Challenge of Being Black and Gay Spans Generations
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
Today, we kick off our Sex and Sexuality series. We're taking a risk in talking about culture, stereotypes and taboos. Most importantly though, we're talking about how people deal with this important issue in real life.
Today, what does it mean to be African-American and openly gay? It's more acceptable now than ever to self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, also known as GLBT. Now, primetime shows had gay characters, two of America's top talk show hosts are lesbians, but few of these public figures are also African-American.
For more we've put together a special Roundtable with Jasmyne Cannick, a 29-year-old political and social commentator who lives in Los Angeles; 19-year-old Mark Corece, co-founder of ActOut, an organization on the campus of DePaul University - that's a Catholic school in Chicago; and Vallerie Wagner, a 48-year-old steering committee member of OUTfront - that's a branch of Amnesty International that deals with gay and lesbian issues.
Ms. JASMYNE CANNICK (Blogger): Thank you.
Mr. MARK CORECE (ActOut): Well, thank you.
Ms. VALLERIE WAGNER (OUTfront): Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. So this is great. I'm really glad to gather you all. And you guys are not, you know, so far apart in age, but I'm sure that because of your ages, you probably have seen some differences in, you know, what it's like to basically come out, to embrace yourself and to see how you fit into the public life of America. I'm actually going to start with you, Mark.
Tell me about the process of when you came out. And was it something for you that was relatively painless, or was - were there some issues that you really had to face in terms of dealing with your family, with religion, with society, things like that?
Mr. CORECE: Yeah. Definitely for me coming out was a hard thing. I came out very young. I came out at the age of about 13, 14. And my mom really didn't know how to accept it. I had like physical abuse from family members because of it. You know, we're going to change you. And for me, it was a very hard thing because sometimes I didn't have anyone to turn to. I just had to just look within myself and keep going. So it was definitely a hard process.
CHIDEYA: And now, you yourself are not Catholic, but you're going to a Catholic university.
Mr. CORECE: Mm-hmm.
CHIDEYA: Is that an issue at all?
Mr. CORECE: Actually, DePaul University is a very progressive university. I've never felt really uncomfortable about my sexuality there because I feel they - even if they don't have it all, they try to learn in - from their students because they value diversity, and that's one thing that I can say that they definitely stand for. So it hasn't really been a hard thing for me. However, there are some people who still don't feel comfortable enough to come out.
CHIDEYA: Valerie, what about you? What was your process?
Ms. WAGNER: Well, fortunately, I guess for me, I had a much easier process than Mark. And unfortunately for him, his sort of coming-out experience is the experience of a lot of younger LGBT folks in this country. But for me, once I came into a realization of who I was as a sexual being, there was no looking back for me.
I didn't sort of struggle with, you know, some of the typical things that people struggle with, you know, whether this had an impact on how guys felt about me or how my family was going to see me. And it was just a matter of coming to terms with myself. My family has been very supportive, and I've not looked back since - God, I was 23 years old when I came out.
CHIDEYA: You were 20 - let me figure out how to say this. You were 23 years old when you came out, but how old were you when you felt in your soul, I'm a lesbian?
Ms. WAGNER: Probably about four years old.
Ms. WAGNER: Yeah. It's an interesting thing because I think a lot of us sort of go through this transition of wondering, you know, I'm different. And I know I'm different, but how am I different? And then what role models do I have out there to sort of frame this difference? And I didn't have any role models growing up. All of my significant crushes when I was a young girl were on other girls in my classroom. And I knew that there was something about that, but I didn't quite know what that was. And so it took sort of the process of growing up, you know, having interactions with men, because that was what I was expected to do.
Even though when I was in the seventh grade I told my mother that if she wanted a son-in-law and grandchildren, that she had to look to my sister because I was not marrying a man, and I was not birthing no babies. And didn't realize the impact of what that meant, you know, in my seventh-grade mind. But after sort of having lived a little bit more of life and sort of gotten out of Shreveport, Louisiana, gone to college, and then on to grad school, and finally finding an expression, a word to sort of fit the feelings that I had, then it was - it was a no-brainer.
CHIDEYA: Now, Jasmyne, we've had you on before as a commentator and also as a guest. What about you? I mean obviously now you're very much in a role of an activist and a writer. What was your process like, not just in terms of coming out to family but also what did your sexual identity have as an impact on I guess your political identity, your cultural identity?
