February is Black History Month. Here, an HG contributor discusses changes he needs to see from his community as a Black queer person.
As an openly gay Black man, I feel a tug-of-war in my community. I praise my people for the strides we’ve made and for our progressive actions that have helped society. But there are times when I feel exhausted from trying to educate those in my community who, even in 2019, are still carrying outdated and queerphobic ideologies, thus taking on the characteristics of our oppressor.
When it was announced earlier in February that the state of New Jersey would become the second state after California to require schools to teach LGBTQ+ history, I felt ecstatic. I never got the chance to be educated on history that involved queer people during my K-12 years. Whether it was on TV, in the workplace, or in the classroom, I lacked representation of people like me. I was so happy for future generations who could take these history classes, providing more visibility for queer students and teaching others to be effective allies.
But when the news of this court decision spread, people on my Facebook timeline were so quick to develop ignorant opinions based on headlines, never even taking the proper time to read the damn article. One straight Black male friend of mine said he doesn’t believe the government should be forcing anyone to learn about another person’s sexual preferences. He continued by stating that LGBTQ+ history should be taught in an after-school program, if at all—but maintained that he’s not homophobic. Another friend—also a straight Black man—commented that he was shocked and argued that a law requiring public schools to teach queer history is “a little forced.” His Facebook friend, who is also Black, replied, “What gay history is there to teach?” And lots of other people put in their similarly discriminatory two cents.
I had to call out their ignorance because if I don’t, who will? You can’t claim to be an ally of the LGBTQ+ community or swear that you’re not queerphobic and also be against progress like this recent court decision. That’s not too far from the “but I have Black friends” excuse white people use whenever someone calls them out for saying something racist or anti-Black.
How can Black folks be mad about LGBTQ+ history classes when students have learned about the straight white men who have killed our people for years? Yes, LGBTQ+ history classes are not particularized to straight people—but that’s what makes them pertinent in the same way that Black history lessons are vital in schools. Have you forgotten that white people have gotten upset that their children are forced to learn our history? We’d challenge the relegation of Black history to an after-school program because that minimizes the importance of our people—yet my friend had no problem recommending that for LGBTQ+ history classes.
And it should be noted that even when we get Black history taught to us in K-12, most of us only get to hear about Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But if we’re going to discuss key figures of the civil rights movement, we need to mention Black queer activists like Bayard Rustin, an organizer of the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and James Baldwin, who penned classic novels and essays exploring racial injustice and the American Black experience. But most schools don’t consider these topics to be important.
If straight Black people believe that schools are going to teach their young children about gay porn and queer sex, they are very much mistaken. LGBTQ+ history is Marsha P. Johnson, a Black transgender woman who played a central role in the Stonewall Riots in the late 1960s. These riots paved the way for the 1970s gay liberation movement, which is as imperative to American history as the civil rights era and the feminist movement. It’s Alan Turing, a British mathematician who is often referred to as the father of the modern-day computer. He was openly gay, and in the early 1950s, he was arrested and punished for his sexual orientation. Queer history is in hip-hop culture too, like when VIBE magazine had two openly gay editors-in-chief in the early ’90s and ’00s—Jonathan Van Meter from 1992 to 1994 and Emil Wilbekin from 1999 to 2004.
Additionally, people should know that schools will set up an age-appropriate curriculum for students depending on their educational stages. Although some parents will continue to try their best to shelter their children from the real world, they can’t stop their kids from being exposed to LGTBQ+ culture because it’s American culture. People like Ellen DeGeneres are staples in American households, and kids’ TV channels like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney are pushing the envelope with cartoons that show same-sex couples and parents.
I was exposed to heteronormativity from a young age, but it didn’t make me straight—so why would exposing children to queer culture force them to be queer? What teaching LGBTQ+ history actually does is create visibility for young people. It leads to inclusivity for future generations who will know that they are important, that their gender identity, sexual identity, and sexuality are not abnormal—no matter what past generations may have believed.
If you have enough energy to preach that Black history is American history, then you should be able to keep that same energy to realize that U.S. history (and world history) includes LGBTQ+ people and culture.
You should be able to recognize that Blackness and queerness are not mutually exclusive. We do our future leaders a disservice when we distort and cut corners of American history, just as our education system headed by white people fails students by ignoring Black history. We must let go of queerphobia, or we’ll find ourselves repeating the same pattern in schools that we’ve fought to change.