Stephen’s Story: Growing up Black and Gay in America
Stephen is 23 years old and grew up in suburban Chicago but is currently teaching English in Northwestern Spain. He spoke with Citizen Truth about his experiences as a black gay man in America and his thoughts on the current political and social situation in the United States.
So I guess to start can you tell me a little bit about your family and your upbringing?
I have two white dads and two black brothers; one is 20 and the other is 15. Since I was adopted by white people, I feel like I was desensitized to how the world would view me.
Since I grew up in a white household being loved by white family members, I didn’t feel like my life was different from anyone else’s. But now as a black man navigating this world on my own I am starting to see some of the differences.
Can you talk a little bit about these differences and any specific challenges you’ve encountered?
Every day is a challenge and I think that once I became aware of how “black” I was, meaning I have a dark skin tone, I’m pretty big, and other things people associate with “blackness,” it became more apparent to me how the world viewed me differently.
Another incident I remember is that when I was younger my parents had me join a dance group, which was the first time I experienced colorism. On my dance team people would make fun of me for being dark or just generally make it apparent that they were observing my skin tone. This was really traumatizing for me. To this day I still have personal issues I have to address because of my skin color. I have learned to appreciate my skin tone and “Black is Beautiful” but when you’re young and you’re growing up it’s incredibly hard to feel like you’re always having to confront racism you don’t even understand.
I remember the first time I became really cognizant of racism was in high school when everything became completely different. I remember during high school kids would make comments about my skin tone or talk about how dark I was or compare themselves me.
I also remember the first time I went to the house of a female friend around this time. Her parents were very prominent members of the community, one was a doctor and the other was a psychologist, so I knew they had a lot of money. I remember her mother and her Polish nanny were so uncomfortable by my presence. They wouldn’t let us go upstairs or anything even though I’m a gay man. I was like ‘I’m not trying to do anything with your daughter.’ Certain people’s parents had certain rules around me that I knew didn’t apply to other people. That’s when I truly realized that I needed to be aware of the way I moved and the way I presented myself to people.
My personal experience being black and being gay is very unique but being gay is not the most important thing in my life.
Has being raised by two white dads had an impact on your experience and your interactions with “white society?”
“I have been so fortunate, and I definitely have experienced things differently from the way a lot of people who look like me do. I’ve lived my entire life in a white family so when I’m at home nothing’s wrong, but when I’m out in the world it’s a completely different experience and I have to be extremely careful.
For example if I’m at a department store by myself nobody comes to assist me or asks if I need help with anything. But if I’m with one of my white parents with me than all of the sales attendants are on us like bees on honey.
I was also really involved in my parent’s church growing up. My parents actually met the adoption agent that helped them adopt me at their church so that was always an important place for me.
I also think that my upbringing caused me to be very naïve because the community I live in is incredibly diverse. I was exposed to a lot more things than most people, not just race. So I think I didn’t really realize how bad it was until I got to college and was able to reflect a little bit more with the social work classes I was taking and learning about the systemic issues that black people face on a daily basis. Because black people are not living, I’m not even going to say living an easy life because there’s no comparison.
I’ve never come out to my parents but I’m sure they know by now. Being raised by two gay men I never felt the need to advocate for gay people and for me my sexuality is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think about myself. It’s also not something that’s visually apparent so I’m less conscious of how my sexuality reflects my movement through society.
The black part of me has always outshone the gay side of me which is also messed up. I should be able to be equally in tune with all of who I am.
I’m very grateful of the resources that I have and have had and won’t necessarily be taken away from me. I have been so fortunate and so I haven’t experienced a lot of the things that people who look like me do on a daily basis. I just experience things differently. Mostly extreme microaggressions while I’m moving through white society because I’ve been immersed in white culture almost my whole life. I went to college at a private Lutheran school in Wisconsin. I had to learn how to play the game. It wasn’t entirely pleasant.
