Thursday, June 20, 2013

Waiting for Superman...To Die


When I was a little boy, I wasn't aware I was being indoctrinated into so many life principles, as most kids are. One of these principles was to treat people the way I want to be treated. Another was if I didn't have anything nice to say, not to say anything at all. But there was one mantra I learned that came to me indirectly. No one had ever explicitly said it to me but it was certainly a value expressed throughout my childhood. Don't let anyone pity you, including yourself. This also lended itself to not asking for anyone's help. Only people looking for pity needed help. Or so I believed.

Growing up in a working class family, there was always a sense of pride in our accomplishments especially in the face of adversity. It was this pride that prevented most of my family from acknowledging the emotional aspects of their reality--the hardened crust of poor pie. The belief was that if you worked hard enough, anything was possible. A myth many white families believe. This school of thought is probably true for most families who struggle economically (class) but don't acknowledge the structural opportunities (housing, education, labor) afforded based on the color of their skin (race). So I learned from a very young age "not to complain" about how I was feeling and just handle whatever it was.

This superman complex, or mode of operating in an "I can do anything; I don't need anyone's help," trained me to suppress the impact left in my psyche by the heavier life moments I experienced--moments of sexual abuse, or dealing with a bipolar, paranoid schizophrenic mother in my teens or most recently a schizophrenic younger brother. It taught me to remain quiet when I was hurting. It eventually became my kryptonite, demonstrating that my true weakness was my inability to be explicitly vulnerable, my inability to admit I needed help. Living in the age of social media, blogging or tweeting helped to express this vulnerability but my real-time interactions suffered severely.

The other night, I was feeling the weight again. The overwhelming weight. The weight of loneliness. I texted a loved one something vague. When she responded shortly after my three second window of vulnerability had opened, I immediately closed back down. We engaged in a brief conversation and I let her know I was struggling. However, I should have been more transparent. I should have let her know I needed support. But the voice inside that taught me I was superman and I should be able to handle anything overpowered me.

Today I'm waiting for superman to die...

I do feel pain.

I do cry.

I do need help.

I am not alone.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hip Hop, Misogyny and What Gays Want

Here's the podcast from Madness and Reality radio where political activist and rapper Jasiri X discusses his new album. We discussed the state of Hip Hop Culture and how it impacts our youth. On the political tip, me and my friend and colleague, Martin Palamore, look at the current debate on marriage equality. Check it out!

Fashion Finds

Code of Ethics for Anti-Racist White Allies by JLove Calderon and Tim Wise

Share access and resources with people of color whenever possible.

Networking matters. As whites, we often enjoy access to various professional connections, resources, or networks from which people of color are typically excluded. The ability to act as a gatekeeper comes with the territory of privilege. The only question is, will we help open the gates wider or keep them closed? As allies, we should strive to share connections and resources with people of color whenever possible. So, for instance, we may have inroads for institutional funding or grant monies that could be obtained for people of color-led community organizations. We may have connections in media, educational institutions, or even the corporate world, which if shared with people of color could provide opportunities for those people of color to gain a platform for their own racial justice efforts.

If you get paid to speak out about white privilege, racism, and/or white supremacy or in some capacity make your living from challenging racism, donate a portion of your income to organizations led principally by people of color.

Giving back matters. Although it is important to speak out about racism and to do other types of antiracism work (organizing, legal work, teaching, etc.) and necessary for people to be paid for the hard work they do, whites who do so still have to admit that we are able to reap at least some of the financial rewards we receive because of racism and white privilege. Because so much of our own understanding of race and racism comes from the collective wisdom of people of color, it is only proper that we should give back to those who have made our own “success” possible. Although there is no way to ascertain the real value of the shared and collective wisdom of people of color on the understanding that white allies have about racism, it seems fair to suggest that at least 10 percent of our honorariums, royalties, salaries, or other forms of income should be shared with people-of- color-led organizations with a commitment to racial and social justice. It would be especially helpful if at least some of that money goes to locally-based, grassroots organizations that oftenhave a hard time getting funding from traditional sources.

Read more here.

Scandal Roundtables on Racialicious

For the past few months, I've been contributing to Racialicious' Scandal Roundtable with other writers, thinkers and activists. Check out some of the conversations:

A Scandal Roundtable Discussion on "Olivia Pope and the Scandal of Representation"

Scandal: "Snake in the Grass"

Scandal: "Top of the Hour"

Scandal: "Truth or Consequences"

There are others and more to come! :)

Quotes of the Day by Rainer Maria Rilke

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror Just keep going. No feeling is final.

You, sent out beyond your recall go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.

Telling the New York Times to Drop the I-Word

Here's me photo-bombing Jose Antonio Vargas' shot:

Reflections from the Big Apple

When I moved to New York City in July 2012, I did so with a romanticized idea of what it would be like for me as a gay man. I thought I would be like Marlo Thomas and friends, "free to be you and me," and I know many others who imagine NYC this same way.

In reality, I have received many confused stares and even verbal assaults all for being (relatively) gender non-conforming. One man threatened to rape me after I accidentally bumped into him walking down the street in the Village. Yes, the village. Another man threatened to kill me in Midtown after seeing me carry my bag in the inner part of my elbow (apparently too feminine for him). So let's debunk some myths and ask some questions here:

1) New York City is not some magical city whereby oppression miraculously disappeared. It's actually a very oppressive city as evidenced by our homeless population and the many, many people living in the struggle everyday. New York is magical. New York is progressive in many ways. However, it is very archaic in others.

