The best writing advice I’ve received came from my creative nonfiction instructor last fall.
“Twist the screw,” she told us. “Drill into the topic deeper, complicate your perspective, switch the frame.”
Twisting is exactly what I intend to do.
Last week, I wrote about the isolation I’ve felt as a black male in Stanford’s gay community. This week, I twist a little further in light of a feature I wrote for today’s edition examining the experiences of other queer, black men on campus.
One of the tensions I feel is between agency and victimization: To what degree have I internalized a self-fulfilling prophecy (that black men are at a disadvantage in the gay community) and made myself a passive victim, and to what degree is the alienating experience that I and other students undergo part of a larger system that actually is unfair and strictly unchanging?
I do have to acknowledge my own agency in complicating my romantic success.
My own personality and emotions change a lot when I enter queer spaces around campus. My sense of “fight or flight” increases dramatically when I prepare to enter Terra.
Over the past two years, it – mainly Happy Hour – has been a place that I have dreaded to enter and have also sought out in anticipation (and in vain) for the greater odds of making a romantic connection.
I am shy to make eye contact and conversation with other black men, guys to whom I’ve expressed (unrequited) interest, male couples and with non-black queer men whom I do not already consider “safe” or allies.
I feel the need to counter my sense of intimidation by appearing overly satisfied with my state of affairs, overly excited to see friends and by being in our queer communal space.
At the same time, though, it is hard for me to fully embrace the culture of a “colorblind” (majority-white) gay community where I’m supposed to be happy, carefree and performative.
Two hundred years ago, I would have been enslaved for the color of my skin; 100 years ago, I may have been lynched for the color of my skin and my perceived threat to white society as a grown male; today, I may be beaten or killed by fellow citizens or by law enforcement and I am just a step removed from the cycle of mass incarceration that ravages the black male community.
And so it is hard for me to step out of this racial and gender context into a culture that feels so different from the one in which I grew up.
My refuge at Happy Hour tends to be close friends, queer women and straight allies. I am able to let down my defenses a little more, smile, laugh and interact a little more naturally.
This is generally my experience interacting with queer women versus queer men. Because there are so few of us relative to the overall population, every guy I encounter is someone whom I could potentially date.
So in an effort not to appear too eager or desperate to people I find intriguing, or for fear of sending nonexistent signals of romantic interest to people unintentionally, I become a little more tense, terse, polite, formal. I vacillate between being too shy and too forward.
I wish I could feel as comfortable being flirtatious with men as I do with women. Probably because there is nothing at stake, I find it easier to make steadier and more nuanced eye contact and use a wittier sense of humor to be more playful overall.
So, while claiming my own agency, one charge I can make against society at large is the lack of queer black men I see in relationships – either with other black men or in mixed-race couples.
In my time at Stanford, and within our openly queer undergraduate community, I have not seen queer black men date – either amongst ourselves or in a mixed-race couple. I’ve seen every other combination – all-white, non-white, white and Latino, white and Asian – but never two black men, nor a black male student with someone who is not black.
For the past two years, I assumed that I could not be in a happy relationship given that I had no visual models of queer black men in relationships. This year, I declare to myself that stopping there would be too easy.
With these articles as public testaments to my trials and tribulations, I aim to hold myself accountable both as I guard against internalizing racism and as I grow to feel confident during the remainder of my time at Stanford and beyond.
I don’t doubt that I’ll find someone who can match my passion, intellect and maturity – I just will not wed myself to the hope and belief that I will meet that person during my time on campus.
I recognize that I am not monolithic – that I am not just a black person, and that there’s a difference between my consciousness as a black person and the consciousness that has developed as a result of my individual experiences.
And so it is coming from the perspective of my, and others’, personal experiences that I hope my testimonies will resonate with all who read them: that we consider how our actions and desires – both implicit and explicit – might be limiting and how our actions might make others feel undesirable or invisible; and that we consider how we might do more to make the struggles of our fellow humans a little less rough.
I also hope specifically that other young, black, brown, queer people can overcome the shackles of racism that have bound our hearts, minds and bodies so far.
Contact Kristian Davis Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org.