The Politics of Erasure: Too Queer to Be Black, Too Black to Be Queer

Originally posted on For Harriet.

Years ago, I was invited to a discussion about coming out experiences for queer folks, and the whole room was white except for me. When it was my turn to talk about my personal experiences in coming out to my family, I was asked if I had difficulty being gay in my community and if my family was surprised because it was “rare to be a gay black woman.”

I shut the whole room down and immediately addressed how anti-Blackness and queerphobia makes me more of a target for violence from white people than my own people. But I realized mid-justified-rage that it wasn’t worth educating these particular white queer folks because it was labor that came at the cost of my mental health. I let it go as a one-time bad experience, and tried to hope for the best in the next queer spaces I was invited to.

The next time I attended a queer space—that, based off the invite list, seemed more multiracial compared to the one I had previously attended—I was set up yet again. I walked into the room and was greeted with cultural appropriation and fetishizing off jump.

“Hey, gurl, yasssss, your whole life is on fleek!”

Can we not?

Being tokenized as a bridge to Black queer culture and language (EX: shade, bae, read, YAS bitch YAS, tea, slay, gag, etc.) and Black pop culture references (Beyoncé, Nicki, Trina, Lil’ Kim, etc.) is extremely violent and dehumanizing. I am also tokenized as a Black fat femme “vending machine” that only exists to give everyone else “life” with my confidence (re: inspiring white people with my resilience and power). Or to perhaps start a fight for you if shit goes down in a social setting (re: Love & Hip Hop politicking). I only get praise for my Blackness when it is commoditized as social currency or for my ability to support other non-Black folks in being the token Black fat femme.

When I parade my Blackness (and pride in being Black) within my queer navigation of the world, I'm often met with silence and discomfort. Even more so, I'm met with violent denials of non-Black privilege or stereotypes of Black people being very queerphobic. I have many stories of how I am targeted more by the police, erased from queer resources, romantically ignored in queer spaces, and never taken seriously when I talk about intimate partner violence due to my intersecting identities (re: not being viewed capable of victimhood). I am often erased from writing opportunities or scholarship in discussing my queerness because I cannot separate my experiences from my Blackness. In addition, when I was arrested while participating in a #BlackLivesMatter protest, none of the queer multiracial groups within my local area reached out once to protect any of the queer Black folks assaulted by the police.

On the other hand, in most Black spaces, my queerness takes a back seat unless it is defined as a Black queer space. It is important to note that Black spaces aren't more queerphobic than other designated spaces but rather that many Black spaces are operating under white supremacist guidelines that restrict everyone to adhere to notions of heteronormativity and have limited access to tools of certain language. Within this heteronormativity and inaccessibility comes a deeply misguided belief that queerness doesn't need to be uplifted or centered in a way that challenges the hegemonic idea that everyone is straight, cis-identifying, or cisnormative. (I use queerness as an umbrella term for sexuality, gender identity, and gender presentation that is considered deviant.) Queerness is seen as the minority, a once in a lifetime friend you meet—but not a thriving community that many Black people belong to, and thus, worth integrating into our idea of what “normal” is.

These ideas of normal for open Black spaces usually uplift Black cisgender, straight people. In my work within the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I am overwhelmed by how often I put my queerness aside to remain palatable for crowds and behind-the-scenes politicking. For example, I once attended a Black Caucus event specifically to bring together various Black folks from the city together to build a coalition against local issues of anti-Blackness and classism. There was a direct incident in which pronouns were not respected and people were not addressed by their chosen pronouns, because some members didn’t understand the importance of this act. The facilitator wanted to parking lot the issue of pronouns until another time for the sake of building with everyone in the room. The problem with this mentality is that we can’t build with each other if we do not respect everyone’s humanity. None of us are perfect in our politicizing, but intentionally respecting people, even if you don’t understand their identity and truth, is required.

The most violent part of all this is that I’ve felt forced to choose between and prioritize parts of my identity. In creating this hierarchy of my identity, I'm merely trying to survive the non-intersectional world that requires adapting to this violence to navigate it. I realize that I choose Black spaces over queer spaces because for me, there is more violence in spaces that do not qualify my Blackness as worthy rather than my queerness. Yet, in doing this, I am still terrified to be in spaces where patriarchy, misogyny, queerphobia, and transphobia are found, and I still fear for my life and mental health in Black spaces.

There is a deep rooted reality that anti-Blackness is pervasive and perpetuated in our everyday navigation, and to be in a space of non-Black people perpetuating that violence is more triggering than to collect my own people for not seeing me fully. It hurts either way, but I have a preference in what hurt I engage in.

In so many ways, I thrive in Black spaces in ways that I cannot anywhere else. Blackness is so foreign, so cancerous, and so illicit to white supremacy that it is overwhelmingly powerful to be in a room of unapologetic Black people—problematic or not. But queer spaces do not make me feel unified in anything, not even within my sexuality or gender identity. I am queer sexually, in that I date and engage with anyone who peaks my interest regardless of their gender or sexual identity. I am agender, in that I do not identify with a gender. In these components of my identity, my Blackness defines each of them because Blackness is inherently deviant, therefore everything about me will never fit within the confines of white supremacist conformity.

I feel community in being Black and being around Black people. However, the power of that space alone is not enough to sustain me, though, nor does it change the reality of how violent these spaces can be to my well-being and safety. I want more from our overall community than only being able to guarantee safe spaces when I’m part of creating them. But more importantly, I need more to survive and to be my whole self, because I will not compartmentalize my humanity for the sake of everyone else.

The sake of everyone else in the Black community speaks to power systems of who is worthy, who is normal, and who is dominant. Black queer folks have been here, doing the work, surviving the matrices of violence, and still showing up for everyone else. Liberation is not just dependent on Black racial justice. It must include all intersections of our identities. Choosing Blackness out of survival for my own personal navigation and political understanding does not address the reality that we must push our community as a whole to address our Black queer identities, existence, and humanity.

It’s not enough to say #BlackLivesMatter and only mean some.

Ashleigh ShackelfordHome