2) If I can be verbally assaulted walking down the streets of New York for having longer hair, carrying a bag or walking down the streets with my hips, what would happen in rural parts of this country? Would I be free to be a sissy there?

3) What would have happened in those situations if I wasn't 6'3? If I didn't have a 50 lb bag on me? If I didn't scream, shout and holler back at the perpetrator? If I had been wearing make-up, a dress, heels or anything else I chose?

4) My bag is not a "man bag." It's a bag. Bags aren't restricted to women only. My bag is no more a "man bag" than my hair is "man hair" or my glasses "man glasses." Please stop gendering inanimate objects.

5) Men do not have to be masculine. Women do not have to be feminine. Men can be feminine. Women can be masculine. Personally, I think we should all find our happy medium.

6) It's really great that to see people support marriage equality, but what are you doing to challenge existing gender-based oppression and violence? I can marry a man in NYC but I can't walk down the streets without worrying someone might try to harm me because of how I express myself? That's messed up.

Until we live in a world where people are able to express themselves without fear of violence to their person, our work is not done. If you have a problem with people expressing their gender however they see fit, please visit www.mindyourownbusiness.com

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Friend of Essex", Acquaintances Too

Upon finding the trailer for "Friend of Essex" stream across my Facebook newsfeed, I decided to touch base with my colleague, Anthony Carter. He shared his reflections on the time he met Essex Hemphill with me. See Anthony's piece after the jump. “What is most clear for black gay men is this: We have to do for ourselves now, and for each other now, what no one has done for us. We have to be there for one another and trust less the adhesions of kisses and semen to bind us.” - Essex Hemphill

When I came out, it was black men and being with them emotionally and physically that gave me such hope and excitement regarding my future.

I was 20 and full of longing and the belief that a great deal of the torture and "not enoughness" that came from the mouths of men who looked like me (with my grandfather being the only exception) would all be a thing of the past now that I could be honest and claim my desires.

I became heartbroken repeatedly when I met young black, gorgeous men who flat out refused to challenge their thinking and truly examine their allegiance to a patriarchal, imperialist culture that provided a few rewards but offered no love in return.

While love is powerful, it has its limits.

As black men who are targeted in a particular set of ways, our healing needs to be addressed in a particular set of ways.

After surviving the initial five years of dating black men, I began reading Essex Hemphill. When I stumbled onto his most prolific statement : the most radical/ revolutionary things black men can do is love each other, I was hooked.

The first time I heard this brilliant solution to so much of what menaces us, I was thrilled and frightened. This concept seemed so simple and so foreign. Didn't sleeping with black men mean that you loved them ? After reading a conversation between bell hooks and Essex Hemphill, I realized that sexual partnering and true love where not identical.

Essex helped me define what I wanted to be and transformed my thinking regarding what it meant to be black, gay and male. Essex showed me via his writing that to be handed the gift and power that comes with being black, gay and male was indeed an honor and nothing to be ashamed or apologetic about for any reason at any time.

To combine these most delicate and profound entities would require a warrior like spirit and the guts to walk tall in a world that often sees us as either dangerous or sexual and nothing more. Months after discovering him via my voracious appetite for reading,I was able to meet and talk with him in person.

Essex Hemphill didn't choose an identity. He created one.

This was extremely important for my younger self who was being schooled in very White Supremacist Self Hating ways. Creating an identity was very important for a young black queer who wanted to dream, create, evolve.

Essex Hemphill said you can do all of this and more.

Using his life as an example he illustrated to us younguns that we could dare to be fabulous, outspoken, clear, unashamed and committed to evolution by loving ourselves and those that look like us fully and healthfully.

My desire for a certain type of man was solidified when I met and critically engaged with the great Essex Hemphill some twenty years ago.

My love for black men was solidified.

Essex Hemphill was the ideal black man :brave, brilliant, self reflective, gentle and committed to constant and unapologetic growth.

--Anthony Carter, author of "Unfettered Mind: The Importance of Black Male Mental Health"

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On Reading Me

"i am not a book to be read at the whim of others. even my tattered pages- which sometimes fly from the binding involuntarily - deserve respect. if my words are found open, then please return them unread. it will mean so much more when i speak them to you. i promise." -Oakland based poet, Crunch

I Shall Not Be Removed - The Life of Marlon Riggs

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On Loving Black Men: Unleashing the Curse

I was seventeen years old when I first considered what dating outside my race might mean. It was a year before the Italian man I’d been seeing promulgated it disgusting that I’d found a Black man walking down Michigan Avenue attractive. It was a year after my fifteen-year-old self told my high school friend I couldn’t believe she was hung up over a Black guy one weeknight. It took the most popular girl in school’s interracial relationship with her Mexican boyfriend to begin moving me from the ignorant and racist mental space I’d been occupying. Fast forward a decade later where I'm struck at how many non-Black men I’ve been interested in have told my peers they don’t approach me because they’ve assumed I am only into Black men based on previous dating patterns. It’s ironic how we find ourselves interacting with and challenging beliefs and assumptions we may have once held.

In reflecting on my relationships with Black men, I have had to replay things other people have told me about dating Black men. I remember the phone call, shortly after coming out to my grandmother, when she realized my boyfriend, Jude, was Black. After her all-too-common sigh, she asked, ‘Isn’t it hard enough for you?’ Her question wondered why someone chose an interracial relationship knowing they were already marginalized. This proved to be a testimony to how some people choose partners—to gain clout in society or fit in as opposed to fostering sincere and reciprocal relationships. It also speaks to why some people choose intra-racial relationships. They may be easier for some. In reflection I was reminded of the Black men who told me they weren’t into other Black men. It was just a preference. Once upon a time this was flattering, back before I had a racial consciousness and understood that this was part of the anti-Black racism that America feeds off of. Back before I knew I was a token to these men. Back before I had an understanding of how white supremacy constructs standards of beauty and that my white skin upholds these beauty standards and a host of other privileges based on how I am perceived in society.

