“So what, I’m gay…” Jamal from Empire openly sings in a freestyle battle on the critically-acclaimed show. His proclamation about being a black gay man in one of the show’s iconic moments not only symbolizes how we as a nation have progressed on LGBTQ issues, but also puts a black queer face in the forefront.
Black queer representation has been crucial in the past decade in exposing the intersection between race and sexuality. Big Freedia, a black trans woman, has a critically acclaimed show on Fuse; Laverne Cox, also a black trans woman, is a breakout star on Orange is the New Black and The Prancing Elites Project on Oxygen, a show about queer men and women, showcases black queer life. People are now realizing the LGBTQ community comes in different shades of brown beyond the familiar faces of stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Elton John.
However, even with these representations in the media and the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold gay marriage, there seems to be a disconnect between the LGBTQ community and the black community here at the University. With the group Minority Squared, a black queer student CIO, no longer active and the low number of black CIO that I know to have been Safe Space trained (an initiative by the LGBTQ Student Center), black queer students could ultimately fall between the cracks.
When some picture the ideal University student, a certain phenotype comes to mind. Whether we want to consciously admit it, we often assume others on Grounds to be heterosexual until proven otherwise. Even with the presence of the Queer Student Union and the LGBTQ Center, the overwhelming presence of heteronormative behavior can be jarring for a few students. That same kind of shock is akin to what black students here have also felt. A sea of people who don’t look like you or know your culture and often ask to touch your hair can be a reminder that you’re different. Being black and queer is not an anomaly, but it can feel like that some days. Finding yourself is what almost all of us are trying to do here, but fixating between two identities can make the process that much harder. Arthur Brown, a second-year Architecture student and an intern at the LGBTQ Center, explained to me how he felt about being black and queer on Grounds. He said finding himself in the black community here can be difficult — that he’s afraid of experiencing homophobia.
With that said, the black community here isn’t inherently more homophobic than any other community on Grounds. But with few organizations dedicated to black queer students or the presence of black queer students in executive positions, it’s hard to believe these spaces can be considered safe for all black students. When we say spaces are open for all types of students, we have to be explicit about certain communities — and the LGBTQ community is no exception. Referring to black student CIOs, Brown said, “If they say [they are gay friendly] then I know it, then I’m comfortable with going.” For CIOs, simply implying they are LGBTQ friendly is no longer enough.
On the same note, queer spaces here on Grounds must make themselves open to black queer students as well. QSU’s mission is “. . . to provide a safe, welcoming, and confidential environment for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals in the community.” QSU also needs to make a safe space for black queer students by explicitly stating the organization is open to other cultures. QSU is a member of the Minority Rights Coalition, but it hasn’t partnered with any of the predominantly black CIOs also involved in MRC for an event in the past academic year, according to QSU President Jason Jones, a fourth-year Commerce student. With an executive board consisting of four cisgender white male students and only one cisgender black male student, QSU also needs to outwardly seek diversity from the black queer community.
I write this not with the intent of bashing these communities but rather to bring an understanding to what it means to be black and queer at U.Va. Black queer students here shouldn’t have to pick a community in regard to their sexual identities or ethnic backgrounds. In light of this, black CIOs should get Safe Space training and make it explicit that they welcome black queer students. The extra mile in doing this ensures that they create a safe space for their peers. Likewise, QSU and the LGBTQ Center should continue to seek out black queer students and partner with black CIOs to further collaborate on how to make these spaces safer for black queer students.
Being black and queer at U.Va. shouldn’t mean choosing between two identities. Black queer students don’t have a choice in either identity, and it’s our job as students to create these safe spaces for students explicitly — never implicitly.
Kiana Warren is a contributing writer for The Cavalier Daily and Black Student Alliance’s bi-weekly “What’s the Word” column.