Emerson “Both Black and Gay” Panel Recap: LGBT People of Color Discussions Too Narrow for 2010

Last night, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a panel titled “Both Black and Gay: What It Means to Be a Person of Color and a Member of the LGBTQ Community.”

When I first received the invitation, I was both honored and pissed off (I’m a virgo sun, and saggitarius moon – my emotions usually come to me in opposing twos). I was of course very excited about the opportunity to talk to students, because I don’t think they get enough support or are exposed to enough role models while they’re in school. However, I wasn’t as thrilled about the panel topic: not only did it sound like an academic dissertation, but the colon-ed explanation that followed the words “Gay” and “Black”  insinuated that the larger discussion about the experience of being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer would inevitably be reduced to a much narrower (and unfortunately, more popular) discussion about what it means to be a black and gay man.

How is it that in 2010, we’re still unable to remain inclusive of the various cultural and ethnic backgrounds – not to mention the L, the B, and the T! – we claim to feel connected to during such critical discussions? Furthermore, are we really okay saying to our LGBT youth groups that narrow discussion scopes that blatantly disregard other cultural groups, gender expressions, and sexual orientations are okay? Disheartening as it was, I decided to focus on the excitement I felt around empowering and equipping the students, and not so much on the semantic snafu that was the panel topic. And for the most part, that worked really well. It was easy to get all warm and fuzzy when I saw the bright, young, eager minds slowly trickling into the room, and remember that “gentle” – not “militant” – is usually the best way to deliver a message.

But just as I feared, I ended up being the only woman on the panel, and was flanked by two “Black” and “Gay” male fellow community organizers (and dear friends) for the two-hour long conversation: Carnell Freeman from Men of Color Creating Change (MOCCC) sat on my right, and Steven Fleury of the Multicultural Aids Coalition (MAC) sat on my left. (Not to worry, ladies, I held my own ;)) We began rather formally: Tikesha Morgan, the Director of Student Multicultural Affairs introduced the three fabulous panelists, and then a blackgayboy student moderator (dressed in the cutest must-have vest!) kicked off the discussion by posing the first question of the evening: “What challenges did you face before you became comfortable with being an LGBT person of color?

[Crickets…] There would clearly be no warm-up. We all looked at each other, chuckling, scratching our heads as we struggled to come up with a succinct starting point to the loaded question.

After a minute or so, Carnell of MOCC rolled up his sleeves and kick-started the conversation; as a Boston native, he grew up in a predominantly African-American community, it was clearly no piece of cake, and a daily struggle to assert his identity as a gay man, particularly among straight black people, hence his creation of MOCCC, a social space in which he could interact freely with other African-American gay men. Steven, who has Haitian roots, talked about the challenges (and triumphs!) he experienced reconciling his sexuality with his religious beliefs and present-day activism within the Multicultural Aids Coalition. I described my experience as an on-going journey to which I held no end point in sight; my gender expression had evolved drastically over the past several years: from privileged femme to fluid futch to soft stud (and beyond), who knew on which part of the spectrum I would settle on (if I ever did)? My racial consciousness, I explained, had evolved too, but unlike my sexuality, I felt pretty sure that it wasn’t going to change. [Just for kicks, here’s the “iQWOC” journey I touched upon].

As you can imagine, the discussion got deep very quickly – there was so much — too much — to talk about. The panelists jumped all over the place, touching upon our experiences in the workforce (unanimously gay black men are “in” and iQWOCs are ostracized), our thoughts on Prop 8 and “the Church”, the use/mis-use of labels, coming out in communities of color, etc. The mix of personalities provided enough variation and alignment in perspectives which (I think) made the stories that were shared more interesting. So, even though we seemed to fly off on tangents every two minutes, the students in the room remained fixed in their seats and soaked it up for two whole hours.

But there was so much talk about “The Church” and Black Gay Men on the DL that I left reconfirming my belief that LGBT people of color are still unprepared to add any real value to the gay rights movement. As we discussed Prop 8, gay marriage, and other buzz-worthy political issues, I frequently had to play (devil’s) advocate and offer the women’s, latino, immigrant perspective in order to guide the conversation back to a more inclusive platform. I still find it mind-boggling that in 2010, people are still VERY comfortable substituting the word “Black” for “people of color”, passing on the experience of mainly white lesbians as the “women’s voice”, and leaving out Asians and Latin@s in almost every important discussion. Take for example, one student’s request to hear our perspectives on community leaders and advocates that aren’t “completely out.” Her question, although very smart and well-posed, seemed completely isolated from the variety of cultural contexts under which we should be exploring the issue. As a first generation immigrant, whose parents still live in Nigeria, a country in which it is ILLEGAL to “practice” homosexuality, it is not only dangerous for me to be out there, but for my parents as well – they could be physically harmed or socially ostracized (which in our country is financial suicide). I have a number of Latina friends who echo similar sentiments, and so most of them are only out in some variation. To imply some informal standard of “outness” would (and I’m sure already does) alienate a large subset of the LGBT people of color community: mainly the immigrants

All the panelists argued their positions on this politely, and the students, hungry for information, took it all in. So, even though I had a few hairs standing on end by the end of the evening, I felt very good about participating on the panel.

A few stream-of-consciousness takeaways:

  • We’re clearly not providing enough mentorship and support to our youth.
  • “Black” people in particular are going to need to do a better job of owning their American privilege if we are to unite the LGBT people of color community
  • Community-building is SO important for the LGBT people of color communities. It’s the foundation on which we can stand to raise our voices in the future.
  • Academics need to become more practical and ‘apply’ their theories to school reform; teen youth programs are reactive and just aren’t cutting it
  • Sexuality should stop being confused with gender expression (ugh!)
  • Being a community leader is HARD work!

Many thanks to the students of EBONI and Multicultural Students Affairs staff at Emerson College for inviting me to participate in their Black History Month celebration!