Unfortunately, other people’s comments weren’t the only things I had to recover from. I had to enter recovery from the racist ideas I began internalizing from childhood on. Society feeds us messages, through media, family, education and every other facet of our daily lives. Many of these messages assume white superiority. Messages I digested taught me things about what it meant to be Black in America, negative things, of course. These messages also taught me that society favors intra-racial relationships because they represent what we supposedly know, people who may look, think and act like us. Simply put, intra-racial relationships are conveyed as more valid and morally righteous than interracial ones.

These distinctions surface in the language we use to discuss interracial relationships. “Dipping in chocolate,” “getting your swirl on,” “dinge queen” and “jungle bunny” are only a few that come to mind. There isn’t one interracial dating metaphor that humanizes the relationship existing between the people involved and intra-racial relationships don’t need metaphors because they’re seen as natural. Many of these word choices only serve to hypersexualize the connection or make it consumable, which undermines the powerful and transformative journey these people can potentially engage in. I say potential because I recognize that many of these relationships can be unhealthy and dare I say, racist. The recovery from racism requires reflection, counseling and is a lifelong process. Even still, love is never an act that is given much focus when it comes to interracial relationships.

At seventeen, I began a journey that taught me about love and forever altered my life’s course.

Loving Black Men

A Beautiful Liar

Cory was an introverted extrovert. Raised in Ohio, his outgoing, mid-western demeanor complimented his social personality. In private, though, he allowed me access to an intimate side he didn’t share widely. Cory was in his mid twenties when we met. I wasn’t sure what to make of his sexuality. In spite of his very casual flirting, I’d overheard co-workers discussing his girlfriends.

We explored a friendship that cultivated an opportunity for us to talk about our family and experiences growing up. In spite of the differences I had been taught to keenly focus on, we found we had a lot in common. One night, as we stood in the hallway of his apartment complex, I remember being consumed with questions. What was I doing? What would my family say? What would people think if we were walking down the street together holding hands? All centered on what other people had to say. A passionate kiss transformed our friendship into something more, something new.

At no time did I utter the words, “I’ve never dated a Black guy,” but it was certainly the case. The time we spent together was filled with curiosity. Our relationship was the first opportunity that afforded me the space to examine messages I had digested from society about Black folks, Black culture and, more specifically, interracial relationships. Here, I began learning about the negative and coded (read: racist) messages I’d been taught about Black folks and the ethnocentric, white entitlement that I had been indoctrinated into were up for debate. Ideas that because we looked different we had to be different, and we were different, but not in the ways I had been taught.

After I went away to college, our relationship changed and we decided to just be friends. Despite years of building what I thought was a strong relationship, a series of deep-rooted lies eventually ended our friendship. However, I would be lying if I said the role Cory played in helping shape the man I am today was insignificant. In college, I started taking courses in African and Black Diaspora Studies where I had to learn to challenge the notion that Black history wasn’t also part of the history all people should know. Using my initial curiosity and questions that began with me and Cory’s relationship, I began diving deeper into what it meant to be Black not just in America but in a global context. To the surprise of many, including myself, I learned a lot about what it means to be white.

I learned about Irish and Italian immigrants, my ancestors, coming to the United States and how they were cast into a social class with Black folks. In order to transition towards whiteness, they started, or continued, practicing anti-Black racism. As Scot Nakagawa argues, “Anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.” Anti-Black racism is what prevents marginalized communities from standing in solidarity with Black folks instead of distancing themselves. It is precisely how the system is designed to function and maintained. Within my conversations with Cory, I realized there was an existing historical and cultural relationship between Italian, Irish and Black folks. In this learning process, paired with honest, transparent dialogue, I found an intimate connection with a Black man that felt genuine and sincere even in spite of its baggage. We didn’t consume our relationship with what others told us our relationship was. We defined it. In many ways, Cory marked the beginning of my journey.

Crash

The first time I saw Jude, my friends caught me tripping up the stairs of a Wicker Park clothing store. It wasn’t only his physical beauty that captivated me. Jude’s spirit was lively and jovial as he rushed around the store helping customers. His strong, teethy smile remains one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Despite being in his mid-thirties, his youthful presence and eclectic style seized my attention for longer than most men could. Yet, outsiders quickly attempted to infiltrate our relationship with their opinions. My closest friend at the time, Hyder, attempted to control the dynamics of our relationship from the beginning. Eventually Hyder and I had a yearlong falling out over my relationship with Jude. Hyder argued that we spent too much time together. Despite his also being a Black man, he told me I shouldn’t date Black men because they would run up my credit. He didn’t approve of Jude’s career since Jude wasn’t as financially established as he was. Hyder apparently wasn’t the only one who disapproved.

