ActivismSex & Gender

how coming out inspired my activism

October 11, 2018
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Photo by Bumi Thomas for AFROPUNK

“Not everything that is changed can be faced, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

Activism can take on many forms. It’s the simple act of showing up as your true authentic self in often mundane, every day situations—correcting someone about your preferred pronoun, holding the hand of your same-sex partner as you walk down the street, or changing your profile photo on Facebook to a rainbow filter in celebration of PRIDE—or announcing your sexual identity on National Coming Out Day today.

For me, my activism came about from years of being bullied in elementary school and by teenagers in my neighborhood as I delivered the Cincinnati Enquirer on my paper route at 9 years-old. My need to speak my truth when my fellow students at my mostly white college prep, public high school questioned me, the Black boy: “Is your father a drug dealer? He drives a Cadillac.” “No. He’s the Commissioner of Buildings and Inspections for the city and has his own law firm,” I would retort. And with subtle shade ask, “Is your father a drug dealer? He’s driving a Cadillac too.” Blank stare.

But the biggest inspiration for my activism came from my own family. My parents were activists. They refused to be marginalized by the racism of the Jim Crow South and the white supremacy that launched the Civil Rights Movement. Mom and Dad participated in desegregation sit-ins with the NAACP, going out to dinner at restaurants in New York City that were deemed “white only,” from where they were often asked to leave. As African-Americans, my parents refused to be considered “less-than.” Their brilliance defied race and gender norms of the 1960s and ‘70s.

My father was from St. Croix, the youngest of 13 children, and went on to become an architectural engineer, a lawyer and a civil servant. Many of his clients were poor Black coal miners who suffered from black lung disease and needed representation. My mother from Des Moines, Iowa (one of her favorite lines was: “Yes, there are Black people in Iowa.”), who graduated from high school at the age of 16. She went on to college and studied music because she was a child prodigy. Eventually, she went to law school in the early ‘60s while pregnant with my older brother Erik. Yes, imagine a pregnant Black woman attending law school at that time—the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, a decade before the Women’s Rights Movement. She also received her Doctorate in Sociology. Mom went on to become an administrative law judge for the State of Ohio and when they tried to demote her, she sued the state and won. You see, I come from a family of fearless activists and Freedom Fighters.

With all of my parents’ achievements and accolades—their liberal thinking, and dedication to the community—they still were challenged in accepting that their son was gay. My parents were very active in their church and the Black community—this was not on their radar. When I came out, Mom recited scriptures from the Bible. They threatened to disown me. I am adopted so this, on top of being gay, made me feel “less-than,” ashamed and unloved. Abandonment issues ensued.

My brother Erik is the real hero of this story. I had come out to him a year earlier. He too is a lawyer, and he shared that one of his professors was gay and as part of their course study they had to visit an AIDS ward in Washington, DC, to assist the patients with their legal needs. My straight brother became my ally and advocate. He challenged all of us to be empathetic, and to open our hearts and minds to each others’ positions. He promised me that he would support me with Mom and Dad if I promised to not turn my back on my parents but to educate them about my sexual identity, lifestyle and gay culture.

After years of therapy, a lot of uncomfortable conversations and normalizing my gay experience to my parents, they came around. I remember winning the National Magazine Award at VIBE and whispering to my Mom: “You see, I won. It didn’t matter if I’m gay or not.” She squeezed my had and said: “Yes, I know. It might have actually helped you.” We laughed.

Challenging my own parents to accept me was the spark that lead me to become an activist. I realized that there was a community of Black gay/queer men who had similar experiences to me. Many of these men watched me on TV when I was at VIBE and saw me as an example and role model that they could be exactly who they are and be successful in this world. They also saw stories about the Black LGBTQI+ community in the pages of the magazine. They could see themselves in me.

The name of the movement was inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son—a book of previously published essays printed in 1968. Mr. Baldwin was the perfect icon for us because he was a Black queer man who spoke his truth, and an activist who tackled systemic racism and social injustice; he also challenged his father’s patriarchy, and the lack of acceptance of the Black church.

Native Son: Emil Wilbekin, Darnell L. Moore, Michael Arceneaux, Myles E. Johnson at the National Urban League Conference in 2017.

Native Son is inspiration and empowerment for Black gay/queer men. It’s about creating safe spaces where we can come together, have fellowship and see each other. We also want to own our narrative and amplify our visibility in the Black community and the world. Even in 2018, many of us still work in isolation, and representation and inclusion remains unbalanced in the workplace. As we move into the 21st Century, it is important to make sure that people of color are represented, seen and heard. Everywhere!

That is why I am sharing my coming out story here. As Chief Content Officer at AFROPUNK, it is imperative that we give voice and vision to the LGBTQ+ communities of color. We are a queer community at all of our intersections and we celebrate individuality. As with all of my work, I am an activist and want to make sure that while we are creating content and amplifying queer narratives, we are also inspiring people to be liberated, to live their truth, and to feel proud about who they are. This too is a form of resistance. Let’s be free.