Each generation is shaped by the culture, media, politics, and societal norms that can impact how we view ourselves, the people we share space with, and the freedom we have to express ourselves openly. Black queer Gen Xers and millennials have had to navigate ideas of Blackness and queerness imposed on them by others and learn how to reject them in order to live freely, unapologetically, and redefine what these identities mean to those who occupy both worlds.
For Black queer femmes, redefining Blackness, queerness, and femmehood are revolutionary acts. Embracing those identities defies what it means to be a part of spaces that would rather ignore your very existence. These are experiences that Keah Brown and Imani Rupert-Gordon are deeply familiar with. Brown is a Black disabled queer millennial who uses her words to change the game in media and literature. She’s an author and journalist pushing the envelope of what disabled people do with the mighty pen. Rupert-Gordon is a Black queer Gen Xer who is the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a national legal organization that leads in advancing the civil rights of all LGBTQ+ people and their families. Her passion for and about queer rights is steadfast in the work she has done in her career.
Both of these femmes are not only my colleagues in activism and journalism spaces, they’re also my friends whose journeys I have had the privilege to learn and witness as I got to know them over the years. Their perspectives on the world and their lived realities not only deserve visibility, but can impact the way other Black queer femmes view their own experiences as not isolated cases, but as a part of the bigger narrative of Black queer identity that has to be told in our own words. I’m thrilled to share our discussion about their journeys as leaders who are shaping the way their communities are growing on and offline, and how we can support young Black queer folks who will carry the torch as Gen Xers and millennials begin to age and take their places as the elders in their communities.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Vilissa Thompson: When people view you as a Black queer femme, what do you want them to see? How are you living boldly at the margins of your identities?
Keah Brown: I want them to see someone who works hard and believes in the work she creates. It’s just me making the constant choice to not apologize for all of who I am, for the things that I enjoy, the clothes that I wear, and the person I allow myself to be.
Imani Rupert-Gordon: As a Black queer woman, I believe that living my life openly and authentically is in itself an act of resistance. We live in a society that tells many of us that we need to hide our authentic selves, and this is the rent we pay for our existence. This is the same society that treats our identities as though they are in conflict: that my queerness would undermine my Blackness, or that my Blackness would undermine my womanhood. The result is an invitation to never be completely who we are. Living and loving my Blackness, my queerness, my womanhood, and all of my multiple intersecting identities is how I live boldly.
Thompson: Gen X and millennials have witnessed the shift in the way queer history and identity are viewed, discussed, and celebrated. What are the major differences you witnessed in terms to how you understood queerness as an adolescent until now?
Brown: As an adolescent, [queerness] was this thing that I feared. I came out when I was 28 because I was so afraid that being bisexual was wrong and that no one would love me anyway so what was the point. But I understand now that queerness is nothing to fear—it’s a large part of who I am and even though it’s not always easy, it’s so beautiful and I’m better for being able to live out loud now.
Rupert-Gordon: I definitely feel like a lot of progress has been made in terms of how LGBTQ+ identities were understood when I was younger. There has been so much progress made in terms of access, equal rights, and visibility.
At the same time, a lot of the work hasn’t told the entire story of LGBTQ+ identities, especially when it comes to the diversity we have within our communities. Popular culture plays an important role in that it shapes a lot of how people see communities that don’t always have widespread visibility. I think about the shows I grew up with like “Will and Grace,” which was groundbreaking in so many ways and did so much work to destigmatize gay people. At the same time, the show largely portrayed wealthy white gay men—and many of us felt left out of those stories. It also contributed to stereotypes—for instance, that our community is more likely to be wealthy, when the opposite is actually true—or furthered the idea that we only exist in urban centers when so many of us live in rural communities. So I feel like in some ways, now we’re focusing on deepening the picture people have of our communities.
Thompson: Millennials have never known a world where HIV/AIDS or the push for safer sex practices didn’t exist. What impact do you believe these realities had on the generation where sexual expression, engagement, and identity came with a “warning,” shame, or fear of being found out to be queer?
Brown: I think that there is definitely still stigma surrounding queerness but I also think that a lot of millennials who are out, myself included, understand that there is risk, but it doesn’t necessarily negate the reward of being able to be who we are. I think specifically with identity and sexual expression, I feel like as an adult I’m seeing people buck against the idea that these are things to keep quiet or feel shame about because we’ve spent so many years being [told] that harmful lie.
