At the Intersection of Black and Queer, Part 3
As a black man in America, I am cautiously heartened that, due to mass protests and louder cries that “black lives matter,” we finally appear to be ready to have the long overdue conversation about the pervasiveness of systemic racism in this country. As a member of the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, I wanted to make sure that our organization participated in this conversation in a meaningful way, by lifting up and making space for black voices to be heard. My goal is simply to provide a small window into what it is like to be us – provide insight on what it is like to live at the intersection of being both black and queer.
In this second conversation, I have an engaging talk with chorus member Glenn Bates. Glenn identifies as black, gay, gender-nonconforming, and uses they/them pronouns. Glenn has been in the chorus for 5 years and serves as the section administrator for the Tenor 2 section. Glenn is someone I’ve been interested in talking to for a while about their experiences. Just as I suspected, they are incredibly smart, open, and thoughtful.
DANIEL: Thank you for talking with me. First, just to reiterate my impetus for doing this, I wanted to make sure that we as a chorus are walking our talk as far as professing that Black Lives Matter and professing that black LGBTQ voices and stories need to be heard. I think we need to go beyond just singing songs about us, when it’s convenient. I want to make sure we are using our platform for black voices within the chorus to express themselves beyond singing in a concert at this really critical moment in history.
So, to get started, I feel like social media wise and even in general conversation, the George Floyd murder already feels like forever ago. I want to keep having these conversations because my fear is that people are going to forget and we’re going to end up back here like always.
Now, after years and years of these high-profile murders caught on tape, people have said that this one feels different, that this moment feels different. And I was wondering, does it feel different to you? And what is it bringing up? What has it brought up for you mentally and emotionally?
GLENN: I think it does feel different. Obviously this isn’t the first time that we have witnessed police brutality against a black body and not even the first here in Minneapolis since I’ve lived here – it’s only been four years. I remember Philando Castile and there were two other people here who died here before George. But it does seem a little bit different. There was a larger global reaction to this, which doesn’t seem very precedented as far as I know. It’s hopeful, but I also feel like this has been a very weird time. I’m thinking about how we are making changes while also thinking about how it could be you at any time and for no reason.
DANIEL: You mentioned how it could be you at any moment and that is related to something that’s been really different about this time for me. For some reason, that visual of George Floyd being murdered shook me in a different way. I had to ask on Facebook and other social media for friends to stop sharing the photo and video because I had a moment one day looking at it where I saw my face under that cop’s knee. It took several days for me bounce back from that. It was like an out of body experience. The thing that has happened to me for the first time, is I now have this mortal fear of…this is indiscriminate. They don’t care who you are, what you look like, what your education is – if you’re black you’re fair game. And so, yeah, I feel what you are saying. It could be you at any moment. For me, it was the first time I felt that in a really vivid way. I felt like I was him.
In an emotional or mental sense, has anything changed for you on that level?
GLENN: I am constantly trying to figure out where I can do anything at all or if I need to be doing more or how I can do more.
I have this conversation every two weeks with my therapist since this happened. I feel like it’s not my responsibility to be educating my friends who are predominantly white. I have very few black friends, which is also something I hadn’t really assessed. I have, what, four black friends?
Maybe because I feel like there’s a weird intersection between it’s not my job to educate you on what’s happening and how to treat somebody with respect. But I also have this desire to make sure that I’m helping keep the conversation going, having this prior knowledge of the incarceration rate for black people and things like that. So, that’s been a struggle and then dealing with the lack of diversity within my friend group.
Both of my parents are black, but I don’t think I really got that community deal. I feel like I missed out on a lot of the culture. I felt like I wanted to be more attentive about this. I need to. I feel like that would make me feel better about speaking out so vocally. My therapist is Indian, but she was adopted by white folks. They’re her parents but she doesn’t know anything about her [Indian] culture. She doesn’t speak the language. She doesn’t know any of the traditions. And I mean, I feel the same way sometimes, which is very weird.
DANIEL: Talk to me about being black, gay, and gender non-conforming in this moment and what it’s like for you in the gay community in general.
GLENN: I think it feeds in from a lot of different places, even outside of the community. Just being a person of color when oftentimes queerness isn’t always accepted in the black community. And so, when you take that alienation of one community and then you’re moving into this other space that’s predominantly white and very masculine focused, when you appear…I mean, I look great and I know that, but like my appearance is very, I think, jarring and throws people off because it’s just a mixture of things which is not what they’re used to. And so, it does feel very odd. It’s almost like a zoo. A lot of that takes internal work, self-confidence, or that ability to kind of distance yourself from that; to not take it personally. Even though sometimes it might be personal. It’s a very different world. To be comfortable to be one type of person, but then to be multiple kinds of identities in a space is a very complex game.
DANIEL: I think that it is just another way to illustrate that black people are not a monolith. We don’t all, you know, perform life the same. We don’t all have the same interests. We don’t all come from the same backgrounds. But I think a lot of times that gets mapped on to us. And I feel like that happens in the gay community in particular, with app culture and bar culture and all those things. I realized that it took a long time for me, like you said, to develop that inner monologue and that inner self that helps you separate how you see yourself from how gay white men see you. You know who you are. And sometimes that has to be enough for you to deal with what you’re encountering constantly, living in a place like Minneapolis in particular. And for me, growing up living in white spaces for most of my life, that that’s been…well. I’m like an expert at that now.
What I really consider it to be now – I wouldn’t have called it this in my early 20s – but now I consider it to be survival mechanisms, finding ways to protect my own mental health. Even though I’ve experienced some pretty awful treatment living in Minneapolis where the predominant gay culture is white, you go out to the bars and most everybody’s white and a lot of them haven’t had a lot of experiences with black people, let alone black gay men.
