In his 1985 essay exploring the meaning of being Black and queer, “Here Be Dragons,” James Baldwin wrote that “the American ideal of sexuality appears to be rooted in the American idea of masculinity.” Good guys and bad guys, tough guys and softies, cowboys and Indians, black and white — all are viewed through a lens of what it means to be male.
Baldwin’s observation explains to me, in part, how the majority of well-funded Pride celebrations can be near the half-century mark and remain, at least on the surface, so white and male. Pride month is purported each June to be a global assertion of the most inclusive celebration of love possible, symbolized by that beacon of hope that says it all, the rainbow flag. But beyond all the flag-waving, parades, and parties, one of the most deserving symbols of inclusivity — Black LGBTQ women — are still largely hidden figures.
Most media continue to cover Pride Month as they always have, focusing on parades, gay men (typically white), rainbows, and rainbow-themed products (like the Facebook stickers and augmented-reality filters that will now be available year-round, because inclusion), and the shocking fact that Trump will not recognize Pride Month for the second year in a row. A scroll through the Twitter moments curated by the company from June 1, for example, gives no indication that women of color were at the forefront of the infamous Stonewall uprising.
But because people of color remain the primary users of most social media, they also share stories traditional media continue to overlook. For instance, somehow these tweets weren’t included in the Twitter moments, but there were some reminders online that two Black women — Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender woman, and Stormé DeLarverie, a butch male impersonator (language she preferred over drag performer), were part of the vanguard of women of color who helped launch the June 28, 1969, uprising sparked by a police raid at the Stonewall Inn.
The omission of Johnson and DeLarverie from stories about Pride history is most ironic this year, as Black queer women are having an incredible moment in popular culture. “It is time we remind the world who we are,” Elektra proclaims in Ryan Murphy’s splendid new FX show, Pose, which explores both the joys and pains experienced by the transgender community in late 1980s New York City through the lens of the oft-imitated but hardly duplicated ball culture. (There are, it must be said, some white male characters in the show, including, unfortunately, a 1980s-era Trump, but they are ancillary characters. Thankfully.)
In entertainment, at least, it feels like there’s been some long overdue celebration of Black women along a refreshingly broad spectrum of sexuality. Lena Waithe, who rose to prominence for writing a beautiful coming-out episode for Master of None, as well as creating and producing the Showtime series The Chi, not only rocked a rainbow-colored iconic cape at the Met Gala, she also graced the cover of Vanity Fair — the first Black lesbian in history to do so. Her cover story was written by the award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson — who lives with her partner, Juliet Widoff, in Brooklyn — in what is a particularly nuanced piece about Black female intimacy that one usually doesn’t find in glossy magazines.
Janelle Monáe, ahead of the release of her brilliant, Prince-inspired Dirty Computer, squashed speculation about her sexuality by declaring herself pansexual. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” Monáe told Rolling Stone.
This August, queer activist Charlene Carruthers will release her book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, just after the five-year anniversary of the founding of Black Lives Matter by three women, including Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, both of whom identify as Black queer leaders. For Carruthers, Pride is “about more than rainbows,” as she told USA Today for its Faces of Pride project.
Yes, it is. Because as welcome as it is to see Black LGBTQ women gain visibility in some areas, it doesn’t mean the rest of their lives — their full humanity — don’t deserve attention, too.
In 2017, the National Coalition on Anti-Violence Programs reported “the highest number of anti-LGBTQ homicides in our twenty-year history of tracking this information,” especially for people of color; 37 killed in 2017, up from 22 in 2016. The combination of media silence around this trend and an administration considered hostile to the queer community seems likely only to make things worse. This week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because it was at odds with his religious faith, suggests that a climate of continued homophobia from the highest echelons of government is likely to be tolerated in the foreseeable future. While decisions such as these may not lead directly to violence, they still send a message that the legal infrastructure meant to protect queer people and relationships is likely, instead, to rule against them.
Still, all hope is not lost. Next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that Johnson and DeLarverie and many others whose names are not yet synonymous with Stonewall history — in traditional media, anyway — sparked. Though Johnson died in 1992, at the age of 46, largely unknown outside of her community for her tireless advocacy and organizing, her community has continued her work. And in 2015, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was established by Elle Hearns, a Black trans co-founder of the Black Lives Matter network. The institute is scheduled to open at the end of this summer.
Back when Baldwin wrote “Here Be Dragons,” it was probably true that most people only thought of how to express one’s sexual and romantic desire in relation to American manhood. I certainly considered myself just a quirky heterosexual Catholic girl from the Bronx when I first encountered this essay in seventh grade. But then I read this part, and it changed the way I thought about how fluid sexuality is, how much possibility I felt that I had to express my love for whomever I wanted:
We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other — male in female, female in male, white in black, and black in white. We are a part of each other. Many of my countrymen appear to find this fact exceedingly inconvenient and even unfair, and so, very often, do I. But none of us can do anything about it.
When I first came out, in 2014, I understood exactly what Baldwin meant about this inconvenience, because I declared myself sexually fluid, along a questioning continuum, instead of according to an acronym, based largely on this necessarily complex definition of sexuality. It feels easier to put yourself in a box, compartmentalized away from the experiences of others. Every June, though, segregated Pride celebrations and histories remind us of how counterproductive this is when we’re still fighting, all these years later, very similar battles. It’s our shared experiences, after all, that makes Pride so valuable — that however we define our people, we find our resilience and belonging through celebrating those who see us and accept us for all of who we are, and we keep rising up.
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