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Tongues Untied: On 'Barbershop Conversations,' Black Masculinity, and Sexuality

To say that a barbershop, street, or neighborhood is safe for all LGBTQ people is to forget that not all LGBTQ people share the same privileges that we do. Would a feminine-performing brother be safe in your barbershop? Would a masculine-performing sister feel safe in mine?
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This is our second conversation as part of our Huffington Post series, "Tongues Untied: Wade Davis, II and Darnell L. Moore in Conversation." (Read the first conversation here.) The title of our column is our way of paying tribute to the many black gay men who have given us the language and ancestral strength to freely live our lives as black gay men today. Many will notice that our title bears the name of Marlon Riggs' semi-documentary film Tongues Untied, which brought to the fore a vital conversation on racial and sexual difference in the U.S.

We recognize that the freedom we have to name ourselves and to write words, which we hope others will find transformative, exists because of the lives and legacies of those who came before us. We are thankful to extend conversations on race and sexuality started by folks like Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assotto Saint, Colin Robinson, and so many others, in this series, not because we think that we can match their brilliance but because we realize that so many others have been speaking truth before us and have challenged us to do the same.

What follows is a dialogue on what we call "barbershop conversations."

Wade: I have been having the most amazing conversations recently about gender, sex, and sexual orientation with my barber since he found out I was gay. And I look forward to going to the barbershop and spending two hours there more than ever before.

Darnell: That's ironic. Most people don't imagine barbershops, especially those serving black folk, to be spaces where people freely talk about those issues. And when issues related to sex and sexuality are discussed in barbershops, people seem to think that the conversations always take a homophobic or sexist turn. I've experienced a range of conversations, some good and some bad, taking place in the spots that I've been in. I am interested in hearing about your motivation for telling you barber that you were gay, though. What actually happened?

Wade: Well, I didn't actually tell him I was gay. He read an article about me on, and when I walked in the shop and sat down, he said, "Oh my God, did any of you hear about the gay football player named Wade Davis? Imagine if that guy walked in the shop and no one even knew who he was." Then he looked at me and said, "Wait, isn't your name Wade Davis?" I was speechless, and I couldn't do anything but laugh, because he was smiling at me so big. I just smiled and laughed uncontrollably. Are you out to your barber?

Darnell: That would have made me extremely nervous. I mean, that was a forced type of public disclosure, but I understand that he was trying to be cool. My barber and I have a great relationship that developed as a result of me boycotting his shop. He was cutting another customer's hair. The guy kept using words like "faggot" and "sissy" during his conversation with my barber. I wasn't sure if he decided to elevate his voice and increase the number of derogatory comments that he spewed because I happened to be sitting directly in front of him and he assumed me to be gay, but it angered me, so I politely left with my money in hand and didn't return for six months or so. I even encouraged friends not to return until one day, while out of town, my barber called me and asked why it was that I hadn't returned. I let him know that I'd decided to keep my money (tip and all) because he'd let another customer use language that hurt me. The funny thing is I never actually disclosed my sexual identity. He apologized over the phone and invited me to talk with him over lunch upon my return. Since then, we've been comfortable talking about anything. I have a lot of love for him and his girlfriend. I actually love telling this story, because people tend to think that black heterosexual men are somehow less capable of engaging their same-gender-loving/gay/bi brothers, yet we have examples showing that this isn't always the case.

Wade: Exactly! To be honest, I never would have imagined having conversations about homosexuality and sexism in my barbershop. I'm so proud of you for speaking up, though; I'd like to think I would have done the same thing. But I will say that I don't always agree with my barber and some of the patrons on some of the issues like homosexuality and, especially, views on women (which are sometimes sexist), but I love the fact that we can at least have the conversation.

Darnell: How do you negotiate "tough" conversations in the barbershop? Do you find yourself talking or acting differently (i.e., more "manly")? Do you feel pressured to insert that you have a male partner if they are talking exclusively about women?

Wade: Fortunately, I do not feel pressured to perform a certain way, because 90 percent of the time the conversations are about sports (my specialty) or music, so I feel authentic having those discussions. When it comes to relationships, I would intentionally use the word "partner" to see the reaction, but strangely enough, no one ever said anything. I won't lie, though: I did, at some points in various conversations, feel the pressure to conform, to fit in, but I never wanted to disrespect my partner by referring to him as a woman, as I did in my past. When I wasn't "out" I experienced more trepidation at my barbershop when people were having specific conversations. I had to really contemplate what I would say and how I would act. Since you were "out," how did you navigate those situations?

