An Open Letter to My Family

I hope you do not underestimate the gift you have given me, and I pray that you do not think I am ungrateful. Sometimes I flinch not because you are hostile or hateful, but because you are not perfect. I also know, however, that no one is perfect, but you all do get pretty close. It is because of you that I did not join my queer siblings on the streets, disowned from their families. It is because of you that I know my family will be present at my wedding, and along for the really gay party it promises to be. You read what I write, and root for me to succeed. You are proud to have me as your child, and I am more than proud to claim you as my family.

I know that it is tiring. It probably seems like I never shut up about my writing or my activism. I am different from you, and have different goals and aspirations. I’m at home the least of my siblings and live the farthest away. Sometimes the updates about my life come from Facebook posts announcing something exciting rather than the phone call I probably should have made. I went away to college and came back a much more radical queer, in sweaters and a tie. I live my life out loud, and I’m sure that makes you worry some nights. I speak in a language you do not always understand, and discuss movies you have not seen.

I used to really resent that. I was angry that you did not do more, that you didn’t stand next to me at actions and want to watch Pariah. I was angry that you claimed the title ally and yet you were so quiet about my movement. Your imperfections, as I perceived them, angered me. My anger, resentment, and frustration blinded me from seeing all that you have done and will continue to do. A paper for class on marriage equality, standing up to homophobia within our church (before I even came out), attaching rainbow ribbons to your key chains, and engaging with people when they say hurtful things about members of your family, are all ways you stand with me. I lost sight of that for a while, which is not exactly fair.

You do not have to be perfect in order for me to love and appreciate you, and I hope you always know that. I maintain that you have given me the greatest gift of all: strength. When bigoted and/or misinformed people shoot bullets at me in the form of their harmful words, I wear a suit of armor. Not receiving validation from others does not matter to me, because I do have the unconditional love and support of you. When wounds are inflicted, it is through your love that I heal. Without you I wouldn’t be the person I am, and it is because of you that I have the strength and will to stand up. Far too many in my community cannot be themselves for fear of retribution from their families. Far too many in my community have been disowned by those who should have supported them. Far too many paid, are paying, and will continue to pay the ultimate price. Your love saved me from joining their ranks. You do more than enough.

And on this Day of Thanks and during this holiday season, it is you for whom I am most thankful.

I love you,

Your Daughter

Adrian Peterson and the Black Comedic Experience: Perpetuating a Culture of Violence

In recent months, there has been a focus on the antics of Adrian Peterson and the legal proceedings of his indictment for child abuse, to which he pled no contest to a lesser charge of reckless assault. A couple of months ago, Brittney Cooper offered an excellent analysis of the situation and why parenting styles mattered, and not just for Black parents. She highlights the existence of violence in how Black folks discipline their children, and I have no intention of disputing that. What I find to be interesting is how that culture of violence is reproduced. In the Adrian Peterson case, he speaks of how he was disciplined, and how that shapes the way he disciplines his children, specifically sons. One way culture is reproduced is through our interactions with one another, passed down through generations. Additionally culture is also perpetuated through the messages we receive about what makes up that culture. Adrian Peterson spoke of experiencing the culture of his parents through discipline. I also experienced Black culture through my parents, but it was full of laughter.

My father is Black and my mother is White. I grew up in rural Indiana, far removed from the urban culture that colored my father’s upbringing. My parents firmly believed in the “time-out chair” and “grounding”, promising never to put their hands on me. Of course, me being the child I was, the one time my mother gently swatted my behind to get my attention, I threw a fit. I spent the better part of an hour screaming about how she “broke her promise” and she put me in time-out. Due to my parents’ philosophy, I never received a “whooping” with a belt, switch, or paddle growing up. Whenever my father really wanted to get his point across, he used words, phrases with which I came to love.

My father loves quotes more than anything else. He communicates through snippets of movies, TV shows, and standup comedy. I don’t think a day went by without him quoting Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor or Sinbad. “Roll your eyes at me, I’ll roll your head on the floor,” my father used to say to me, every time I copped an attitude with him. I remember the first time I watched Bill Cosby himself, and felt like my father was on the stage. With each word my father said, he ushered me into his culture and shaped my Black identity. To this day, I communicate to other Black people through this common understanding of language and experiences. Black stand-up comedy represents a point of salience in how I connect with my Black identity, and also how I communicate that to others. In that way, Black comedians are artifacts of Black culture, and help craft how that culture is reproduced. Through laughing (and sometimes cringing) at their jokes, we internalize messages about what the “Black experience” is.

I recognize that there is no universal Black experience. When I use those words, I am referring to the construction of Blackness, often perpetuated through media imagery, such as biased news coverage, movies, commercialized rap and hip-hop, and yes, standup comedy. What makes a joke funny is that it pulls on a perceived near universal, or universal experience of the audience. When Bill Cosby said “I brought you into this world, I can take you out”, the audience laughed because of a connection. Perhaps they saw their parents saying something similar to them as children, or perhaps as parents they have had similar moments with their children. Bill Cosby himself (pun intended), was actually quoting his father in his bit, actively modeling and participating in cultural reproduction.

Bill Cosby, Sinbad, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart all have one thing in common: the thread of violence woven through their routines about relationships and child rearing. The implication of Bill Cosby’s jokes are the death of his children. Kevin Hart jokes about punching his daughter in the throat. Of course, Bill Cosby and Kevin Hart are not actually advocating for violence against children, but their words still send implicit messages of what is culturally acceptable and appropriate. It is also worth noting that this form of discipline is not relegated to “man’s work”; Cosby and Sinbad both discuss female participation. For Cosby it was his wife that actually performed “the beatings” (his words), while Sinbad spoke of his mother giving him a whooping for his attitude, her arm extending 8 blocks to drag him back to the house.

