Where Is The Proof That It Gets Better? Queer POC and the Solidarity Gap

by Latoya Peterson

Last week, the internet was in a tizzy over Aliya S. King’s article for Vibe. The piece, titled the Mean Girls of Morehouse, explored how Morehouse’s change in dress code was really a reaction to a small group of genderqueer students on campus.  The article dove into the lives of these students on campus.  Vibe and King were both blasted for attacking Morehouse, a bastion of the black community, and a video was quickly uploaded to the internet showing a spirited discussion at Morehouse around the content of the article, exploring everything from lack of queer perspective to the representation of Morehouse.

However, through this whole debate, two things have stood out to me:

1. We aren’t hearing very much from those profiled.
2. Most of the conversation has swirled around representation – but what about solidarity? Particularly among groups of color?

The lengthy article alludes to this issue, but doesn’t delve deeply into the issue of solidarity and support. King speaks to other members of the Morehouse gay community:

Of course the Plastics are only a part of Morehouse’s openly gay community. What about those men who don’t wear heels and makeup?

Gathered in a two-bedroom, off-campus apartment are several members of Safe Space, an organization dedicated to supporting the gay community at Morehouse, whether or not the flout the appropriate attire policy.

Michael J. Brewer, 24, is a 2009 graduate of Morehouse who currently works in the office of Georgia State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan. The former president of Safe Space, he still serves in an advisory capacity. There’s not a swishy bone in Brewer’s body. If he doesn’t tell you he’s gay, you wouldn’t know. In his off-campus apartment, he’s joined by Kevin Webb and Daniel Edwards, the current co-presidents of Safe Space. “In any culture, there will be divisions,” explains Brewer, choosing his words with care as he describes attitudes toward the Plastics. “Yes, there is some dissonance against the more eccentric, ostentatious and flamboyant members of the gay community.”

Kevin chimes in. “In some ways, it’s like it’s okay to be gay. But not that gay. Or it’s okay to be queer. But not that queer,” he says. “There is homophobia even within the gay community—which is something we have to deal with if Morehouse is going to progress.”

Brewer insists that Morehouse’s future hinges on its ability to deal with students like the Plastics and finding a place for them. “My hope is that Morehouse can step into the space of the most progressive colleges in the nation. Morehouse can be a beacon of light. Morehouse can find a place for the LGBT community. Even the ones transitioning to the opposite gender,” says Brewer. “If a student comes to Morehouse as a man and plans to transition to a woman, yes, there should still be a space for that student. It may sound radical. But that’s what Morehouse has always stood for—radical change in the face of injustice.”

But Brian “Bri” Alston has his doubts about whether Morehouse will ever achieve that level of enlightenment. “We know our lives aren’t really reflective of the Morehouse gay black experience,” says Brian. “And Morehouse has enough issues dealing with just the gay community. They don’t know what to do with us.”

While this was the most interesting section of the piece, the narrative around the article has been consumed with more on the reputation of Morehouse and gender identity and a lot less on what we owe each other as members of marginalized communities. In 2008, Jafari Sinclaire Allen wrote a piece for us that begins with “Congratulations, Michael Brewer.” In the piece, he is speaking to an out and proud Morehouse man, one who was able to reconcile his identity with Morehouse’s ideals. But Allen notes:

In return for the “crown,” which we are told Morehouse holds over the head of its sons who endeavor to grow tall enough to wear it, we are asked to buy a bill of goods that include fidelity to image and representation. But what—and whom– does this respectability betray?

Who pays the price for this shoddy mimicry- the picture in which the Black man takes up his “rightful” place at the head of a family with a dutiful longsuffering well-educated but decidedly under-employed light-skinned wife, and children with good hair?

[To each, her and his own, of course. My point here is not to point a finger, but to shine a light.]

How do these images and longings for certain types of lives, mates and relationships get shaped? To whom do we look for examples and for approval? My point here is that Black angst over appearing freaky, weird, less-than, or too Black shape our decisions and the ways we treat each other. Perhaps—the logic goes—if I speak, act and embody the White middle class heterosexual standard, or at least closely approximate it, I will finally be accepted as levelly human, as worthy, employable and loved.

