One of André Wheeler’s favorite childhood moments is having his mom braid his hair into cornrows: “My mom would always have the greatest time putting new designs in my hair. At the time Bow Wow and Lil’ Romeo wore braids, so it made me feel cool to look like them,” the 22-year-old magazine editor recalls.
But in the fourth grade Wheeler was bullied for the very thing he prided himself on. “The bullying got so bad. I was seen as feminine so I cut my hair.”
Being black and queer is complicated. Wheeler was simultaneously made fun of for wearing cornrows, a traditional African hairstyle, but also for his shoulder-length hair, which other kids thought didn’t match his gender identity.
So at the age of 9 he cut his hair. It was his first experience confronting the dual challenges—racism and homophobia—that makes existing in a queer, black male body so challenging.
Twenty-three-year-old medical student Devan Evans admits that growing up in Houston he felt isolated. “Growing up in the church, people just said ‘guys like girls,’ and there’s no other option,” Evans says.
Things worsened, he says, when he left his mostly black community of church friends and family. “At first it was a general sense of not fitting in. Being black and gay, I didn’t fit in anywhere. And over time I encountered more blatant racism.”
Constantly facing discrimination is stressful, but the compounded effect of multiple layers of prejudice is particularly complicated. Jessamin Cipollina, a psychology researcher at NYU’s Center for Health, Identity, Behavior, and Prevention, explains that being part of both the black and gay communities carries its own stigma. Studies found that when racial discrimination and homophobia intersect, it can lead to self-rejection and other negative impacts on mental health.
“Queer black men can be having multiple experiences,” Cipollina explains. “They could be from a poor socioeconomic background—some men are mixed race, so they’re taking in multiple experiences, attitudes and opinions. On an individual level it’s interesting how that impacts their overall outcomes and outlooks.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports LGBT individuals are three times more likely to experience depression and generalized anxiety due to discrimination, social stigma and fear associated with coming out. Occupying dual identities can trigger even more intense anxiety and loneliness: Corin Peterson, 23, said that growing up he felt isolated. Like Evans and Wheeler, he was bullied for years and questioned whether same-sex attraction was normal.
“It’s hard to navigate those waters, and feel like you’re free to act as part of either the straight, gay or black community.” He complains about feeling erased as a black, bisexual man. “You don’t really feel complete acceptance. You’re caught in the middle trying to tread water and stay afloat.”
Brandon Primus, director of advocacy at Harlem United, leads queer clients, many of whom are minorities in a peer-empowerment program, training them to become civic leaders and experts in public policy. “When we think about the mainstream LGBT movement there’s a little L, a little B, a little Q with a large focus on the G—particularly gay white men,” says Primus.
Consequently, the unique challenges of queer black men are often overlooked.
“The clients I work with come from such destroyed social situations, socioeconomic situations where the right to marriage was not the first thing on their mind,” he explains. “They’re thinking about trying to feed themselves, trying to get medication and finding stable housing.”
This kind of exclusion from the larger LGBT movement has a long history: The idea for a weeklong Pride celebration was originated by bisexual activist, Brenda Howard, known as “the Mother of Pride.” And the Rosa Parks of the transgender rights movement was a trans woman of color, Sylvia Rivera. As it stands today, members of the trans and bi community still have to fight to be recognized, even within the LGBT movement.
Rivera spoke about transgender exclusion throughout her life, which inspired her to create Transgender Pride Week in 1994.
Out editor Les Fabian Braithwaite, 31, says queer spaces are often overwhelmingly white. “It’s hard finding that space where I feel safe in all aspects,” he explains. “If I go to a gay club for black men, all of a sudden there’s a heavy security presence and I don’t feel safe. It’s like why can’t queer black men have a nice space to go to like white men? That’s defined my dating experience, having that burden when you’re trying to find dates.”
It’s a challenge many can relate to, with Grindr and Scruff emphasizing physical characteristics right down to girth, length, and skin tone. “I just don’t understand it,” says Carl Terrell, a 21-year-old student. “If you know how it feels to not be liked just because you’re gay, why would you not like another race because of their skin color?”
Many of the men I spoke with wish they knew they’d understood before coming out to just to be themselves, to persevere through the hardship, and they would eventually live fulfilled lives. But even as adults many seemed weary, as years of erasure, ignorance and endurance have taken their toll. Asked what was the one thing they wished they could change, the men said they simply want to be acknowledged and respected.
“White gay men experience discrimination and have their own stories,” says Wheeler. “But there needs to be an understanding in the gay community that some have had different or more tumultuous experiences. Give a spotlight or a moment to those voices.”