Everyone prepared me for racism as a child. I learned how to deal with racism like I learned how to walk. My mother, father, grandfather, aunts, teachers, cousins, anyone I came in contact with — black or white — stressed the realities of being a person of color in America.
No matter how many times I was called a ni**er, suspiciously followed in a store, implicitly or explicitly profiled, my blackness was always affirmed. Even when I was in a predominately white environment or the only “one” in the room, my roots were unshakable.
No one prepared me for homophobia. No one told me how to combat being called a faggot, except for crying: “Act more like a man!” Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, there were no PBS documentaries for boys like me. The sexual orientation of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Bessie Smith and countless more were considered irrelevant. There wasn’t a soul to confide in when I had been damned to the “lake of fire.” There was no one to debunk the mythical belief that “gay men are destined to die of AIDS.” I was left in a ball of confusion when flamboyant preachers went on anti-gay tirades. My heart broke when some family members rejected me. Even when those specific family members decided to “tolerate” me, I still can’t mention “it” in their presence.
I am not saying racism does not exist in my life. Surely it does and America is far from being post-racial. That said, as a black man, my civil rights are not at risk, chopped into fractions from state-to-state or up for a popular vote. Jena 6, Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin: Blacks and whites rightfully rallied behind them. Brian Williamson, Simmie Williams, Jr. and Paige Clay: Few rallied for them.
When President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage, I was ecstatic. Their statements were historic, yet the conversation needs to go beyond same-sex marriage. For the black LGBT community, I think of the youths, who, like I was, are not prepared for homophobia. I think of Brian, Simmie and Paige who lacked organized political supporters seeking justice for their deaths. As the dialogue focuses solely on same-sex marriage, which is important, another conversation is being lost: the needs of the black, gay and young — this marginalized of the marginalized group who have the highest rates of poverty, suicide and HIV/AIDS.
When gay activism is too focused on marriage, these tragedies go ignored.
Monroe France, Director of the NYU LGBTQ Center, says of this reality for gay youth of color, “If people want to get married and have that as an option, I think that is really important. But if you don’t have a bed to sleep in, if you don’t have a home to go to, if you don’t have a meal in your stomach — how is marriage a priority for you? Racism, transphobia, classism — all those issues combined, it makes black LGBT youth a vulnerable community.”
Once upon a time, there was a community of black and Latino LGBT youth who would pack Christopher Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. However, after the reign of former Mayor Giuliani and through the acts of current Mayor Bloomberg, the legendary strip has been sanitized to include an unlimited spread of coffee shops and high-end boutiques. Keith Boykin, editor of For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Still Not Enough, explains, “Gentrification came and pushed all of the black and Latino LGBT youth out of Christopher Street. We didn’t create any new community centers, support networks, or alternative social options for them. Are they being more ostracized than they were before? What is a young black gay teenager supposed to do when he or she doesn’t fit in at home, at school, or even in the [larger] gay community?”
France adds, “R.I.D., which is Residents in Distress — the irony of the name of the organization — they were arguing that black and Latino LGBT youth shouldn’t be there. Yet, those youth were on Christopher Street first. Where do they go now? I don’t know. They probably have to go back in the closet or try to find spaces within their own neighborhood.”
What happened on Christopher Street is similar to events on Philadelphia’s 13th Street or in Washington D.C.’s DuPont Circle — sanitized it seems only of those black and gay. There are spaces for black heteros and white gays, but the black LGBT community, especially the youth, are simultaneously non-existent and threatening. Many wrongly associate gayness with whiteness; therefore, black LGBT people are somehow lost within the political wedge between the black hetero community and the white LGBT community — as if the two are mutually exclusive.
Although I am many moons away from being a youth, I vividly remember the need for an alternative family and support system. Yes, young people are resilient and some make it out on the other end. But often times I reflect on those from my generation who didn’t live to see 30. Some died of HIV/AIDS, drugs, violence or the constant ache of not feeling loved.
“This is not just a gay issue. This is an issue about our children that affects all our communities and our future,” says Keith Boykin. “Many of us need to be more supportive and understanding to LGBT youth of color, and we need to stop marginalizing them and start listening to them. A lot of young people also need mentors to give them guidance and direction in life, and that’s something that anybody can do without a government program or a community organization. But they still need support from the leadership in the country, in the black community, and in the LGBT community.”
In the double consciousness of blackness and gayness, we are senselessly losing our youth. In my journey as a man, I eventually learned how to walk through homophobia in the same way I was taught how to walk through racism. Moreover, the tools I used to combat prejudice based on skin color were reinvented to challenge bigotry based on sexual orientation. LGBT youth of color can find the strength to walk alone, but I hope that “saving the children” is not rhetoric that ends when those children are black and gay.
Follow Clay Cane on Twitter at @ClayCane.