Pondering Pride as a Black, Gay Male
The month of June was chosen for LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As I celebrate pride, I can’t help but to ponder what it means for me to be a black gay man in America. The best way I can answer this question is through an analogy of my childhood favorite/cult classic film, Jim Henson’s “Labyrinth” with David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly: it’s like an ongoing battle through a labyrinth with limited time and no roadmap. Labyrinth commences with a scene with Sarah (Connelly) a sixteen-year-old, an avid reader of fantasy fiction and the protagonist of the film, reciting a play by memory in a park; struggling to remember the last line, she is reminded of her babysitting duties when it suddenly rains. Upon arrival home, Sarah gets into an argument with her stepmother about babysitting her half-brother, Toby, while they go out for a dinner date. Sarah, frustrated by Toby taking one of her favorite toys (a teddy bear) and crying profusely, she wishes Tobey to be taken away by the Goblin King Jareth (Bowie), the movie’s antagonist. Jareth, in fact, does take Toby and gives Sarah thirteen hours to solve his labyrinth and find him before Toby is turned into a goblin forever. This forces Sarah on a hero's journey through a mysterious labyrinth, and eventually to the court of the goblin king himself. After a host of obstacles, Sarah eventually secures Toby's release after defeating Jareth and breaking the spell that he's cast. At first thought, it’s natural to connect this storyline to a modern fairy tale. But taking a second look, the film’s symbolic reference can go beyond a fairy tale: an allegory about an older man seducing a younger woman through mind control and the risks she faces in losing her innocence; each scene refers to a particular aspect of the process. It is with this allegory, which I will use to describe my journey as a black gay male in America.
It can cut deep and leave permanent damage.
In mind control terms, baby Toby represents Sarah’s core personality that was taken away by Jareth, her handler. As long as Jareth holds Sarah’s core persona, he will be able to make her go through the Labyrinth – which will represent her programming. In my personal journey, Toby can be seen as my core personality. Jareth, the handler, can be seen as the society or the outside world. The labyrinth itself can be seen as my life in its totality. Unlike some individuals within the LGBTQ community, I don’t have a background story involving child molestation by a same-sex person. Nor do I have a story about how, after years of dating women, I realized I was a gay man – I have never even kissed a woman, let alone dated one. My earliest memory of identification with my sexuality came before I even understood what sexuality meant. In elementary school, I was ostracized constantly by classmates who called me everything from a “sissy” to a “fag.” At this early stage, I was unaware of what it meant to be gay, but I recognized the negative connotation that came with the term. The constant bullying in school distorted my psyche to the extent that I thought the term and its negative connotation like the scarlet letter defined who I was as a person. I did not think I was smart, nor attractive. At an early age, my mother would have me look at myself in the mirror every day and say out loud something positive about myself.
To some, I am a very shy, reserved, allusive person. And until recently, I never really stopped to think about why I am a private person. When I was in the second or third grade, I attended a birthday sleepover with some neighborhood boys, one of them being my best friend. Naturally, as kids, we were in the period of exploring our own bodies and its constant evolution. We played a game in which we took turns showing our private parts to each other. Somehow, it became me who was linked as a conspirator of the act. My best friend’s mother decided that she did not want us to be friends anymore because she perceived me to be a negative influence on him. She had my best friend transferred to a different elementary school and, while he lived literally across the street from me, I never spoke to him again. The story spread around the neighborhood and parents chose to shun me as well. From that point, I have always been very reserved about who I open myself up to in fear of rejection simply for me being me. My childhood experiences also created the foundation of my battle with mental health (severe anxiety and depression). Like in labyrinth, I have allowed outside factors (Jareth) to control my mind (Toby) and how I view myself.
It can feel like a habitual battle between yourself and the rest of the world.
