Queer isn’t who you are, it’s how you reclaim freedom. And even the gayest of us sometimes fail at it
In a way, my entire life has been one beating after another meant to rid the free boy in me. My queerness is a struggle to salvage him.
Content Note: This essay contains details about childhood sexual assault
My parents didn’t hit me growing up. I know they hit my older siblings, but something had changed over the years before I got here. Maybe they saw it didn’t help. Maybe they even knew hitting children causes significant harm. But I like to think they just realized it was contradictory to their inherent gentleness and loving nature. Either way, they didn’t hit me. Except when they did.
The one whooping I remember happened when I was about ten years old. I had been horsing around with my best friend at the time, and I started grinding on him. I shouldn’t have, but he laughed. He laughed, but he did not consent to me touching him in that way. It was just a joke, and he laughed it off, but I deserved to be seriously reminded not to touch other people who do not want to be touched. I had already been touched when I did not want to be, so I knew how it felt. But when I was sexually violated it wasn’t meant to remind me to respect other people, no matter how awful it felt, and so I didn’t remember to do so in that moment.
My friend laughed, but he must have been uncomfortable enough to tell his mother, and I understand. I shouldn’t have touched him, but my father’s beating wasn’t meant to remind me of this any more than the older family friend making me suck his dick behind the garage about a year or so before. My father hit me to scare the free boy in me, and the older friend did what he did to exploit the free boy in me, both actions meant to destroy him. “That’s not what boys do!” my father shouted as I lay over his lap, being touched again when I did not want to. Only this time harder. The whooping felt like it would never end, and in a way it didn’t.
In a way, my entire life has been one beating after another meant to rid the free boy in me. My queerness is an active struggle to salvage him. And like all struggles of this magnitude, sometimes I fail.
I was five the first time my mother made me cut my hair when I didn’t want to. Fourteen the second time. Long hair was just “not what boys do.” They also don’t wear tight jeans, brightly colored clothes, or get their ears pierced. They don’t cry too much, according to my father, and they don’t hang out with other boys who do. They play sports, even though my father was never really much good at them. (He did fight when he had to, though—so that made up for it, I guess.) Boys don’t hug even when they need touch (instead, like my older family friend, they get it in more violent ways). And they definitely don’t love other boys. When they do, you cut them off financially and see if they change. Or you beat them. All of this I learned by relentless messaging throughout my youth, but my parents were not alone in believing it. Often, I joined them.
So when the Shade Room posted a picture of Gabrielle Union posing with her stepson, who looked free as a bird, I was not surprised by the comments. The young boy’s fedora is cocked, his slacks are flooded, his shirt is tucked. His heel is popped, back is arched, chest popped. In short, he is stunting, and stunting is too free for us; the gossip blog’s commenters let it be known just as well as my father did the day he hit me. The boy must be gay, they said, and even if they meant no harm pointing it out, they laughed. For some of them it was just a joke, but he was made the butt of it, and they beat him as much as they could through their screens just like the other commenters who weren’t joking at all.
I don’t know if Union’s child identifies as gay. But I do know, regardless of how one identifies, being subjected to this violence over and over again takes a toll. Makes you question your worth and belonging. Makes you want to give up. Makes you bend and break yourself just to try to get a little reprieve from it. And that’s true no matter how strong you generally stay when you face this violence. And if queer folks are anything, we are strong.
I am proudly a non-binary person assigned male at birth who is attracted to other people assigned male at birth (in addition to some who are not). There aren’t many situations where I’d be frightened into saying otherwise. I walk down the street in what some assume to be a “dangerous” neighborhood wearing whatever I want to wear, including nail polish and daisy dukes—most days. I tell whoever inquires of my love life about my fiance—most days. Post whatever I want about sex and sexuality publicly—most days.
But some days, I remember my father’s beating, or that I’m too tired to fight off homophobes, or that I never did grow my hair back after my mother made me cut it off, and now it’s too late. Some days, my straight cousin who I’m not close with asks me if I’m seeing anyone and I say “yes” and leave it at that. He says, “you must get all the girls,” and he shouldn’t have assumed, but I laugh. Some days, like at that same family reunion, I find myself playing basketball with my male cousins just to make a point. Puffing out my chest and adopting aggressive masculinities just to make a point. Being contradictory to my inherent gentleness and loving nature just to make a point.
I do not excuse my parents or any homophobe I have come across for the harm they caused me, but in working through the contradictions to my own inherent gentleness, I am forced to acknowledge theirs, too. I am forced to ponder who taught them what boys and girls do and don’t do, and why they believe it so mortally. I am forced to remember the days my grandmother hit my mother for not being the woman she was “supposed” to be, and my father not being able to follow his career for not being the man white skin would have allowed him to be in the Jim Crow South. I am forced to acknowledge the contradictions of all Black people, how none of us are given the space to be free we so desperately need.
More importantly, I am forced to acknowledge when I have bent and broken not just myself to get a little reprieve from the violence of the world, but also when I have bent and broken others. I am forced to acknowledge my patronizing views about the “ghetto” and “hood” now that I have “made it out.” I am forced to acknowledge my participation in sexist violence. To acknowledge when I use my own trauma as an excuse to harm other people, like ignoring my friend’s consent to grind on him after I was sexually assaulted as a child. And though I am pretty good at this most times, it would be a lie to say I am always successful.
People sometimes say they know being queer is not a choice because who would choose to be subject to this violence, but that is bullshit. All Black gendered people are subject to gendered violence in an anti-Black world. Being queer is just having the courage to fight to salvage a little bit of freedom, and I am lucky to know the option, no matter how difficult it is. Liking other boys is the (relatively) easy part—some people even believe you are born that way—but being queer is hard work. It’s self-reflective work. It’s making mistakes and owning up to them. It’s trying to show care for all Black folks—including yourself—a little more, each and every day.
Union’s stepson might not identify as gay, but that’s beside the point. Queerness means I have to work to protect the freedom of all the little Black boys and girls, however they identify, from being violently pressured into making the same terrible choices I made, and that starts by recognizing my own terrible choices. It starts by recognizing that all Black people face terrible choices, and some of us fail more than others. If queerness is just successfully making it through, is just successfully salvaging the free parts of you, those who don’t know queerness yet—my parents, my family, my friends, my communities—are just people who have lost themselves with the most horrible consequences to everyone around them. But I have lost myself with many horrible consequences just the same.
I pity folks who aren’t queer, and sometimes I find myself hating them too. And this is no judgment on whether that is a valid feeling or not. It is what it is. But I know that hating them just means when I fail at queerness—and I always will—I will also necessarily start hating myself as well. And whether or not that, too, is a valid feeling, we all deserve to be seriously reminded that a world where all of us can be free from that hate is possible. And we all have work to do towards it.