Bold and out in New York City but self imposed “straightening up” while back home. Curtis Young wonders if dual identity is holding back the black gay community?
Dating back to the Harlem Renaissance, New York has always attracted black gay men from across the United States interested in arts, culture and the vibrant nightlife. Some arrived seeking a place to fully embrace their sexually while exploring the attributes of New York, while others wanted to only build successful careers miles away from immediate family. I myself moved here for graduate school at NYU and soon fell in love with all the city had to offer, literally and figuratively.
I’ve always looked at New York as a safe-zone for self-expression. Although there has been an increase in hate-crimes recently directed towards the gay community, it does not hide the fact that New York is a pretty welcoming gay city when compared to other cities.
While attending a holiday party in New York prior to returning home for Christmas and New Years a friend says to me,
“isn’t it amazing how people live outside of New York? We live in a bubble that is not reality when compared to the rest of America.”
I agreed, wholeheartedly. Being home this past holiday season, my cousins repeatedly discussed, shopping malls, outlet stores, and going to the casinos located on reservations. In the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Where am I?”
The thing which puzzles me most is my self-imposed identity crisis when outside of my New York bubble. It’s as if, I revert back to being a confused gay man when home around my, certainly conservative black American family. I’ve been living loud and proud in New York City since 2005, why do I feel conflicted and silent when home in the Midwest?
The Dual Identity
There are tons of men who are living out loud to their families, so my story is just that… my story. I am out to most of my own family (continue reading below for more on this) but for some reason I think they forget, or choose to ignore, and still pose questions in attempts to “normalize me” such as,
“Are you married yet? When are you having children?”
Living as a bold New Yorker, I should be able to say things like, “I’ve dated a few men in New York but nothing serious in 2014, so I’m single.” Or being the sarcastic New Yorker I know I can be and saying to them, “I’ve actually looked into adoption after attending a seminar at the LGBT Center in Manhattan.” Why don’t I say these things?
I’m sure I’m not alone as a black gay man living in the New York bubble. I’ve met tons of gay men whom you would assume are out to their families based on their behavior, but they are not. We live proudly in our Manhattan zip codes, yet once the plane lands things change. I’ve even considered this while packing for the holidays and saying to myself, “these pants are too tight for Aunt Rosie’s house” and “I don’t think my father is ready for these skinny jeans.” I know I’m gay but this situation actually played out in my head when placing my favorite pair of skinny jeans in my luggage. They know I’m gay. Perhaps this is just my own insecurity unfolding.
Could this be a factor holding us back in the black gay community and prohibiting us from living in truth?
We still suffer from the effects of collective consciousness or childhood pain not corrected (yet) in adulthood. We want others to feel comfortable around us so we “straighten up” when around people who may be threatened by us. This sense of dual identity goes beyond being a black gay man. It extends to being a black man in general, as I have witnessed and exercised. When stopped by the police, we “straighten up.” When interviewing, we “straighten up.” When going to a bank, we “straighten up.” So the idea of playing multiple roles is something we are accustomed to as black men. I digress.
I have several gay cousins. Five to be exact. I also have a gay uncle. It’s strange to hear the homophobic comments about them when they are not around; perhaps this also plays with my psyche in present day. It certainly shaped my view of self and as a closeted gay teen growing up in Michigan. I didn’t want family calling me a fag, faggot, sissy, punk or any other derogatory term I heard growing up as a child when hearing them speak about gays. I silently listened to these terms without objections out of fear that one day they would use these same derogatory terms to describe me. I’m sure I’m not the only one who have experienced this behavior and personal reaction.
While at an aunt’s home the day after Christmas, an older gay cousin was mentioned. This cousin moved to New York City back in the ’80s and lived for 20 years before relocating to Boston to marry a biological female. According to my Aunt, the woman is a perfect match for him since she is “bisexual and very manly” (Side note: I’ve never met her but immediately thought that his wife could be a man.) Growing up I would hear whispers of him moving to New York City to work as a “cross dresser” while secretly dreaming of following in his path and escaping the turmoils of my homophobic conservative family. It was all just family gossip.
I never wanted to dress as a woman, whatever that means, but the idea of escaping aroused me.
Ironically, this same cousin has a sister who would flirt heavily with women growing up (in a humorous way at the time). She came out about 20 years ago after falling in love with a women. She gave up her children because at that time she felt she couldn’t raise them with a woman. A view largely incorporated into her mind, once again by family and their beliefs on what was acceptable parenting. To top that off, these two cousins have a gay nephew who is “very” gay according to my Aunt. This is my family and this is what so many black families’ are like. With this craziness, one would think I would be comfortable around them and scream in protest when they say negative things about my gay family members. However, this type of disfunction caused me to question my own truth.
I like to think of myself as the new age gay uncle. I’m modern. I’m artistic. I’m political. I’m successful (according to family). I’m educated. So in the minds of my conservative family, I can’t be gay. They only know gay through reality TV programming and of course my very controversial family members who are total opposites of me. They have never had a gay relative like me, so of course they can easily ignore the fact that I actually am a proud gay black man. But who knows, I’ve heard them say pretty f***ed up things about my cousins in my presence, so one never knows what they really think of me.
After several days of this self-imposed identity crisis while home, I was slightly fed-up. While at an Aunts home listening to music and being merry, I took over the sound system and played Beyoncé. The younger cousins loved it. Next, I threw the older generation a bone and played Diana Ross. That’s when two of my female cousins and I started a dance routine with me unapologetically proclaiming to be Diana.
From behind I heard an uncle say, “what are you all doing?” I responded, “dancing to Diana Ross.” He laughed in a extremely non-carrying way, which could have been the eggnog.
The moral of the story; most of our fears are just that, fears.
In order to live out loud, we must be okay in all environments and dance like nobody’s watching. We must stop telling ourselves that we are respectful, so it’s best that we wear something a little more conservation and avoid playing Beyoncé at family gatherings in order to prevent the “gay from coming out.”
It’s 2015 and it’s time for the black community to come to terms with their black brothers, sons, cousins and uncles. I myself will be making that a goal for 2015.
As one of my favorite authors and life coaches, Dr. Robin Smith says,
“We must show up as a grown-up’ and in order to do we must realize that “adulthood is here to help us address the unfinished business of our childhoods.”
We must find ways to come to terms with the damage made in our childhood through beliefs imposed upon us, not only by family’s such as my own, but also by society in general. Face it directly and boldly move forward with correcting it internally and externally.
Living in Truth
Remember what I said above about being out to most of my family? Well, I took the final step on January 1, 2015 to live completely in my truth.
I’ve been blessed to have the most amazing father. I’d watch football with him growing up, although I preferred tennis and music lessons. We’d discuss politics, capitalism, his conservative views and more. He’s like a brother.
After breakfast on New Years Day, I told my father that I wanted to be the best version of myself in 2015 and in doing so I needed to live in my truth and my truth only. The next words, after a few stutters was…
“the real reason I decided to be home for NYE is to tell you that I’m gay…”
coming out to my father (who of course knew) was not easy, but I honestly felt that not having the conversation somehow prohibited growth in other areas of my life in 2014. That burden is lifted and I gained a greater understanding of unconditional love and how to give that to someone else. Taking that first step was a leap, but a leap in the right direction.
Now let’s all do the work in 2015 to be the highest expression of ourselves. As men. As future Fathers. As Brothers. As Cousins.
We can be the change we want to see in the world by living in our truth.
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