Boxes, Representation, & Freedom

Several rows of long boxes with square openings hanging attached to each other to form a sort of arc.

Over the past month or so, two fictional works have been deeply resonating with my spirit. The first, the anthology Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction, has resonated with me as a Black bisexual writer and affirmed me by providing Black LGBTQ+ literary history. The second, the show Pose, has brought me to tears every episode because of how authentically it portrays the experiences of queer and trans people of color and all the ways it offers possibility models to people who don’t often see themselves represented in mainstream media. Experiencing stories like those in Black Like Us and Pose has been healing and life-giving for me but it has also rekindled the anger I felt when I first came out and didn’t have access to the stories or possibility models I needed to make my journey to being fully me less torturous.

Growing up at the intersections of Blackness, Christianity, and queerness, I never saw stories that represented the layered aspects of who I was coming to know myself as. I found pieces of myself here and there but never saw my full self in what I read or watched which led me to believe that people like me didn’t exist. Since people like me didn’t exist that meant I shouldn’t exist – at least not as the person I feared I might really be.

My fears about who I was propelled me to find ways to cut off parts of myself in hopes of fitting into the boxes I was being told I should fit by the world around me. I squeezed myself into ill-fitting spaces believing they would make me worthy of love and community and ignoring the ways my experiences of community were hampered by my fear someone would realize I didn’t really fit. By the time I came out in college, I had spent so much of my life trying not to be myself that I wasn’t sure if I could actually be me. I just hoped that coming out would take me a step closer to being my true self.

Unfortunately, on the other side of coming out, I found new boxes I didn’t quite fit. Boxes for folks at the junction of queerness and Christianity that centered Whiteness, monosexuality, and evangelicalism. Boxes for members of the bisexual+ community that largely ignored intersectionality or any positive relationship to religion. Boxes for Black SGL folks that centered cis gay men in shallow ways and the rest of us hardly at all. Boxes that ultimately urged me to find new ways to shrink myself to fit into them.

Amidst those new boxes, I luckily also found the courage and anger necessary to interrogate why any of the confining boxes I’d encountered existed. Why was the world so intent on not making space for me or people who similarly couldn’t fit into limited ideas about what it meant to hold one or all of their identities? Why was it so difficult to find the people and narratives that created room for those of us who had been erased from mainstream discourse to be our full selves? What was so threatening about our authentic selves that society wanted us disconnected from the knowledge and experiences of our communities and ultimately from ourselves?

Although being forced to ask those questions resulted in my becoming an LGBTQ+ educator and advocate, I am still upset that I had to experience the loneliness and self-deprecation that came with not having access to possibility models or to spaces that challenged the limited notions of Blackness, Christianity, and sexuality I encountered most of my life. But as upset as I am by my own experiences, I’m more upset that despite the existence of works like Pose & Black Like Us, despite the ways social media and the internet have made it so much easier for people to access information about diverse, complex identities and experiences, there are still young people going through what I went through years ago. I’m angry because in 2019 there are still people and organizations profiting from narratives that tell people – directly and indirectly – they shouldn’t exist as their full selves or they shouldn’t let anyone who has the audacity to be bigger than the boxes we’re “supposed to” live in exist as their full selves.

As I continue to seek out media that highlights expansive understandings of Blackness, sexuality, and faith, I am leaning into my recharged anger and letting it hold me accountable as an educator and advocate. My anger reminds me that our society is still working 24/7 to maintain limiting stories of who can exist and thrive in the world and that those narratives are even costlier for some people than they have been for me. That’s why as an educator part of my responsibility is to expose people to the idea that they don’t have to fit themselves or other people into rigid boxes. I feel compelled to help people feel the way Pose and Black Like Us help me feel – freer to be myself and to make space for other people to be themselves.

At the end of the day, no matter how free I feel from the boxes that have constrained or still constrain me, I know I will never feel fully free until everyone gets free and I’m well past ready for that to happen.

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