I’ve had so much privilege that I haven’t had to experience a lot of things that most people who look like me have to endure. It’s really fucked up to have to think that I could have gone through a lot more if I wasn’t raised the way that I was, in the environment I was, if I didn’t have the resources I did…
What was your experience being adopted like? Are you in touch with your birth parents? Do you know the circumstances of your adoption?
This is a story that every adopted kid will tell you; either they had to many children or they couldn’t afford me. I know my birth father was Dominican and my birth mother was Haitian. I don’t know exactly what the problem was but maybe she had some issues with drugs, which could explain my asthma. All I know is that she hasn’t tried to contact me and I don’t really feel the need to meet her. I already have my family.
Can you talk for a little bit about the systems of racism that exist in American society?
Racism in America is so institutional. I remember in elementary school being pulled out of classes to be tested for all sorts of learning disabilities even though I did gifted programs at school and over the summer. I remember being so confused as to why I had to take these tests. That is actually a huge issue in the black community; kids being diagnosed with ADHD and stuff like that just because of their skin color. Even in high school I was put in remedial classes for no reason and my parents had to protest to get me placed in the classes that I actually belonged in.
Most high schools have huge disparities between the amount of people of color in higher level classes and in lower level classes. Even in college I was placed in remedial classes.
I was a social work major, and we had to do 500 service hours. I wrote a journal entry in my journal on the racial disparities I was recognizing in the organization I was interning at which was mostly involved in fundraising and grant allocation. My journal entry was about my first experience in the “corporate work” environment. I felt like I was being treated like a “half-wit’ by my supervisors. So I wrote a journal entry on that and was reprimanded by the head of the social work department who said that I was “overly confident” and threatened to take away my major if I didn’t change my words.
I’d written a number of journal entries on race, and I feel like a lot of my accomplishments in life come from being who I am and telling my own story, so I remember being really taken aback and thinking “Why am I being reprimanded for telling the truth?” As social workers we’re supposed to be change agents and systematic racism is a problem that we need to address.
So naturally I was appalled by the fact that I was essentially silenced by the Carthage College Social Work department on the issue of race, which is also pretty ironic given that social workers are supposed to be advocates.
Do you feel as if you have to be hyper-conscious of how society views you and in act in a certain way in order to be treated the way you wish to be treated?
I feel like I have to put on a show all of the time. Half of the time I don’t want to be wearing what I’m wearing but I have to put on an act for society.
At a very young age I learned that you should always be presentable and look your best. I think that means a lot of different things to different people, but for me personally it means that dressing and appearing a certain way helps me avoid a lot of issues I could encounter in my daily life. It’s something I wish that I didn’t have to do but at this point I almost do it unconsciously.
In discussions with other people about language and dialect I’ve learned that people have to speak in the way that society wants them to speak instead of their own vernacular that they’re more comfortable with.
It’s unfortunate, but almost every interaction I have with other people begins with my race and most of it is non-verbal; the way people look at me or the kind of attention people direct at me.
Have you ever been the victim of racial profiling?
In the US I’ve been racially profiled. I’ve gotten two unjustified traffic citations which I took to court. Fortunately I had a really good lawyer who is friends with my dad, and I got the two wrongful tickets dismissed and taken off my driving record. But that was only because I had the privilege of my dad knowing that lawyer.
I’ve also traveled with black women who have had airport security agents dig around n their scalps to see if there’s anything hidden in their hair.
Have you had any negative interactions with the police or other law enforcement officers? What is the general attitude towards these institutions among members of the black community?
With regards to the police I can tell you that I’m actually terrified of the police and always have been even though I’ve never had a bad encounter with a police officer. If I hear a police siren, I get nervous. The lights on a police car give me anxiety, I feel it in my body, it’s not just a mental response. I don’t like being around police officers, I don’t like it when [police officers can see me, and I don’t do anything that would even give them reason to harass me. I’m very conscious of the law and of following it because of this anxiety.
