Sitting in my hotel room here in Charlotte, North Carolina — a state that just last year passed a ban on same-sex marriages — I kept staring at the bright, blank sky outside my window, hoping to latch onto a word of my own. I was happy, yes, but also heartsick. The much welcomed end of DOMA and Prop 8 comes just 24 hours after the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act. As such, many queer people of color — myself included — feel conflicted, to say the least. (I won’t even entertain the word “bittersweet” here.)
The Voting Rights Act, essentially a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, is arguably as significant an issue for African-Americans as marriage equality is for LGBT Americans. My grandfather was one of the first black men in Memphis to drive buses for the city. When the daily clashes between civil rights activists and police began, he kept driving buses downtown, against my family’s wishes, so that marchers could get to the protest. My grandmother, one of the first black nurses in Memphis, was cutting coconut cake on her birthday when the radio in the living room announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. The civil rights movement and the significance of the Voting Rights Act are as viscerally significant to my identity as the blood that connects me to my grandparents. As writer Michael Arceneaux, a black gay man, put it this morning on Twitter: “Shorter SCOTUS: Gays up, Blacks down.” If such a blunt assessment makes you uncomfortable, imagine what it feels like to be a queer person of color today.
There is so much work left to do, but I really was hoping that maybe, just once, I could dance without having to look over my shoulder.
In what one longtime activist called the largest rally in the history of the local black LGBT community, about 50 people gathered in a South Dallas parking lot on Saturday morning to voice their objections to City Councilwoman Vonciel Hill’s anti-gay comments last week concerning an HIV prevention billboard.
The billboard, part of the Greater Than AIDS campaign, features a black man with his arms around another black man and says, “UPDATE YOUR STATUS.”
Hill, who is African-American and virulently anti-gay, told a TV news station that she objected to the billboard in her district because she believes it sends the message that homosexuality is “acceptable.”
Saturday’s rally, which had as its theme a hashtag, #RevLOVE, was held under temporary awnings erected in the parking lot of Abounding Prosperity, an HIV/AIDS agency in the heart of South Dallas at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and SM Wright Freeway. Harold Steward, who organized the rally, explained to those who braved 90-degree heat that the hashtag #RevLOVE is based on a line from pioneering gay black activist Joseph Beam’s book, In The Life.
“Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act,” Beam wrote.
“We have been here before,” Steward told the crowd. “If we have to we will plaster our faces and lives and our loves on every billboard in America. We will love in this revolutionary way until our haters catch up with our history.”
Alpha Thomas, a longtime African-American lesbian activist, said she was attending the rally to support her black gay brothers.
“We will not be silent or invisible while AIDS continues to ravage and devastate our community,” Thomas told the crowd. “Black gay men have always been and always will be part of Dallas.”
My representation as a certain type of black man often transgresses the accepted boundaries of black masculinity. The ways I cut my hair, shape–or refuse to shape–my beard, style my clothes, walk, talk, and gesture tend to confound some folk and, on occasion, anger others because of my seeming transgressions. Sinning ain’t easy.
Indeed, some will stare at me as I make my way down any street rocking a beard, frames, “man bag,” and a little less than loose clothing because my gender presentation seems to be read as a sign of non-heterosexuality, deviance. In fact, most folk are okay with what they “see” until they notice that I am wearing something like hot pink (!) sneakers. According to some, a black man wearing hot pink sneakers, like a black woman wearing a suit, ain’t at all “cool.”
The notion of “Black cool,” in particular, seems to be limited, limiting, and quite “straight” (as in hetero and rigid). I am thinking, for example, of one of the inspirations that motivated Rebecca Walker’s investigation of “black cool.” She mentioned during an interview on NPR that an image of then-Senator Barack Obama exiting a black Lincoln Town Car during the 2008 campaign “was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool.”
She went on to say that she was “drawn to that image because [she] wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic.” And while that image is but one of Walker’s inspirations (and while her book, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, actually includes critical and beautiful essays that think through the gendering of “black cool”), that particular picture of Obama locates the quotidian “black cool” in a male-bodied, masculine, straight black man and leaves me to wonder: Does coolness exist anywhere beyond black masculinity, maleness, and heterosexuality? As some of the writers in Walker’s Black Cool argue, I think so.
I can recall, for example, growing up with an older female cousin who was a swagged-out straight young woman and mother. She often chilled with the dudes in my family. Her vernacular was cool. Her walk was cool, or, as others would say, “pimped out.” She was cool. But this one black straight woman’s coolness was contingent upon the masculinity that she performed expertly. And, no, she didn’t identify as lesbian. Which, again, forces me to consider: are masculine performances solely emblematic of “black cool”?