4 min

The voice of Black Queer Youth

Fighting racism, homophobia and religion

Credit: (Jenna Wakani)

Gemini still remembers overhearing a comment from a girl in her Grade 9 class at an all-girls Catholic school.

“Black people shouldn’t be gay,” the girl said.

Gemini — who only uses the one name — is now 17 and in Grade 12. She’s out now but she’s still in the same school.

“I was denying it up to Grade 12,” she says. “Now anyone who asks me I tell them. But I go to a Catholic all-girls school. Even with my gaydar out I don’t know of any other lesbians. It’s all about boys. I don’t know how to relate to them.”

The one place and time where Gemini knows she will meet people who can understand what it’s like to be young, queer and black in Toronto is the weekly meeting of Black Queer Youth (BQY).

“I look forward to every Wednesday and feeling safe,” she says. “Before I didn’t really have anything to look forward to.”

The group, which has been meeting regularly since 2002, is part of Supporting Our Youth and operates out of the Sherbourne Health Centre.

Jason Sinclair, 23, the facilitator of BQY, says the group is crucial for young black queers.

“A lot of black people find it difficult in their own community,” he says. “I started coming to BQY in high school. It’s good to have a space where you won’t be judged on your sexuality. This is where people are very comfortable.”

Sinclair, Gemini and three other members of BQY — Kerryann Morrison, Andrew La Rose and Alex Looky — met with Xtra to talk about their lives within the black and queer communities and to promote BQY’s new zine, which will be available around Toronto’s queer village in February.

All of them say they face prejudice for both their race and their sexuality, although they differ over which identity is attacked more often.

For Sinclair it’s race, and he says the queer community is as bad or worse when it comes to racism.

“It would be more about my race than my sexuality,” he says. “In the clubs on Church St it’s all about my race. There are specific clubs where you know you’re not wanted. It’s people’s reaction to you. There’s people talking among themselves, you hear what they say. Sometimes the managers say things outright.”

Morrison, 29, agrees that she’s been affected more by racism than homophobia. She tells stories all too familiar to young blacks in Toronto, of losing jobs when the employer found out she was black, of having a gas station owner call the police because he didn’t believe she could own her car.

But she also remembers the loneliness she felt in her Catholic high school before she was out, when she was the only girl without a boyfriend.

“In high school people would think I was a lesbian and make fun of me,” she says. “It was hurtful. It made me more isolated, even from people who were okay with being gay.”

Morrison says she also faced pressure from her mother, although they had a rocky relationship anyway.

“I was scared to come out to my mom,” she says. “But I raised myself. She has no say. So I just introduced my girlfriend to my mom. She didn’t talk to me for two weeks. I have a son and it’s always, ‘What if he’s gay?’ But then she went to the library and got a whole bunch of books and educated herself.”

Alex Looky, 24, who moved from Togo to Canada for Grade 10, says she hasn’t yet told her mother, who lives in France.

“I only came out to myself a couple of years ago,” says Looky. “I haven’t told my parents. I get the impression my mother might blame herself.”

For Looky her sexuality coexists uneasily with her racial identity.

“I do avoid it around certain people, black people, African people to be more particular,” she says. “I find people, especially recent immigrants, to be very narrow-minded. I have a real problem when people play the religion card.

“My parents are now very religious when they didn’t used to be. They taught me a lot of tolerance which they now don’t want to apply to themselves. My mother told me gay men are promiscuous and bring AIDS.”

Religion is a common theme among the group. La Rose, 23, went to a religious school before he came out at 14.

“I went to an all-boys choir school from Grade 4 to Grade 9,” he says. “That was one of the places I got made fun of most. It was the worst, worst, worst place ever. I still get shivers walking past it. There’s still that sense of fear.”

La Rose says his family has been supportive since he came out.

“I actually had my sister do it,” he says. “I was sitting next to her and she blurted out, ‘He’s gay.'”

He says most of the prejudice he’s experienced since has been from black people.

“I’ve received some discrimination but it’s been mostly from my own race,” he says.

That conflict between race and sexuality also emerges in a discussion about whether the Toronto school board should adopt black-focused schools. All agree that queer black youth would not have an easy time in such schools.

“Being gay in a black school, I would not feel safe,” says Gemini. “I would probably commit suicide.”

Morrison agrees that the mix would not work.

“Black and queer in a black school: war,” she says. “It’s just committing suicide.”

Morrison also opposes the schools as a black woman.

“We fought so hard to stop segregation,” she says. “I understand teaching black history but teach it in all the schools.”

But Sinclair says he understands the need for such a school.

“It’s not a matter of segregation, it’s a matter of having a space to learn about black culture,” he says. “It’s about getting it straight up, not watered down.”

The members of BQY also feel the need to express their own unique culture and are putting out their own zine. Entitled Black Queer Youth Zine the first issue is a collection of short stories, poems, art, autobiography, lists of resources and profiles of local black queers that the group has been collecting for five years. The zine will be out in February and will be distributed in clubs, stores and businesses along Church St and, eventually, its creators hope, in schools. The group then hopes to put out two issues a year.

“When the zine started the idea was to show the talent in the black queer community and in BQY in particular,” says Sinclair. “The things I want to write about you can’t about anywhere else because you’ll get in trouble. It should be known that black queer youth are doing great things.”

Sinclair says he hopes the zine will help expose white queers to some of the realities black queer youth face.

“People should know about us,” he says. “It’s long overdue. It’s ridiculous we haven’t got the recognition we surely deserve.”