When was the first time that someone called you beautiful and you believed them? You really heard them and took it in. Do you remember?
I remember it was in 2011 when I was 23. I had just moved to Boston after having come back from living out of the country. It was the first time that I had lived in America as an adult. I was in a new city and I was ready to explore what it meant to be gay even though I was not fully out. I did not have any gay friends in the city, so, wanting to get started on my adventure, I went alone to the first gay bar I ever went to when I was in college–a place called Paradise. It was early in the evening, much earlier than one should ever show up to a gay bar I would learn. I sat at the bar, ordered a drink and stared at my phone, dejectedly. After a few minutes, I heard a voice say “You’re very handsome.” I turned to see who it was, my heart racing, and noticed an older white man who was sitting at the corner of the bar not too far from me. I scoffed. I wasn’t being dismissive as much as I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say. “What, you don’t believe me?” “I’m not sure,” I said. “Well, I’ll tell you. You’re really, really beautiful. You should know that.” And for some reason, for the first time, I believed that he was telling the truth. I’m not sure why. I ended up becoming good friends with this older gentleman. He was a regular at the bar and I saw him there over the years that I frequented Paradise. I always gave him a hug. We sat and shared stories. He gave me a lot of advice about the gay community from his many years of experience. He told me about the way things were “back in the day.” And, while I never told him how much those words meant to me, I never forgot what he said. For that, he and Paradise always have and will have a special place in my heart.
Fast forward four years to New Year’s Eve 2015. I was on the dance floor in the basement of Paradise with a group of friends whom I had brought together during my time in Boston. My crew. We were dead-center and dancing like our lives depended on it. I was in the middle of my graduate school experience and, as a result of growing up a little, I was in a point in my life where I felt more confident and self-assured than I ever had felt before. We were nearing the countdown to 2016. Lights were flashing, parting the fog. Practically everyone was shirtless. And, as I looked around through the darkness, I started to notice that all of my friends are paired up with someone whom they were undoubtedly going to kiss when the clock struck. In fact, it seemed like almost everyone in the basement had someone to kiss. In truth, I wasn’t there for that and so it didn’t bother me too much. But…I’m beautiful…right? Suddenly, it turned into one of those moments where time stopped. As the countdown began, I looked around the basement and noticed that there was something different about me. There was something itching at the back of my mind that might explain why I was the only one who was alone…
I realized I was the only black person I could see in the room. 3…2…1…Happy New Year.
I focused the bulk of my coursework in graduate school on race/ethnic identity. Through my studies, my eyes were opened for the first time to the idea that everything in our country is impacted by race. Consequently, I started to see everything through race- colored glasses. It made me very sad and very mad. It still does. As I look back on my experiences as a gay man, starting at that first night in Paradise, I can’t help but see how the intersection of my sexuality and my race have colored so many of my experiences:
I remember how often I was the only person of color in queer spaces in Boston. I remember how often I heard in conversations with white guys that they thought I was handsome “for a black guy” or that I was cute but they didn’t “date black guys.” I also remember hearing the opposite: “I’m really into black guys” or “I only date men of color.” I remember how neither seemed to bother me that much at first.
I remember when I first got on dating apps, I noticed how people would put “no blacks, no Asians” on their profiles. I would ignore it and pursue any way. There was a time that I didn’t list my race on dating apps because of it. I messaged a guy on an app and when he asked me what my race was I lied. He stopped the conversation because he knew I wasn’t telling the truth. He told me “you should never have to lie about who you are to get anyone to like you.” I have no idea who that person was, but thank you for saying that to me all those years ago. I always list my race now.
