Detroit is the New Queer

I wrote a play in the mid 80’s about a gay man who, after 30 years of estrangement, becomes his father’s caretaker when his father has contracted HIV. It was the dawn of the AIDs epidemic. The play was probably my way of channeling fear and uncertainty into anger I felt about a father who abandoned my brothers and me at a young age. The play was also a way for me to transform one reality that did not make sense at the time—a disease that seemed to target people based on sexual orientation—into another reality based on a kind of poetic justice. I even went as far as having the characters discuss homosexuality as a type of evolution, making queer a sign of genetic superiority.

Living a queer lifestyle, in my experience, requires a certain pioneer spirit—a willingness to go where most members of society fear to tread. To be queer also requires the ability to discover worth in what has been named worthless—this often includes self-worth. We understand, as social outcast, that not everything discarded—disregarded—by the mainstream is without value. Queer people have been relegated to the “outside” amongst other marginalized peoples. In spite of what queer people have in common with our fringe brothers and sisters, it seems that it is on the fringes we also meet with open resistance and violent opposition where we should find allies.

Some of the resistance in marginalized communities falls on queers themselves. Often we see white, middle class representatives of the LGBTQ community entering into communities of color with all of their dominant class sensibilities in tow. We see disposable incomes used to beautify and gentrify. We see an influx of businesses that cater to these financially more secure individuals, resulting in a complete shift of the economic base within a neighborhood until poor people are displaced as the queer safe havens become more and more mainstream and less “safe.” That may be an over-simplification, but that is my experience of the perception.

For years I have lived the contradiction of being black and queer and been internally split for that reason, when in reality I might have been doubly fueled to resist social norms that would deny any aspect of my character the right to be fully expressed. I have experienced violent homophobia from the black community, but I have also experienced intense, soul crushing racism from the LGBTQ community. Neither of these forms of oppression is acceptable and both only serve to divide potential allies.

I was stripping paint in my house on Field Street on the east side of Detroit, and it hit me that once again I was on the fringe—taking a risk, as it were. The house had suffered fire damage and I was attempting to remediate that damage in the hope that I would find something exquisite under the layer of soot. In fact, I was doing just that. It occurred to me that once more, my queer sensibility had given me the courage to enter into a space where others hadn’t dared. In some ways that Field Street house represents all of Detroit and only those who have been forced to live in margins can understand what is to be gained from such a life.

I am also aware that there will be—already I have experienced—some resistance to my being queer in this community. I have felt pressure to make overtures to the community as a way of acknowledging the historically damaging ways that people have entered disenfranchised communities in the past, leading to gentrification. I have been open and understanding about that. The problem may lie in a failure to also acknowledge how queer people have been forced to migrate as well and that communities must also begin to undo homophobia, which may simply be an expression of male dominance.

There is another opportunity here: Our LGBTQ community must dare to build strong alliances with other marginalized communities, not only to forward a queer agenda, but to ensure a human one; and our black community must embrace those queer elements from within and without and do away with those internal contradictions that have allowed us inflict the violent oppression we seek to overcome upon others. I’m proud to belong to two groups who have made indisputable contributions to the world in every possible stratum. We have so much to learn from each other as survivors of extreme and systemic oppression that might help us create a new world where we can all live to our full potential.

Queer for me has always been a kind of revolutionary act. I was raised Catholic and in a community where homosexuality was not tolerated in the least. I was beaten up, teased, ostracized and punished by my parents from a very young age for demonstrating signs of my queer orientation. It didn’t stop me from having a very active fantasy life and from becoming the object of desire for many of the boys on my block who were just awakening. I was kissed many times before I was seven years old by boys who were slightly older. Those kissed were always in secret, of course.