by Lesli-Ann Lewis
I don’t know these streets. It’s nine at night and I didn’t plan things right, so I’m on the very last bus. I’ll have to take a cab after this. I don’t know where I am or how to get to where I live now. I look out at the skyline and wonder what these strange streets will look like on New Year’s Eve, and the first tear comes. After that, they come fast and hurried. I can’t stop the tears, not even when I see a tired passenger do a double take. I would normally feel shame, but there isn’t any room for it in my hollowed-out chest. All day, every day, since I moved, I’ve been trying to hold onto the hope that this could be some great adventure filled with art and new dreams. Right now, it’s just cold.
Without my family around for the holidays, and it being a few weeks away from my birthday, I don’t think that will change.
“I hope he kills you tonight when he finds out,” those words resound in my head.
Moved is such a novel way to put it. Ran is more like it.
In the cab, my breathing becomes labored with the effort of holding myself together. When the driver says he doesn’t take debit card, tears become gulping sobs. It’s a reminder of where I am and how little time I had to plan for this. I cry so hard that he tries to console me.
I know whenever someone congratulates me on coming out, on being brave and courageous, I’ll remember this: wishing so hard for a closet and my mother that a cabbie started to pray for me on a night I couldn’t pay him.
This is coming out.
Three weeks before this, when I bought my girlfriend flowers, I wasn’t thinking of anything other than how she smiles at me when she wakes up. They were just-because flowers, just because you look at me like I’m a gift you still cannot believe you received. I thought it was a thing between two people: her taking the flowers, blushing, and me smiling so hard I had to bite my lip just to stop myself. It wasn’t. It became a platform for a man to yell his opinion of homosexuality. We almost laughed when he called us “roses are red ass dykes,” but he kept going, louder, more angry, stepping closer and glaring. My girlfriend balled her fists and I slipped my key between my fingers the way I was taught in self defense class. We slipped out of the train car quickly. I looked behind me, afraid he would try to hurt me for loving her morning smile.
That was coming out, too.
And so is this: not getting hours on the schedule at work, family trying to beat the queer out, higher rates of suicide, being kicked out at 15 years old. For Amari Hill and Islan Nettles, it’s dying in the street. For Crystal Jackson and Britney Cosby, it’s facing violence from a parent. For so many Black LGBTQ Americans, this is coming out, too. For many of us, especially queer people of color, coming out isn’t congratulation tweets from Michelle Obama, it isn’t delivering a speech to uproarious applause; it’s nights like this: threats ringing fresh in your ears and feeling so shattered you don’t know how you will draw your next breath.
These stories, these truths need to be told and repeated as a trend emerges regarding LGBTQ identity and issues. As the fight for marriage equality wages with more wins our side, as more celebrities come out to represent certain LGBTQ bodies and relationships, the conversation trends towards the responsibility of queer Americans to “live their truth” and believe “it gets better.” More and more, we’re discussing homophobia and transphobia as simple bullying in school and the occasional shocking remark by someone who isn’t savvy enough to know you can’t actually say that out loud. More and more, we’re pretending visibility will solve everything. And this is happening while my sisters and brothers literally die in the streets for being visible. We’ve created an atmosphere that pretends as if being out will solve homophobia.
We rationalize that LGBTQ people should come out, especially famous people, so that the public will become less homophobic through exposure. This makes it the responsibility of LGBTQ people to solve homophobia and transphobia while ignoring the steep price we may pay by coming out. It rests on the pretense that there hasn’t been an increase in violence against out, Black LGBTQ people since 2012, as though joblessness and on the job discrimination has not affected us disproportionately.
White queers, who statistically face less discrimination and violence than their Black counterparts, are largely complicit in this by raising their voices and issues above ours. But the bigger culprit? Straight allies and our complicity with their meager support. It isn’t enough to not murder us. Tolerance grants us near nothing. We need loud and enthusiastic allies who listen and amplify our voices. Amari Hill’s murder, Britney Cosby’s murder deserves the same response we had to Trayvon’s. We need more or we aren’t going to make it. It isn’t being closeted that hurts, it’s the reasons we sometimes choose to be. The pretense that we create our own closets out of cowardice ignores the reality of Black LGBTQ people, it ignores how we’re overrepresented in instances of LGBTQ hate crimes.
When coming out puts us at an economic disadvantage and in danger, it isn’t our responsibility alone to challenge society. It is the responsibility for cis- and heterosexual people to step up. We call coming out “bravery” with little analysis or discussion of exactly why that is, and in doing so we create a cultural expectation that puts so many people in dangerous, harmful situations. So often those of us who are out and safe, forget the dangers others face. We villianize and further ostracize those who are closeted as though it isn’t a painful decision made with intimate knowledge of one’s own circumstances.
So this is a call to arms. For out LGBTQ members and allies, celebrating our “coming out” isn’t enough. Your congratulations for “living my life bravely” didn’t help me pack my bags when I had to leave my parent’s home. It hasn’t housed me when I faced homelessness for loving and losing that love. We need more. We need you to challenge the structures that make living our authentic lives an act of bravery. Show up. Show up for more than marriage equality. Use your voice to be heard in spaces we cannot be. Call out your pastors. Challenge traditions. Do more than celebrate our coming outs and remarking on the tragedy of our deaths. There are moments in between. There is homelessness. There are laws that give businesses the right to deny us service. It isn’t just about us being cowards. It’s about us knowing we still aren’t safe. Before asking us to be brave, allies should require that bravery of themselves. And LGBTQ people need to demand it of them. To my allies: challenge your thought process, challenge your family members, consider your own privilege. Do the work. Show up. Show up before funerals, before we’re out on the street.
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Lesli-Ann Lewis is a small, queer and brown invader of homogeneous spaces. Fancying herself a burgeoning writer, she’s now blogging about her life and art atfireinfreetown.com . She can also be found on Twitter, all too often: @lesellele.
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