I took a break from dating apps for a while after my New Years experience but have since returned. Now, I entirely dismiss people who list any race-based criteria. But I’ve noticed that I still have to stop myself from swiping on people of color without actually looking at their profile. Mainstream standards of beauty in the gay community–white, fit, young, hairless–have inundated me just like they have so many others. It is something that I try to consciously work against all the time. I try to slow down and look at profiles to see if I really am attracted to the person, whomever they may be. Still, I am surprised when someone whom I find attractive actually finds me attractive back. I worry that if he is white, he swiped because he is fetishizing me and my blackness. I am not as surprised when a person of color finds me attractive. I worry that people of color swipe on me simply because I am black and not because they actually want to get to know who I am. I worry they too are fetishizing me for my blackness. I may quit dating apps again soon.
I remember the first time that I went to an event hosted by The Welcoming Committee in Boston. It’s a group that takes over traditionally heterosexual spaces for a night and makes them into queer event spaces. It was the first time that I felt at home at a queer event. I had the honor of being a volunteer for the group and eventually I helped to run it for a short time. TWC was my first queer family and was where I made my first black gay male friend. While we are not as close as we used to be, the mentorship and advice that he gave me all those years ago has stuck with me. I still think of him as an example of what it looks like to full y live ones truth. TWC was the reason I eventually had the courage to fully come out on this day four years ago.
I remember finally fully ccoming out to my parents and my dad saying “You’re 24, you’re not ugly, and you don’t date; we knew you were gay.” One of my favorite dad quotes to this day. I remember my parents making it clear to me that all they have ever wanted was for me to be happy, to be true to who I am, and to be safe. I came out to my sister first. Over Thai food I stumbled though the words, “I’m gay.” She looked at me blankly and said “Nothing surprises me anymore.” We laughed and continued lunch. I remember thinking I wish I had come out sooner; the people who I was most afraid of turned out to be my biggest advocates, as they always had been.
I remember moving into a new place in Boston and having a gay roommate for the first time. He was a slightly older, extremely muscular Nigerian man and he acted as my first gay sage. I was in awe of his attitude about the gay scene. He was confident and took no bullshit from anyone. They either wanted him or didn’t. He surrounded himself with good people. I wanted to be like him.
I remember meeting the individual who would become my first gay best friend. I had never had a close friend with whom I could talk to about what it was like to be gay. We went everywhere together. He helped build my confidence in ways I never imagined were possible. He was hilarious. We were a mess together. Eventually, we had a falling out over things that gay boys seem to always falling out over. Looking back, they were silly mistakes. We have since made up but I doubt that we will never be as close as we were for many reasons. I look at who he hangs out with now, a wonderful group of guys…but they are all white like him. I don’t hold it against him, but I wonder if he notices. My current best friend is another gay guy. I don’t know anyone who can make me laugh as hard or gross me out as much as he can. He is Latino. And, despite all the time that we have spent together, we rarely talk about what it means to be gay men of color in a white dominated gay scene. I wish we would more. Maybe we are both too scared and too scarred face the reality amidst our joy.
I remember my friends asking me “Why do you always seem to go after pale, skinny, white dudes?” and me not having an answer until I came home to the predominantly white neighborhood I grew up in and looked around. And then I thought about where I went to high school and college; both elite white institutions.
I remember the only two serious relationships that I have ever had. They were both with white guys. The first one was the first time I was crazy about someone. He was goofy and ambitious. He loved to eat and had good taste. But he wasn’t fully out. I never met his straight friends or parents. He always jokingly talked about how much he liked Latino men. Despite the incredible amount of time we spent together, he told me that he wasn’t ready for a relationship. But, I Iiked him so I was okay with all of that. We ended up “breaking up” after a full summer together right before I started grad school. He said it wasn’t fair that he wasn’t ready for a relationship and that I deserved someone who was. I was heartbroken, but he was right. A few months later I learned that he had started dating someone officially. When I found out who it was, I was surprised to learn that the guy wasn’t Latino. He was white too. He is now more out than ever, albeit still not fully. And despite his claims of liking men of color and having friends who identified in that way, all I ever see him in pictures with are white guys. I can’t help thinking that my skin color had something to do with why we couldn’t be together.
