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On Blackness and Queerness

Identifying as queer felt like the best way to bring together my identities as someone who is black, male but not conventionally masculine, desiring of other men but not exclusively, and working-class, with an inclination toward the sexually transgressive.
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I had been out for two, maybe three years. This was 2000, before the time of two wars, the wars that became one of the many forces that further politicized my generation during "the aughts."

I was 20 and had just gotten used to calling myself gay when, as a participant of Youth Pride Atlanta, I had the opportunity to attend the National Youth Advocacy Coalition Summit. I even got a scholarship because I wrote an essay about being a writer and being an activist and how, at the time, that all informed my perspective as a young black gay man. Later I would learn that what I called "activism" was really my writing, and what I called "writing" was really my activism. I still to this day struggle to see where and how one begins and the other ends.

Over the course of the conference (I think I was there for about three days in total), I met all these other young people doing interesting work, and not only did they embrace the term "queer" as an efficient way of saying "LGBTQIQA," but it was a kind of political perspective, a sensibility, a way of living and moving through the world. I also started meeting other people of color -- and most significantly, other black men -- who embraced the term. The conference was transformative.

When I returned back to Atlanta from the NYAC Summit, I started identifying as queer. It felt like the best way to bring together my identities as someone who is black (what I would sometimes refer to as "unapologetically black" in another time), male but not conventionally masculine, desiring of other men but not exclusively, and working-class, and with an inclination toward the sexually transgressive. Of course, as these things go, maybe one or two of my friends rolled their eyes at me, but a few others actually embraced the term too.

And we shared ideas. We theorized. We argued. We argued a lot, actually. We never once saw queerness as somehow hostile to our blackness. Almost like Bible study, we read our Samuel Delany, and our Octavia Butler, and our Audre Lorde, Pat Parker and Barbara Smith, and formed this wonderful activist and intellectual community around our black queerness. Years later we would see those experiences as healing. At the time I think we just saw it as fun -- necessary, but fun. One of those communities became Black Out, a black LGBT student group that was founded in October 2003 at Georgia State University. We used the word "queer" a lot in that group too.

So in those years, particularly "the aughts," I remember fondly those of us seeking to imagine new ways of being in the world, developing practices, theorizing, debating and having all these interesting and crazy ideas about blackness and queerness. And it wasn't just students at elite schools. We didn't all go to Swarthmore and Oberlin, though some of us did. Within my network, those of us who were in school mostly attended public universities and HBCUs. Some of us were not in school. Most of us were from working-class backgrounds.

I also suppose I didn't have the relationship to "queer" as a stigmatized term. When I was growing up, "gay" meant the things that I suppose "queer" meant generations before. And once I'd embraced the word "gay," the word "queer" was easy. After all, it was "gay" that meant "weird," "strange," "bizarre," "unworthy," "disgusting." It was "gay" that I had to conquer to save my life.

Over the years I've seen people use "queer" differently: sometimes as an efficient way to describe identity, sometimes as a commitment to a set of social justice politics, and sometimes as a statement of affinity for kinky sex. If you read enough Foucault, you end up doing BDSM, seriously.

I call myself a black gay man, and I call myself queer. They both honor two of my greatest influences: the amazing tradition of black gay activists and cultural workers of the In the Life and Brother to Brother era, and the radical tradition of gay liberation and radical queer activism and organizing. I also call myself queer most importantly to honor the black men in my life who named themselves as queer, defiantly, and challenged and theorized and pushed against the boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality in these breathtaking and epic ways, men who were and are sexually transgressive, men who were committed to feminism and racial justice and put it all on the line for what they believed in and what they stood for.

I've used the term "queer" as part of my identity toolkit for over a decade now, and what I've found is that when I've used it around black folks, they use it too. I never understood this notion that somehow black people are inherently resistant to the term. A few years ago (which now seems like another life), I would name myself as queer in the workshops I used to facilitate for black gay and bisexual men, and the response was often affirming.

But the reality is that people draw boundaries around groups to benefit their perspective and their interests. Privilege doesn't exist outside a set of very deliberate and intentional practices to protect it, which sometimes look like narrowly defining what blackness can look like. The goal for me seems to have always been a commitment to the politics of "unlimited blackness," not the politics of narrow blackness.

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