I’ve never even had a bad experience with the police and I’m still just terrified. This was just something that I learned in order to survive in America.”
Most black people don’t trust the police and neither do I. My personal experience with the police has been more or less “pleasant” and far better than the experiences of some of my friends and family members. I have family members who are black who have had horrendous encounters with the police so maybe that impact my view of them, but for me personally I am never trying to fuck with the police.
I have a family member who is a black police officer and I never could really understand why. she always tries to talk to me about why the police are good and how she could see me being a police officer or a corrections officer, always trying to reinforce these things.
Tell me a little bit about your experience at a small, liberal arts college.
I remember the first time I set foot on campus during my college tour the first thing I noticed was that everyone there was white. And that’s something I usually notice but it usually doesn’t bother me. At the time I thought the college was perfect for me, but I probably should have gone to an HSBCU.
Freshman year, my first night in the dorms, I closed a door in one of the other door rooms to be confronted face to face with a confederate flag on the back of the door. I was so shocked. That was kind of my first experience with overt racism.
College for me was almost more of a social experiment than an education. Education was obviously my first and foremost goal but most of what I learned was related to cultural skills regarding what it means to be a black gay man in America.
I rushed two fraternities: one was extremely white and the other was extremely white but also had like three black guys and a couple of gay guys, so obviously I chose the second one. But even within that group of people who claimed to be so liberal and open there was still that initial interaction regarding my “blackness.”
One night I left a bar and was called a “nigger” and other racial slurs by someone who I did not know. Luckily, I was with a group of people who “defended my honor” so to speak, but it shouldn’t even need to be like that, I mean I was just trying to go to a bar.”
I remember freshman year everyone thought I was on the football team even though I don’t look like a football player and I don’t even like football.
Do you have any thoughts on the current political and social situation in America?
People are so ignorant as to what’s actually going on in the world. Something that really bothers me is that a lot of my “friends” at home who have never expressed interest in racial issues before are all of a sudden reaching out to me. I mean, they’re making profit off of black bodies, so I don’t know how people aren’t cognizant of it.
And the thing is I don’t even really have answers for them. I don’t really know how to process the protests because I’ve seen the events of the past and I thought they were events of the past. But seeing everything going down I’m just reminded that you have to be active in advocacy, which is rule number one in social work, advocating for people. But it’s really interesting to see that this is basically a civil rights movement again.
One thing I will say is that I’m scared to go home and I’m nervous that white supremacist groups are going to retaliate. I mean who wants to be a victim of racial violence? I don’t even know what things would be like back home. What will taking public transportation be like for example?
We’re seeing things happening that are going to have a huge impact on our lives, some for the better, some for the worse. It would be a real shame for people to turn their heads and forget about everything that’s happened the past couple of weeks. Quite frankly, I think it would be embarrassing.
We’re talking about a police officer who suffocated a man to death on video and clearly just didn’t care. He obviously knew he’d get in trouble; he obviously knew he’d get off with some charges that don’t carry any serious weight. They’re also using the same old tactics from the civil rights era. It’s a disturbing regression but also a troubling sign that nothing has really changed.
“People are always asking me stuff about race and I’m always like “Why are you asking me?” I’m one black man, do you know how many dead ones there are? I think it’s just indicative of the ignorance that even white people who are “down” have about issues of race.
What should white Americans be thinking about right now with regards to racism in American society and the ways in which they interact with people of color?
Every time you have an interaction with a black person, first you have to think about the context, and then you have to think about the experience that they’ve been having throughout their lives. Because for me it’s every day. Whether it’s through microaggressions, not being able to rent an apartment or being put in remedial classes.
Be incredibly careful that you’re not fetishizing “blackness.” In college the people I was close to were the people who didn’t fetishize me. Almost any black person knows after the first thirty seconds of an interaction with a white person if someone is actually being genuine, or if they’re going to fetishize you or if they’re racist.