Stop expecting Black children to grow up straight & cisgender
Loving myself meant refusing to accept the comforts of being respectable.
By George M. Johnson
It was a Sunday night like many others, me sitting at Starbucks finishing up some writing due first thing Monday morning, when a text from my mother came through to our family group chat. It was a picture of me as a young boy, playing Cops and Robbers with my little brother, which seemed to be a severe contrast against my current narrative of “abolish the police.”
I took one look at the picture and instantly started crying. The little boy in the photo had so many protections in place that were no longer needed, and I couldn’t contain the joy for the Queer life I once suppressed but now live.
But my evolution ain’t everybody’s story. Heterosexual conditioning continues to plague the Black LGBTQ community like it did me in my youth, aiding in the devaluation of our lives.
The suppression of my Queer identity was undoubtedly a tool of white supremacy, intent on turning me into a respectable negro—one who could sit at the table, but never have power. Our community is driven towards this respectable goal by systems of oppression, both known and unknown, that force Black children to find their identity through assimilation, not resistance.
Enforcing a heteronormative upbringing onto Queer children is a common practice, but it produces traumatized Black children who carry unhealed wounds and scars into adulthood.
I first realized I was different around 5, as my attractions to other people seemingly deviated from the norm. But my first incident of suppression of my Queerness came in the 2nd grade, when I grew attached to the word “honeychild” and used it to refer to everyone. The school called my parents about it, and my mother sat me down for a conversation.
I was told that I couldn’t use the word anymore, with no explanation given other than “you just can’t.” My mom always served as my first protector, so I knew if she said so it was only to protect me from a world not ready to accept me as I was.
From that moment, I learned how to assimilate into heterosexual culture as a means to protect myself. I liked double-dutch, but also didn’t want to get my ass whooped every day for doing things meant “for girls,” so the 10-year-old me figured out what many go their whole lives unable to. I forced myself into sports, and to be better at them than most.
Covertly I was being called a faggot, while overtly I was one of the first picked to play ball because I had the best jumper on the block. Covertly I was “that gay nigga,” while overtly everyone wanted to be my friend because I could throw shade before niggas knew what shade was, and throw hands if necessary too. I accepted the suppression of my Queer identity as the ultimate trade-off for a future when I would be able to live it freely.
That freedom wouldn’t come until October 23rd, 2014, one week from my 29th birthday, when I wrote my coming out story entitled “Everyone Already Knew I was Gay.” I realized I had been sold a dream, and my entire existence was based on things that would never make me whole. I got to a point where I was tired of living as the person I was pretending to be. I was basing my entire existence on other people’s thoughts of me, so that’s where I started to unpack the problem. I asked myself “who are you, really?” and “what would make you happy?”
Unlearning meant processing trauma, and years of undoing limitations I once placed on myself. I finally reached a point where my happiness could no longer be based on the thoughts and acceptance of others.
I recall sitting down and listing out things I wasn’t doing because I was fearful some would reject me. The simple things were done first. I started bringing men, and gay friends around my straight frat brothers. I started wearing clothes that were much tighter and less masculine as defined by society, because they felt comfortable. The beginning was about coming up from under a shadow that forced me to supress my identity.
I began to use gay lingo even around hetero people, and I stopped cringing when my girl friends would call me “Girl!” This process was as much performative to the world as it was becoming comfortable with who I always knew I truly was. Taking things one step at a time and not fast-forwarding the process allowed me to grow into my identity, and help keep my sanity within the new community I was entering.
The world I thought I knew started to have much more color to it. As I opened myself up to Queer spaces, I inevitably came into contact with more Black folks of different identities, illuminating the range of agency within my Blackness. Unlearning became a natural process initiated by acceptance of things I felt were inherently driving me to resist against the society-enforced principles placed upon me.
Loving myself meant refusing to accept the comforts of being respectable, and knowing that my existence as a Queer person would never be a respectable thing.
The unlearning eventually brought me back to the place where it all started, the little boy in the picture who always knew he different, but was unable to be free.
We assign identities onto children due to learned behaviors passed down through culture. When a child does not fit into that box, our first response is to suppress and condemn. We base nurturing on sexual identity in relation to gender norms. We have “gender reveal” parties, already setting up the hetero pathology of a child before they take their first breath of air. The prayer is always for a child to be healthy, but our hope for this “clean bill of health” is often inclusive of a hetero assumed identity.
Heterosexual conditioning is removing the innocence of the child for the comfort of the parent’s conditional love, and society’s conditional acceptance. A society can only grow when constructs rooted in obedience and conformity are challenged and dismantled, creating environments for people to exist as their whole selves.
A parent’s stance should always be to love the child as they are, nurturing the person they are meant to be. A parent’s job is to protect the person the child actually is, not force the child into the safest acceptable identity. Society cannot advance if we continue to force a binary of gender and sex identity onto a community we refuse to acknowledge. Without this acknowledgement, environments necessary for the safety and sustainability of the Black community cannot be created.
As a community, we must begin to nurture spaces and environments that are conducive to the survival and upbringing of children who are Queer. Society’s attack on the most vulnerable and marginalized is a threat to the liberation of us all. Our jobs are to nurture a Queerness that is already innate, not shape it to a standard of whiteness that none of us can ever be.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram