Gabrielle Thomas knew she was a girl when she was 5 years old.
She grew up in Graves County, Kentucky, where she recalls her Black peers bullying her for being flamboyant before she ever experienced racism for being Black.
“Some of the bullies that did that to me back home have been, ‘Oh Black Lives Matter,’ and they’ve been posting events and doing all this stuff,” she says. “And I’m like, wait a minute. Did my life matter when you were picking on me?”
Some Black LGBTQ+ people living in Nashville are struggling to figure out their role in the current Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s put race at the forefront of the nation’s conversation again. But some Black queer communities think more attention needs to be paid to all aspects of their identities.
When Thomas arrived in Nashville 10 years ago, she started to transition, but the gay men she hung out with saw her as a man playing dress up, not the woman that she is. “So I had to take myself away from the gay community to actually find out who I was,” she says. “Because I was like, ‘Why am I trying to be something that I’m not to impress these people?’”
It’s difficult for some Black LGBTQ+ people to find places that welcome and affirm who they are.
Cisgender people who were murdered by police have dominated the demand for reform — people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
In the current movement it’s not uncommon to see a “Black Trans Lives Matter” sign or shirt. But one name that hasn’t been talked about as much is Tony McDade, a Black trans man who was killed by a Florida police officer in late May. Last year, at least 27 trans people were killed throughout the United States.
“And it’s hard for us to want to support the movement because we know if it was us in that situation they wouldn’t be out there holding signs with our faces on it,” Thomas says. “They wouldn’t be painting our faces on walls and things like that. They wouldn’t riot for us. We would be just another man that’s murdered to them.”
She says Black communities needs to have an internal conversation to ensure the statement “Black Lives Matter” leaves no Black person out.
Learning to see discrimination as shared
Eric Gonzaba studies African American and LGBTQ+ history at California State University, Fullerton. He says dominant leaders of political and social movements haven’t always embraced the idea that some people struggle with multiple layers of oppression because of their identities.
In fact, he says, in the 1960s Black activists like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin didn’t publicly talk about their identities as gay men. He notes that Rustin was even arrested for consensual sexual contact in Los Angeles.
“He often did not feel he could be as open and talk about it as vividly in the 1960s.”
But in 1970, Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton addressed the need for the Black movement to embrace the emerging women and gay liberation movements.
“He’s saying, ‘I have trouble with this because I am a masculine African American man and I think gay men and their femininity can be a threat to this image of Black power and Black masculinity. On the other hand, I understand this discrimination is shared. Injustice against gay people is an injustice against African Americans.’”
That’s changed during the Black Lives Matter movement because it’s decentralized, so it’s up to people on the ground to set the agenda. Gonzaba says that puts the focus on the work — and not on who’s doing it — so it can be easier for people of different identities to recognize the discrimination they face and fight together for liberation.
When Kashif Graham came out as a gay man in Cleveland, Tenn., he imagined he would be free from prejudices and accepted into a welcoming gay community. Instead, racism greeted him as he found his way from there to Nashville.
“Roles have been carved out for people and so you have the role of the Black bull, you have the high fem this, and x, y, z. And in some of those spaces, I feel like they hamper my authentic expression because I’m neither of those things,” he says. “So rather than fight in those spaces with the prevailing ideas, I would rather not frequent them.”
Recognizing roles in oppression
Although Graham faces his own struggles of oppression as a Black queer person, he recognizes his privilege as a man. He says everyone must think of intersectionality and question their role in oppressing other groups. As an example, he notes that forms used by organizers often ask people to choose a gender — male or female.
Graham says it’s important for local movement leaders to think of every group in the rainbow when making demands for reform, to ensure specific needs are being addressed.
Graham says he had to educate himself as an adult not to play into respectability politics. He’s Jamaican American, and it was engrained in him that foreign Black people were better than African Americans.
Now he isn’t open to connecting with anyone that hasn’t reflected on anti-Blackness, white supremacy or internalized homophobia.
“The pride flag for me has reminded me of the American flag,” he says. “I want so desperately to love it. If I was in the wilderness and I saw the American flag, my sisters and I would probably drop to our knees and cry and think of familiarity and think of some place that feels like home.
“But on the other hand that flag reminds me of being ignored — both the American flag and the pride flag.”
He says people are finally realizing the ways they’ve been complicit in oppressing others and that the symbols of freedom are being redefined.