By: Beylul Russom
“How would you know? You’re straight so it’s easy for you.”
It doesn’t make sense. What did I say? What did I do wrong? It truly left me speechless. It took me a couple of minutes before my conscious kicks in. Here I am, a straight black woman at a black queer lives forum. Despite the physical similarities, I’m different from everyone else in the room. I did the one thing that gave me away, quickly becoming the elephant in the room.
I was promoting a heterosexual normative in the housing sector while dismissing the disproportionate number of queer people of color attaining and sustaining adequate housing. Because I was never affected by it, I was vulnerable to commit a hiccup. I was called out on it, which was necessary to help me learn and reshape the skewed perceptions that I had.
As a black woman, society grants me very few privileges. The weight that is carried by black women to be everything while treated as nothing can be damaging. I have become accustomed to telling my white friends that being black is less of a characteristic of who you are and more of an experience that you have.
It’s difficult for a narrow society to conceive blackness as multi-layered and dimensional. My black is different than the other black women next to me through differences physically, emotionally, and through complexities in upbringings and beliefs. Often times, Black women are taught a certain way and are treated a certain way to fulfill outdated standards that continue to suppress us from achieving their fullest potentials.
Contemporary America doesn’t grant me the luxury to be whomever I choose without opposing public opinion, scrutiny or both. So often, during the discussion of privilege, I position myself to explain it. With that said, I’m proud of being a black woman even though it took me awhile to realize it.
College was the first place I acknowledged and embraced who I was. It was the first place that exposed me to people of all cultures and backgrounds and it granted me the opportunity to intermix and celebrate our differences. My school put on events like, ‘International Night’, to give underrepresented students the chance to meet other students, community members, and faculty while explaining our identities. It was at that event where I would meet my best friend, Allison.*
Allison and I are alike in many ways. We go the same lady to have our hair braided, we both know how to get under each other’s skin, and we both so happen to be black. I like to think of us as sisters as nothing is off limits. I support her and she supports me and that level of trust built is uncompromising. Secrets are told then quickly locked away with a childish yet necessary pinky promise. I hope everyone has their own ‘Allison’ who they can depend on.
Allison came out this year as lesbian. I remember the moment after she came out and looked at me and asked me if I was okay her sexuality. Like any good friend, I said yes. Her sexuality didn’t and still doesn’t concern me but only made me realize that I knew very little about the LGBT community. Despite having known so little, I boastfully called myself an ally and advocate for LGBT rights because I knew deep down it was the right thing to do.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love being right but I took me three months to swallow my pride and finally attend a black queer lives forum that was taking place at my university. Allison was my support and jokingly told me I could learn a thing or two. Although I laughed along, I internally began to shut it down. It’s not because of the people who would be there but because I convinced myself I knew the information that would be presented. Certainly I got more than I had bargained for.
The forum consisted of three speakers, who were all accomplished LGBT researchers in their respected fields . The dialogue shied itself from the common discussions like marriage equality while still recognizing it’s importance. Instead, the speakers began to dissect how the system was set up to scold and demean queer people, especially black LGBT individuals. The implications of jobs, insurance, military, religious suppression were examined and as they were I could feel knots begin to form in my stomach.
It was the nauseating feeling of discomfort. As the forum went on, participants were invited to give testimonies of their struggles being LGBT. It dawned on me while they were sharing their experiences that I had never once experienced anything that was being said. I never acknowledged my heterosexuality before and at that moment it was hitting me like a ton of bricks. All I knew before was watered down evidence of coercion perfectly formulated for my consumption. Therefore I interpreted it as smaller than life circumstances.
I felt angry that I had let myself dissolve into such ignorance that I thought I would never engage in. The lack of knowledge is complemented by the erased history of LGBT people and their contributions. Mainstream media continues to paint pictures of LGBT men and women as hypersexual and predominately white.
We are expected to praise Caitlyn Jenner and clap for all her accomplishments but yet we’ve been trained to not bat an eye at the rising number of trans black women being killed in the streets. If I had not gone to that forum who else would’ve provided me with this information?
It baffles me to think that Allison could be denied insurance, could be kicked out of an apartment, and denied services based on her sexual orientation without people knowing who she is or what she’s done, but only focusing on her romantic interests. Little does the world know that Allison is a straight-A student, speaks three languages, has a night job as a tutor, and sends money to her family in Jamaica.
I have to acknowledge the privileges my heterosexuality gives me so I can better advocate. Undoubtedly, it’s uncomfortable to come to terms with it and for years I’ve dismissed how I’ve benefited from it. For the sake of all the “Allisons” in the world who are unjustly oppressed and feel they’ve been drowned out, we have to desire to learn, listen, and accept the discrepancy of others and welcome the diversity of people around us. There is no reason for doubt as it is simultaneously possible to better your life while helping others.
*Writers Note: Allison* is a name change to protect the referenced individual’s identity.