Students and faculty meet at the intersection of race and sexuality

Jessica Turner

To be an LGBTQIA person of color is to struggle

UMKC’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and LGBTQIA Programs and Services co-hosted a discussion called “The Hidden Closet: Experiences of LGBTQIA People of Color” on Nov. 11 in the Student Union.

The discussion was led by LGBTQIA Programs and Services Coordinator, Jonathan Pryor, joined by Assistant Director of MSA Keichanda Dees-Burnett.

“The goal for this evening is to get a sense of our own perceptions and the feelings of the climate here at UMKC for our LGBT students of color,” Pryor said.

He began by reading a narrative about invisibility, written by a Mexican queer-identified individual.

“Every day, I wake up, stretch my arms, take a look in the mirror, and the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a person of color,’” Pryor read. “And then it hits me that I’m also part of the queer community and finally, I’m a youth. Starting off every day with three strikes against me leaves me with the feeling that I am definitely out.”

The author pointed out that, even within the LGBT community—which should be accepting of queer people of color based on shared sexual orientation—he often feels marginalized. Those feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness and depression can all lead to risk-taking behaviors, substance abuse and even suicide.

“You see, in Spanish, there isn’t a word for ‘queer’ or ‘homosexual,’” the author wrote. “The words used are derogatory and repulsive. Every day, I see images that I can’t relate to—blonde hair, blue eyes, slender figure, limp wrist, rainbows and glitter—[and] all of these things are so foreign to me.”

Several UMKC students of color related to the writer’s message.

“Him saying that he has three strikes against him stood out for me,” one female student said.

The group viewed and discussed a short clip from Oprah Winfrey’s interview with professional athlete Jason Collins. He told Sports Illustrated in a May 2013 issue, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Oprah pointed out that the stigma of being gay in African American culture is “even worse than it is in the general population.”

“I think that has to do with a lot of just how hand-in-hand the church is with the African American community,” Collins said. “Trust me: I grew up in a very religious family. I knew as an African American that it adds another dimension to the discussion.”

“You say some people come into their sexuality early, and other people have to ‘bake’ a while,” Oprah said. “You baked for 33 years.”

“I did,” Collins said. “I didn’t tell another living soul until I was 33 years old.”

It is not uncommon for LGBTQIA people of color to “bake” longer than their white counterparts, and the crossroads of cultural expectations and identifying with the LGBTQIA community is not an easy place to live.

 

Deeply-rooted influences of faith make coming out difficult

Lynette Sparkman-Barnes, associate director of counseling services, shared a perspective from a preacher’s point of view, as she and her husband are both ministers.

“I was at the Laverne Cox presentation last week, which was wonderful,” Sparkman-Barnes said. “And she mentioned her home of Bethel [African Methodist Episcopal]…in Alabama, and I am an AME pastor, and so when she said [that], I knew what she was up against.”

D. Rashaan Gilmore, a member of the KC CARE Clinic, recognized the necessity for communities to be supportive as LGBTQIA people of color endure the coming out process.

“One of the things I realized is that coming out is not an individual process,” Gilmore said. “It is an individual decision, but it’s not an individual process. So when coming out, families have to come out. Churches have to come out.”

“It’s tough,” Sparkman-Barnes said. “The Black church has routinely been hard on the LGBT population, [but] we believe in the theology of love. That means everyone has a place in God’s kingdom… Don’t have somebody come up into a pulpit and preach, ‘This is wrong,’ because I’ll go toe-to-toe with you on your theology [and] why you say this is wrong… Don’t come quoting to me all kinds of scripture when you don’t know the history and context of that scripture. We have this thing about picking and choosing what scriptures we want to hold onto [but] you have to look at scripture in its entirety and you have to look at the word as breathing and living. And I know I serve a God that has made everybody in God’s image, so you can’t tell me [otherwise].”

Gilmore pointed out his belief that people should be educated in theology so that they are better equipped to respond to various interpretations of religious doctrine.

“People ask the question, ‘How do you reconcile your faith with your sexuality?’” Gilmore said. “Well, there’s nothing to reconcile. But to your point, Pastor, you can go toe-to-toe with the person who feels like they have something to say from a scriptural standpoint about homosexuality, but the average person can’t. And so they’re beaten down by the voices in their own head. They’re beaten down by the voices of others. They don’t have the equipment to be able to stand up to that.”

Sparkman-Barnes admitted to having received phone calls from people asking if she could “help” their LGBTQI family members, and being asked whether or not she “believes” in homosexuality. She’s also been asked by religious affiliates how to “deal with the stress” of identifying as LGBT individuals.

“And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, in 2013 we’re still trying to do conversions? We’re still doing this?’” Sparkman-Barnes said. “And on the other side of it, I also get a lot of people in ministries that come to me because they are gay, but they cannot be open. They cannot be out. For some, it would be political suicide.”

A UMKC student expressed an obligation to his church that originates from generations of family tradition. His father and grandfather were both actively involved in his church, and he has only disclosed his true sexual orientation to his immediate family.

“I did a lot for my church back home,” the student said. “I was trying to figure out that balance of power, trying to keep myself happy but at the same time, trying not to put myself out there and have the church talk about me. And I also have to think [about] my family name. So I have that fear of a legacy that I’m trying not to tarnish. It’s a struggle. It’s very hard.”

The student told the group that due to his naturally outgoing personality, he is very close to many people “back home,” especially in the older generation of his church’s congregation.