Thompson: Gen X watched the way queer bodies were rejected and ignored during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the ’80s and ’90s. How has that shaped the way you began to live your truth and influenced your decision to make queer rights your life’s work?
Rupert-Gordon: As a Black person, I’ve always had an understanding that some of us needed to fight to be included. I was just starting to learn how the world works during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and during that time, I thought the lack of support for the LGBTQ+ community was highlighting the limitations of our government. I didn’t realize until I was older that our so-called leaders were willing to watch our communities die because of who we are. The institutions that are supposed to protect us have never protected all of us, and we saw a version of that play out during this time.
I remember when I first came out at queer, and I was trying to understand what this meant for me, and how I would move through the world. Someone told me that I should consider living openly, and sharing my queer identity. She explained that she knew young Black girls who thought they couldn’t be queer because they didn’t see other Black queer women. I hadn’t considered that just being open and honest about who I am might make a difference for them [and] I realized how important it would be for me to live my life authentically—not only for myself, but for folks that don’t always see themselves represented. I’ve never regretted that decision. This has led me to my life’s work, and has allowed me to love myself so completely, and I am forever grateful for that.
Thompson: As Black people, we understand how our community views queerness and identity. Particularly when it comes to picking our Black identity over “everything else” to fall in line with respectability politics surrounding Blackness. How have you pushed back against this fragmentation?
Brown: What I try to do is remind people that I am all things at once and I refuse to parcel out pieces of myself to fit a bigger picture that never really made space for me anyway. Unfortunately I find that [Black communities] treat queerness like it’s this thing we can take off or put on when we see fit—that’s not how it works. I try my best to remind people of that but also make sure that I’m keeping my own peace and not letting the opinions of [other] people dictate how I present myself to the world and to the community.
Rupert-Gordon: Sometimes within oppressed communities, there is a dynamic that arises where those of us who hold multiple underrepresented identities, we are sometimes encouraged to ignore parts of ourselves and focus on just one aspect of our identity for the good of a larger community. Obviously, it’s an impossible ask and we’re right to resist it—I can’t subjugate any single part of my identity for the good of another part any more than I can stop breathing to make it easier to eat. I’m always all of me.
But it’s also important to remember that these dynamics—respectability politics, pitting identities against each other—these all come from a place of pain. When I’m in Black spaces and I’m told not to focus on my identity as a queer woman because it distracts from the larger project of racial justice, I try to remember first that the same systems of oppression that we’re fighting against externally are responsible for that dynamic internally. So, in our movement, we have to recognize that this is not a helpful strategy, and more than that, it’s not the path to liberation.
Thompson: Racism and anti-Blackness exist within marginalized communities, including queer spaces. Thinking through a generational lens, how have you combatted those ills that attempt to whitewash queer history and who gets to be revered in the community?
Brown: I still feel like a baby queer, so I am learning as I go and just trying to do what I can to make sure that I’m learning the history of queer people of color.
Rupert-Gordon: Much of the history and progress that’s been made for the LGBTQ+ community and the Black community is because of Black LGBTQ+ people. From the Black trans women and drag queens at Stonewall to Bayard Rustin to Pauli Murray who wrote what Thurgood Marshall called the “bible for Civil Rights lawyers.” It is a misconception that racism and anti-Blackness don’t exist in the LGBTQ+ community—they very much do.
For that reason, Black LGBTQ+ people are very often erased from our own stories of our own movements. I think the most powerful thing we can do to combat that is to educate people and highlight those stories. Right now, in states across this country we are fighting to have the true histories of Black people and LGBTQ+ people in our schools. Young people deserve to see the breadth of what our communities have given to make the world a better place. We have to tell our stories, but we also have to demand that our stories don’t leave us out.
Thompson: What can be done to better support Black queer people—from the elders to the youth—to ensure that no one is left in the shadows?
Brown: I think [we need] the space to tell our own stories and create spaces that make sure that we are a priority. [Also don’t] expect us to adhere to a queer white gaze or trot us out to pop up at white queer-centered events and initiatives when Black history month rolls around.
Rupert-Gordon: We need to make sure this history is told and that people’s legacies and contributions are remembered. And we need to elevate Black LGBTQ+ voices everywhere: in education, the media, in the movement, and in leadership opportunities. “Elevating” means more than getting people in the door. We need to build infrastructures to recruit and retain Black LGBTQ+ people in every single arena.