One night I bumped into an Irish guy I’d had a crush on for a very long time. I remembered him pulling me away from Jude and aggressively asking me why I was dating a man who worked retail. His comments ignored any structural inequalities that designate service jobs to many Black men as well as Jude’s life experiences. We never spoke again after that night. When I saw him working at Banana Republic a few years later, I grinned to myself in bittersweet satisfaction. I feel confident it was comments like these that bred the insecurities Jude suffered from. I remember countless conversations about how people’s comments impacted the way he felt about his career. I didn’t have a problem with where Jude worked so much as he loved what he did. He had wanted to go to nursing school but never had the opportunity. I tried to be encouraging by reminding him it wasn’t too late. Years after we had broken up, Jude called me to tell me he was in nursing school. I’m still so proud of him for having the courage to pursue his dreams.

Jude was instrumental in teaching me important life lessons; particularly how there is more than one way to do something. He reminded me to smile as he brought much joy to our relationship and me but, looking back, I was far too young to be in a serious relationship with him. Jude was my growing up. While he allowed me the space to make mistakes, we fought frequently about the pettiest things. We broke up once or twice only to get back together and eventually started fighting again. Until one morning, it all came crashing down.

The night before we’d walked around Chicago making snow angels and laughing. When we awoke, snuggling quickly turned into fighting about something that certainly wasn’t worth what it ended up costing. After a verbal disagreement, Jude tried to close our line of communication and was ready to leave the apartment. He was headed to console a friend who’d just lost their child. As I stood in front of the door demanding we discuss it then and there, I became blinded from anything else happening besides wanting to get my way. He grabbed me from the doorway and told me to move. After going back and forth, I asked him to stop grabbing me since he was clearly stronger than I was. Screaming at the top of our lungs, I’d eventually threaten to hit him if he didn’t take his hands off me. In the heat of the moment, it happened. I backhanded him across the face and he flew across the bathroom into the tub. The look on his face, the look of pure shock that mirrored what my face felt like, remains imprinted in my memory.

After begging and pleading for us to work it out, Jude told me he needed time to think things through. In disbelief that I’d allowed my rage to get the best of me, I cried for over a week before he finally called. We met at the Art Institute of Chicago during lunch. Upon telling me how much I meant to him and that he wanted to make things work between us, Jude broke up with me. This behavior wasn’t something he could forget. I took pictures of my bruises to try convincing him I’d been hurt too. Really I was trying to convince myself I hadn’t been an abusive partner. I left more than a few tears in a museum that day. I left a piece of my heart I thought I’d never get back.

For months I walked around the city like a zombie. I barely talked to anyone. Instead, I spent each day replaying what felt like every moment we’d ever had. I tried to understand things from his perspective. The morning of our fight he’d threatened to call the police but didn’t. To this day, I still wonder what stopped him. Was it because he could foresee something I was too young or too blind to pick up on? Would they have made me the victim because I was white? Possibly. Would the police have chalked this up to men being men as they do with other queer men? Probably. I can only imagine what went through his head after our fight. I needed to reflect on how my behavior participates in the physical assault Black men experience(d) at the hands of white men.

All it took was the blink of an eye, the execution of a swing, and I lost the only thing that mattered to me then: the first man I attempted to love, with few of love’s tools.

Love Drunk

If there was a beautiful disaster I ever met, Bernard was it. It was Fourth of July weekend, which also happened to be Black Gay Pride in Chicago. He was dorky but with an edge to him. Whether I was na├»ve or he was a smooth-talker, I wasn’t sure but he caught my eye.

After chatting, sharing a few drinks and eventually realizing he’d been there with someone the entire evening, I felt horrible since I hadn’t been trying to flirt with someone else’s guy. His “date” assured me it wasn’t anything serious since he was moving out-of-state soon so I continued flirting with Bernard until we found ourselves at a small Mexican restaurant. As we waited for our food to come up, he drunkenly gazed into my eyes and bowed as he said, “You’re too beautiful for me.” There should have been enough red flags from our first night together to prevent this unhealthy relationship from going any further but I ignored them.

During a summer festival, Bernard invited me over to a friend’s place for a party. Despite his social demeanor that had him circulating the room, Bernard decided to break-up with me after I briefly left the party for a few minutes with one of his friend’s to check out the festival. It made sense his favorite musical artist was Janet Jackson because with him, it was all about control and he had lots of it.

After weeks of back and forth, he invited me to a press release for Entertainment Weekly where his friend was hosting. In the cab, Bernard grabbed my hand and apologized for the emotional tug of war he’d engaged over the past few weeks. He claimed he was grateful for my patience. I believed him. We walked into the event holding hands and were affectionate for most of the evening. One glass of champagne led to another until I found the palm of Bernard’s hands rested upon the hip of another. Attempting to be gracious, I casually moved alongside Bernard to introduce myself and his hand fell from the man’s hip. However, once I walked away, I found it wasn’t the last of this behavior and I wasn’t the only one to notice. A group of white women looked over as Bernard continued to flirt and get touchy-feely. I remembered the first night I met him. This is how his date must have felt as I was childishly soaking up Bernard’s attention. The women looked at me as my feelings became apparent and said, “You’re so strong. I would have been over there already making a scene.” Strong? No, I was young and stupid, caring too much about what other people would think if I made a scene. Fortunately, I stopped caring much about scenes once the cab showed up. I gave him a piece of my mind all the way home, where he then broke up with me again; this time for being too assertive about my feelings.

Months of emotional abuse, conversations about my concerns that Bernard might have a drinking problem and several desperate attempts to reconcile our relationship, left me emotionally exhausted. I’d tried to prove to Bernard, and myself, that I was capable of loving a man so clearly broken, but I couldn’t. His constant drinking led to constant flirting and I was fed up. I think I let it go on as long as it did because I felt I had to pay for the mistakes I’d made with Jude. So I met Hyder for lunch to let him know I wanted to break-up with Bernard but needed guidance. I was finally ready.

