“I am most often rendered invisible, perceived as a threat to the family, or am tolerated if I am silent and inconspicuous.”
—Joseph Beam, “Brother to Brother: Words from the Heart,” In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology
I can still remember the first time I was called a faggot. I was in the second grade in Ms. Brown’s class at Fitzgerald Elementary in rural South Georgia. It was at recess. I wanted to play with this group of boys who were assembled around the monkey bars on the playground.
“I want to play with y’all,” I asked.
“Because you’re a faggot,” one boy said. Shame washed over me, and then hurt and fear. I didn’t have the words to express my feelings. I was bewildered.
The rest chimed in chanting “faggot,” at me.
I ran off. I didn’t cry, then. The fear that resulted from that moment on the playground would have a lasting impact, causing me to self-silence. It would be 20 years before I broke my silence.
I am reminded of these painful memories today, on GLSEN’s Day of Silence, a student-led national event organized in thousands of schools, bringing awareness to the silencing effects of anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools like what I experienced. Students from middle school to college take a vow of silence in an effort to encourage schools and classmates to take action.
Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN, has suggested that black LGBTQ students experience double jeopardy. Double jeopardy is a lens by which we can view how black LGBTQ youth are impacted simultaneously by homophobia and racism. As such, I have made it my work to support young people engaged in breaking their silence. Two years ago, I was compelled to join the board of GLSEN New York City with a deep desire to actualize change. Soon after, I was elected board chair and became the first black gay male to serve in that role. My service on the board presented an opportunity to challenge the organization to strengthen its commitment to diversity, particularly as it relates to black LGBTQ youth.
As a community, we must advance a policy agenda that prioritizes safety, home and community for black LGBTQ youth - spaces where their voices are heard and affirmed, and where they can be all the parts of themselves. GSAs (Gender and Sexuality Alliances) are critical for youth in schools, particularly black LGBTQ youth. Yet LGBTQ black students are less likely to report having a GSA in their school than other LGBTQ students of color, particularly those in schools where the student population is predominantly black; faculty and staff in black schools are also less likely to be trained in dealing with LGBTQ students..
We must also re-imagine safety for black LGBTQ students to address the role of criminalization in fostering unsafe spaces and environments for black LGBTQ youth. In other words, we must dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Bathrooms have also become a space of discrimination and violence for trans and gender nonconforming people. As transphobia and cissexism intersect with racism and other forms of structural violence, we must ensure that black schools and spaces are affirming to trans and gender nonconforming black students as well.
As we create spaces we must also consider the role of trauma in the lives of black LGBTQ people. We must train guidance counselors to ensure that there is adequate support and emotional wellness resources to help young people recover from the impact of structural violence on their lives.
On this National Day of Silence, we recognize the particular, oppressive silence that black LGBTQ students must face every day in LGBTQ spaces and in black spaces. GSAs don’t always recognize that the needs of black LGBTQ students are different from other groups. This suggests a need for training, programming, advocacy, and capacity building around the specific needs of black LGBTQ students in schools. For our allies that seek to diversify their efforts, this moment offers a unique opportunity to lean into leadership. This is also a call to action to make sure there is cultural competence built into trainings and training material and that we do a good job of reaching out to educators who come from diverse experiences.
Finally, on this National Day of Silence, I want to invoke the legacy of Audre Lorde, who famously reminded us that “your silence will not protect you.” Similarly, will not protect our black LGBTQ young people. In my role as chair of GLSEN New York City, I feel a unique responsibility to work to end the silence. To that end, in my leadership, I have been working to ensure that GLSEN’s resources get to diverse schools, that we partner with schools to support the development of GSAs at predominantly black schools, and that we provide support to educators. My hope is that these strategies will do much to create an environment more supportive of black LGBTQ youth, and go a long way in helping black LGBTQ students break their silence.