Sometimes my inspiration for this column springs from something happening in the world around me. Sometimes it springs from something deep within. More often than not, it’s a combination of the two. So it is this week.
Last week I’d just returned from attending a conference and spending a weekend in New York when I read the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had voted to let the Trump administration’s bigoted ban against transgender people serving in the military go into effect.
As someone who identifies as a gay male and who has benefited from the struggles of activists in my community in more ways than I can count, the court’s ruling gave me pause.
My indignation and soul searching had begun over that weekend, though, when I spotted a flyer for a socially conscious exhibit in New York called “Gay in Trumpland,” featuring beautiful, haunting photographs by Ron Amato.
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The image on the front of the flyer featured what appears to be two men, one with dark skin and one with light skin, holding hands while shrouded in white cloths.
The next day, I went to the Andy Warhol retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which included many of the great pop artist’s screen prints of subjects from the LGBTQ community, including drag queens of color from the 1970s and a touching portrait from the 1980s of the white artist Keith Haring in an embrace with his black boyfriend at the time, Juan Dubose.
In both instances, I couldn’t help but think about the first time I saw a same-sex couple hold hands in public, the first time I saw a black man and a white man together, and the joy I felt when I, as a young black college student, held my white boyfriend’s hand at our first pride parade in Atlanta in 1991.
Back then, it was an era when “gays in the military” was a buzz phrase in the culture wars, and consensual acts between same-sex partners were still illegal in some states.
When I was younger, I’d marveled at the daring nature of a loving gesture like two men of different races holding hands — one that was taboo on two counts.
It might feel like ancient history but it wasn’t so long ago that the racial divisions of this country would’ve made it nearly impossible for an open, interracial relationship to thrive at all, let alone a same-sex one. It still is the case that people who identify as LGBTQ run the risk of suffering verbal abuse and physical violence for publicly being who they are and openly sharing affection with the person they love.
And the battle for acceptance and inclusion for the trans community rages as you read this — as the Supreme Court, now stacked with conservative justices, has made painfully clear.
Still, I’ve been reluctant so far to write about myself this way, opting instead to focus on my blackness as the lens through which I view and make sense of an all-too-often unjust world.
But there’s at least one other lens.
Being both black and gay profoundly influences my sense of fairness and unfairness, bigotry and acceptance.
The fact is, I don’t know any other way to think about justice than as a black and cisgendered gay man who is the product of both communities’ blood, sweat and tears.
One journey informs the other. They’re intertwined, at least for me.
In my most personal columns, I’m essentially asking you to view the world through my eyes.
Here is what I saw clearly that weekend in New York and last week:
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, which are credited with launching the modern gay-rights movement. I might not be able to write so openly about myself in a mainstream newspaper today had the protesters at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village not fought against New York City police officers who had raided the bar on June 28, 1969.
Raids of gay establishments were commonplace then, from New York to Seattle.
Adding to the Stonewall’s special place in gay history, it was reportedly more welcoming to trans people, femme men, butch women, gays and lesbians who were runaways or homeless, and gay black and brown people who didn’t feel welcome at more mainstream gay establishments.
A black trans patron, Marsha P. Johnson, is thought to have launched the riots that night.
By standing up to the authorities in defense of their humanity — which they had to defend even inside their marginalized and rejected realm — the bar’s patrons paved the way for me to feel more secure about my own as a black gay man.
They inspired me to feel more confident both in the outside world and within an LGBTQ community that continues to deal with tensions around class, gender, race and presentation. They showed me how a single person can fight for justice on multiple fronts and for different personal reasons — at the same time.
Reading last week’s news, it struck me that I don’t have to identify as trans to feel wounded and enraged by the military ban targeting them. Our histories, while distinct, have also been intertwined.
You don’t have to be a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ community to consider our specific struggles, so emblematic of the perils and possibilities of the American experience, to be yours too.
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