As A Black Lesbian, Queerness Is Not Made In My Image
I feel like an exotic intruder in the world of white queers.
I am unable to marry my Blackness and my queerness in my mind. I will pull myself apart.
It starts superficially. I clutch at my hair and despair at the frizz and kink and curl. I go to a white salon for only the third time in my life and ask the gay hairdresser to ‘make me look dykey’. He laughs knowingly and shaves me an undercut that I will rub in disbelief for weeks afterward. Then he cuts my ‘fro into an asymmetric shape that disappears as soon as my hair dries and shrinks up on itself. It is not enough.
I seek out archetypal white queer women. They blur into one another. I want to absorb their neat, slight frames and short, slick hair. I envy their effortless, palatable masculinity and their place at the top of the queer hierarchy. I sleep with one after the other, searching to solidify my sense of self. It is not enough.
I am 18 and have fled to Brighton, the "Gay Capital" of England. I leave the sterile suburbs in the Midlands I have been suffering for the past eight years, ever since I was dragged from my childhood in East London. I tell myself that by the sea I will be free to accept my want for women. I will no longer give myself over to men who repulse and bore me in equal measure.
I am expecting smooth sailing. I haven’t thought to consider that not all queer women are safe harbor.
I study for my degree semi-attentively during the day with my tiny handful of straight friends, and at night I go in search of something more. I start attending a feminist collective made up entirely of queers (and one token straight girl). They all seem sweet enough and I am grateful for the space, though I am often the only Black person present and I learn to brace myself for the flicks of ingrained racism that make me flinch. I become aware that though my queerness is nothing peculiar here in this supposed haven of liberation, my Blackness is.
Brighton is a small city and the same faces swim in my vision at every party, club night, conference, discussion group, and talk. We are all tangled together in a mess of sex and politics. It is a comfort at first — that everyone is everywhere. There is a ubiquity to social situations which I sometimes wistfully mistake for the steadiness of community and chosen family. I come to realize we just have nowhere else to go.
This isn’t to say that I don’t make good friends whom I love and trust. And it’s not to say that I don’t spend many deliriously happy hours downing tequila shots and dancing on sticky dance floors while I thank g-d for my new, gay life. There is just always something missing. I struggle to shake the sense that I am an impostor, an outsider. I know that the ropes tying us together are taut and tenuous and liable to break at any given moment.
Queerness is not made in my image. When I am around white lesbians and bisexual women, I often feel apart. At one gathering I listen to a white lesbian I thought was my friend moan on and on about how "cruel" anti-racist activism is. “What about our feelings; why can’t you just be nice?!” she cries. I resist the urge to kick her in the shins and shake the self-involvedness out of her. She’s more than capable of realizing how ridiculous a straight person would sound if they whined about gay people’s fight for acceptance being hurtful to them. She, and others like her, are blessed with an ability to detach from the politics of life, enabling her to bleat limply about some hippy, kumbaya, let’s-all-just-get-along bullshit that I cannot and will not access.
For them, politics is a separate sphere, detached from the personal. Politics is the fight for "equal" marriage, and the language of sameness that erases our real and vital difference. For them, it is carefully planned protests and meetings and badges and crocheted slogans and decorated cupcakes.
There are also superficial but significant divides between me and the white people around me — like when I’m wondering what the hell anti-folk punk is and why white queers love it so much. Or why they’re all falling over themselves about Sleater-Kinney and Amanda fucking Palmer. Or when I giggle at the way they dance unhindered by adherence to that little thing we call the beat.
I am both staunchly proud of my Blackness and frustrated at the way it separates me from the queer women around me. Sometimes it is a sea and sometimes it is the smallest, sleekest stream, but there is always a space between us. In this space is a bitterness at my inability to ever relax or feel at home. When we go to the gay club, I’m constantly and consistently fighting off white queers who want to touch my hair and tell me stories about their Black friends and snap their fingers at me and call me girlfriend. In a place that is meant to be mine as a member of the LGBT community, I feel like an exotic intruder. So I try to drain the ocean, to suck the river dry. To fix a facade of content.
I start seeing a white queer a few years older than me.
I look at her thin, white, masculine body. I look at my curvy, brown, feminine body. I think about how I endure people day in day out touching me, grabbing me, taking me as their own. I know that she will not understand, and worse, that she doesn’t want to. She thinks my anger is pathological, some kind of inherent flaw, rather than the understandable result of the residual buildup of years of racist and misogynistic microaggressions.
She is the epitome of cool, moneyed queerness, living in a beautiful townhouse with high ceilings and even higher rent. She is clearly uncomfortable when I talk about the racial tensions in the queer community and thinks it odd that I "allow" myself to be upset by such things.
After our first date, we kiss on the beach. After our third date, she tells me that she doesn’t want to see me anymore. She thinks I am "too much" for her. She says she just doesn’t care too deeply about anything anymore; she’s aged out and moved on and my clear dedication to politics puts her off. I know that continuing to pursue her will be a disaster. I have been shrinking myself and flattening my fury for her, and it is still "too much". There is nothing here for me, but still I long for it. I wish that I could say that I walked away and never looked back, but a couple of weeks later we meet for ostensibly platonic drinks, end up in bed together, and I’m hooked back in. I am disgusted at how pleased I am with myself.
