Being Black and Gay:
A Personal Journey
How Do You Want It? How Do You Feel?
To be Young, Black, Gifted, and Gay
On occasion, when the mood hits me, I write about some of my experiences as a black gay man. The essay below is called Being Black and Gay: A Personal Journey, and it is about men, race, identity and our relationships with each other. It was written on December 18, 2000.
|Being Black and Gay: A Personal Journey|
by Warrior Rob
To be a "black gay" to many in the African American community is an oxymoron. "Gayness" is seen as an enigma -- another creation by White folks to oppress the race.
Growing up in a predominantly Black inner-city community in Newburgh, New York in the late 70s and 80s, race was not an issue for many of my friends or me. We were the majority. Little did we realize that our color, our race, was the center of our existence. It defined how we walked and talked. It gave us nicknames like June-bug, Tu-man, Suicide, and G. Being Black was what we were. And being Black was not being a "faggot".
My first real infatuation with another man was with my best friend, Otis. He was known in our community as "Odie O". And we called him Odie for short. Odie came over to my house every day after high school and we spent time playing basketball, or the video games, or sneaking malt liquor into my bedroom. Though he loved to talk about girls I was always non-committal -- preferring his company instead.
Otis may have been my first true infatuation. He did not awaken my sexuality as did his older brother, Lee. Lee was idolized by all of the kids on my block. He was the consummate athlete and was always friendly and attentive. I would watch in awe when the muscles in his arms flexed as he prepared to throw a long pass -- his deep mocha skin glistening as he sweat.
Though I rationalized my attraction to Lee as admiration (He was someone I wanted to become), I could not do the same for the other man who captured my erotic imagination. His name was Patrick, a local contractor. He was big, blond, bearded and about 10 years older than me. He worked restoring some of the old houses in our neighborhood.
By the age of 16, I knew I was gay. It was a secret I hid from my parents, my brothers, my classmates, and most of all, Odie. Although I yearned for him, the only physical contact we had was a weekly, boxing match he always initiated. At first I enjoyed the weekly tussle of our half-naked bodies, but the older we got the usual, more intimate struggles became violent, adversarial contests of manhood -- a contest he always won.
I began spending many hours in the library trying to figure out who I was. The young adult fiction of Sandra Scoppettone, Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner, and Isabel Hollad's The Man Without a Face led me to my first (semi) positive depictions of what it was meant to be gay. Though these were books about White people written by White Women authors, the universal nature of these books spoke to me as a black gay youth. They were a first step in my awakening my identity.
Odie and I lost touch after I moved to Philadelphia in 1989 to enter Temple University. In Philadelphia, I learned about Black American history and the contributions made to that history by gay men and women. I discovered the writings of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, James Baldwin, Barbara Smith, Langston Hughes and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. I listened to the music of the Washington Sisters and Sweet Honey in the Rock. I read about Bayard Rustin and his involvement with the the March on Washington, and the alienation he suffered because of sexuality. I saw the films of Marlon Riggs and Isaac Julien that dared to defy the notion that black and gay were antithetical. I realized the sociocultural conflict that divided black gay community. Was I a "Black gay", a black-identified gay; or was I a "Gay black", a gay-identified black man?
It was in the poetry and essays of Essex Hemphill that I found what it was to be both black and gay. Essex like many of his contemporaries (Joseph Beam, Marlon Riggs) succumbed to the scourge of AIDS while in his 30s. Essex wrote about the plight of being gay and hiding your sexuality in the Black community. He wrote about the destructiveness of black machismo. He wrote about sex. He wrote about the most feared love of all: one Black man loving another. Essex knew that our lives are an essential part of the American historical landscape. He helped to make that history visible to many young men and women who would otherwise suffer in silence.
The last time I saw Odie was at a bus station on a trip home to New York after my first year at college. He had been recently released from the county jail. In his eyes, I had lost my blackness. I was different. I no longer walked with a swagger. I had lost my slang. I no longer accepted my childhood nickname. And though I had once revered our thug lifestyle together, I saw him now as a strangerÃ¢â‚¬"as someone to almost fear.
Looking back I realize now that Odie will always be a part of me. In many ways he taught me what it was to be a man beyond what it means to be black, beyond what it means to be gay. It's clear to me from Hemphill's writing he must have had his own Odies, Lees, and maybe Patricks in his lifetime -- and for that I am grateful.
The Man2Man Alliance
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