Editor’s Note: This story is one in a series of Black History Month stories that explores the role of resistance to oppression in the Black community.
Back when Ashlei Brown worked as a tutor in Sandy Springs several years ago, she would tell parents who planned to refer her to their friends to always include a description in their reference.
As a Black gay woman who presents as masculine, Brown wanted to avoid the look of surprise she would sometimes get from parents when an African American woman with dreadlocks and wearing clothing often associated with men showed up at their home.
“I would get to the door and you know how some people think they are hiding their first response when they see you, but they aren’t,” she said. “It would be so uncomfortable.”
If being white is the template for acceptance and being Black is an aberration, then it stands to reason that Black gay people may face twice the penalty. How do you navigate the world as a Black man who is also effeminate or a Black woman with short hair who rejects make up and dresses.
From Marsha P. Johnson to Bayard Rustin to Lena Waithe, Black gay people historically have had to fight to be their authentic selves in a world that demands they assimilate to whatever is considered the behavioral norm.
Failure to do, they knew, could lead to ostracization, loss of job, homelessness and often physical violence.
Yet Daniel Black, an assistant professor of African and African American studies at Clark Atlanta University, says there is no other choice if you want to be a healthy, whole individual. Black gays should be unapologetically gay and resist being anything but themselves in every facet of their lives.
“We can’t victimize ourselves,” said Black, who recently released “Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America,” a book of essays on being Black, gay and other subjects. “In other words, if there is a family reunion, we have to say ‘Yeah, I’m coming.’ And for those who say, ‘Well, people might look at you.’ You say, ‘I hope they get a good look.’”
Johnson, Rustin and Waithe have led the way.
Johnson, a transgender woman, became a hero through her activism and protests after the raid of New York’s Stonewall Inn gay bar in 1969, considered to be the beginning of the modern gay civil rights movement.
Rustin was the architect for the 1963 March on Washington but many in the civil rights movement sought to downplay his contributions because he was gay.
Waithe, a queer writer, actor and producer known for TV’s “Master of None” and the film “Queen & Slim,” has embraced her masculine-presenting look, cutting off her dreadlocks in 2018 in favor of a close-shaved top.
“I felt like I was holding onto a piece of femininity that would make the world feel comfortable with who I am,” she told Variety that year about her decision.
At what cost
Increasingly embracing their authentic selves has become the posture of many in the Black gay community. From demanding that gay Black voices be heard during the Black Lives Matter movement to supporting gay Black-led TV programs such as “Pose,” the community has made strides in forcing others to recognize its existence, Black gay leaders said.
But that visibility can come at a cost.
The transgender community – especially its Black members – is often attacked because they refuse to hide who they are. The community has an unemployment rate of 26%, for instance, twice that of the overall transgender community and four times the rate of the general population, according to a recent report from the national LGBTQ Task Force.
“There is an assumption that Black queer people cannot speak for Black people in general,” he said. “Every time Black queer people speak, they have to be speaking about queer issues instead of being a legitimate part of the Black community in the fullness of its Blackness.”
Yet leaders said there are also benefits to visibility. And few cities have demonstrated the upsides like Atlanta.
Gay Black pride
Atlanta is one of only two cities in the nation that hosts annual Black gay pride festivities to celebrate and reflect on the community (the other is Washington, D.C.).
“The Black-led movement in Atlanta for human rights and equality for LGBTQ people fighting against racism and homophobia – for lesbians add misogyny – seeks to build on the civil rights movement and other Black resistance movements throughout our history in this country,” said Roshelle Hudson, co-founder of the gay rights advocacy Southern Unity Movement.
“In other words, you cannot be said to stand for civil or human rights for some and deny them for others like LGBTQ people,” she said.
But Rig Rush, an activist and member of HIV prevention advocacy organization Impulse Group Atlanta, said that while the city’s Black gay community can be incredibly forward thinking, it can also be equally shallow, especially among Black gay men. Fem shaming is a problem in Atlanta and Black gay men, like others in society, fall into the trap of glorifying machismo.
“Historically, and I hate this word ... But if it wasn’t for the sissies who died first via hate crime, via HIV, we wouldn’t have some of the social justice activism that we have today,” he said. “When you think of people like Marsha P. Johnson and others who were blatantly ‘othered’ they were the foundation of gender equality.
Smiling, the neighbor asked about the move, inquiring if Williams and the real estate agent, whom the neighbor mistook as Williams’ husband, were settling in.
“In this moment I have this choice, am I going to resist her traditions and say, ‘No, I’m moving in with my wife,’ or am I going to say, ‘Oh yeah, this is my husband to get past this moment,’” Williams said.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
After they moved in, Young told the neighbor that Williams was her wife and gave the neighbor their phone number in case she ever needed help. The neighbor has taken them up on their offer and appears supportive.
“We have to protect ourselves,” Young said. “We’re two women and we have to be careful because we can be targets because people don’t like our way of life.”
This year, the AJC’s Black History Month series will focus on the role of resistance to forms of oppression in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces will run in our Living and A sections every day this month. You can also go to ajc.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.
About the Author
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com