It’s a tough conversation to have. For everybody.
For black folks in the GTA and elsewhere, it is a matter of openly recognizing two interlocking realities that are increasingly visible inside and outside the community: homosexuality and, conversely, homophobia. For everyone else, it is a matter of learning how to approach the question of homosexuality in communities of colour without falling into the trap of labelling those communities as inherently backward, homophobic or violent.
For Brandon Hay, talking about these tough issues cannot wait any longer. Hay founded a group called the Black Daddies Club in 2007 to connect black fathers in the GTA to resources and each other. With their Taboo Discussion series, the floor is open to everybody to approach topics that affect the black community directly but that too often go without comment.
On Nov 26, the group will hold its second event in the series, Queer As (Black) Folk?, about homosexuality and homophobia in the black community. The event will consist of two panel discussions and a performance of I, a play by Sea M Walker about a black intersex person.
“There’s this essence that if you’re black you can’t be gay, or that you’re either gay or you’re homophobic,” says Hay. “So what we’re doing with this event is saying we’re not going to choose from the options you’ve given us; we’re going to create our own.”
Panellist David Lewis-Peart, a community organizer and interfaith minister, agrees that there’s an issue of conflicting signals.
“We’re dealing with multiple messages. One is that black people are homophobic, and that can be critiqued. Homophobia is not an experience exclusive to the black community,” he reflects. “The second [message] is that black people have homosexuals within the communities who are very active, and not in any kind of hidden way.”
Facilitator and activist Kim Crosby also sees it as more complicated than just making a choice between the categories of queer and black.
“One of the things that happens when black communities are described as homophobic is that it erases the fact that black people are gay all the time,” she explains. “A lot of anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia dialogue doesn’t really take into consideration nuances around race, background and religion, and recognizing that people don’t just leave those things at the door. So we’re finding ways to work within those systems instead of in opposition to them.”
Crosby points to changing historical and political situations for black people in North America as one reason it is urgent to talk about these issues.
“As a community, silence has been an important strategy for us. It’s been really important not to talk about pain, trauma and oppression, just to make it. Around queerness is no exception,” she explains. “For a very long time it was like, we have so many other things we’re dealing with right now — just the right to exist without having crosses burnt on our lawns — that we actually can’t talk about things at all, especially sexuality on any level. So we know why we were silent, why that was really valuable for us. But we also know that we can’t continue to subsist in this survivalist method.”
For Junior Burchall, a straight, stay-at-home dad who will be facilitating the first panel, silence is definitely not an option anymore.
“What we have around the issue of homosexuality is dysfunctional, toxic, boiling silences; the sort of silences that metastasize; the sort of silences that destroy families; the sort of silences that separate parents from their children because they can’t see beyond the prison walls of their own bigotry,” he says. “Silence served us well at one time in history, but within the black family, it does not serve us at all.”
And it is in the context of the black family that opening this dialogue is most pressing.
“I’m coming from a parental standpoint,” says Hay, also a straight father. “If one of my three boys comes to me and says, ‘I’m gay,’ what do I do? What do I say? How would I educate myself as a father if that were the case?”
Black parents’ primary anxieties around queerness might not involve direct disapproval; rather, the concern is around wanting their children to be as safe as possible in an unsafe world. “When I speak to a lot of parents it comes up that, ‘Yeah, I don’t really have a problem if they’re gay, I just know it’s gonna be super tough for them,’” Hay says.
Lewis-Peart echoes this sentiment: “For parents, it’s that, ‘I don’t want my child to, on top of the fact that they’re a black person living in a white world, also have to deal with the fact that they’re queer, with issues of discrimination and violence, HIV and AIDS.’ These are things that are scary for parents to think of as future possibilities for their children.”
And coming out as an ally isn’t always easy.
“It’s a learning curve,” Crosby says. “It’s really hard [for allies] to figure out what to do or what to say. People are thinking about their own bodies as oppressed people. As a black person who’s going to experience racism and barriers, if I’m also going to stick up for my friend who’s gay, is that going to subject me to more violence?
“As a facilitator, what I want to be able to encourage is for people to empathize with each other and not say, ‘You have been bad black people, and you need to be better black people to these other black people.’ RRather, let’s empathize with how we’ve struggled and how we’ve built, but also be self-critical.”
So how do those of us outside the community act as allies in this conversation that doesn’t directly concern us?
“It’s really important to have affirmation on the ways in which blackness is invisibilized in queer and trans movements in general,” Crosby says. “It’s important when white folks can acknowledge it when we do have queer events and they are super white, to say, ‘Hey, that’s weird. What’s going on?’”
Lewis-Peart suggests a similar approach: “How can you be an ally? Do some work in the gay community around fighting racism. RRecognize your role in this, in creating spaces that exclude. Clean up your own backyard, and we’ll deal with our backyard, and at some point, the fence will come down and our yards will join, and we’ll realize we were a neighbourhood all along.”
That said, the Black Daddies Club emphasizes that the conversation is open to everybody. There is also a Facebook page where people can share ideas.
“You can agree or disagree, but we want to hear what you have to say,” Hay says. “For true change to happen, everybody has to be at the table. We all have a piece of the solution.”