But what violence takes place outside the picture’s pose, in order to frame this ‘just so’ story, in which Black men get to borrow the crumbling crown of the White patriarch? We rarely call into question the concept of “leadership,” or the assumption that an elite college education and middle class status qualify us to take the reins of a community putatively deemed “out of control.” And where do we turn, but to places like Morehouse, where suited and well-spoken men stand poised to do so? [...]

Today, it seems the news at the Atlanta University Center these days is hopeful. As the newly inaugurated President of Morehouse College, Robert Michael Franklin, begins his second year, his support of the “No More ‘No Homo’” campaign is inspiring. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic that the self-appointed makers of Black leaders will finally take up its work of producing 21st Century Black men with open and affirming gender and sexual politics.

There simply is no excuse not to do so.

Now is no time to turn our backs on the work left to do.

And yet, here we are.

Allen’s call to action wasn’t just intended for the Morehouse community – it should be heard by all of us who care about social justice. These are members of our community, who are often suffering in silence, afraid of our judgment and our backlash.

My friend Kavitha posted a link to a depressing article in Mother Jones, aptly titled “Queer and Loathing: Does the Foster Care System Bully Gay Kids?” Considering the plight of many young people caught in the understaffed and overtaxed foster care system, the additional hurdle that young queer kids of color have to go through is gut wrenching. Jason Cherkis reports:

Nothing frightened Kenneth Jones more than the prospect of his first real date. He prepped for it like a court appearance, saving up for a black button-down shirt and for a salon treatment to tame his spiky locks and paint his nails with intricate black-and-gray swirls. He still remembers those last anxious teenage moments. “A lot of mirror time,” he recalls. “Tons of mirror time.”

He needed this to go well. As a gay foster child in Washington, DC, Kenneth spent most of his weekends alone. By the summer of 2009, the isolation had gotten so bad that he’d started calling his cell-phone carrier’s help line with imaginary complaints, just so he could vent to somebody about something. He would even text himself encouraging messages, like “Good job,” or “Damn you so strong.”

He needn’t have worried. Kenneth and his date took an afternoon swim, made out during G.I. Joe, and finished the evening at Chipotle. More dates followed. After a few weeks, taking his new boyfriend home seemed like the natural next step. And so it was that James, Kenneth’s foster father, returned to the apartment one night to find the boys talking and laughing in the front room. The introductions immediately turned into what Kenneth calls a “life-or-death situation.” [...]

Across the nation, social workers and children’s advocates have their own Kenneth stories—the gay youth in Jacksonville, Florida, who tore through 48 placements in four years; the lesbian teen in Connecticut who made a pinky promise with her social worker to “not be gay.” The changes in mainstream attitudes that have made life easier for gay adults in recent years have also made it easier for gay teens to come out of the closet. But that doesn’t mean foster parents and child-welfare agencies have kept pace with the times. Kids “question their sexual orientation more” nowadays, says Cindy Watson, who directs a center for gay youth in Jacksonville. “That’s a dangerous place to be. And the system is not a safe place.”

According to the American Bar Association’s 2008 guidebook (PDF) for child-welfare lawyers and judges, virtually all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning kids in group homes had reported verbal harassment; 70 percent had been subjected to violence; and 78 percent had either run away or been removed from a foster placement for reasons related to their sexuality. “They are the one population thrown out of their home because of who they are,” says Gerald P. Mallon, a professor at New York’s Hunter College School of Social Work.

There is so much pain. There is so much hurt. And this is coming from our people, members of our communities.

We have to work harder to bridge these gaps.

