Photos by danielle c miles
Post Soundtrack – “Ambidextrous” Be Steadwell
The Corner: Corners, neutral grounds, stoops, shade trees and corner stores have long been cornerstones in Black communities across the nnorld. From the exchange of neighborhood gossip to political debates, dominos, chess games on legless tables balanced on the knees of the players, to the trading of goods and services beneath signs that scream “NO LOITERING!”– which is perceived as more of a request than a demand, cornerstores — these locations continue to provide space for gathering and communal expression of Blackness. “The Corner” is an ongoing photo-documentary project takes an intimate look at their confluence in the Black community.
DENISIO: It took longer than usual for us to figure out the theme for this next post. I had initially suggested we write about tribes but the words would not commit to sentences and paragraphs. I’d sit in front of a computer or lay in bed with my phone and watch the cursor on the blank page blink at me tauntingly. Then Mwende suggested we write about our queerness. I realized that if I did so, it would technically be my “coming out” because while most of my friends and every person I’ve been in a relationship with has known that I’m queer, none of my family on the African side (for fear of them shunning me) nor the American side (because I didn’t know them well enough to discuss it) knows. This includes my mother who I will probably need to call shortly after this post goes up…
At an early age I found myself attracted to both girls and boys. When playing house, I would readily volunteer to be the husband or father because that meant I got to kiss another girl’s face and also that I wasn’t on baby duty. I received my first kiss (that didn’t involve make-believe) from a girl in Liberia named Ti-tah. There’s not a great deal I remember from that age but I remember every line that made up her face. She was a year older than me, tall and slender with eyes like bowls carved from obsidian. Her braids jutted from her scalp like a complex organization of brown vines arranged in a crown. In her ear she wore a little heart shaped stud that I had gifted her (though I told my mom I had lost) while I kept the other. She was one of my closest friends for the short time I lived there, and I remember feeling something more for her than friendship but being unable to fully comprehend or articulate it into the words a grade school child would understand.
I never saw myself as getting married. I myself was a child of divorce and with the exception of one aunt, I didn’t have many other examples of marriage growing up. When my parents separated, my mother and I moved from the mountains of Colorado to the sprawling suburbs of Maryland to live with her older sister and my younger cousin. They joked about my mom being the mother and my aunt being the father, and in a very stereotypical “playing house” way it was true. My mother was emotional and sensitive. My aunt was firmer but loving. The family unit worked.
As I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve always been incredibly shy and also extremely private. Before the advent of social media I kept everything to myself. When I was old enough to date, I did so silently and had a few boyfriends/girlfriends before getting serious with anyone. That first serious relationship was while I was still in high school with a girl a few years older than me, “R”. She was kind, funny and beautiful in the way super models are beautiful. Oval face. Sharp cheekbones. Perfect skin. She rocked low cut fades before they were popular. She wore a nose ring and long skirts with army boots. “R” loved thrifting and introduced me to Toni Morrison and Nina Simone. I often snuck out of the house and lied about sleepovers at friend’s houses to be with her.
I had no words to describe my sexual orientation at 16. I knew that I loved “R” and wanted to be with her. I knew that she treated me kindly and was patient. But I was also from a very Catholic, very African family and knew that whatever I was they would disapprove. I worried that my friends, many of whom were African, wouldn’t be able to relate. She was out, I was not. She did not like that I was so secretive about our relationship and rightfully so. But I was afraid. Our relationship ended and she left me with a tattered copy of The Bluest Eye, a silver pendant, and a void where her love had been. I would try to fill that void many times over. I fell in love again. And again. And again. I craved love. Out loud I scoffed at it and put up a clever guise. But when I was alone I felt the familiar tug at my heart; the child begging, pleading for something she was incapable of handling.
So here I am, 32 years old, a black queer femme who falls in love with people regardless of gender identity. I was never comfortable with the term bi-sexual; it felt limiting, clinical. Queer is fluid. It doesn’t confine me to boxes I don’t fit into. Being completely truthful with myself, there are times I worry that it is unfair of me to claim my queerness because outwardly I appear to some to be solely hetero and have so for over a decade now. However, even when in relationships with cis-hetero men I continue to feel outside the norm in both orientation and gender identity, which is probably why I’ve always been open about who I am with all of my partners and amongst my closest friends. I am still learning and growing comfortable with my identity.
…And I’ll just leave this post there… with me still learning. 🙂
MWENDE: So yeah this post…Queerness is a topic I find myself shying away from writing about in any form (poetry or otherwise) for reasons I haven’t quite yet sorted out, so I’m just going to start writing and see where this goes…don’t expect it to be exceptionally pretty writing, but expect it to be exceptionally honest (and potentially a bit scattered) 😀
I mentioned in an earlier post that I left home before finishing high school, but before I did, my parents and I had a few difficult conversations about where I was at in life. Somewhere in one of these conversations, they asked me if I was gay and told me in no uncertain terms that if I was, they would not love me any less and nothing would change in our family. Even though I was at a point where I was sure that I wasn’t straight, I was going through so many other things that I wasn’t able to see the space to step into myself that my parents were offering. At the same time, I still wasn’t exactly sure what I was even though I wasn’t straight, so I didn’t have the language to tell my parents where I stood in relationship to myself and my attraction to other people (I kinda sorta came out to them earlier this year because I was given a presentation at a panel and they were in the audience and I was talking about my experience as a Queer Black woman. On the way home, my mom and I talked about what it meant to be Queer and LGBTQ in general and told me a story about a man in her village growing up who one day decided to live his life as a woman, but they didn’t call him Trans. It made me start to think alot about language and labeling). I knew I wasn’t a lesbian because as I started to recognize my attraction to women I didn’t stop liking men, the term bisexual never sat well with me for some reason, and I was lost on how to figure out my sexuality because I wasn’t really sexually active with anyone. At that time, the Q in LGBTQ also stood for Questioning as far as I understood (it wasn’t until halfway through college I even heard the term ‘Queer’ to describe sexuality), and even though I knew I wasn’t straight and didn’t know what I was, I also didn’t really feel like I was questioning who I was either, so I tucked away the exploration of my sexuality as something I would do when I went to college and ‘explored myself’ which is what I heard was part of the college experience.