Ms. CANNICK: I think the biggest impact was me being able to quote unquote, "prove" to the black community, of which I'm a part of, that I was still a part of the community, even though I was a lesbian. And that just as much as I cared for issues that were important to same gender loving people, I also cared about the issues that were important to black people, like poverty, homelessness, police brutality, etc. So it was a way of trying to blend all of that together, all of who I am and not feeling like when I go into certain rooms I have to leave part of me behind because I won't be accepted.
And after three or four years now, it's all come together. People respect me for who I am. You know, I'm no longer the lesbian, you know. I'm the sister, you know. People know, but it's not - that's not the only thing. That's not just who I am in terms of coming out, however.
My family - it was a little hard. I mean, my grandparents don't accept it. My grandmother is a Jehovah's Witness, my other grandparents are Baptist, and they frown upon it. My parents, however, are a bit more liberal, a bit more understanding. But one thing I will say is that my grandparents read my articles and they see me on television. They listen to the radio, and they hear these issues and they've learned a lot. And while they may not be 100 percent okay with it, they definitely aren't where they were five or 10 years ago with it.
CHIDEYA: In case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. And we are doing our first story today on our Sex and Sexuality series. This is a special Roundtable. We were just hearing from Jasmyne Cannick, an LA-based political and social commentator; we've also got Vallerie Wagner of OUTfront, a branch of Amnesty International that deals with gay and lesbian issues; and Mark Corece, founder of ActOut at DePaul University.
So Mark, you're a co-founder of this group, ActOut. What exactly do you do? It strikes me that if you're the co-founder of the organization, then it must have started fairly recently. Is this a change on campus?
Mr. CORECE: Yes. This is a definite change on campus. As far as the activism goes with, I guess LGBT - as far as I'm concerned, I helped start the organization with a number of other students, mainly started by a student, Oranda Jensen(ph) at DePaul. But ActOut mainly focuses on the activism side, getting us seen in a positive view and not just talking about sexuality and only sex - you know, talking about what issues we face as LGBT students. So we try to go out in the community and just show our face and show what we are for.
CHIDEYA: All of you share a circle of activism. Not everyone who is gay or lesbian, not everyone at all is going to have that approach. What do you think made you into individuals who have a sense of activism? I guess Vallerie...
Ms. WAGNER: I think for me it was growing up in the South in the waning days of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement and recognizing then that because of the color of my skin I had limitations on me that were imposed by people that didn't know me and had no idea, you know, the person that I was or what I was capable of. And so while I value growing up in the South at the time that I did and wouldn't trade it for anything in the world - because I was very clear about, you know, where I could go, where I couldn't go, people that liked me, people that didn't like me had no qualms about letting me know that they didn't.
But I think it sort of instilled in me this notion that, you know, no one deserves to be treated like that. And so, you know, now, as I sort of come into - as I came into my awareness about my sexuality and recognized that I'm facing some of the same challenges around my sexual orientation being different from the stated norm - as my race was, you know, back in the days when I was growing up, and still continues to be - that it was imperative for me to get involved in a fight for what I consider, you know, the last civil right that I've not been afforded as a human being living on this Earth. And so why should I be set aside or be different from my heterosexual counterparts just because I choose to love a woman?
CHIDEYA: Jasmyne, what brought you to activism?
Ms. CANNICK: You know, I think about that question actually a lot because. You know, maybe prior to six, seven years ago, all I did was go to work and come home and repeat the same scenario everyday. I wasn't involved in the community at all. I didn't start off in activism, on LGBT activism.
I actually started off in black activism, working on issues that were important to black people. And how that came about is just that I kind of just realized I cared one day and that there's a role for all of us. For some of us, that role is to be out on the frontline, for some of us is to write the checks.
And I always tell people that exact same scenario. It's like you need to figure out what your role is in the movement. We don't all have to be out on the frontlines, but we do all need to understand that there is a movement that's going on that needs all of our participation.
And again, it's not just an LGBT movement. Like I said, there are, you know, we are African-American same-gender loving people so we have a lot of issues. We have the issues of not only just being gay, but also still being African-American and also going through the same things that other African-Americans are going.
I don't live in West Hollywood. I don't, you know, I still live in the 'hood, you know. I'm just as likely to be pulled over for being black. You know, not for being gay, but for being black.
