I’ve been mulling over this post for approximately two years now. That was right around the time when I started thinking more seriously about my sexuality. It was also around the time when same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, and when American media appeared to be picking up on the issue of police brutality and racial inequality. And let’s not forget about Patricia Arquette’s controversial Oscar acceptance speech, in which she initially appeared to be calling for a focus on women’s rights following ardent support from women for gay rights and black rights over the years*. I was pummeled by mixed emotion that year. I felt like I couldn’t read the news without coming across a national (or international!) issue resonating with me at my core. I had a hard time deciding which issue to focus my time and energy on or even where to focus my growing outrage. What should I be most vocal about? What was most important to me — my sexuality, my race, or my gender?
I never had the desire to date a woman until the end of high school. Then I did. It was a fantastic period of self-exploration, and she’ll always hold a special place in my heart, but the relationship was a bit of a disaster in the way that high school relationships often are. I didn’t begin to strongly identify as a member of the LGBT community until after college, at which point I still had not been with another woman. I then began identifying as bisexual, as I experienced attraction to both men and women. I grew comfortable with the label quickly and began talking openly about my sexuality in online communities (hi, tumblr!) and within my friend groups. It wasn’t until recently that I began questioning the accuracy of my chosen label. This was not without a year of frequent attempts to process the ways and degrees to which I am attracted to others. My attraction to men has slowly faded to the point of being almost incidental presently. This puts me somewhere around a Kinsey 5. Some people refer to this as “homoflexible,” a term I’m fine with, but one that is often confusing for others. So I’ve chosen to go with “queer.” It fits and I feel good about it. In case you are concerned, I know I don’t need to label myself. I’ve just found the process to be valuable in helping me to understand myself. Being queer is the part of myself that I fought to understand. Not because I felt it was wrong, but because it was not straightforward. I’m straight-passing, which allows me to unintentionally get the inside scoop on how people really feel about the LGBT community. More and more, I’m not at all troubled by what I hear, but every now and again something crazy comes out of someone’s mouth. My instinct is to gently challenge offensive comments, but I still struggle with how best to handle these situations in the moment. I go through the exact same experience whenever I hear a racially insensitive comment.
I was born in the USA and have lived here for my entire life, but my parents are immigrants. This came with a set of privileges. The first privilege was relatively positive public opinion. My family is not from a country that is largely discriminated against in the States. In fact, my parents are often described as “exotic” by well meaning friends and coworkers. This is typically followed by a slightly to severely racist remark about Black Americans, who are not viewed by these individuals as having exotic roots. We tend to be automatically set apart from others who look just like us. Given the state of racism within our nation, that has been quite a privilege. The second privilege is wealth. My parents did not struggle to provide me with the nutrition, education, and home environment that all children deserve. For this, I am eternally grateful. My life experiences have been very different from many Black Americans who live in poverty and are kept there by systemic injustices in our country. I have found that many people like to separate blacks into two categories: those who are like them and those who are . . . different. Being “like them” let’s me slide by quite easily on a day-to-day basis. That is another privilege that I wish to openly own up to. Being “like them” also somehow seems to make people very comfortable making disparaging and flat-out racist comments about those who are systematically oppressed. It’s unclear to me why people don’t understand that I am bound to find these comments offensive, but it has become obvious that they do not. This is, by far, the issue I deal with most frequently. It is uncomfortable and outrageous and tiring. And guess what? I have to deal with similar ridiculous and offensive commentary about gender.
I’ve connected strongly with being a woman for as long as I can remember. I’ve also been keenly aware of the presence of misogyny and the fact that women aren’t viewed as equal to men in nearly all contexts in many countries around the world. I’ve always wanted to personally challenge that inequality and help in the effort to change that on a larger scale. I believe women should be free to be themselves independent of the opinions of men, other women, and society at large. Women should be able to both attain appropriate training and advance in any field of their choice. Women should receive equal pay and treatment in the workplace, in public, and at home. I believe that these rights ought to be recognized globally, and it is our job as humans to ensure that they are. And yet, I continue to encounter problematic comments and viewpoints on a regular basis.
It’s safe to say that there’s a lot going on in my head. I wrote all of this to share where I’m coming from and how I’m feeling. It feels great to have written this out, and I hope it resonates with at least one other person. It can be hard to center yourself when you constantly encounter viewpoints that challenge the necessity and morality of such a wide variety of your civil rights. It can fill you with a low-level bubbling of anxiety, anger, and defeat. Everything seems to be going wrong at once, and I find it difficult to decide where to lend my attention. Some days it feels like I’m on the right track and on others I feel bogged down by the sheer amount of progress that needs to be made. It feels like my internal fuse (I’m not one to actually scream and yell and people) is getting shorter and shorter with each passing day. On some days I’m filled with tension. Am I not challenging problematic viewpoints enough? Or, wait, am I challenging them too much?
Sometimes I feel pressure to speak out louder against one topic over the others. Some of that is internal, but a fair amount of it is also external (e.g., “I see you went to the Women’s Rights Rally, but I didn’t see you at the BLM Rally.”). I also feel myself closely watching what my friends are most vocal about and contemplating what that means about their support of different communities. This is a toxic process, as I already know the ins and outs of my friends’ views on most social issues. And just as is the case for me, not making it to the BLM rally does not mean that my friends don’t believe in systemic racism. It’s difficult to participate in every effort. I know that firsthand. But it’s also difficult to feel as though I’m letting one of my communities down, or putting one above another. But maybe I don’t have to be the best, most involved, queer, black, woman every day. Maybe it’s enough to lend my time, money, and support wherever I can, whenever I can. Maybe I don’t have to pick a team.
I’d also be remiss not to mention that being queer, black, and female are all things that define me in one way or another, but they do not make me who I am. Sure they may play a role, but so do countless other things. Those descriptors don’t tell you about my life’s work. They don’t tell you about what brings me joy, my favorite genre of book, my favorite day of the week, the best place I’ve ever traveled, or my favorite holiday. Yes, I picked a smattering of things that may not matter to you, but the point is that just knowing that I’m queer, black, and a woman doesn’t really get you much closer to knowing and understanding who I am as a person. I think this is an important lesson for everyone, from people who struggle with being defined by certain labels to people who openly discriminate against those who identify as a member of XYZ community.
I do not view being queer, black, and female as a limitation of any kind. I love who I am; it can just be tricky to navigate at times. As I complete my reflection on my own experience as a minority three times over, I’d like to refocus my attention on the actual work: conferring equal rights upon all individuals regardless of any particular identifier. Our world is a constant work in progress. Luckily that means we aren’t stagnant, but it also means that there’s a lot of work to be done. Let’s all continue to work together to make this world a better place for everyone in it.
* I know she clarified her thoughts later, so let’s not even get into it.
It goes without saying that I am not the only queer, black woman in the world. The views I expressed in this post are solely my own. I do not claim to speak for anyone else’s experience.