I called Bernard and we began fighting about something unrelated, per usual. When I finally had a chance to let him know things weren’t working for me, the conversations whirl-winded onto several tangents. Bernard knew I was breaking up with him so he tried deflecting, as was par for the course with him. After he realized I wasn’t budging, he dug deep to find a place where he could re-claim power. He brought up an incident where I had supposedly intimidated him. However, as he retold the story, this time he argued my being bigger than him was unattractive as I wasn’t only bigger in one region of my body but everywhere. I had to pause and collect my thoughts before I scowled back, “Are you calling me fat?” He responded, “Yes.”

After the intimate conversations I’d had with Bernard about my relationship to my body, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I hung up the phone and it was the last time we ever spoke.

The Way We Were

I met Dwayne on one of my first trips to New York City. His swag was laidback and masculine yet innocent and sweet. We met as I struggled to compartmentalize my emotions from my break-up with Jude, right before I started dating Bernard. I was a mess and Dwayne bore the burden of my detached attitude. I was certain we couldn’t make something long distance work. After all, I’d tried it with Jude when he moved back to Little Rock once his mom was diagnosed with cancer. It was challenging. Yet Dwayne was adamant about our dating; still I wasn’t ready. I would have years of healing to do.

Hours on the phone together led us to reveal secrets about our aspirations for our lives. I remember every answer aligning and feeling an infatuation for this man I had so much to learn about. I’d make several trips to Manhattan and he’d made a trip or two to Chicago but the majority of our relationship was spent on the phone and Skype.

His sweet side was often mistaken for weakness and in a disagreement, I told him I wished he would get a backbone so people wouldn’t walk all over him. One of the many times my aggressive personality failed to account for how I was making people feel. During a visit, we had a very intimate chat in Central Park where his “I-don’t-cry” persona shattered and I pressed his head to my should as he cried, “You really hurt my feelings when you said that.” My heart sunk seeing how I’d hurt another person I loved.

For so long, he was the man who knew my secrets and idiosyncrasies yet loved me in spite of them. Outside of my best friend, he was the only other man to share that he loved my ability to embrace my feminine side. Dwayne got to a place where he was predicting my next move; he knew what I was thinking even when I wasn’t speaking. He was the first man to love me for me.

But hurt people hurt people and that’s what I did to Dwayne in hiding from him for so long, in not accepting his love. Eventually, I grew into the person who was ready to embrace his love but Dwayne had done some growing of his own. He wanted to be friends only I couldn’t pretend to be friends with a man I’d grown to love so deeply. We were headed in different directions. No longer could we pretend to be in each other’s life the way we were, when late night conversations turned into early morning wake-up calls.

He taught me to aspire for a higher, richer love, the kind people deserve.

That’s What Friends Are For

In college, I remember making eye contact with a tall, dark-skinned nerd every so often. There was something about him that wouldn’t allow me to turn away.

A year later, Hyder wanted to introduce me to someone he was dating, this man, William. It was then that I knew nothing romantic would ever happen between William and I. So I did what I do whenever I like someone but want to keep distance, I gave attitude. At several house parties, I harassed William to make sure he never got too close to my inner circle of friends.

As Hyder and I would go out places, he occasionally brought William with. We eventually warmed up to one another despite our fiery personalities. In the many debates the three of us would get into, I found William and I had a number of political views in common, more so than Hyder and I. Those we didn’t have in common intrigued me. So when he and Hyder broke up, I reminded him that it was okay if we remain friends. It took some additional badgering but we eventually wound up hanging out one-on-one.

William and I talked politics, dating, careers and had no problem making memories (or fools of ourselves) in the party scene. Our friendship became a unit, wherever you found one of us on a Friday night you would probably find the other. This confused some folks.

Our friendship began to impact our dating lives, as people we dated as well as strangers assumed William and I were sleeping together. Some men were able to curtail their assumptions, others couldn’t. There was one night where I remember William getting bothered and blurting out, “Just because we’re gay doesn’t mean we have to have sex with one another.” My subtle response was that it was deeper; that we’re doubly hypersexualized in being Black and white.

Like Dwayne, William was my confidante. I’d share with him my happiest moments and my darkest secrets. Neither one of us had very many friends though he had become my best friend. So close was he that when I prepared to make my first move across the country to New York, I began to have anxiety about leaving him. Not my grandma. Not my brother. William. Amidst all the chaos and transition, William was my constant. He was my rock. Despite his all-to-common lack of emotion, the card he wrote me as I made my departure to New York let me know that he was proud of me and he wasn’t going anywhere.

My friendship with William taught me how to build intimacy with friends, not just lovers. Despite the many experiences I’ve had where trust has been sabotaged or broken, William taught me what it meant to feel safe again. He taught me what friends are for.

Untying Tongues, Releasing the Curse

In his 1989 documentary, Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs proclaimed, “Black men loving Black men [as] the revolutionary act.” Riggs is considered one of the quintessential filmmakers of our time and a pioneer of documenting Black gay life and love with his honest and provocative approach to storytelling. Black men loving Black men is certainly a radical concept in a nation that would rather see young Black men murder instead of love one another, in a nation where continual attempts are made to contaminate the beauty of Blackness. To me, Riggs’ provocative statement calls for self-love as well as a doting brotherhood across the spectrum of Black male sexuality.

