The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
When You’re Young, Queer, Black — and Unwelcome in the “Gay Mecca”
Coming Out, Coming Up
I was 15, newly “out,” and I had never seen so many rainbows before in my life. It was exciting. It was important.
As I took my first walk around the Castro district in San Francisco, I was infatuated. Gay couples (mostly white men) openly held hands and I giggled at the penis-shaped cookies and sex toys displayed in store windows. I was a kid in a candy store – this scene was a stark contrast from Lansing, Michigan, where I’d spent the first 13 years of my life. There, gayness was condemned and ridiculed, if it was spoken about at all.
When I had the chance to visit the Castro again, I jumped at it. However, even when I first fell in love with the neighborhood, I remember noticing how few black people, or other people of color, there were. We were invisible.
At the time, I’d also internalized a lot of anti-blackness, along with the stereotype that most black folks are homophobic and transphobic. So it seemed to make sense to me that there weren’t many around.
I didn’t know then that black folks weren’t in the neighborhood because we weren’t welcome. I didn’t know that, historically, Castro bars and nightclubs had double- and triple-carded queer men of color. I didn’t know that the cost of living in the “gay mecca” was too high for most queers of color.
In fact, I didn’t even consider the possibility that black queer and trans folks existed. I’d gotten the white-washed version of queer history, which didn’t include people that looked like me. I didn’t know any different — I thought I had to choose to be either gay or Black.
My infatuation with these types of “gay meccas” — which in reality are white gay meccas — was pretty short-lived. I quickly realized that blatant racism was as common in white LGBTQ spaces as in any other white spaces.
I remember after Proposition 8 passed in California, outlawing same-sex marriages across the state, there was a heavy and racialized backlash against black and Latinx voters. Once again, black folks got painted as more homophobic than other communities, despite the fact that the percentage of voters who supported Prop. 8 were similar across ethnic groups. This was one of the first times I felt disappointed in a LGBTQ community I thought I was a part of.
When I led the Queer Straight Alliance a few years later, folks jumped at the chance to address instances of homophobia — but wouldn’t show up to conversations about intersectionality and racism.
And in my early dating life, the number of times I encountered white women who had “a thing for black bois” made me feel more like an object than a person.
I began to feel angry and cheated by my early education and understanding of history. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy learning about Harvey Milk, listening to Melissa Etheridge and sporting rainbows — it’s that this was the only queer culture I was introduced to. It rendered my blackness invisible.
By my sophomore year in college, my studies were saving my life in more ways than one. Women and Gender Studies introduced me to the voices of Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin and other black, queer and trans revolutionaries I’d never heard about in these “gay meccas.”
I was growing into my black queerness, even in an academic space saturated with predominantly white students. Lorde’s work spoke as if to me personally: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
I began to realize that it was impossible for me to “choose” one identity “over” the other. My blackness informed my queerness and vice versa. I could not fight solely for marriage equality while ignoring the increasing numbers of murders of trans women of color.
These pieces of my identity — which had never left me — came together as one.
The Need for Spaces for Queer and Trans People of Color
Ten years after my first visit to the Castro, I’d argue that little has changed. I consider myself fortunate to live in an area that embraces queer folks in many ways, but I don’t feel my blackness is embraced in the same way.
A little over a year ago, queer and trans activists of color working in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter were assaulted in Castro bars. While black and POC folks in these neighborhoods have continued to address the racism in the Castro and other designated “safe spaces,” there is still a long way to go.
In response to the anti-blackness and racism experienced in predominantly white queer spaces, queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) often find healing and community in our own events. QTPOC dance parties, writing circles, activist groups, and other occasions give me the chance to look around and feel seen and reflected.
While these separate spaces are often met with complaints of “reverse racism,” it’s important to understand that they were created because the “gay meccas” have failed queer folks of color.
Opportunities to build with other black queer folks has been so important to navigating this world that it’s hard to remember a time without that support. It is a way of deeply caring for ourselves. Creating our own sacred spaces help us honor all of who we are.
And in the words of my black, queer ancestor Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgent; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”