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Do It for the Culture: How Are Black Gay Men Empowering Black Gay Men

Ryan Russell, an NFL veteran who has previously played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, came out as bisexual earlier today in a powerful essay for ESPN. Russell opens up about his childhood as a young Black boy forced to split himself into columns: one side straight and the other, gay, which followed him into adulthood and his professional life.

Photo of Russell and his boyfriend serves as the cover shot for many outlets. And on so many levels, I celebrate folx being able to fully embrace who they are, layer by layer. Yet when it came to Ryan, there were a few points of dialogue amongst my circles. Thoughts were not so much centered around his sexuality or his coming out, so much as his expressed partner is a white man.

Conversation swelled around the apparent consistent thread that public-facing Black LGBTQ more often than not are with non-Black partners. The dialogue looked at points like 1. Black people think the have arrived with a white mate 2. Self-hate is usually at the root of these interracial relationships. 3. What message does it send for Black queer people only to have strong, open relationships with non-Black partners.

Personally, I will say the impact it has to see only see representation of yourself partnered with persons who do not look like yourself—the reflexive eye roll, the audible sigh, the instant aversion. Yet in that moment too, personally, I had to look deeper.

With that, I think Black and Black SGL (same gender loving) communities could benefit greatly from some conversations on healthy relationships among Black gay men. Initially, I was upset, frustrated and disappointed about yet again another Black SGL man finding himself in the arms of a non-Black man. But then I thought about the challenge it is for many Black SGL men to embrace vulnerability. Famed research professor and social worker Dr. Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” This principle along impacts all our relationships with each other: as friends, as partners, as colleagues, even with God.

How many times has a Black gay man found out his fellow project associate or new boss or co-presenter is a Black gay man and had an instinctive, “Ooh, girl” without even meeting him? Of course, there is the social experience. Walking into a bar or day party or brunch or nightclub for the first time, overcome with sizing up and the comparing and the cliquing up. Of course, everybody has their shade, but ain’t no shade like Black gay shade.

I think about some of the vulnerable experiences I have had. It’s generally non-Black men who walk directly up to me and say hello, introduce themselves, and say, “I think you’re attractive and I’d like to get to know you.” Its my fellow Brothas who eye you up and down across the room, walk past you multiple times, waiting for me to initiate, or DM me said interest later that night or the next day.

I think that frames how we create and sustain healthy relationships, like the concept of telling another man “I love you” first or even returning the gesture or crying in front of your fellow Black man or saying I feel lonely or scared or inadequate. There are so few spaces that exist for us by us for those moments and arguably even fewer on a one-on-one basis.

And in cyclical form, we perpetuate beliefs and identities of hypermasculinity and venerate these ideals creating an antithesis to the culture of vulnerability. We idealize trade, we throw snappy quips at Black men who explore fashion choices and other forms of expressions, we bottom-shame. And so goes the cycle of unhealthy spaces and relationships for Black SGL men amongst Black SGL men.

And so, what so often happens? Many Black SGL people find respite outside of we ourselves, i.e. in the arms of non-Black men.

We so often underestimate the power in belonging. From fraternities to gangs, people just want to belong, and when we think about how few spaces exist for Black gay men to be as Black gay men and the impact it has to not belong amongst one’s very own community.

I say oftentimes people just need permission to be human. From gender norms to nonbinary expression, we as Black people (not just Black SGL people) should aim to create and sustain affirming spaces for each other. If it’s wearing nail polish to watching Sailor Moon to twerking to Big Ole Freak, we are whole people who deserve to be live and express wholly as full people.

I think instead of attacking individuals, we should look at what are we doing as Black SGL men personally and collectively to create a culture for healthy relationships? And what does shifting the culture look like? It begins by recognizing the humanity one another. Smile, say hello, create a space of acceptance. We show ourselves in a full spectrum of expression. Some of us wear Timbaland boots, some 28 inches, some a fitted tee, some fishnet stockings. Some all at once (clears throat). But that does not make any of us less a part of the community. I get it, everything is not for everybody, but we cannot allow ourselves to create hierarchies and volatile spaces in the very place where we are supposed to belong—amongst we ourselves.

Everything is not Black or white. Sometimes it’s just Black.

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