His quote has resonated with me since I was first introduced to Riggs by a Black lesbian professor in her African-American LGBTQ course in 2007, almost twenty years after Riggs’ public announcement. In acknowledging the impact his quote had on me, it has taken years to realize how I, a white gay man, could make meaning out of such a pointed and potent declaration. I needed to try to understand what it meant to love Black men the only way I know how to, as a white gay man.

Riggs loved Blackness. His proclamation is not only about sexual desire as he fought for a healing space where Black men could love one another—a space where the day’s order is homophilic, focused on love instead of just sex. Feminist scholar, bell hooks, reminds us, “This nation can only heal from the wounds of racism if we all begin to love blackness. And by that I don’t mean that we love only that which is best within us, but that we’re also able to love that which is faltering, which is wounded, which is contradictory, incomplete.” While hooks and Riggs are united in their attempts to uproot internalized racism in Black communities, hooks’ quote has implications for people white like me. In asking what it means to love Blackness, as a white gay men, I am eventually led to questions about how to love Black men and celebrate Black gay love. As I grapple to understand the complexity and courage of Black men loving Black men, I have to ask what it means for white men to love Black men.

Where has the space been created to explore the questions and contradictions that arise? Where have we created opportunities to explore what role we play in each other’s lives outside of sex? Where are we properly addressing our maintenance and benefits from a racist system to position our relationship with people of color properly? I believe the creation of these spaces is paramount to the process of healing from white supremacy.

In one scene of Tongues Untied, the audio segues to Roberta Flack’s, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” as the visual shifts to a school yearbook photo of a young white man. The image zooms in while Riggs narrates the role this young man played in his life. In school, this man became his friend, and although they were not lovers, Riggs claims it was a blessing to feel such passion but a curse that a white boy was the source. This curse is ripe with the legacy of racism; a curse that never allows this Black and white boy to connect without shame.

Some white men try to counter this curse that attempts to stop Black and white men from connection by claiming love is intangible; that there isn’t a rhyme or reason to whom I choose to love. I love whom I love and it’s as simple as that is their logic. Only it’s not logic. Choice is always predicated by a decision, even when we’re unsure of how that decision came to be. Love is political. Therefore, a white man loving a Black man is not simply about love but also about power, especially in an anti-Black environment.

Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice, once said dating is always about negotiating power. We constantly gravitate towards or choose to submit to power. Whom we love, then, is not simply a choice. In my attempts to love Black men, power negotiations were always part of these relationships. There was power when I only wanted things to go my way without accounting for what the other men wanted. Power was reinforced when I asserted my hand onto my lover’s body. Power was omnipresent and wasn’t inherently a bad thing. However, it becomes a dangerous tool when it isn’t acknowledged and left unchallenged.

With each of these Black men, I needed to learn how to release control and love them. Sometimes I was unsuccessful yet these relationships still left imprints on my soul. Some were as hypersexualized as outsiders hoped them to be. There is another euphemism people like to throw around to fuel the hyper-sexualization of Black men and women. They’ll say, “Once you go Black, you never go back,” or they’ll shorten it leaving it allusive as to what happens once you, “go Black.” However, what I’ve found is that even when a white man finds himself in community with Black folks, there is no “going back.” This was illustrated for me when the white men I’ve dated began coming up to me asking why I hung around so many Black folks. Apparently more than one Black friend is a lot for white gay men. I was a marked man. This marking mirrors the stamp Marlon Riggs calls out when he mentions the white boy who stood by him on the playground as he was being bullied. I’m still curious to hear how the white boy made sense of this curse, if at all.

When I found myself dating Black men, it wasn’t my Black brothers who questioned, ridiculed or shamed me for my choices. It was overwhelmingly my white and Latino brothers. I became isolated from a communal sense of belonging with those men. Even in fictive kinship, there is a sense of support that accompanies love. So when I started being introduced by white and Latino men as, “John (he likes chocolate)” to strangers, I felt vulnerable to attack and started to see how pervasive anti-Black racism is. It was Black gay men who supported me emotionally as “friends” marked me for choices that didn’t involve them. Only within the last year was I able to realize how trauma had severed my relationships with white men and was preventing me from building the relationships I knew I needed to be cultivating with them. If I love Black men the way I’m claiming to, I should be challenging privilege and racism in white gay communities by maintaining relationships with white gay men, not remaining comfortable in my relationships with Black men.

As William and I began holding workshops on gay men’s dating “preferences,” particularly as it relates to white privilege. We had frank conversations about how race informs the way we understand ourselves as gay men. As a Black gay man, he shared how white gay men approach him and how it makes him feel. This offered me an opportunity to confront my own dating practices and how racism has shaped my own thinking and interactions. Eventually, we laughed at the ways people we barely know try to tell us who we are because we have dated outside of our race. Though neither of our dating histories are exclusively linked to one particular race, people felt our patterns were obvious indicators that his dating white men was anti-Black as my dating Black men was anti-white. Only things are more complicated than that. I had to constantly remind others, and myself, that being pro-Black does not make you anti-white.

Some people have accused me of wanting to be Black once they find me in community with Black folks, which is certainly not the case. Not because there is anything wrong with being Black, but because it denies who I am and my experiences in the world. I don’t want to be a Black man who loves Black men, not because it isn’t beautiful, but because it doesn’t allow me to be a white man who loves Black men. It doesn’t allow me to carry my culture with me. In the same way I embrace love in my life, I am also able to embrace the contradictions of being white and loving Black men. However, I learned that part of accountability requires my love to extend beyond these men. My love has to be extended to the Black and multi-racial families and communities these men came from; communities that helped to build up these beautiful men.