The messages of violence also extend beyond the realm of child rearing and into relationships, particularly regarding how men interact with women. Kevin Hart, and Chris Rock describe relationships between men and women that function at a high decibel level. Kevin Hart speaks at length about what it means to be a man, saying that men needed to be real men and argue because “that’s what they’re in a relationship for.” He even goes so far as to equate being a “yes man” with being a “fag”. It is my personal belief that just because no one is being hit, does not mean that violence is not being perpetuated. Violence is also strength of emotion and force, which too can be unleashed on individuals. In this way, Kevin Harts imploring of men to embrace their masculinity through argumentative behavior is a direct call to violence, as I define it. Moreover, Kevin Hart highlights violence amongst women as well, regularly quipping about women hitting him while doling out advice about when and how men should and should not pick fights with “their women.” For his part, Chris Rock does much of the same, portraying relationships between men and women as being full of tension, yelling, and the threat of physicality. What is particularly poignant is that though there is plenty of evidence of hegemonic masculinity and sexism in many bits done by Kevin Hart and Chris Rock, the existence of violence is not bound by gender. Men yell at and try not to hit women; women scream and slap men; and both parents scold, and in some cases “beat” their children. From standup comedy routines, one gets the sense that violence characterizes the Black family experience at every level.

I’m not suggesting that we should all turn off our TVs and never listen to Black comedians again; rather I wish to place Adrian Peterson into the context of larger cultural systems that perpetuate violence, physical and emotional. Comedy is important; laughing is necessary. Comedy is also social commentary, and though the argument can be made that the examples I’ve given are exaggerated and meant to poke fun at our discomfort, the reality is that the words still hang in the air reinforcing truth, meant to make us chuckle because we remember the time our parents screamed at us and we didn’t know if we would live until morning. With each laugh, we are complicit in perpetuating violence as a point of comedy, allowing it to further burrow its acceptance underneath our skin and within our consciousness. My father never beat my ass, and yet I still became indoctrinated into this facet of Black culture. I laugh at the jokes, and I think that’s important.

 

Why I Hold Her Hand

Where I live, the air is oppressive. The thickness of expectations and conformity chokes everyone in its path. I am no exception. Each day I go into the office, I make conscious decisions about how I will show up. Tying my tie is an act of defiance, the gentle sag of my jeans a silent middle finger to gender expectations. I present in a masculine-of-center way because that is authentic to who I am. I once tried to fit in through dressing up in feminine clothing and talking about how cute boys are, and I was miserable. I still talk about how cute guys are, this just happens to occur without the assumption that I will marry a man. The road to self-acceptance proved to be difficult in my adolescence and young adulthood, and it took me a long time to come to terms with the extent of my queerness, beyond the begrudging admission that I had fallen in love with my best friend at 16. Though I celebrate my queerness each time I straighten my tie, and jam out to RENT in my car, I am reminded just how hard the road has been every day I spend in rural Ohio.

One of the first nights after I moved, I went to McDonald’s after a long day of training. I still wore my business casual attire because I was working late, and I do not typically take off my tie until I finish for the day. Since I had no plans to eat inside, normally I would have just taken the drive-thru, but I really had to use the restroom. I opened the door to the fast food restaurant, my eyes landing on a group of teenagers. Never before had I been stared at like I was that night. Their eyes raked over my body, boring into me, and sending silent messages of unworthiness and exclusion that pierced my heart like daggers. I looked away to gain my composure, went to the bathroom, and ordered my ice cream cone, a reward for a job well done after a long day. When I left, I hoped the group had cleared out, alas there they sat. For a second time that night, I felt their gaze. It wasn’t flattering or cute. Never before had I felt so unsafe. This would not be last time I felt the stares of others, and it began to take its toll.

The September after I started my graduate program, a campaign offered me the moon. I could leave Ohio, go back to my home state, and work for LGBTQ equality. A huge part of me wanted to accept, due in large part to the feelings of uneasiness about the place where I lived. The night before my decision was due, two students came into my office wanting to talk. One student, whom had come out to me earlier, brought another resident, whom I thought was gay, but had not said anything to me. For the next twenty minutes, we talked about what being out meant, my experiences so far, and the importance of community as queer people. I knew in that moment, that I could not leave, no matter how sweet the offer.

For the next year, I clung to that moment as a reminder of why I do this work in this place. Being visibly queer is a challenge, to be sure, and one that has only intensified since I started to date. My current girlfriend came to visit a month or so ago, and I had to ask myself a very important question: “Would I hold her hand?” I never saw queer couples on campus engaging in any sort of affection, so I knew that such a statement would draw the stares from which I desperately sought shelter. Normally, this would not be a question at all. I believed in the hand holding and the “hello” kisses, just as I believed in putting on my tie most mornings. My hesitation, the briefest moment of fear, reminded me why I needed to hold her hand. On a campus lacking in pride, where rainbow does not exist, communities are underground, and students cry in my office because they “know” they cannot be gay and an ambassador, I needed to do my part. Being out is a privilege, and not a place where everyone wants to be. For me, however, I can be out, and I want my students to see me, a queer person living and achieving. I realized today, that was something I never really had.

When my girlfriend came to visit, I held her hand, and people noticed. When we got back to my apartment one afternoon, she looked at me. “You know, everyone stares at us.”

I took her hand in mine, and gave a sad smile. “I know.”