Inside the Labyrinth, Sarah quickly realizes that the labyrinth itself does not obey the rules of reality. She finds herself walking never-ending straight paths leading to nowhere. Sarah then learns that it is only by mentally picturing an entry towards the castle that one will appear. She must make her own path within her own mind. Black gay man carry the double-edged sword of adversity, battling with not only being a black man but also being a gay man. The presumptive identity of black men as slaves evolved to the presumptive identity of black men as a criminal. Black men are constantly faced with the fear of being shot because of a presumption that they may be carrying a weapon. A few months ago, while on sick leave, I went to work to use a vacant office on a different floor of my building to avoid seeing colleagues on my designated floor. A fellow employee, a white man, barged into the office and demanded that I identify myself, without him having identified himself. I told him I was an employee on a different floor and explained to him the purpose of me using the vacant office. He proceeded to ask further questions and I decided to not respond. Subsequently, the white male employee called the police on me. Unfortunately, racially biased presumption based on institutionalized racism is not uncommon for black men in America. Men of color in the United States, particularly black men, are burdened with the presumption of guilt and dangerousness. Adding an additional layer of adversity, gay men continuously suffer hardship for choosing to live in their truth. Society has condemned homosexuality as unnatural and sinful. While some may say that we have gained progress in gay rights (i.e., Obergefell v. Hodges which legalized same-sex marriages) that have led many to come out of the closet and live in their truth, many of us are out of the closet and yet still feel the same isolation. Depression is prevalent among gay men, wherein gay men are three times more likely to experience depression compared with the general adult population (Cox, 2006; King et al., 2008). The tyranny of whiteness in America both emasculates black men and places an expectation of hypermasculinity. The black community has adapted a very strong and distinctive perception of what a masculine man looks like. A perception I have never attained. Living with these two identities at times feels like you have to carry an armor on your chest every day just to gain respect. As a child, I was ostracized for being thin and flamboyant. While I never had a desire to be a woman, I often identified with the common interest of women. I preferred reading over sports. I preferred barbies over GI Joe; I preferred musicals over action films. But yet, that does not make me any less of a man than the next one. My mother has raised me to be a strong, self-sufficient man who can stand up for himself and is not afraid to fall. Like Sarah, I had to find my own path within my own mind.
It can be a bumpy road full of turns that inadvertently send you in the wrong direction.
At the onset of Sarah’s quest, she has trouble finding turns and corners; she meets a talking worm, who provides guidance but inadvertently sends her in the wrong direction. As a black gay male, it can be very easy to get caught up in pitfalls of the gay experience. Perception takes precedence over truth. It’s like you finally break into the community expecting this overabundance of love and acceptance and you realize that everyone else here has baggage as well. Now it becomes rejection not because of your sexuality, but because of your race, your residential neighborhood, your body, your education. My first year of law school at Howard University, I befriended a fellow medical student at Howard who introduced me to a circle of black, educated gay men. At first, I finally felt a sense of connection to a group of people – a feeling I have never felt before. The moment of feeling inclusion quickly died. The commonality that brought us together is what drew us apart. Gay men are not particularly nice to one another. In pop culture, Drag queens are known for their takedowns and shadiness in what appears to be in jest, but the meanness is almost compulsive. All of us are deeply confused or have been lying to ourselves for a major chunk of our lives, but it is not always comfortable to show that to other people. So, instead of embracing one another with love and encouragement, some of us show other people what the world shows us: nastiness. Being a gay man, you tend to gravitate towards those who live a similar lifestyle (homosexuality). However, over time you figure out those individuals who are only meant to be in your life for a season and those who are lifelong friends.
It can be an oubliette (a place to forget about things).
As Sarah gets closer and closer to Jared’s castle to rescue her baby brother, her journey is placed on a halt when she has a dream where Jareth comes to her at a masquerade ball, proclaiming his love for her, but she begins to remember and escapes, falling into a junkyard. After an old Junk Lady fails to brainwash her and her memory is jogged, she is rescued by friends she met along the way, and they are right outside Goblin City near the castle. Much like the film, it easy to become distracted with the gay nightlife that allows you to escape reality and subsequently avoid your main priorities and your life goals. My first year of law school was a nightmare, to say the least. I was constantly stressed, my anxiety level was skyrocket high while being placed in a competitive environment full of eager students who are fighting to be one of the top 10% of the class. D.C. nightlife became my anguish and oubliette. Nightlife partying became a game of finding someone who would would buy me drinks and drive me home. While trying to establish myself within the black gay community, I lost sight of my primary goals that lead me to moving to the city in the first place.
It can be an empowering moment when things finally come into full circle.
The climatic part of the movie is when Sarah finally gains access into the castle. In a room modeled after an Escher staircase drawing, drawing, she confronts Jareth while trying to retrieve Toby. She recites the lines from her play that mirror her adventure to that point, but she still cannot remember the last line. As Jareth begs her to fear him and obey him, promising he will love her, and give her anything she wants, she remembers the line, "You have no power over me!" Defeated at the last second, Jareth returns Sarah and Toby home safely and turns into a barn owl, flying away. Being a black gay man in America is like a blue print to mind control. It is to constantly question your own identity and the intentions of others around you. Luckily, through deep soul searching and a positive support system, I know who I am. And while, I am proud to be a black gay man, I also realize that those two characteristics do not define me. I am Randal. I am a loving son and brother, I am a devoted partner, I am a dog owner, I am an attorney, I am an Ivy League graduate, I am a HBCU graduate, I am a Michigander, I am a poet, I am a fiction novel enthusiast, I am a dreamer, I am a runner. Most importantly, I am unapologetically proud to be someone who dares to be different while in search for my own idealistic journey toward the American dream.