Thompson: Identifying as Black queer femmes, what gaps or acts of erasure still exist and who’s doing the work to close or eliminate them?
Brown: I think that there is a lack of accessibility and accountability that contribute to [our] erasure. Often in life, Black women are the last group of people to be thought of in every space, including this one. That’s a large part of the erasure, the invisibility of us even when we’re right in people’s faces.
Rupert-Gordon: I think too often people still think of these identities as separate. Too often we’ll see reports that talk about LGBTQ+ issues, but when you look at Black LGBTQ+ people, or LGBTQ+ people of color, we notice that the issues aren’t the same. This is because the experiences within the LGBTQ+ community and beyond aren’t the same.
We will close these gaps when more organizations understand that to serve our community, you need to protect all of us holistically. LGBTQ+ organizations have to be racial justice organizations if we are going to achieve LGBTQ+ equality. That’s why this intersectional approach is a pillar of the way we do our work at NCLR. This means that our work on reproductive justice and racial justice and economic justice and criminal justice within the LGBTQ+ community supports the most underrepresented in our community. That way, everyone in our community is lifted up. That’s the only way it works.
Thompson: We witnessed the emergence of Black queer identity being visible in media with shows like the iconic FX series “Pose.” What does media representation mean to you as Black queer narratives are told? What else is needed in telling our truths on the big or small screens?
Brown: It means that I deserve to be happy and to love who I love without apology. Seeing shows that feature queer Black people makes me feel like I finally belong and that I am deserving of a happy ending. I definitely think that we need to see more Black queer disabled people on TV and in movies. Someone should let people know that I’m available!
Rupert-Gordon: Media representation is often how we see ourselves in the world. It has been refreshing to see more characters that share my identities in dynamic and robust main roles as opposed to sidekicks with underdeveloped storylines. “Pose,” for example, is beautiful and dynamic and so powerful.
But representation of characters on its own isn’t the solution. We need to see the characters that reflect our identities, but we also need characters that tell our stories. We need story arcs that center the complex realities of our intersectional experiences. I don’t want to see one episode in seven seasons about the one time someone experienced racism, sexism, and heterosexism at the same time. This is a reality that many of us face daily, and our stories should reflect that. These stories are infinitely more interesting and authentic when we are sharing the honest challenges we face, so the successes are realistic as well.
Thompson: How is your work creating opportunities for queer Black women to live boldly and fully?
Brown: My hope is that my work allows people to feel like they know someone who is Black, queer, disabled, and thriving, and hopefully gives them the encouragement to also be who they are without apology. I hope that my work inspires people to live boldly and fully by seeing me work at it every day, talking about my desires, my plans, my hopes, and my dreams.
Rupert-Gordon: The work we are doing at NCLR is to create a better and safer world for all of us—and to be clear, a world that we’ve never seen before. It is my greatest hope that the barriers that existed for us are so far removed for younger generations that when these folks move through the world, they have to learn that it hasn’t always been this way. And then, while they are living their beautiful, bold, and authentic lives, maybe the space they have to live that way might inspire the creative vision to create a world that they’ve never seen before.
Thompson: With the existence of social media providing more avenues for support and to challenge ignorance and hate, what advice would you have for young Black queer folks looking to create their own safe and supportive communities, whether on or offline?
Brown: My word of advice is to start small and know that there are people who will welcome you with open arms. A lot of time [it’s] the people you wouldn’t expect.
Rupert-Gordon: I am so grateful to the social internet for its ability to connect people. For so many in our community, the greatest challenge growing up is isolation and not knowing anyone else going through the same things. It’s so beautiful that social media helps to connect young Black LGBTQ+ folks with their people across the world.
That said, the social internet can also be a harmful place. It can be reductive and unkind. The sad reality is that a lot of people are being radicalized online to hate us right now. More needs to be done to make these companies take responsibility for what they’re doing, but in the meantime, I would encourage people to be vigilant about what they share online and who has access to them. And remember that if the social internet is no longer serving you and your mental health, leave it.
Thompson: What words of love would you provide young Black queer folks who are still finding their place in the community?
Brown: You belong. This is for us too. Take up space and make mistakes. Your life is yours to live so chase after it like it’s the last bus of the day. I’m rooting for you. I love you. See you out there.
Rupert-Gordon: You belong EVERYWHERE. We’ve been waiting for you. Welcome.