Emanuel Keith Upshaw III
Zaya Wade, daughter of NBA superstar Dwayne Wade, broke headlines when the then 13-year-old announced she was transgender and would be transitioning to her true self, a female. Immediately catching the attention of fans and celebrities alike, the choice sparked conversation around Black maleness and gender identity. As June and Pride Month come to a close, the month serves as a celebratory reminder that some are still fighting for equality and the right to live as one chooses.
Members of the LGBT+ community, which includes gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer or gender non-confirming, continually face an uphill battle in embracing their individuality and being accepted in the world. According to a poll conducted by USA Today, more than five percent of the country identifies as LGBT+. For the Black community, more than six percent are in same-sex male relationships.
In Black families, the symbol of the African American man represents strength, protection, a provider and masculinity. Black men who identify as gay or another member of the LBGT+ community are often shunned and alienated by family, faith and friends. Able to establish their true sense of being, the LGBT+ community has blazed trails and continues to work to create a more inclusive world. Despite triumphs, gay men, Black men in particular, are shut out and left to navigate through a maze of exclusion and rejection.
“Because of how we were raised as Black people, we were coming through Jim Crow, we had a position in society and we were looked at as strong, head of the household; we had to maintain a certain status quo. However, even back then, some of those men may have been feeling the same things, but they couldn’t act on it because of what was happening at the time,” says Emanuel Keith Upshaw III, entrepreneur and openly gay Black man. “When it comes to Black gay males, we are ostracized because that’s still the perception that most people want us to have and we don’t get a chance to be ourselves.”
Like many, the path to coming out of the proverbial closet is one laced with lessons and heartbreak. While society is less accepting of same sex male relationships, it seems to be the opposite for the inverse. While lesbianism is more widely accepted or hyper-fantasized in society, homosexuality for men is frowned upon. Through mainstream media is racing to catch up, gay men are still seen as a negative.
“The hyper-sexualized idea that it’s hot for two women to have sex; more of the idea that they [men] want more women at one time, versus the idea of two men being intimate. It’s what people picture in their minds and they act on those thoughts accordingly. Thus, accepting women and rejecting the men,” says Upshaw.
The tales of going public with sexuality, particularly in the African American community, is taboo, unspoken. Despite its closeted conversation, topics surrounding Black men and homosexuality are beginning to break through. Despite the harsh realities, Black gay men are reclaiming their identities and breaking free of the ridicule brought on very often by those closest to them.
“The bullying that I got came from home. Being called slurs from my mother and egged on by my sisters, I was never really accepted growing up. At the time, I didn’t know what was ‘wrong’ with me to where my people would say and do these things to me. I didn’t understand what I was going through mentally as a kid,” says Upshaw. “Just looking back on the situation, my mother didn’t know how to raise me because this is not who they were taught to be. She didn’t know how to deal with the fact that her only son was gay.”
Family aside, faith is another aspect that greatly affects the LGBT+ community. Religion is heavily rooted in both the history and perseverance of African Americans. Leaning on the Bible, Black families have a strong sense of faith and belonging with the church. Aside from feeling pressure and criticism from family, churches use the Bible to execute its word. Within its texts, verses speak against same sex relationships. Although the Bible also teaches love, some in the LGBT+ community have felt all but love from churchgoers.
“The Bible talks about homosexuality as not being accepted, and our community is taught to not accept it, making it a morality issue,” says Upshaw “Gay Black men have gotten the absolute shun from the church, but there is a conflict of interest on both parts. Especially when gay Black men have been an active participant in church, like singing in the choir, directing, music department, usher board, even in the pulpit. Although these churches benefit from homosexuals, they still are overtly shunned and turned away, or rejected by the church.”
Navigating the trials and tribulations of life, Black gay men are charting a course in hopes of making it easier for other gay Black men to live in their truth. Facing the backlash of sexuality is constant, but with resilience and perseverance, Pride Month is a small show of changing times and the continued fight for equality.
“Coming out and trying to grow into who you are is already hard within itself without the childhood traumas and the mess,” says Upshaw. “It’s easier today to come out than back in the day. It’s not a matter of right and wrong. Fostering and loving a kid to be who they’re supposed to be was supposed to be the goal that got lost along the way.”