Intersectionality of Queer Black People

Olivia Johnson
BSRC x LGBTQ+ Commons
For my Black History at USD project, I spectated a collaboration event hosted by the Black Student Resource Commons and LGBTQ+ & Allies Commons via zoom. Organizations such as these serve to give minority students at our university a space where they can feel safe and understood. The board of speakers at the event consisted of Black faculty members who work at USD and identify as queer. These speakers were recognized as Joshua Rice, Kristina Garland, Dr. TJ Tallie and Dr. Bryon Howlett. The flier for the event advertised an “intentional dialogue surrounding various intersections of Blackness and LGBTQ+ identities”, giving those who wished to listen a chance to spectate in person or over zoom. Hosted by a faculty member of the LGBTQ+ & Allies Commons, the board answered an array of questions including what challenges they face regarding their intersecting identities, if they feel represented in the media, and if there are spaces on campus where they have to “cherry-pick” which identity comes forward. This BSRC x LGBTQ+ & Allies Commons program emphasized how queer Black people may feel less secure regarding their safety, are inaccurately portrayed in the media and scarcely find spaces that they are authentically accepted in. This indicates that American society perpetually misunderstands the inevitable intersecting identities African Americans hold.
Queer Black people face a greater threat of violence due to animosity towards the intersecting identities they possess. In the collaboration program, Kristina Garland explained that minorities are the ones who have to stick their necks out to fight for equality as “work and creative discourse lands on the shoulders of the marginalized” because our individualistic society teaches people to only care about an issue if it directly affects them. Joshua Rice described that just holding hands with a same sex partner in the street feels risky to do, especially with the ongoing issue of police brutality towards African Americans. He illustrated that openly sharing innocent intimacy with someone you love, such as hand holding, is dangerous for this group of people as their skin color and their sexuality predisposes them to be the subject of violence for those who perpetuate hatred. Dr. Byron Howlett shared that when he grew up in the 1970-1980s, queerness was not even talked about in the Black community. Howlett said that the word “queer” was used in a derogatory connotation during this time and just recently has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community. Not only was it taboo to talk about homosexuality during his childhood, people weaponized words such as ‘queer’ and worse to show hostility towards people with these identities. In Catherine Smith’s, Queer as Black Folk, she shares her coming out experience when telling her father about her sexuality. Smith says, “When I came out to him as a lesbian at age twenty-one, he said he would rather I be a whore than be gay. Being gay, he told me, placed me in the shoes of a black man in America in that, as such, I would be stereotyped and targeted as a sexual threat to white women.” (Queer as Black Folk). Pushing the agenda of Black queer women being dangerous to white women is ironic as these Black women then become the target of “self defense”. Society paints the LGBTQ+ community as a threat to vulnerable populations, thus endangering the LGBTQ+ community and making them the target of violence.
Media creators and society as a whole often fail to recognize and acknowledge the complexity of intersecting identities and create inclusive and affirming spaces for all individuals. The media can create stereotypes of how Black people “should” behave or carry themselves. Catherine Smith points out how, “Many blacks are told they ‘don’t act black’…The failure of the black person to act a certain way interferes with the white person’s socially constructed racial stereotypes,” and goes on to explain that, “Social identification also reinforces discriminatory beliefs and stereotypes because of gender and sexual orientation or identity.” (Queer as Black Folk). The media creates a facade of generalizations based on social identities. Many people base their knowledge of unfamiliar concepts off of what they see in the news, on TV, etc, such as what life is like for Black people. During the program, Dr. TJ Tallie explained that “representation doesn’t always equal liberation or acceptance,” with said representation being conditional and at risk of being revoked at any time. Lightskins can be more popularly shown in the media as their lighter complexion is easier for the white majority to take in, however this doesn’t translate into full Black representation. Kristina Garland said that growing up in San Diego she did not feel represented, and she was often assumed to be different races than Black. Garland encouraged caution for people to not get too comfortable with queer representation in the media as it is watered down for the majority (white people) to be palatable. She explained that the “representation of the majority of the queer community is performative”. The media often lacks the nuances and spectrum of rich culture in the media, and Garland pointed out that there is infinitesimal portrayal of Black trans people. Historically, this country wants to enjoy and profit from Black culture but not recognize Black people. This falsified representation of Black queer people in mainstream media can make it difficult to find communities and spaces where they feel seen and heard.
Black queer people face a unique set of challenges due to the intersection of their race and sexuality/gender identity, one of them being the difficulty to find spaces that give them room to be their authentic selves. Freedom on My Mind recognizes Bayard Rustin, a queer Black man and “a longtime adviser of Martin Luther King Jr,” as the man who organized the March on Washington (Freedom on My Mind). Roy Wilkins, a respective co-head of the NAACP rejected Rustins leadership as he “feared that Rustin’s leftist past and homosexuality would be used to smear the march,” pushing the narrative for him to “to hide his homosexuality for fear of hurting the black cause.” (Freedom on My Mind). As a respectable civil rights activist who made mentionable contributions to the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin was urged to hide part of his identity so he would not lose credibility. This demonstrates the aversion to Black queer people even within the African American community. In the program, Dr. Byron Howlett spoke about his experience with hiding his identity in 1990 when he had to have secret meetings at conferences with other queer members. Employees at the conferences he attended had to go lengths to meet in private so they would not be ridiculed in their profession. Additionally, Christina Garland discussed how in her previous career she didn’t have the opportunity to show up as her authentic self as she wouldn’t have been fully welcomed nor would it have been beneficial for her professional space. She described that she doesn’t feel unsafe at USD, feels that her different identities are an asset at USD and that she can show up to work authentically. Not only do Black queer people feel estranged in professional settings, but social scenes as well. Joshua Rice explained how places considered ‘queer areas’ in the city are very “white-centric”, causing Black queers to feel alienated in a space supposedly made for them. As white people make up the majority of Americans, Black queer people find themselves as a minority once again when surrounded by fellow LGBTQ+ people. Author Catherine Smith states, “White LGBT rights advocates often attempt to portray all LGBT people as ‘black-equivalents,’ at the micro and macro level, and freely borrow imagery from, and make comparisons to, the black civil rights struggle.” (Queer as Black Folk). This attempt to “equate gayness with blackness” invalidates the unique struggles Black people face and dilutes the distinct impact of these different identities. Advocates who generalize minorities reinforce misunderstanding of the different identities belonging to marginalized people. Overall, the scarcity of spaces that authentically accept Black queer people is a complex issue that is influenced by a variety of social and cultural factors.
Queer Black people face a greater threat of violence, are erroneously illustrated in mass media, and struggle to find places of sanctuary, as this collaboration program with the Black Student Resource Commons and LGBTQ+ & Allies Commons examined. Despite this incessant misinterpretation of Black LGBTQ+ people, this community resiliently finds ways to empower themselves. At the Million Man March in 1995, Black queer people “openly protested the heterosexual construction of black identity,” and “marched to counter the idea that sexual difference was inherently abnormal, undesirable, shameful, and ‘un-black.’” (Freedom on My Mind). This community will not cease to express themselves unapologetically in the fight for equality. The program hosted by these common spaces recognized the intersectionality and diversity of Black people, demanding a wake up call to American society. We can support queer Black people by broadening the lens through which you see and understand Blackness and stop trying to define it in such a rigid lens that leaves many people out.
Works Cited
Smith, Catherine. “Queer as Black Folk.” Wisconsin Law Review, vol. 2007, no. 2, 2007, pp. 379-408. HeinOnline,
White, Deborah Gray, et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans, With Documents. United States, Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2020.

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