Frankly, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but a lot of white gay men’s idea of black men comes from pornography, which I guess…
GLENN: One hundred percent, yes. One hundred percent. The black body is a sexual experience, it’s not necessarily a human being. So, especially within gay culture, if you’re black they assume you have large genitalia. Being black is a fetish. I mean, in the gay community, it’s very much that way. And you can kind of see how people view you on these apps. They have no issue. I’ve heard some fucking weird shit on apps from people.
DANIEL: Yes, yes, yes. And so much of it is informed by color.
GLENN: Asking me to, like, show them how big my penis is. They’re asking me if I know where to get drugs. Which was new to be, like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that I should just know that.”
DANIEL: Right! Same.
GLENN: Oh, and somebody asked me to sell them into slavery once. Those aren’t things you say to people.
DANIEL: What’s even more disturbing is I feel like in the gay community, we like to pass those things off as preferences or sexual freedoms. I’m like, “No, that’s racism.” You don’t get to be like I’m not a preference you get to have when you’re feeling frosty on a particular day or when you want something different. That’s not ok. So, we can lie to ourselves and pretend like these race-based fetishes and preferences we have are not racism, but that’s exactly what they are. And so many white gay men are so resistant to that conversation. They don’t want to have to deal with what is at the root of it.
GLENN: They don’t want to be called racist. But, being white has an implication that you probably have done something racist even though you might not be racist. But there’s a difference between not being racist and being anti-racist, which has been a large part of the conversation right now. So, while you may not be actively being a racist, you could still be doing these things unconsciously, which is still harmful. And if you’re being called out on it, you can take that time to be like, “Oh, this is incorrect. Why do I have this thought? How can I be better about it? How can I learn from this and be a better person?” I mean, we’re not trying to destroy you. It makes you a better person.
DANIEL: I agree. Because we have to live in this world too, so we just want what’s best for all of us. It’s not about taking you down, but we constantly have to struggle to be better people in order to fit in this society. And as black people, we can’t take wrong steps without being called out or possibly being killed, or at the very least, looked at like we’re in a zoo. So, you should have to work at this, too.
GLENN: There’s some accountability here for you, too. Yeah.
DANIEL: And so, providing that insight to a white person and say, “Hey, that’s not ok” – should be a moment for self-reflection for them. Not a moment of offense. I read this post earlier today that said, “Racism is not a touchy subject, unless you’re a racist.”
We both laugh for a solid minute.
GLENN: Right. If you’re offended by this, then you’re part of the problem.
DANIEL: I just wish there were more spaces to have these conversations for black gay men, because I’ve dated or gone on dates with all types of people in my in my life. But because I’ve grown up in predominately white spaces, I’ve dated a lot of white men and every time I have to have this conversation. I call it one of my screening questions, which goes something like, “What is the basis of your attraction to me?” I’m always having to question where their intentions are coming from. Is it something about me as a person or could I be any black man, you know?
GLENN: I mean, you know, that’s probably specific to black gay dating. I’m almost positive that my white friends don’t have to ask that kind of question. It’s just assumed that you’re an individual right now, you have something to offer outside of your race.
DANIEL: And for that reason, I’m always a little suspicious when a guy has only dated black men. I’m like, listen, you might want to think about why that is. I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying I hope you have taken a moment to examine it. I’m not here to judge your motivations. I’m not in your head and I’m not in your heart. But I do think it is appropriate for me to ask that you examine your own motivations. It wouldn’t be a question if it weren’t something that I have experienced negative repercussions from.
So, yeah, I just want to have more of these conversations and have white gay men not be so offended, but just think about it from our point of view. I’m sick of being either a fetish or completely invisible.
GLENN: I think now is the time. You were saying earlier that this moment is different, and I think now is the time that we can be having this conversation. So, I’m saying I’m seeing a lot of people putting their voices out there and we’re going to make them talk about it. If they’re going to start in, you’re in. Unless you’re completely out and then you’re fucking done. I think this is the time. And I think if we’re saying our community needs to do this sort of work, this could be a really helpful start. So, I’m very hopeful. But also, I’ve been doing this for a couple of years, so I don’t know. I’m not completely on. But I’m ready.
DANIEL: Exactly, if you say you’re ready to do this…I’m looking at my white friends…you say that you’re here for it then let’s do it for real. I said in a meeting recently, I’m not interested in gestures. I’m not interested in words. I’m not interested in proclamations. I’m interested in action and behavior change. And until that happens, I’m going to continue to look at you out the side of my eye and over my glasses.
GLENN: Like, I see you being stupid right now.
DANIEL: Right, exactly.
Is there anything else you’d like to say or express or anything that’s been on your heart and mind lately?
GLENN: I know the world is sort of going back to normal as far as social media feeds and, you know, interacting with our friends. I do think it’s very important that I’m working on this, too. But to continue these conversations about all of our black siblings who have been murdered, making the changes in institutions where they need to be made to ensure that the systems work for the community of people, the country, and not just a select few. So, I would implore people to have these conversations and to find a friend who might be willing to help you get started.
Or just, I don’t know, do a Google search. Twitter’s on fire right now, and I just want you to look at the documentaries on Netflix. There are lots of things you can do to start learning. And I think if you are able to start having this conversation, even with people who you care about who don’t have the same needs as you, that will educate you just as well. So, the conversation cannot die.
DANIEL: Absolutely, could not agree more. I think that’s a really good place to leave it.
I so appreciated the opportunity to talk to Glenn. This is only a portion of our full conversation and we laughed A LOT. I really connect with their candor and intelligence. Glenn’s voice is particularly valuable because they are experiencing life with a set of marginal identity intersections that aren’t always acknowledged. I can’t wait to connect with them again.