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Campaign has made its way around the internet and the mainstream media a few weeks ago, pulling together a wide range of people to assure queer kids that life does get better – if they live long enough to see it out.  One video, Kristel Yoneda from Honolulu, HI, really struck me for her openness in reminiscing about that period in her life:

Kristel said:

I remember as a junior, one day I got called into the office in the middle of class. I thought maybe my mom had left me a message at the office or something, but it turns out the counselor wanted to speak with me. So we sit down, and we make small talk for a little while and she says “You know, there are these rumors going around that you’re gay. You’re not gay, are you?” And I remember it wasn’t with that tone where it was like “ok, you’re gay, it’s ok, this is a safe environment,” it was that tone that tells you, “You better not be gay, don’t tell me that you’re gay.” And I was shocked. Before I could even process the question properly, before I could really even answer, I remember denying it. Flat-out denying it, which was a lie of course. And she asked me again, “Are you gay, are you gay? Are you gay with your friend? I heard she’s gay too. So here I was, denying it. I’m not gay, my friend’s not gay, we’re not together, none of us are gay.

And I remembered she just looked at me and said “Well, I heard she’s a slut.”

And I didn’t know what to say, you know? Had this conversation happened now, it would have gone so much differently, you know? I would have stood up for myself. I would have stood up for my friend. But the truth is, you know, I was fifteen years old. And I was speaking to someone who was supposed to be someone I could confide in. They were an authority figure I was supposed to feel safe with, and in that moment she shattered all my faith in that system.

Some folks have criticized Savage’s campaign, saying that we should not ask gay teens to stand by and accept their own bullying. I can understand that criticism, but at the same time, I can hear the message Savage is trying to convey. Adolescence is a strange, awkward period of time for most of us – we are in the process of discovering who we are, and we are still learning to navigate our peers and parents/guardians. We are starting to learn some of life’s harshest lessons, and beginning the journey toward adulthood. For those of us who have left this phase in our development, we can say that it does get better. It isn’t guaranteed to do so, but most adults have one thing teens lack: control over their lives. At some point, the decisions you make become those you determine. And that kind of control and autonomy does make a world of difference.

But still, as adults, as those who’ve been through it (or similar rough situations) we can always do more.

Last week, reader Tomee Sojourner sent in a video campaign to promote an alternative campaign, saying:

In light of recent mainstream LGBTQ response to LGBT/Queer youth suicides in US and other parts of the world, the Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project (EID Project) wanted to shine a spotlight on how homophobic/transphobic and racist violence manifests itself in our communities. In particular, how racialized and intersectional identities need to be visible in how narratives are shared, mourned, and calls to action are made. The EID Project team feels that the lack of discussion about the affect/impact of racism on how bullying and homophobia take shape, is not only dismissive, it is in fact irresponsible.

The Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project is a not-for-profit organization based in Montreal, QC. Our team decided to generate a call to action and campaign, ‘I AM PROOF THAT IT GETS BETTER’ to get folks to situate racialized and intersectional identities in the discussions, debates, dialogues, and movement building around challenging homophobic bullying, violence, and empowering queer youth.

The EID Project campaign places race, gender expression, and the lived experiences of queer folks of colour and two-spirited folks at the centre rather than on the periphery. The project asks folks to step up to do MORE and ACT.

As Director of the Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project, I created a brief youtube clip in response to the EID Project’s call to action.  On a personal note, Ihave had enough of the erasure of racialized, gendered, and intersectional violence and forms of oppression that queer folks of colour and two-spirited folks face on a daily basis. I have also moved in too many spaces where folks feel that they have very little option but to no longer exist. As a Black, masculine-identified queer woman, Social Justice Activist, Artist, Social Entrepreneur, former College Professor, Auntie, Femtor, and Partner, I move in this world with intersectional identities. In addition, I have experienced intersectional violence.

This campaign will generate spaces where folks can share knowledge, ideas, skills, and engage in difficult dialogues for the purpose of growing progressive, sustainable social change, one connection at a time.

To non activists, this just sounds like a mouthful.  But all Tomee is really asking for is for us to ensure that we are examining what is going on in the lives of others.

So please. Do something. Reach out. Read queer writing, theory, poetry. Add some queer POC blogs to your feed reader or rotation.

We can’t afford to leave so many members of our community out in the cold.