Black women are queered from conception, as their mere existence subverts social constructions.
I first confronted my queerness in the packed crowd of Clairo’s set at a Detroit music festival in the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Beneath the veil of dirt plastered to my skin by sweat, I sang along to “Pretty Girl” and thought about how much I just wanted to be her friend. In hindsight, this realization is, at best, a funny introductory story at a party or first date when I am inevitably asked, “So…when did you know?”
I held onto my little moment with Clairo for four years while I sat in church pews on Sunday mornings and listened to my friends at Christian camp argue about whether or not gay people were damned. Amidst the incessant introspection that was quarantine, I decided I couldn’t keep sitting on this secret any longer, eventually determining that the universe and all the love it holds could not possibly damn me for the simple act of kissing a girl.
I told two of my closest friends in mid-July of 2020, and was joyfully received with open arms. Over the past year I’ve made a point to casually slip it into conversation and let it flow through the grapevine because I didn’t—and still don’t—want a production.
As a young Black woman experiencing her first openly “out” Pride month, I’ve been meditating a lot recently on conceptions of queerness and how they’ve been woven into my life—more specifically, the disparity between when I previously embraced compulsory heterosexuality versus when I made my own personal sexuality realizations and started sharing these with my friends and family.
In the past year, I’ve noticed that despite society’s consideration of coming out to be relatively groundbreaking, I don’t feel as though my concept of identity has been revolutionized or changed in any drastic way. My conclusion is a simple one: When you’re a Black woman, you’ve been queer your whole life.
In fall of 2020 I took an African American Literature course with the inimitable Dr. Selamawit Terrefe and had the privilege of reading and discussing excerpts of Sarah Haley’s No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity. In the first chapter, Carceral Constructions of Black Female Deviance, Haley writes:
“In the white imaginary, ‘black woman’ was an oxymoronic formulation because the modifier ‘black’ rejected everything associated with the universal ‘woman.’ The black female subject occupied a paradoxical, embattled, and fraught position, a productive negation that produced normativity.”
Haley’s assertion that the phrase “Black woman” is oxymoronic deconstructs how social categories, such as gender and race, were constructed and continue to be influenced by the pervasive power of whiteness. All societal constructions of womanhood revolve around an image of submissive piety and innocence—traits that are associated exclusively with whiteness, while Blackness is construed as aggressive, dominant and animalistic. This makes it virtually impossible for any Black individual to exist within the slim definition of womanhood this narrative creates.
Black women, then, are queered from conception, as their mere existence subverts social constructions. In essence, beneath the present hegemony, Black women always have been and always will be queer, despite gender presentation or sexual orientation.
My lack of identity adjustment upon realizing that I was gay was not a personal confliction, but a social phenomenon existent across the expanse of all othered peoples. When you are queer your whole life, queerness based on sexual orientation is merely a predictable byproduct—a foreseeable outcome which places you only slightly further outside the circle you were already discluded from.
In conversation with a close queer elder, I discovered similar sentiments. Via email, she wrote:
“Growing up, being a Black woman was not the traditional conception of womanhood/what a woman should be. Media, society, beauty industry, cosmetics, fashion, health care, fashion and political standards were set and we were not it. We have been fighting for our place for far too long.”
Similarly to Haley’s argument, she expresses a distinct difference between inhabiting inclusive spaces as a woman of color:
“There are local spaces that are known for being open and accepting, liberal and inclusive. Some are women-owned. When I visit, there are few faces of color and I may be the only Black woman unless I bring or invite a relative or friend. This feels just like it sounds. I continue to seek out community and connection and cast a wide net.”
As this Pride month comes to a close, I continue to navigate the intersection of Black queerness and identity formation, recognizing that there is no final stopping point, only a continual journey of self exploration. To return to the words of my family member, she is hopeful: “Our place should not be set by anyone else’s standards, no one can tell us what a Black woman should be. We define it. We claim it.”