Talking about gender and sexuality with a group of straight men can be anxiety-producing, especially when you are one of the few black queer men in that space. I went to a retreat three weekends ago where we discussed the overarching topic of “Us vs. Them,” divisions and conflicts within America and how these topics pertain to our own life experiences. In one of the activities during the retreat, one of the facilitators told us to separate into groups based on our gender identity. Influenced by the rigid, gendered socialization, I subconsciously ended up gravitating towards the male-identified group even though I knew I would regret it later. As soon as I saw who was in the group, I immediately knew I did not belong, and I could feel a cloud of anxiety forming. The group encompassed an array of diverse male bodies ranging from different racial, sexual, class and generational identities. The space did not feel uncomfortable because it was a space full of “men,” but because the topic of the discussion was “gender identity.” Based on past experiences, I knew it was going to be a train wreck.
The facilitator asked us to discuss why we chose that group. One of the members of the groups started off by talking about gender policing within the black community, particularly from black fathers to their sons. I became optimistic about the direction the conversation was going and I thought the space was a brave enough that we would finally denounce the homophobia within communities of color. But I thought to soon: before the individual went into his personal experiences with gender policing, he clarified that he was not gay. As if somehow performing his gender alternatively would make us read him as so. The topic was about gender identity, but what that statement showed was that, culturally, we do not make distinctions between gender and sexuality. A lot of men of color who choose to defy our patriarchal culture are sometimes read as gay. This creates anxiety amongst many straight, black men who feel as though they must present themselves a certain way to be accepted into the culture. As an openly gay man who identifies as queer, and considering my racial identity, the space confirmed what I always knew: that it still not cool to be black and gay. Millennials and the generation below us are consider one of the most sexually liberated generations, which is a dangerous assumption. I find that even within our peer groups, the sexual traumas left by the past still continue to haunt us.
In this group, one of my friends, who is also a person of color and identifies as bisexual, courageously said, “as a bisexual man, I don’t feel comfortable in straight black male spaces.” I could see the tension rise when he uttered those words. Another member, with a confused look on his face, replied, “I did not know there was a divide between black and straight men on the Lawrence campus.” A mini burst of anger erupted from me and I quickly replied “that is not the history.” I knew where that pain came from and it was not from a good place. I saw that person’s comment as an erasure of the homophobia that I, and other queer men, have experienced in hyper-masculine straight, black spaces (especially by some men in that space). The intention behind their statements was good, but usually the framework of knowledge by which we operate excludes other perspectives, especially if that framework of knowledge is soaked in power.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York in a strict, traditional Haitian family with Republican values, sexuality and gender was monitored. Time and time again I witnessed and experienced the awkward moments that took place when it came to talking about gender and sexuality in the company of black men. I was angered by these comments because what that language does is reinstate my exile, constructs my sexual desires as invalid and untrue and establishes heterosexuality as the normative sexuality. Language shapes reality, and those anxieties are usually seen and manifested through awkward moments when men who have grown up in patriarchal spaces feel uncomfortable talking about forms of sexuality that they have been taught to hate.
What we also do not realize is that language is important to the formation of identity, simultaneously invoking history and memories that go with words. I remember reading an article called No, by anthropologist Don Kulick. In the article, he talked about the homosexual panic defense, a legal defense asserting that when a man thought another man was carrying on sexual advances, he could kill him as a form of self-defense. A similar logic has been employed in the killings of trans women of color, titled the trans panic defense. There are histories of violence against queer communities out fear of our “predatory” sexuality and practices. When those aspects are racialized, it adds another dimension. Black male sexuality has been simultaneously constructed as monstrous and exploited. Through language, queer folks have been constructed as the harbingers of doom, the destroyers of nations, especially in spaces that put high importance on reproductive futurity and the maintaining of heterosexual values.
I remember going to a good friend’s birthday party, and I told the DJ, a person of color, to play the song “Throw that boy P***y” by Fly Young Red, a gay rapper from the South. The song had a beat, and passed what my generation may describe as the “it’s Lit!!!” test. But because the lyrics were not designed for straight consumption and demonstrated a non-respectable form of black sexuality, he decided not to play it. Meanwhile, I continued to dance to their misogynistic songs. Black men need to do better in the conversation of gender and sexuality because race, gender, sexual and class oppression are all intertwined. These forms of oppression constitute a sexual regime where men, and specifically black men, feel they have a lot to lose when they challenge their patriarchal power, especially if it is all you have when you occupy the lowest level in the racial caste system of America.
My response saying, “that is not the history,” was a way of declaring that I have always been there and the killing of black queer folks has always been the vehicle in which honor and masculinity is reinstated. Honor killings are a reality for queer people of color, and I refuse to allow my life to be some form of exchange within this economy of violence, “that is not the history” is my declaration that I am enough.