I will hold myself accountable to the historical contradictions of being a white gay man in America. I will push for the relationships of Black women and men loving other Black men and women to be given more visibility in the mainstream gay community than only the couples where at least one person is white. Regardless of what ethnic background the men I date in the future are, I will encourage them to eradicate the anti-Black racism that exists in their minds as I encourage myself to remain conscious of it. I will question my white gay brothers who claim not to be attracted to Black men (but ‘have Black friends’) as I also challenge others trying to equate Black men not being attracted to white men as reverse racism. In the spirit of Marlon Riggs, Black men choosing to partner with other Black men can be an act of resistance. Most importantly, I will pay attention to my own actions first and foremost. These are my own attempts to support an environment where Blackness, Black women and men, can be celebrated and loved beyond my feeble offering.

A Black man whom I love yet never met as he died on my first birthday, James Baldwin, said, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” He went on to further discuss love by saying, “[It] does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.” I began wondering what masks Bayard Rustin and Walter Naegle or Marlon Riggs and Jack Vincent helped each other take off. I wondered how James Baldwin and Lucien Happersberger helped one another grow up. There are the white and Black couples that dared to love one another; Black gay historical leaders and their white partners.

It was only a few months ago I found out that my grandfather had a brother, a white gay brother, a white gay brother who died of AIDS. Shortly after, I found out that my great uncle, Anthony Finelli’s partner was a Black man without a name. Certainly he has a name but that piece of history is now long lost for me as they and the many people who knew them have passed. One of the masks all of these men have taught me to no longer live inside is the mask of silence. For Riggs, silence was suicide. However, silence is more. Silence is murder when you choose to leave the lives and names of men who lived openly and proudly, invisible. Silence is homicidal when Black and white men who dare to try loving one another are reduced to single stories, fetishes, sex and shame.

I can untie my tongue. I can help unleash our curse.

To the Black men who I have attempted to love, thank you for helping me take off my masks, teaching me to be vocal and grow into the white gay man I have become. Thank you for being a gladiator and enduring our own war zones. You inspire me to be better every day. For me, Black and white men’s loving one another is a deeply personal and revolutionary act.

Johnathan Fields is a twenty-something, queer Italian-American writer living in New York City. Born and raised in Chicago, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and African & Black Diaspora Studies from DePaul University. Johnathan has explored race, dating, and love in his writings, "Chasing Chocolate: A White Man's Tale of the Interracial Sexual Politics of Gay Men" and "Back to Black: Revisiting An Interracial Sexual Politic" as well as in his presentation, "It's Just A Preference: Gay Men and White Privilege." He has written for the Windy City Times, Huffington Post and the Intersection of Madness and Reality. Follow him at @JohnnyGolightly.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Gramma: An Italian-American Word for Love

Seventy three years ago today, the greatest gift I have ever received was born--my 'gramma.'

Born to Italian immigrant parents, my 'gramma' grew up the oldest of four girls. At fifteen, she dropped out of high school to become a 'working woman' of the 1950's. While she didn't complete high school, I could always tell her days working at Alden's in Cicero, Illinois were some of the fondest memories she carries with her. I love the way she tells stories, often forgetting them as she is half-way finished.

She went on to raise four children of her own, my mother being one of them. Despite enduring years of an unsupportive home life, my grandfather's once-upon-a-time alcohol addiction and her battle with breast cancer, my 'gramma' has had a sense of humor for as long as I can remember. You see, in my family, you laugh to keep it from hurting so much. Even if you can't talk about it, you can laugh about it. This isn't always the healthiest of coping mechanisms yet it remains.

I'll never forget heading upstairs to visit her as a little boy, where I would sing along to Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' or the Christmas-time classic, 'Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.' My grandparents lived on the top floor of a four-flat building my great-grandpa owned. This particular unit had been passed around my family until my grandparents eventually landed there. How will I ever forget taking naps on her bed (it was always more comfortable than mine) or the way she always seemed to know how to make toast just right. Her laughter still hits a soft spot. She would draw me pictures of my grandpa lying on the couch, making sarcastic comments then calling him 'lazy.' She gave me spelling lessons, albeit inaccurate ones, like when she told me that grandma was spelled, 'gramma.' As I got older and addressed the misspelling, she simply shrugged, "Oh well!" calling me 'college boy.' The truth is, I never would have made it through college if it weren't for my grandmother's support. I know she made sacrifices for me to be there even though I've never asked what they were. The entire first year of college I had nightmares that occasionally woke up my roommates. I worried about her.

When I was 12 years old, I got caught stealing adult magazines from a local store. I can still remember the shame I felt in disappointing my 'gramma.' The look on her face as she asked, "Why would you do that? If you needed money I would have given it to you..." I asked her not to tell anyone since I was so embarrassed. She kept her word to this day, a few threats notwithstanding. As a grown man, I'm able to laugh at how childish the entire scenario was and shrug it off. However, the weight of my 'gramma's' promise still bears much significance. She was the first of few whom I knew I could trust.

It has long since been the tradition in my family that the strongest connection always lies with your 'gramma.' This was true for the former generation and it certainly holds true for me. While I won't ever fully understand everything my 'gramma' faced, or why she resiliently dealt with some things as long as she did, I know that she is a source of immeasurable power. She quit smoking cold turkey when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and she's never turned back. She is the glue to a family that is no stranger to feuds. She has a way of always making it feel alright, even when it's not.

