Invisible, Black, and Gay
I hate being invisible. Being both Black and gay, I haven't developed the courage to fight on two battlefields. So I've chosen one by default; the obvious one, the easy one, the Black one.
What's easy about being Black? Nothing, but my struggle for a positive Black identity is filled with support and affirmation. Since the beginning I have had the love of family, the strength of community and the force of history on which to build a foundation. Allies and role models are clearly visible.
As a gay person, I've feared losing the love of family, and facing the wrath of community. I've searched through an obscure history. Allies are gay friends also trying to remain invisible and straight friends sworn to keep my secret. My best role models, Black lesbians and gay men; successful men and women who are doctors, lawyers, and African chiefs, men and women who could have had a profound influence on me as a child, were the most invisible. Just as now some Black child thinks he or she's the only one, because I'm invisible.
While I openly share the beauty of my Black experience, insight gained from being gay is shared only when it's safe. Black publications proudly announce their arrival, while gay publications arrive hidden in plain manila envelopes.
While I can't think of a single thing which would make me want to be White, the notion of giving up all of my talents just to be normal often seems attractive.
When I'm hurt as a Black person I have an instant support network. When I'm hurt as a gay person, I'm left to lick my wounds until I find a safe place.
Often I feel the answer is to tell the world, I'm gay. However, I lack that courage. I fear taking on another label and providing people with yet another reason to view me as a target. It's difficult enough educating people to see Black people as multi-dimensional and not flat stereotypes. Why take on the added burden?
I suffer as a result of this decision. People who honor me for my talents, still maintain the perception that gay people are somehow evil or inferior. They have no idea that much of what they admire is the result of my being gay. The skills and strengths developed to cope with a painful reality have positive effects on all facets of my life. James Baldwin in his essay, “Notes of a Native Son” perhaps says it best. In referring to the writer as artist he says, …the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way…
All groups of people have a need for self definition. Black people and gays are more exposed to and influenced by definitions that come from the majority, than by internal group definitions. Even refuting myths gives negative ideas validity and challenges our own perceptions. As a result, we question our statements of self and the process of self affirmation becomes all the more difficult.
While I appreciate the support of sensitive Black straight people and gay White people, I sense that because they see themselves in me, they somehow fail to fully appreciate who I am. I am as unlike them as I am like them.
Just as Black people need distance from the distorted image reflected by Whites, so too do we as gays need an environment in which to affirm ourselves. For those of us who are both Black and gay, the process is all the more difficult. Not only do we have two sets of stereotypes to sift through, we're claimed by two groups.
Straight Blacks and White gays develop group identities that further distort who we are. When people think, “gay” they see, White. When they think, Black they fail to see gay. As a result, Black straights and White gays create some of the worst obstacles to a positive Black gay identity.
The worst obstacle however, is presented by Black gays. Our success in being invisible robs us of knowing ourselves and each other. It further robs us of being known on our own terms by Blacks, gays and other majorities. Yet, the risk of being visible is one that too few of us is willing to take.
Someday I'll marshal the strength to fight on two battlefields. Until thin I'll choose the obvious one, continue to be invisible and hate it.
Chuck Tarver Copyright © 1999