By Jay Dodd
Recently, I was on a panel for local 8th graders about personal identity and how it connects to work around justice / community building. While discussing my story of self-discovery, I realized the students kept squirming every so often. I was intentionally not centering the talk around the “sex” in sexuality, so I was a little confused. I am an only child, my cousins are either in high school or way younger than these kids, so my experience was limited. I didn’t seem to lose them, but I was very aware that something I was saying was getting them stuck.
During the post-panel Q&A session a youth leader, who was facilitating the talk, asked me why I chose the term queer, instead of gay or bi. That’s when it hit me. Outside of the academic/ social justice/ pop culture activism world the term “queer” is still not a comfortable colloquialism. I had forgotten how it works as playground taunt and vitriolic slur. Yet, it is very important to see how important language work for identity.
I had so few scripts for Black Queer masculinity, I de-faulted to the white ones of which I had been indoctrinated.
With monikers like “Gay” or “LGBT”, the non-exclusively heterosexual community (which is HUGE), becomes severely essentialized. It is easy to positions sexuality as binary like Them vs. Us. As expansive as that “Us” may be, these often-used umbrella terms actively erase more radical identities and too often are not complicated by race, class, and other intersections.
In elementary school, I would sneak and watch episodes ofQueer as Folk, on my dad’s premium cable. I had looked up homosexual in my classes encyclopedia and saw that queer was a synonym. It was a whirlwind of emotions for my pre-developed body.
I remember seeing men kiss and love each other. While it was very affirming, there was a dissonance. I still didn’t feel and act like the Black boys I wanted to be friends with/ be with. I wasn’t “down” enough in particular ways. This was hard because at home there my racial-sexual being was validated. My mother (a Black Lesbian Womanist Poet Theologian) never positioned queerness as foreign or odd in relation to Blackness. She shared with me her story of always loving women, and still genuinely loving my father when they were married, so the dichotomy never really made sense. However, there were so few Black boys to look up to. I had so few scripts for Black Queer masculinity, I de-faulted to the white ones of which I had been indoctrinated; a type of homonormativity.
Black men were straight, Gay boys were white and I was in the way.
But as my experiences showed me, their scripts came with deeply violent understandings of race and gender. I began feeling at odds with my Blackness, feeling like I had to excuse the “inherent homophobia in community” (bullshit, btw), or prove that I could be “down” in Black communities. Long storty short, I felt homeless in both communities.
There is an unfortunate and common question for many Black + LGBTQ folks: If you had to choose a community, which would you? There was a time, I was perplexed and frustrated by this question. Why did our struggles and fights feel so disparate. Was there not a place for folks in the margin to find solidarity? And while I don’t often answer (I’d chose Black any day), I realized that most popular cultural conversations around sexuality painted queer folks as monolithic. White, typically male, and cis. Whether femme or masc (cause there are still too few outside the binary) gay or LGBT meant white for me.
Over the course of my life however, I have been blessed by a multitude of Queer Black Men and Masculine folk. Learning and loving with them were integral to my growing consciousness and Black imagination. Matched with my deepening studies of Blackness, the diaspora and Queer studies, I found a language that worked for me. For me my Blackness encompasses my queerness, and my Queerness colors my Blackness. They are in constant conversation and collaboration. Only rarely do they provide tension.
When the Voter’s Rights Act was gutted behind the DOMA decision, my soul re-hurt for all the Black folks who marched, fought, and died for that legislation. When Black Trans/Non-Conforming folk are being murdered weekly and many gay organization/publications are staying silent, I remember how our bodies are outside and unseen. I’ve grown tired of the gay community. I’m tired being surrounded by cis-white gay folk looking to me for spectacle and sass. I’m tired of them appropriating Paris is Burning. I’m tired of their misogynoir. I’m tired of their theft of Black Trans folks scholarship and research.
I’m tired of being “gay”, it doesn’t fit on my body. Queerness gives me language for defending Blackness at all costs. It gives me access to solidarity and supporting Trans folks. It gives me language to make the personal political without falling into hegemonic narratives of what it means to be “not straight”.
For me my Blackness encompasses my queerness, and my Queerness colors my Blackness.
What I told the youth on the panel was that for me being queer means “getting in where you fit it.” They laughed. But honestly, being queer, to me, means finding folk and relationships that heal you. Finding people who are working toward you success and pleasure as you work for theres.
For many, gay works. I have no place to push back on folks self-identity. AND, I hope your identity makes space for all your bring to the world.
Photo: Courtesy of Jay Dodd