“I don’t know how their perspective of me would change,” he said. “I don’t necessarily want to put myself through that but I know eventually I will have to.”

Another student agreed that university life is much different from family life for an LGBT African American.

“Colleges are getting with the program,” the student said. “But…when you go home, you’re stuck, [and] you go back to your old trends.”

MSA employee and senior Jordan Brooks expressed his lack of interest in the sexual lives of his friends.

“Is it really up for discussion what you do behind your closed doors?” Brooks asked. “No, I don’t care what you do. It is up to you. It’s your personality [and] the relationship that we’re establishing between me and you. That’s what’s important at the end of the day. Not what you do behind closed doors, or what you celebrate or who you worship. That doesn’t matter to me.”

Although Dees-Burnett has seen students come to UMKC and gain a more open mind, she pointed out that the African American and Latino experiences on campus are not comfortable for LGBT students due to the ethnic backgrounds in which they are raised and educated.

“Being gay in the Black community is the most taboo thing,” she said. “You can be a single mother. You can be a thief [or] a crack head—all of those things are forgivable [and] things that they will work out, but [not] when it comes to that. And that’s largely due to our background as a culture.”

 

LGBTQIA students of color need safe space in Kansas City

The problem Dees-Burnett mentioned was met with a suggested solution to incorporate more safe spaces for individuals of color within the LGBT community. Many participants agreed that they don’t identify with the conventional images of LGBT people, and that the spaces established should represent and welcome all demographics within that population.

“I could have five different dudes come in here, and none of them fits the same sort of generic, stereotypical picture of ‘gay man,’ or ‘black gay man,’” Gilmore said. “One’s a professional athlete. Another one’s a doctor. Another one’s just a guy who works on cars. You just wouldn’t know. So if you’re expecting [them to be] pissing glitter and farting rainbows or something, then you’d really be surprised. But it’s about seeing different images and that invisibility factor.”

Gilmore added that there is a responsibility to create greater social change, and that refusing to be hidden is part of that.

“The intersection of race and sexuality is tough, because we already have some very deeply-rooted segregation [in Kansas City],” Gilmore said. “I’ve worked with a lot of white, gay men [and] they want equality to the extent that they want to have what their white, male, straight counterparts have, which is marriage equality. But if you’re talking about equality where it hits on all of us, there’s not so much interest.”

He said the opportunities for white gay men and black gay men to meet and interact are seldom.

“And when they do, it’s rare. It’s tense. It’s…prolifically Kansas City. So all I’m saying is that it does take conversations like this, but it also takes more people being visible and it takes a lot of courage to do it. It’s tough, but it’s necessary,” Gilmore said.

English Department Chair Dr. Virginia Blanton expressed an interest in discovering whether safe spaces that are used specifically for programming but can “feel very scary” are counterproductive because of what being seen in an LGBT-designated space indicates about an individual.

“I do like the [safe space] stickers because they remind me that if I don’t feel comfortable at any given time in a situation, I can go there and that there’s no one that’s going to bother me about anything,” a student said. “I can sit back, relax, collect my thoughts and do whatever else I need to do.”

The Rainbow Lounge is one of those spaces on campus, located in Room 325 of the Student Union. But Blanton wondered how race is considered in spaces off-campus, and asked if having places specifically for entertainment or other activities would feel more inviting.

“Historically, white, male gay bars are the places for entertainment for the gay community, but that isn’t necessarily the place for the single, black lesbian who lives in the suburbs,” Blanton said.

Many organizations and offices at UMKC have received sensitivity training, but that isn’t necessarily the case for places throughout the larger Kansas City area. Gilmore pointed out that places like Hamburger Mary’s and Missie B’s don’t fit everyone’s interests as far as a social situation they’re secure in engaging. However, he said that some LGBTQIA people of color still settle for those places because it’s as good as they’re going to get.

“Safe spaces are seen where there is trust and there’s community,” Gilmore said. “When they do exist, they’re very much underground.”

He added that he would like to see more urban planning with regard to social clubs, family functions and even church events which openly welcome LGBT members of the community. The LIKEME Lighthouse, an LGBT community center in Kansas City, is making an effort to provide that kind of space.

Diane Burkholder, another member of the Kansas City CARE Clinic, said that public spaces for LGBT members of the community should be introduced by the appropriate group, because straight people can’t speak for LGBTQI people any more effectively than white people can speak for people of color.

“You can be an ally, but part of being an ally is knowing when to sit down and be quiet and [say], ‘This is not my role,’” Burkholder said. “And so I think that finding those leaders that are already there in that community is vital, and then letting them lead and trusting that people know what they’re doing.

Dees-Burnett agreed that it’s important for students to understand how to be allies.

 

UMK promotes avenues of support for all students

Unfortunately, many people of color still remain afraid to come out.

“We’re having this conversation, and we’re acknowledging the problem,” Burkholder said. “But what are the actions?”

One of the actions is another discussion—on the same topic—that will take place on Feb. 18, during which Professor Dr. Norma Cantú will be present to encourage dialogue and listen to individual stories. Students of color who would like to speak on a panel about their experience as an LGBTQI-identified person can sign up at LGBTQIA Programs and Services in Suite 320 of the Student Union. Pryor also has a list of tips available for students who want to learn more about being supportive of LGBT students of color.

“I’m trying to identify what the needs are on campus, and where we can go from here,” Pryor said.