Darnell: Well, I was never really "in." I try not to think of myself as a one-dimensional being. I mean, the persons I choose to love and/or engage with sexually is one aspect, an important one for sure, of my whole self. So, whether I am in a barbershop or not, I try not to narrowly define myself or allow others to do the same, for that matter. But, like you, I have not always spoken up during some "barbershop conversations," whether they occurred in the actual shop or not. There are moments when I overheard sexist statements, words that dehumanized women, and even homophobic comments and I remained silent. There were moments when I was honestly nervous to speak up. I'm not sure what that was/is about. What provoked my silence? What was I afraid of? Why are we men (some of us, anyway) afraid of confronting each other over sexism and homophobia? There's a lot of anxiety that comes as the result of feeling the need to constantly acquiesce to racialized gender norms that harm us more than they heal us. It takes a lot of futile work to perform "the man," to perform a caricature created by others that will never allow space for us to be our best selves.

Wade: Yes! That's exactly how I feel. There has to be a space where my sexuality can be silent, where I can choose to disclose or not disclose and not feel as if I'm disrespecting the "gay community" for not saying I'm gay during a conversation in a space where my safety can be at risk, and also when I just want to exist as a person for a moment, not as a fragment of a whole person -- gay one day and black another, or trying to pass as straight -- but as me, Wade (whether I am talking about Jay-Z or D. Wade), without feeling as if I've let down the gay community or the black community.

Darnell: Is your sexuality ever "silent"?

Wade: "Silent" may have been the wrong word choice, but it does go unnamed unless I announce to the world that I'm gay, and I don't always feel compelled to make that proclamation in certain spaces where I just want to be Wade and not "the gay male" or "the athlete" or "the partner." Not to compare athletics to sexuality, but I often engage in conversations about football with people who don't know I'm an ex-NFL player, and I don't announce my history, just because I don't want to be the "expert" or the token "jock." And I know many would say I have great privilege in being able to exist without naming my orientation, and that's true, but I also shouldn't be criticized because of it.

Darnell: I get it. As we discussed before, the power to name exists in the hands of the individual or communities whom others have attempted to name, historically. Yet, we are always are sexual (and, therefore, political) selves at all times. And, let's go there. We may have felt safe or comfortable in spaces like the barbershop, and we may have experienced acceptance because of our gender presentations, whether we disclosed our sexual identities or not. I think about that often. But to say that a barbershop, street, or neighborhood is safe for all LGBTQ people is to forget that not all LGBTQ people share the same privileges that we do. For example, would a feminine-performing brother be safe in your barbershop? Would a masculine-performing sister feel safe in mine? We may "get by" because folk feel safe with us. We may not provoke folk in ways that disrupt their levels of comfort, but when we do, I am sure that we, too, may discover that safety is relative. To put it another way, folk tend to perceive us to be masculine (read: "straight") black men... you probably more than me. We receive a certain type of acceptance and receptivity because of that perception. And that's the problem. Folk are less concerned about whom we love or sleep with. They react and are provoked initially by what they perceive, what they see in terms of our clothing choices (which may also have something to do with perceived economic status), the way we talk, walk, etc. Gender performances that don't fit the script that society has written for us make people uncomfortable. And I am totally fine with others experiencing that type of discomfort.

Wade: See, that's the point. I don't try to perform anymore. I'm finally at a point in my life where I'm learning to love myself, and acting as I did in the past isn't a part of that self-love process, but people still read me as straight, and it's not always my responsibility to inform them otherwise unless I see fit.

Darnell: "Straight" thinking is the problem, for sure.

Wade: But I have to give my barber credit. He's been great ever since he learned of my sexual orientation. He still asks if anyone knows that "Wade Davis character" -- the gay football player. It makes me laugh every single time, but he doesn't "out" me in a negative way. His bringing up the "gay football guy" in the shop has allowed customers to discuss everything from Frank Ocean to sexism and misogyny to HIV in the black community to the prison-industrial complex like never before. I even convinced him to go out and purchase Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. So I do see the power of naming myself gay, inviting folk into that part and other aspects of my life, in a presumed straight-dominated space.

Darnell: I hear you. I love that you talk about those topics with your barber. I want to challenge this idea that black straight men are incapable of loving black queer/gay/bi/same-gender-loving men, and vice versa. I think that it is expedient to produce that narrative, because it divides us and feeds the misconception that black and brown folk are more homophobic than white folk, but there are so many examples of black men loving black men, as Joseph Beam would say, whose mutual love and respect is revolutionary. The story of your barber, and mine, are but a few.

Wade: Exactly. I'm blessed to have a barber and fellow patrons who are willing to discuss these seemingly explosive issues in such a way that makes me feel welcomed and my perspective appreciated and, in some ways, desired. This is how our community starts to come together in love and solidarity to effect change. Though it may seem to be on a small scale, the effects can last a lifetime, especially when I think that my barber has a son who may have an LGBTQ classmate or teacher, and knowing that I may have helped change my barber's perspective and, therefore, affected his life and that of his son.

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