any part of ourselves, leaves us vulnerable to the systems working against us. What I learned is that the issue wasn’t the two different identities I possessed but rather, the fact that I’d been made to choose.
I no longer allowed for either community to ignore my existence. I’d make it known I was there and that I wasn’t going anywhere. I found a community of others who lived the same truth as I did and together we created a booming voice too loud to go unheard.
Change is happening. The film Moonlight which centers on a Black queer man won a prestigious award in one of white America’s biggest film celebrations. LGBTQ+ organizations now make more of a dedicated effort to make heard the voices of Black queer and trans people. There are multiple Black musicians and celebrities like Frank Ocean, ILoveMakonnen, Samira Wiley, Amandla Stenberg, Princess Nokia, Janet Mock, and others that are very vocally praised by the Black community with their sexuality and/ or gender identity acknowledged and respected. A recent change in the Pride flag now includes black and brown stripes to acknowledge and respect the existence of Black individuals and people of color in the LGBTQ+ community. These worlds aren’t as separate as they once were, all thanks to those of us living at their intersection.
I didn’t need to choose between my identities. In fact, I resolved not to. Regardless of if I chose my Black identity over my queer identity or vice versa, I’d never be free. America’s white supremacist heterosexist patriarchy would devour me the first chance it got. No. In the words of James Baldwin, “I hit the jackpot. It was so outrageous, I couldn’t go any further. I had to find a way to use it.” This placement of being Black and queer wasn’t a bad thing but rather an auspicious chance. I found the writings and lives of other Black queer people, whose lives and struggle created space I needed to safely breathe and figure things out. And in that time, I created my own space that would allow me to survive while bridging the gap between these two worlds.