By Hari Ziyad
“When you walk through the door, what does one see?”
I have always found this a fascinating question for multiple reasons: first, it assumes people are present in every room to “see” and that those people all possess a form of “sight”. Then it assumes a uniformity of vantage points and a common language. Finally, it assumes their response is a comprehensive way of describing my interaction with the world.
When I walk through the door, different people “see” different things and explain those things in different ways.
But the room I enter is always set up on foundations built upon an oppressive country, and I am always me – a Black queer (or queer Black) cisgender male 23-year old from Cleveland, OH with 18 siblings, raised in a Muslim and Hare Krsna household, among many other things, and each of those things define me. Each of those things depend on one another in order to create me. And all of them enter through every door.
There seems to be a never-ending conversation around two of those parts of me specifically which I most recently saw continued in a piece (again) making the rounds on Facebook by Terrence Chappell published on the Huffington Post entitled “Why I’m a Black Man Before I’m a Gay Man.” In it, Chappell explains that, for him, Blackness comes first because “It doesn’t matter where you live or what kind of car you drive; to some you’re still a nigger, and that is the cold, hard truth about the world we live in today, and it’s what my parents had to teach me growing up. I don’t experience this with my identity as a gay man.”
While it’s true that Chappell’s experience is his own, and also true that anti-Black racism is sometimes more easily perceived than anti-queerness, to some I am similarly still a fag, and the question of putting one before the other and the willingness to answer it is part of a pattern of erasure all too familiar to Black queer, trans and women folk in conversations about Black and queer identities and what they mean. As a Black queer man, I can attest to how we are consistently asked to put aside either our Blackness or queerness in fighting for each respective liberation, implying that both Black and queer liberation do not rely on the liberation of Black queer folks, despite the fact that Black queer folks experience rates of certain anti-Black and anti-queer violences far greater than both their gay white and Black cishetero counterparts.
Empathy with Chappell’s reluctance to be defined by the mainstream (white) LGBTQ community that has a history of demanding Black queer people put their sexuality before their racial identity is one of the reasons why I identify as queer and so many others have chosen to identify as same gender loving (SGL) rather than gay, which has come to be associated with Whiteness. But the alternative erasure, the pressure to place one’s Blackness before their queerness, is just as traumatic.
As Michael J. Dumas, a professor of education and African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley explains, “the question (of which comes first) reflects a specific history of Black queer men’s marginality in both Black and (white) gay communities. The answer that is supposed to appease heteroblackness is to say we identify as Black first. That becomes our way of buying a bit of respectability–but only for those of us who can perform heteromasculinity. But in white gay circles–even if the question is never explicitly asked–many Black queer/gay men will go ahead and answer: ‘I am gay first. I don’t see other Black men. I don’t see Black in myself, except as white men desire it.’”
I have never heard a Black cishetero man or a white gay man asked which identity they put first, yet intersectionally marginalized communities are constantly expected to pit their marginalized identities against each other. It’s no coincidence that only marginalized identities must oppose, conflict and be erased.
If my Blackness and queerness are incoherent but a cishetero Black man’s cisgenderness and heterosexuality adheres to his Blackness, then it follows that Black is inherently cishetero (male). It means that Blackness and queerness must ultimately oppose. It means, as Chappelle acknowledges even as he reinforces it, “in the context of perception and the world, they are binary.”
But they are not.
As Kimberle Crenshaw explains in her exploration of the necessity of intersectionality, “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend differences, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” Group binaries are enforced when instead marginalizations overlap, interact, and feed one another.
Though I am sometimes perceptibly queer without my explicit consent by virtue of my dress, association, easily accessible information or conversations, even if Chappell’s assertion that “at any point and in any space, I can choose not to disclose my sexuality, and thus be perceived as ‘straight’” applied to me, I would still be queer. Words, actions, behaviors, laws, and barriers set up to impede queer people (leading to real mental and physical traumas – including those directly related to HIV rates, depression, substance abuse, physical abuse, and poverty rates) still affect me even when not directed at me. How I’m seen is often less important than what I see (and feel): an anti-Black, anti-queer system working in conjunction.
And even as I write this, I must reckon with how my Black queer identity so easily becomes a stand-in for a Black, cisgender male identity, leaving trans folks, gender non-conforming individuals, and Black queer women to deal with a similar erasure and forced binaries. Beyond white hetero supremacy, cisgender male supremacy is a comparable violent force us cisgender queer men must address and for which we must take responsibility when faced with such truths as trans people are murdered at a rate almost 50% higher than cisgender queer people.
My world is a world where I am constantly in battle with anti-Black and anti-queer violence as they intersect. I am forced to both defend Black folks who wouldn’t lift a finger to defend me by virtue of my queerness while also defending against them, even as I might perpetuate sexist and anti-trans violences. And that is the constant truth of being a Black cisgender queer man. That is always what is through any door I enter, seen or not.
I do not know a Blackness that isn’t queer. I never have, never will, and never could separate the two even if I tried. If my “Black politics” interfere with my “queer politics,” the Black isn’t a Black I know and neither is the queer. Black liberation is always Black queer and trans and woman liberation and queer liberation is always queer Black and trans and woman liberation, or we just aren’t talking about liberation in the first place.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.