A couple of weeks ago, a banner notification rapidly moved across my screen from The Washington Post. And the banner said, in bold Black letters:
“Janelle Monáe Comes Out As Pansexual”
Within hours, searches for the words “pansexual”along with oldies but goodies “bisexual” and “queer”skyrocketed. Fellow gays flooded the internet to confirm that “we been knew,”but commented that they were happy for her anyway.
I was filled with immense pride. Even before I read her story. Mainly because it brings me immense joy to know that someone is able to live their full truth. But mostly because coming out, in such an “official” capacity, is a privilege that is rarely afforded to Black folx.
I can’t exactly pin down why that is. Perhaps, like with colorism, it’s due to a gross mix of white supremacy and community-enforced bigotry. Perhaps, it’s the false belief that Blackness has no place with queerness or vice versa. That it can only exist one way and that way must be heteronormative as fuck. I feel like toxic masculinity and femininity go with all of that as well. And organized religion. And maybe a dash of eons-old gender roles and a sprinkle of an already-proven-false gender binary.
I don’t know. I’d usually take the time to ponder this, but lately I’ve just been thinking about if I ever “really” came out and I found that to not be the case.
Thinking about this took me back to my thoughts pertaining this in middle school. Eighth grade, to be exact. I was 13 and I had some inkling that I was a bit different then. Couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I honestly thought it was gas or maybe some weirdo, recurring insecurity about being fat and dark-skinned.
I quickly found out that wasn’t the case in the locker room of one of our last period gym classes. There were these two white girls in that period who considered themselves to be “free spirits.” One loudly talked about being a “super lesbian” while the other talked about being “extra gay” and “extra bisexual.”
They did thisloudlyoften. And it would culminate with them making out and the rest of usmostly Black femmes (they were like two of three white girls in the class)rolling our eyes and shuffling out of there. Now that I look back, I’m still trying to figure out why I’d roll my eyes. I figure that part of it has to do with internalized homophobia (of course) and the fact that White girls/women tend to be really extra about, well, everything.
But part of it, for me, was also the unknowns of claiming a new identity. I mean, forget the backlash (this was 2007) one would experience. Were there any rules? Would I have to dress a certain way? Would my friends change? What would my siblings think? Parents? Church? What about all the terminology I didn’t know?
Terminology, in particular, was a sour point for me. Firstly, because I prided myself in knowing everything and at this point, I didn’t know shit about being gay. Secondly, because by the time I arrived at a word that I thought my fit my burgeoning identity, pop culture was already too busy shitting on it (I am looking right at you, The L Word) and queer peers have thoroughly abused it.
In 2007, it was widely defined as being attracted to both women and men. And since my goofy ass didn’t know about gender binaries yet, that was an acceptable definition for me. Still. I was quickly turned off to the concept because of how flippant people were with it. Because 2007 was also a time where bisexuality was used as a half-step.
I watched people who I had known were gay since kindergarten (before they knew, but whose secrets anyway) proudly refer to themselves as “bisexual” only to refer to themselves as “actually gay” some months and years later and pay nothing but disgust to their former label. Even the one girl from gym class who was steadfast in her bisexuality met with claims of wishy-washiness, sluttiness, and etc. Ironically, the same people using one sexuality to two-step to another one didn’t think the bisexual girl was “really gay.” They thought she was only “half” gay. And didn’t belong as a result.
It was tough to watch. But that’s exactly what I did from the opening of my closet right before I said “NOAP” and walked right back in. After that, I really didn’t think about it anymore. At least not actively. I dismissed it as “getting caught up in white things” like my parents referred to iti.e. how mental health and queerness are usually referred to in these spaces.
Mind you, I’d hear the occasional homophobic joke in school or some fire and brimstone rant about “the gays” during a sermon and wince, but that was the extent that I allowed myself to feel anything on this matter. Most of high school was like that as well. I coped with talk of girl crushes (Tika Sumpter, Alicia Keys, Lil’ Kim, and Rosario Dawson were popular picks) and guy crushes (this was a much bigger list that started with the likes of Zack and Tommy [Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers] and Brad Pitt) while simultaneously keeping my eye on the bitter fight for same-sex legislation.
(Who wasn’t in love with Tommy???)