It didn’t quite work out that way. I ended up taking a year off in between high school and college and moved to New Orleans where I started dating a boy named Anthony. We were together until the fall of my sophomore year, and by then even though I wasn’t active in many student groups, I had picked up on the true colors of the LGBTQ scene at Tulane and it wasn’t rainbow colored, it was white and…well…more white. Until my senior year, my experience of Queerness at Tulane was pretty much contextualized by friendships with white lesbian and gay people filled with drinking and their relationship drama. These friends often failed to see the intersections of sexuality beyond their own identities and I like many Queer women of color on campus felt silenced and erased in these spaces and friendships, even the ones who continued to show up after I removed myself. I know because in my senior year, a growing group of Black and Brown women, Queer and not Queer, began demanding our spaces and our stories be heard in these groups and were often met with disbelief of our experiences, misunderstanding or well meaning white guilt, and we started to talk to one another about it. During this time I realized how lucky I was in high school to have such a tender group of Black and Brown Queer and not Queer friends and a family that came to me offering acceptance before I was even ready for it.
On another note, in college the Black student groups I was a part of weren’t doing much more to be intersectional in their work either and create space for Black LGBTQ people. When I made a decision to be more active in student groups to try to do my part to push the campus in a better direction for Black students, I ended up taking a leadership position in the Black Student Union and spent so much time just fighting to bring Blackness into conversation I often forget or was too exhausted to demand Blackness in all its forms be brought in by myself. I remember one BSU meeting in particular where I felt especially defeated. It was in the last semester of my senior year and I came late to a BSU meeting another Executive Board member was running because I was hairline deep in planning the Black Arts Festival and ignoring all of my other responsibilities. I sat on the perimeter of the conversation circle of about 20 people who were talking about Black womanhood (it was Women’s History Month). I don’t really remember what led to the comment or what was said, but a student said something that I, and from what I could tell from their reactions, some other folks in the room, thought was homophobic. I remember looking at the people who reacted waiting for them to respond, including the facilitator who happened to also be a Queer Black person and realizing that they were looking at me as if I was supposed to collect this person even though we all heard a wrong occur. I was generally exhausted and overwhelmed at that particular time in college, and a large part of that had to do with often feeling like I was the only one demanding accountability from folks and I just remember feeling in that instant like I didn’t have the energy to take on another fight, no matter how small. The moment passed after someone muttered something and the original speaker strongly defended his statement, and I left that night wondering if I would ever find a space I would have to fight to be Black and African and woman and Queer.
This story, my story, is the one I usually want to tell when people ask me about being LGBTQ and African, but too often instead of telling my own story or understanding of being LGBTQ and African, I spend time filling in the gaps of other people’s stories because they are so monolithic. I also recognize that I didn’t grow into my sexuality in an African country, though I did in an African context, so I’m never quite sure what chapter my story gets in the book of African sexuality. Sometimes it feels like a footnote. Most of the time, an incomplete sentence.
Often, when I talk outside a personal level, I like to use the story of a person I know in Kenya named Cleo to illustrate how varied just one experience of being LGBTQ in Africa can be (you can read a full interview I did with her here on the subject). Cleo is a Trans woman originally from Uganda who does work in the LGBTQ community in Kenya where she now lives. Last we spoke, Cleo was telling me of the vibrant and growing LGBTQ scene back home, how there is somewhat increasing social (though not yet political) recognition of LGBTQ people in Kenya. She told me about the health and social work her organization was doing with LGBTQ identified people in Kenya and told me about how her and her partner Nelson walk down the street and openly embrace each other in Kenya’s LGBTQ scene. And although this is where I wish I could end the story, it would be so incomplete without mentioning that recently Kenya’s president called LGBTQ matters ‘a non-issue’ and to not also mention that the only reason Cleo is even in Kenya in the first place is because she was outed on the front page of a tabloid magazine in Uganda after the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act was passed (it has since been ruled invalid in Ugandan courts). I always tell that story in that order though because too often people get caught up in the homophobic element of the story and sticking to that being the only point of discussion as if thats the single story of Africa’s relationship to its LGBTQ children. I am trying to get more and more comfortable with telling my story because I am one of those children and its been said and proven that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you.
The way I’m dressed in this shoot is really how I feel most comfortable. It’s the style that I came into during high school when I stopped giving a damn about what people thought of me and is just a rotation of comfy, half spandex jeans, graphic shirts with the neck cut off and comfortable, usually old shoes (nothing like a good broken in pair. And I walk funny so it takes a while for my shoes to get right). It’s based more on comfort than anything but its been kinda cool that recently this book has become ‘in’ (or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Whats not so cool is how expensive this has managed to make T-shirts but I digress…). Back then, it made people think I was gay which didn’t really bother me that much, but these days my everyday clothing doesn’t really seem to have meaning except to myself.
Like I said in a previous post, the days I dress like this are the days I feel most at home in my own skin. The days I feel I am most willing to embrace and accept all parts of myself, even the ones I’m not that comfortable in yet because at least on the outside, I’m as comfortable as can be.
– This has been a Noirlinians & New Orleanians shoot. Thank you to all the folks who took part! –
Noirlinians is a love story by two wandering Daughters of the African diaspora