So its one of those things I think especially now, today, because there is a lot more activism and a lot more visibility - you mentioned television - that younger people like Mark are more comfortable to come out. Because if I look around today, I work in Compton, I see so many more out young black women and men from my days when I was in school, which was just 10, 15 years ago.
CHIDEYA: Well, you know, let me ask you about language, though. You used the term same-gender loving people.
Ms. CANNICK: Right.
CHIDEYA: You know, as we cover things here like the AIDS crisis, there's the term men who have sex with men as opposed to gay men. What does language have to do with identity? Why do you use the term that you do? What has changed in this whole terminology around sexuality?
Ms. CANNICK: I used SGL, same gender loving, because I embrace it as sort of an African-American term to refer to as lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender people. It's not a term that I coined or created but is one that is used frequently in our community. And it's just a sense of ownership that, you know, we are black, you know.
When you hear same-gender-loving, nine times out of 10 it's in reference to African-American lesbian and gay folks. And that's why I use it, because it's a sense of empowerment as well. And sort of to put us aside like we are who we are and, you know, we bring not only our sexual orientation identity but also our culture and our race to the table as well.
CHIDEYA: Mark, I'm going to ask about dating, interracial dating. You know, obviously you can have interracial dating in gay couples, straight couples, whatever terminology you choose. Within the black gay community, as far as, you know, from your perspective, is there a taboo on interracial dating?
Mr. CORECE: I don't want to say there's a taboo. I don't see a lot of interracial dating. I was raised in the Midwest so I've seen some here and there. I think within the black community we are very family oriented. And so it's all about the family. You know, we can't disgrace the family and we have to worry about what the family thinks.
And I think being black and gay, that just adds something different to the pot. That adds, like, if you're black and gay, you're in the middle because you've been kicked out of the family. You disgraced the family. You know what I mean? But then your sexual orientation, you might not be able to identify with a white person, you know what I mean, because of the blackness. So you're just in the middle. So I think in regards to interracial dating that just makes it a little bit harder.
Ms. WAGNER: Wow. I think there is. I there's an unspoken taboo. I mean, I think there's still an unspoken taboo about interracial dating in the general black community. And so, you know, we as black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are no different, you know. It's kind of like Jasmyne said earlier: You know, I can't separate my blackness from my lesbianism because it's all a part of the same person. But I think there is this sort of unspoken and sometimes a very verbal taboo against interracial dating in this community. I've had friends that have told me that if they ever found me dating - if I was ever dating a white woman that I was no longer welcome in their homes.
Ms. WAGNER: Or that I could come but I couldn't bring my partner kind of thing. And I think, you know, I kind of laugh about that now, but I think it just speaks to a lot of internalized hatred, self-hatred, that we still harbor a lot of internalized homophobia, and not recognizing, you know, one, there are very few of us. We are a small, limited community even though we think we're this huge community, and to some degree we are. But the reality is love knows no color.
And I almost laugh when I hear myself say that. I think people have a right to choose who they will share their affections with but, you know, I think to have some of the views that we have around interracial dating in this community are as dangerous as a lot of the views that white people hold about black people in general.
CHIDEYA: Jasmyne, I'm going to give you the last word. Very briefly, do you wish that more prominent, you know, GLBT African-Americans were out?
Ms. CANNICK: Absolutely. And hopefully conversations like the one that we're having today, shows like "Noah's Ark" and other shows that are in television will help to encourage more people to come out.
I think Vallerie had mentioned about not having any role models. And that's part of what our job is today, is to make sure that people see us, that we're visible. We're healthy. We're alive. We're doing big things and we're gay, and you can do the same, you know. You don't have to commit suicide. You don't have to, you know, be a mystery. You can be who you want to be and still be black, gay and out.
CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, joining me from our NPR West studios, that was Jasmyne Cannick, an L.A. area political and social commentator. We also had Vallerie Wagner, a member of Amnesty International's OUTfront Steering Committee. And from our Chicago bureau, 19-year-old Mark Corece, co-founder of ActOut at DePaul University. Thanks, guys.
Ms. CANNICK: Thank you.
Ms. WAGNER: Thank you.
Mr. CORECE: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS & NOTES, Eric Jerome Dickey's "Pulp Fiction" and Afro-beat remade as our staff Pick of the Week.