The last two years of high school were a bit different. Many of my friends would quietly confide to me about being gay and sorting their feelings with that while I didn’t dare disclose my own struggles. I offered the best advice I could, but since I was still drenched in Judeo-Christian bias, I honestly don’t remember my advice being very good. And I’m pretty sure “hating the sin and loving the sinner” came out of my mouth once or twice before thankfully one of my good friends cursed me out and I never said that shit again.
Which was appropriate, because I was going to college soon and I wasn’t really able to pretend there. Because I no longer had the constraints of high school and church politics to influence my thoughts about my own self (talk less sexuality) and I didn’t have my parents breathing down my neck about me doing “weird white shit.” Yet, I wasn’t quite ready to accept a sexuality that I had effectively put on the back-burner for five or six years. It felt almost disingenuous to do so. So, ignoring it (again) seemed like the move to me until the universe said “bet,” dropped the equivalent of Carmen Sandiego and Rosario Dawson’s lovechild in my life, and promptly snatched her away as quickly as she appeared.
I’ll spare the gory details on that (since it’s a story I’ve told before), but the short-lived ordeal had me lamenting as I lied in front of one of my good college friends (another Black femme) at our favorite campus/park hangout as she took a long drag of her cigarette. She and I did this for about 30 minutes until she said:
“So. What are you trying to say?”
I mentioned that I might be gay. And that this wasn’t the first time this had come up. She laughed lightly as I continued explaining my middle school and high school run-ins with discussions of queerness. She gave me about 10 more minutes before she interrupted me and said:
“Your issue is that you think that there’s only one way to be Black. Probably stems from first-gen issues. Can’t be sure. But you think that if you admit to yourself that you’re queer, you’ll be betraying the notion of Blackness that you’ve built up in your head.”
I told her she was wrong. She told me that she was right. And that I wasn’t the only person who thought like that. And that it was the reason I was here right now. The reason I had delayed coming out all these years. And the reason she herself would probably never come out to her own family because they thought similarly too (on top of being uber-religious like mine). And she frankly didn’t have the patience anymore.
I lied on the ground and tried to process what she was saying. Mostly because I resented being so thoroughly read. But mainly because I was also very conflicted. I asked if she could clarify, if she didn’t mind, and all she said after taking one more drag of her cigarette was:
“Being Black can be so liberating. And yet so suffocating at the same time.”
And I finally connected with what she was saying. I mean, the whole reason I drug my feet on the matter is because, to me, queerness had always been painted as “a White thing.” Back in middle school, they had been the only ones discussing it openly. Pop culture, which was very good at erasing/whitewashing QBIPOC history, pretended for the most part that the only queer people were white people. So, by extension, “coming out” or anything associated with that concept had become a pretty “white thing” to me, too. Something that certain people, who are free to do whatever, had the time, space, and energy (and, hell, money) to do.
So, in accepting that I had issues reconciling my Blackness and queerness because of this very reason, I was also admitting that sometimes Black folx aren’t always “free to do whatever” and because of this reality (and every force that has created it), our community tends to turn that inward by encouraging the suppression of anything that is deemed an extraneous identity (i.e Black-First politics).
It’s an admission that we are not yet as free as we would like to be. And that many of us take this out on folx more marginalized than we are. Almost in a “how dare you be/act freer than me” kind of way. The idea is that there’s only one way to enjoy and simultaneously survive being Black.
Which, as my friend pointed out, is virulently false.
And this is why Monáe coming out all those weeks ago, as elegantly as she did in Rolling Stone, left me in ugly tears. Besides recognizing beats of her story in my own (church upbringing, small town/Southern roots), I was encouraged by the fact that she had done so on her own terms and also decided to do it anyway, even if there were folx who “already knew.” I was encouraged by her proudly declaring herself as pansexual and refusing to shit on bisexual folx in the process.
I am encouraged by her refusing to mute either her Blackness or her queerness when it comes to her art. I am encouraged by her ferociously unapologetic existence as a Black and queer femme. And I am encouraged by her telling her story on that big a platform. Mostly because it is oh-so-comforting to someone like me who’s still trying to figure this queer shit out. But mainly because, for a lot of us, seeing visible queer folx like Monaé or Lena Waithe or Janet Mock or Laverne Cox, etc., gives us the permission (and the strength) to exist.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need that push. Nor would we be seeking permission. But maybe that might change with people like Janelle Monáe.
I don’t know. I also don’t know if I will ever “officially” come out to all the necessary people in my life (nor do I know if I really want to).
But at this point in my life, it is enough that I have accepted that I am here, I am Black, and I am queer.
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Atlantic Records