LGBTQ people are now the most likely demographic to be victims of hate crimes in America, according to statistics compiled by the FBI. This research went on to conclude of the 5,462 reported hate crimes in 2014, 20% were targeted based on sexual orientation. Nearly 80% of those LGBT targeted deaths were People of Color.
Protection--the right to feel safe and free from physical, mental, and emotional harm--is an expected social right regardless of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or any other human trait. So how are attacks like these so disproportionately affecting LGBTQ People of Color? Where can we seek refuge? What do we have to do to find a basic level of protection?
Toni Morrison once said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” From its very conception, the founders of America went beyond just hyphenating but violated protected lands and culture of Native Americans. And then slavery, Jim Crow, suppressing women’s rights, Japanese internment camps, anti-gay movement, lack of response to AIDS, predatory laws against immigrants, and other violations of civil liberties. The land of the free is often unsafe for the rest of us.
In finding my role in society and how to protect myself growing up a gay Black boy in Tennessee, I battled with ideas of escapism vs. existing; the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities vs. existing in hard times. Acceptance vs. rejection. Love vs. hate. These contradictions persisted throughout my life and I still battle them today.
As age five I told my mother I wanted to be white because “white people got what they wanted”. As I grew up and I realized I was gay, I understood this wasn’t accepted in the Black community when I was physically assaulted by a group of older Black teenagers. In finding more acceptance in high school within the white community, I then found myself struggling to defend my Blackness. In college I joined a white fraternity, which constantly challenged both my Blackness and gayness. The struggle to protect myself physically and mentally throughout my life consumed nearly every ounce of my being.
After studying International Marketing in college and having developed a love for traveling during study abroad trips, I realized that living and working abroad could allow me to escape while also existing. Moving away to work not only gave me new skill sets in language, professional growth, and cultural exchange, but also provided protection. I could finally operate as myself without fear of profiling, police brutality, gay bashing, or needing to simply explain who I was and why I was different than a stereotype of a gay, Black American. And I wondered, is this what it’s like to be white? Is it that easy just to be me? Can I really create a life that suits me? The answers to all those questions were yes.
To be clear, racism and homophobia exist throughout the world. And an expatriate lifestyle can have privilege in freedom with a constant ‘holiday’ feeling. But in the context of being Black and gay in relation to what I wanted to accomplish in my life, it just didn’t matter. Without the violent history of race and homosexuality in America, I had a clean slate, a way out.
I finally had protection.
I thrived abroad both professionally and personally. I moved up the corporate ladder, built a diverse group of friends and found love. I felt safe. I was protected. Over those 8 years though, I started seeing something more prevalent happening back home.
Not that race and violence haven’t always been a part of America’s DNA, but names like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mark Carson and Sandra Bland started to appear in the news more frequently. And then Charleston and Orlando massacres happened. Trayvon is the same age as my cousins. I have gay friends who live in Orlando. These were my people. This protection I had didn’t feel quite the same anymore. While physically protected, mentally I felt exposed and naked. I had to ask myself, was my protected life real?
In 2017, the Trump Administration is rejecting basic protections: executive action which bars transgender students from using a bathroom, reinstating private prisons which target people of color, and the Justice Department’s announcement to reduce prosecuting police departments who discriminate against minorities. Not surprisingly, we are seeing huge increases in hate crimes across the country. Even in New York City, the NYPD has reported a 35% spike in hate crimes since the election. We have entered into possibly the most dangerous time for our community in recent history and our government is a co-signer.
While I would like to offer heartfelt solutions to obtain protection, I’m not sure if we’ll be afforded this luxury any time soon. Rich, poor, educated or not, abroad or in Tennessee, this is our reality and I do not feel our fate is in our hands. There is no escape. In the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Not being violent enough could cost me my body. Being too violent could cost me my body. We could not get out.” If this notion is true, and I believe it is, I then offer one last question to the holders of power: If we can’t escape, how do we protect ourselves in a society that rejects our very existence?
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