She was the first person that taught me what it meant to do the right thing. She instilled the value that when you know you need to do something, you do it. She taught me it was a 'sin' to waste food. I can hear her voice in my head every time I see someone about to throw away leftovers. Sometimes I can even see her puckering her lips, shaking her head, whispering, "It's a sin!" Even though she's a bit of a packrat (understatement of the year), she fostered a value that taught me to never take more than I would use. If someone was letting something go to waste and I could use it, I should. She was my first lesson in recycling.

When it comes to our family, she has held an unwavering commitment to helping raise her children and grandchildren (particularly my brother and I), long after she should have retired so she could begin living her life for herself. She adopts the struggle(s) of everyone in the family when she sees them faced with an obstacle, even though she doesn't have to. She never complains about the things she feels are her duty. In actuality, she doesn't really engage emotional meanderings outside of admitting when she is wrong. While I have never heard my 'gramma' say the words, "I love you," she called me today (her birthday) to say, "I'm sorry," for jokingly calling me an 'idiot' the other day. That's just the kind of woman she is.

She's made mistakes in her life, I know she has because she's human. But in the eyes of one grandson, no mistake can hold clout given the role she's played in allowing me to experience one of the most significant relationships I will ever have in my life. Not only has she taught me what it means to be empathetic, she has taught me what it means to sacrifice selflessly. Every opportunity I have ever been afforded has one way or another been shaped and supported by her. No matter how hard I practice selflessness, I will forever fail in comparison to her.

If I ever told my 'gramma' that she led me to down a pathway to social justice, she'd probably ask what that even means. She didn't only help me understand what it meant to be part of a collective or that resources need to be distributed equitably, she showed me what beauty is. When I felt like there were obstacles I couldn't overcome, she helped me see possibility. She showed me what it meant to know someone was standing in my corner, even when she didn't have the words to say she was.

Today, I celebrate the life of Lillian Phyllis Severino Fields. Happy birthday! You are the greatest gift I will ever receive. Everything I have ever been, am or will be is because of and for you. I love you gramma.

...and even though you can't say it yet, I know you love me too.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The First Man Who Loved Me

I'll never forget the first day I met him. I was a junior in college, he was a freshman.

After a year of volunteering on Lambda Legal's "Freedom to Marry" campaign, they requested my help in recruiting the next year's volunteers. Catina was Lambda's community outreach coordinator, an all-around bad-ass Black queer woman, and guided me through the brief spiel. As I entered the Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course, I gazed around the classroom until I eyes crossed paths. We exchanged a brief but sincere smile. After our talk, he came up to Catina and I to express interest. He talked passionately about his catering experience as his eyes gravitated in my direction. I could tell how nervous he was, how unsure. With a little intuition, there's a lot you can tell about a person's body language if you're paying close attention.

The event went smoothly, in no small part to his contributions with coordinating the operations of our catering stations and managing volunteers. Afterwards, Catina invited the two of us to a thank-you dinner where we were able to connect more intimately. The three of us shared margaritas and stories about what it meant to be queer. He talked about what it meant to be young, gay and bi-racial (without ever explicitly mentioning race). He shared a very personal story about white men's relationship to his body. I could feel my body temperature rising and without rhyme or reason, I blurted out, "Don't ever let anybody treat you like that again. And if they do, you let me know." He attempted to excuse their behavior and I looked him, without apology, and emphatically repeated, "Ever."

This scene really captures the essence of my relationship with him. It taught me about about my desires to control. He was a 19 year old boy trying to find himself and because I didn't want to see him get hurt, I attempted to put up a shield. A bitter shield. One that didn't want to give him the chance to make mistakes and learn from them.

When I first met him, I knew he was going to be important in my life. Throughout the entire time I've known him, he's felt like a younger brother to me. And just like my relationship to my biological brother, it wasn't always loving. There's this cultural myth that suggests we all possess the skills to love. The reality is that if you haven't been taught what love is or how to give and receive it, you won't recognize it and you certainly won't give it. Some call it love but I call it healthy love. I'm qualifying love because a lot of people (myself included) mystify love by calling abusive relationships 'love.'

In my attempts to love him, I feel like I was abusing him. I wasn't giving him the space to grow into the man he would become. Instead, I was projecting all sorts of hopes and dreams I had for him rather than allowing his hopes and dreams for himself to come into fruition. I should have been supporting him by learning when to shut up and let him go through it. In return for my foolishness, he offered me an unconditional love so rarely witnessed. Despite all of the reckless stories I've shared with him, he's never once shamed me in all the years I've known him.

He was the one who acted a fool with me after I'd broke down in tears when we discussed our childhoods. He was the one who stood in our kitchen with me with a "What did that bitch just say?" look on our faces after I'd been told I was a fool by some man I'd been dating. He was the one who listened after my last (abusive) relationship. He was the one taught me I had a gender and what it meant to be a feminist. Even though he wasn't always comfortable expressing his vulnerability, he was the one who showed compassion when I was afraid. He was the one who gave me space away from our friendship to heal, learn and grow without condemning me (or serving up a Bette Midler moment from 'Beaches'--"You took your friendship away and you didn't even ask me!"). I wish I could say I was ever that courageous for him.

When I reflect on the men I've experienced love with, I have a tendency to imagine the romantic relationships I've had. I picture the men who I went through some trying things with. Oddly enough, there he was all along. Only recently have I been able to step back and reflect on the queer men whom I've loved that I never had to call "boyfriend." To me, the ultimate test of love is: when someone is at their worst, can you love them through it? He was the first man who loved me, flaws and all, without exception nor abandoning me when I needed room to grow.

I'm proud to call him my best friend.

Thursday, July 19, 2012