She believes that everyone is treated equally under the law. I bite my tongue. She believes I make racism worse by acknowledging it. I bite my tongue. She tells me that I would have a better life if I just put aside my colour-coded view of the world. I bite my tongue.
I am attractive to her superficially and artificially. When she takes in the lay of my hips and the widths of me. When she is wrapped up in the reams of curls and the lazy green of my eyes and the gold sand of my skin. When I shut my mouth. When the truth of me is pacified and pushed down. When I am not fearless and free, but cowed and obedient. When I play dumb, play low and lacking.
I know she can see our racial divergence; she just can’t acknowledge its implications. She always compliments my afro, coaxes me to wear it out instead of tied on top of my head. She tells me over and over how beautiful I am, how unusual I am. She loves my difference when it doesn’t challenge her. She loves my difference when she can consume it without accepting what that difference means for me. Existing at the merge of gay and Black and woman means there will probably never be a time when I can be cool and quiet.
I hate her a little bit. Every time she shrugs off my realities I am incensed and deeply jealous. I want to be as smooth and unruffled as her. She never gets worked up. I never see her still surface ripple. She patronisingly ascribes any hint of racial distress I exhibit as a symptom of my age. She wields the six years she has on me like they contain the answers to the fucking universe.
I hear myself lie: “You know, you’re probably right. I’m just going to stop caring.”
“There, isn’t it so much easier?” she says. “Aren’t you so much better like this?”
Her joy at my compliance is sickening. I want to snatch the words back.
Proximity to whiteness does not lighten me or my heart. It reifies my Blackness. I feel more apart than ever, even when this girl and I are as close as it is possible to be. If I had any self-respect I would let her go and I wouldn’t mourn for a second. But it is not until my best friend meets her and unequivocally tells me how awful she is for me that I find the strength to cut her off.
I go to bars, I go to clubs. I am surrounded by pale faces. There is something akin to awe in their gazes and the slight tilt of their heads as I pass, actions laced with the slightly sinister. Their lust laps over; it is leaking from their pores and covering me, strengthening me. I am galvanised. Made strong so I can be torn down over and over.
I am so aware of myself. My self as woman. My self as spectacle. My self as something Other. The slight bounce of my breasts and the kink of my hair.
I get involved with a different girl who seems to care about very little beyond drugs and repressing her feelings. The only time I ever feel wholly positive toward her is when we’re in bed together and neither of us is saying anything. Well, maybe that’s not strictly true — I love the ferocity of her compliments about my appearance. I should be impervious to shallow aesthetic compliments, but I can’t shake the voice in my head that says my prettiness is only worth something if it is appreciated by white women. They are the majority, they are the standard, they are everything and everywhere. So it is their approval I must win if I want to perform my queerness correctly.
She thinks I care too deeply, think too freely. She tells me to quiet my discomfort when our friends make racist jokes while we sit around watching TV. She doesn’t care when a white gay man goes on a rant at me about his right to say 'n*gger'.
I am the first girl she has ever been with, and I am consumed with the kind but misguided urge to paint queerness in the best light possible. I don’t want to upset her or tell her straight up how much she hurts me, in case she recoils from me and by proxy, her newly (barely) accepted sexuality. I promise her that I will be more silent more often, that I will quell my swells of political anger. I soften my edges. I learn to please. I am well versed in living lies. I know that I’m hurting myself by continuing to be around her, but I am lost and made weak with want.
Eventually she tells me she can’t continue things with me, that her friends don’t appreciate her being around "someone like you". When I leave and don’t look back, I’m infuriated that it took me so long. I’m sick of pushing against my Blackness and my principles in order to glean small ribbons of white affection that end up knotted around my neck.
I try to tell myself I will throw off the shackles of pathetic concession. I want to be like Kevin G from Mean Girls - "Look, I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but I only date women of colour". I want to ignore every hot, awful white girl forever. But I can’t. They are all I have. They are all there is. They are all I can hope for. I am surrounded, bound and blinded by whiteness.
My best friends are appalled. They tell me more times than I can count that I have got to stop doing this to myself. Every time I vow that I’m over it. And every time I’m not. I keep getting these ridiculous crushes on ridiculous women and I let them make a mockery of me. I am barred from accessing the truest, most central parts of me when I let these women take up room in my mind, fuck (with) me, own me, silence me. But my loneliness, need for sexual validation and acceptance, keeps me coming back.
I am well aware that there is nothing for me in these women with their meekness and mildness. They flinch from the truth of my words. I cannot tell them about the microaggressions and the real aggressions. They are afforded the luxury of apathy.
In the end, I cannot separate my existence from any woman. I understand myself through them. I see myself in them. Their pains are my pains. But I know that not every woman sees mine. Each white woman who lies under me willfully averts her eyes. She will not recognize herself in me.