Monday, August 15, 2011

On Black People and Homophobia: for Cedric

There are plenty of other things I should be doing right now: finishing a book review which has already been extended, preparing for classes that start in a week, finishing another post I've been working on on gentrification, starting and finishing two other book proposal/chapter reviews that are due, and the list goes on and on. But, I just had to stop for a moment and briefly reflect on a recent trip home I made with my partner/girlfriend--we had a wedding ceremony so I'm trying to say partner now, but I really love saying girlfriend, something about it.

Anyway, we made a long, three week road trip from California to the Midwest to visit with and, in some cases, meet for the first time family and friends.  It was a sweet trip: we saw lots of beautiful things, like the Badlands and Black Hills in South Dakota, canyons upon canyons in Southern Utah, and just the regular, lush greenery of Michigan and Missouri, where we're from. The road makes us both happy.

And, it's always a bit of hard trip to make, for both of us. We both love our families so much and, as two queer women, often leave a lot of things out about our lives when we go home.  Literally, there were points in the trip where it was hard for us to even reach each other, we were so checked out. It's something we've practiced for quite a while, for various reasons.  Some of it is based on people not always asking about the specifics. Remembering to ask about the boys in our lives (son and godson) that we see at least once, if not twice a week. Nor would they ever remember or think to ask what it's like to suspend holding hands with your partner in public, something we do everyday at home. Not to mention never getting into a serious debate about gay marriage and whether or not that is something we're interested in. And, in many ways, that's fine. I understand, sometimes people don't know how to ask. And, quite frankly, there is so little that I share about my life that I think it may just be difficult to talk to me,"Ani" (my childhood nickname), and/or I'm not there enough (once or twice a year) for those kinds of conversations to be developed. Plus, there is a nice big helping of internalized homophobia on both of our parts that structure these trips home.

So it was within this setting, this history, that Joan and I made the trip from her parent's house in Michigan to mine in Missouri, where she was going to meet my extended family--my father's side--for the first time. Just to give you a little history and more context for how I share, I took her home last summer for the first time, where she met my grandmother (Dad's mom) and my mom's side of the family, many of her seven brothers and sisters and their children. Also, for the purposes of history/reminder, my mother is white and my father is Black. And, this is only the second time in my adult relationship history that I've ever brought anyone home. I dated my white, college ex-boyfriend (who Joan also met on this trip), home twice in the 6 1/2 years that we dated. And we lived three hours away from my hometown. So, the fact that I've traveled over 1600 miles and have brought Joan home twice in 3 1/2 years is, like, a really big deal. Plus, you know, I'm 40 so I'm kinda grown, which means I should be doing this kind of thing anyway...

Still, I was nervous to take her home. How are people going to feel about her? How are my aunts (my dad has six siblings) going to respond to her? To us? What about my male cousins? All people I see every year, but have not mentioned her, the woman I love so much, directly once. Now, if asked, I wouldn't lie, but I was never asked, so...But I couldn't keep up my charade any longer, my grandmother was invited and my dad came out for our ceremony in May, so I had to come clean.  My dad picked us up and we headed over.  I brought my mom along who is still close with my dad and his siblings/my grandmother, just in case Joan didn't have anyone to talk to. That was my plan.


We walked in and everyone was there, and I mean everyone, my four aunts, an uncle, my cousin and his wife, my grandmother, my other cousin and his girlfriend. I was greeted, but almost immediately pushed aside so that one by one everyone came up, introduced themselves to her (I'm aunt______), hugged her, and welcomed her to the family. No joke. Some even said the words, welcome to the family.

I was taken aback.

Not by the sweetness of my family: they are some of the most incredibly sweet, laid back, witty, funny, sarcastic, sh*t talking, and sincere people I know. They are my people. No, in the moment, I was taken aback by how they welcomed her, us, my life that I never talk about, into the family. Almost immediately, my aunt began correcting Joan when she said, "I don't want to sit in your uncle's chair." "That's your uncle, Joan." It was great and, once I got over my fear, nothing short of what I would expect from my people. Since we've been home, three of them have become her "friends" on Facebook.

But that's not the way we understand the relationship between the Black and LGBTQ communities. The overall assumption is that the Black community is homophobic (at the same time that the same sex marriage movement equates this struggle with the Black civil rights movement).  The Black community was blamed for Proposition 8's failure in California, anti-gay leaders exist and are well publicized, and there is an ongoing discussion of homophobia in hip-hop. Often, it looks like straight Black folks are more homophobic than any other group, especially white people. But, that has rarely been my experience. Inquisitive? Yes. Inappropriate questions at times? Of course. A "girl you nasty," once or twice? Sure. But I don't think that constitutes a more homophobic community, which is what I take issue with.  The assumption that Black people are the culprit in the ongoing fight against homophobia and gay oppression. And, I don't write this to deny other Black folks' experience, but rather, to put out there a time when this was not the case. I think we need to highlight these experiences more often to remember and think about the Black community as a community, who looks out for, loves, and trusts one another. It doesn't negate the Eddie Longs or Tracy Morgans, but is intended to open up and broaden the conversation a bit more. I am eager to engage in them.

Peace, family.