I was a bit more balanced when it came to the second of the two. I had a few more experiences under my belt and approached the relationship in a more jaded fashion. I fell pretty hard for him too. He was extremely smart, passionate, and compassionate. He also had fantastic taste, this time in music. Unfortunately because of extenuating circumstances, we had to end our relationship as well. A few months ago, he lampooned me for having “Ivy League grad” in my dating profile. I tried to explain to him that I felt compelled to have that detail my profile because without it people would look at me and assume I wasn’t smart. On top of that, I was proud of what I had accomplished. Looking back, I see how problematic my thinking was. I know people shouldn’t associate the color of my skin with being anything but excellent and if they do I shouldn’t be around those people anyway. I have since removed that part of my profile where I can. Still, I wanted him to understand why I felt compelled to have it on my profile in the first place. I wanted him to understand that black people are seen as lesser than and these apps exacerbate that discrimination. He proceeded to compare the judgment and dismissal that I receive for the color of my skin to the way he gets treated because of the size of his penis. I was crestfallen and, in an odd turn, couldn’t find it in myself to continue the conversation. He didn’t understand why that comment was so problematic. We haven’t talked about that subject again.
I still have never had an “official” boyfriend.
I remember that before leaving Boston, inspired by one of my graduate school classes and wanting to cocoon myself around other gay black men, I started a group called the Men of Melanin Magic. The group still exists today. We used the same model as The Welcoming Committee initially. The first event drew 40+ people. I was excited by being around other black gay men. I though it felt good. At the events, however, my friends who helped me start the group would always note how I wasn’t acting myself. They wondered why I wasn’t being gregarious and making friends with everyone like I usually do. “People find you attractive! Have you gotten any numbers?” they would ask. I hadn’t. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I know now that my reticence was based in my fear of being judged. In conversations, without knowing me or having any prompting–sometimes without me having said anything–guys at the events would say “You look like someone who only dates white guys.” I was afraid of not being seen as “black enough.” So, I stayed silent. I know that I cannot generalize these experiences to all gay black men, but it has always been hard for me not to. Even now, when among a group of people with whom I should feel kinship I feel like they are all strangers.
I have since made black gay male friends, but there have been many moments where I felt as though some of them were trying to provide with me unsolicited counsel. I felt as though they were trying to hold a mirror up to me to help me “see the error of my ways.” That they wanted to explain to me that there was a way that I should act and a kind of guy I should date. There was a kind of “wokeness” that I should be at. That I should have recognized “all of these things before” and that “I would get there someday.” I remember just wanting to do whatever I wanted to do and be me without any “shoulds.” Maybe they were just trying to help and that I was too afraid to admit that they were right.
I remember how excited I was to move to Chicago. By the end of my time in Boston, I felt like it was a insidious, hyper-racialized place. Moving to Chicago has been a great change for me. That is not to say that it is not hyper-racialized. But, because there are simply more people of color, the gay scene feels slightly different. All gay bars here have a few more black people in them. I’m not alone. In fact, there are gay bars that are heavily frequented by people of color. A year in and I have yet to have someone say to me “you’re cute for a black guy.” My new job has also afforded me the opportunity to travel the country and see new gayborhoods in Houston, San Francisco, and Atlanta. These are all places that have a wider range of queer spaces and more people of color than I was used to in Boston. I have felt much more appreciated in all these places.
I remember being in a straight bar with a new gay friend in the south suburbs of Chicago and being the only black person in the bar. I brought it up to him in passing. He said to me, frustrated, “We are all having a good time, why do you have to bring up race? No one else is thinking about that.” I was.
