Friday, July 3, 2015

#ITLQBM – Leslie Speaks

Intersectionality Through the Lens of a Queer Black Man

It is with some reservation and hesitance that I post this profile picture because there is so much I want to say about my identity and there is only so much time and space for me to do so. I am very grateful to Seek for his work on these images. 

To say I am black and gay is a limiting identification and not a full representation of who I am in totality but I do believe for the sake of this discussion it should shed some light on my struggles and accomplishments. My experience may be very different from others who live at the intersection of black and gay.

In my early years, from elementary until the spring semester of my sixth grade year I lived amongst black people and I attended a predominantly black school. I was constantly taunted and bullied – it was very common for me to be called a fag at least once a day. Through much therapy, reflection, and prayer over the last ten years, I now understand how traumatic this experience was and how it has shaped who I am today.

After we moved to the suburbs during my sixth grade year, I found acceptance and peace among white people. I was not taunted and bullied. And maybe using the word acceptance is an overstatement but I never felt shut out or marginalized. My grades went from C’s and D’s to A’s and B’s. This wonderful transition came at a cost. Due to the trauma I experienced amongst black people and the welcome I experienced among white people, I developed a bad case of internalized racism. For years I despised my skin because it was people who looked like me who showed me so much hate – white was obviously right and certainly best for me. I remember being asked to be the Master of Ceremony for a Black History program and I was worried about what it might look like for me to do so but the gay side of me couldn’t resist the spotlight so I accepted the opportunity.

To this day, I’m still friends with some of these folks who showed me so much love during my formative years. To this day, these same friends who are white, conservative Christians and Republicans have shown support for gay marriage while still holding their religious convictions regarding homosexuality. To me, they have embodied Christian love better than some liberal Christians I know.

The hate I felt for my skin was one of the major driving factors for my success. I worked hard to put myself in environments that made me feel comfortable and those environments were the void of black people for the most part. I had to do what was comfortable for me and in doing so garnered much success.

The Navy was no different! I felt I had to work very hard to get ahead of everyone else not because I am gay but because I am black. No one in the Navy knew this. No one in the Navy, not even my boyfriend at the time, knew how much I sought success in order to get ahead of everyone else so that I might not be considered “one of them.” Yet again in the Navy it was white people who welcomed and supported me, and on occasion, when I was harassed it was by black people, and that only further reinforced my internalized racism.

It wasn’t until I went to Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York that my internalized racism was challenged. My academic advisor, Dr. James Cone, forced me, literally forced me to claim my identity. I was so against defining myself that I almost failed his class. At the same time, the school itself engaged in a level of racism I had never experienced. The school struggled to understand the black experience. It struggled to understand the evangelical experience as well. It was institutional racism that opened my eyes, and at the age of 32 I started the journey of learning how to love myself. I was very outspoken about racism at Union, and little did anyone know, I had just begun to love my skin. I graduated with honors because of my outspoken work regarding race and much needed changed at Union. Many have criticized Union and still stand in opposition of the institution but I think it was the academic rigor and the institutionalized racism that changed my life for the better. The school gave me my voice by giving me an opportunity to finally experience racism and to speak against it.

For years I abused my body, contemplated suicide, and shut out the black experience. It has been a struggle that I don’t wish on anyone. All the while everyone saw success and a person with great promise, there was a struggle going on inside of me. I was fighting for my life! When people talk about getting delivered, I want to share with them that I didn’t need to get delivered from homosexuality, I needed to get delivered from people, places, and things that didn’t affirm the fullness of my identity.

As we celebrate the Freedom to Marry and the advancement of the Gay Rights movement, we should also conduct an internal audit of the gay movement itself. We suffer from racism. We are not stepping up for the Transgender community. We are not stepping up for the education of all children. We are not stepping up for hunger and food insecurity. We are not saying, “This movement is about more than marriage or rights in the workplace.” More than anything, we have also failed to see that our movement is a movement of justice and that none of us are free until all people are free. Never before has one movement cut across all identities: race, class, gender, poverty, hunger, immigration, religious freedom, and so much more. This is our power! We need to claim it! We need to harness it for the good of the diverse identities in the LGBT movement. I long for the day when the Pride flag will be a symbol not just of the gay movement but the movement of justice.

I am so grateful to my Mother who has shown me nothing but acceptance even when I didn’t accept myself. I am so grateful to my Father and Step-Mother who through their struggles being an interracial couple have shown me how to press on when others don’t want to affirm your relationship. I am so grateful for my mixed-race sisters who have added another layer of complexity to how I discuss race and identity. I’m so grateful to Unity of Houston for teaching me how to value myself as a unique expression of God – there will never be another me! I’m so grateful to Pilgrim Congregational Church in Houston (a historic and predominantly black church) that welcomed me and Marcus with open arms. I am grateful to Union Theological Seminary for just being…well, Union! I am grateful to all the students at Union who called me to be a voice for them. I am grateful to Cathedral of Hope-Houston for welcoming me and allowing me to just be me. I am grateful for all of my experience, even the ones that pushed me to the edge of taking my life. More than anything, I’m grateful to Marcus for being a proud black man that knew I was struggling with race yet stood by me. All of this has made me who I am!

I am grateful to be one of the unique expressions of the ever-living God who chose to express himself as me: a beautiful Black and Gay Christian man with moderate theological and political views. I am grateful to still be a work in progress. The Master is not done with me yet! And for that, I AM OH SO GRATEFUL!

What I once perceived as a weakness has become my greatest strength. In the words of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Leslie Jackson