I remember a recent date I went on a date with someone in Chicago. Things were going well and we were holding hands as we were about to hop on the train. As we started to kiss, a black man who was sitting at the train station looked at me and said, “Man, do you really have to do that in front of me? Can’t you go somewhere else? I don’t want to see you two do that.” My date was livid and proceeded to call the man a “nigger.” I was mortified. He grabbed my hand and pulled me on the train. He commenced to rant about how he hated when people were homophobic. When I finally caught my breath, I asked him how he felt that it was okay to say “the n-word” at all, particularly in front of me. He said he didn’t mean anything by it. He would never call me that. That I wasn’t like that guy. Dumbfounded, I continued on the date, hoping for an opportunity to explain to him how wrong his thinking was. I never got it and I wish I had jumped off at the next stop.
I remember celebrating my first Chicago Pride as a full out gay adult this past June. It was a magical to be able to feel as though I could finally be my true self in a place I have always called home. The day was full of great views, energetic dancing, and love. So much love. I was surrounded by friends, new and old, throughout the day. I felt beautiful.
So what does this all have to do with pride? Most of these stories are sad memories sad, not happy and full of revelry like the celebratory LGBTQ month of June promises. I know that in many of these instances other factors besides or in addition to race were at play. There is always more than one side to a story, though I don’t know how much that matters. Impact trumps intent. I try not to hold grudges and I do not think that any of these people who made me feel the way I feel or felt are “bad.” I know that there were many points in these stories where my leaving the situation or listening to signs that I picked up on would have saved me grief. Of course, it is easy to say all of that in hindsight. I acknowledge that these vignettes show many of my own insecurities, self-loathing, internalized racism, and blind spots. In many cases, I am complicit in the racism I am experiencing. At the same time that I may blame others for some of these actions and events, I am not trying to pass blame on anyone for my own flaws. I am trying to work on all of them daily. My journeys from being a gayby (read: gay + baby) to a gaydolescent and from not seeing color to seeing it everywhere have not been easy ones. They have been full of missed opportunities, heartbreak, and mistakes. I’m starting to think that’s okay. I’m starting to think that it’s how I learn best.
To be clear, I have had many, many glorious moments as a gay black many in the years before and coming out fully four years ago. However, after this Pride month, I started to think more critically about what pride really means. The word and the month. When I started to reflect on my experiences, these stories rose to the top. Through putting the side by side I noticed something. Looking back on all of these stories, there was a threaded theme of being seen or not seen–for the right or wrong reasons. I have spent the large majority of my life not being out and running away from who I am. Now that I am out, figuring out what it means to be gay has not ended. My recent recognition of the racialization of my experience as a gay man has only further convoluted and complicated things. And while I am certainly not always sad, this recognition makes me sad a lot of the time. But, as a singer once said, “it’s okay not to be okay.”
So I share these stories, not because I want sympathy or I because want anyone I have mentioned here to feel bad. I relay these stories to say that that these things happened to me and, as a poet once said, “still I rise.” I tell my truth in an effort to be seen by those like me who have had similar experiences and feelings and have never voiced them before. I myself have never told anyone many of these stories. I want those who feel invisible in similar ways to me to know that I see them. I want to understand. I want to find a safe space. I want to help and be helped. I want to help those who don’t see to consider opening their eyes. I tell these stories to be seen because deep down I AM proud of who I am, where I come from, and where I am going in spite of my struggle. For me, pride–the month and the feeling–is about being visible. Unabashedly so. Through the good and the bad. And, on this the fourth anniversary of my coming out, I wanted to write it all down so I wouldn’t forget.
I remember going to the final block party of the Boston Pride celebration the day we all woke up to find out that the Pulse massacre happened in Orlando in 2016. I remember crying and crying, not only because my gay family had been attacked out of hate but because this event reminded me that gay people of color can’t even find safe spaces within the walls of their own community. None of us were safe and I felt even less so as a black man. Still, we raged on. I remember running into one of my professors from graduate school at the block party. He admitted that he was a bit out of place, that people his age did not typically attend this event. He explained that after he woke up and cried in his husbands arms, he called his friends and told them that they had to show up to this event regardless of their age or their fear. He repeated to me what he said to them: “We have to let the world know that they can kill us and we will still be here.”
I’m still here. Can you see me?