“But I still believe that the unexamined life is not worth living: and I know that self-delusion, in the service of no matter what small or lofty cause, is a price no writer can afford. His subject is himself and the world and it requires every ounce of stamina he can summon to attempt to look on himself and the world as they are...The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion. This energy is all that one finds in the rubble of vanished civilizations, and the only hope for ours.” 1
- James Baldwin
I decided to die by suicide when I was a teenager. The other side has always fascinated me. When you're methodically strangled by merciless forces and recognize the world you live in works for this to be so, you dream of a world where such violence is impossible and freedom thrives in its place. You picture a place where everyone has everything they need without conditions and criteria. You think about how to dissolve these conditions and criteria and transform them into something new, something uplifting, something that centers those at the margins, and something that removes the margins. You can arrive at a point where you're willing to die to get there.
This book unpacks how I arrived at those points of crisis, despair, and exhaustion. Perhaps they were also points of clarity. They allowed me to discern how this world was responsible for and apathetic to my oppression in those darkest moments. My trajectory was like other Black queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks who concluded they were done fighting, wanted to die, and were over this world. A world characterized by structures of domination—like white supremacy that ensures white folks retain their sovereignty and patriarchy that perpetuates misogynist ideologies that focalize heterosexual, cisgender men—is a world where you're set up to fail when you embody queer identities like mine.
To watch my communities suffer and succumb due to their encounters and struggles with these structures proved that we were never meant to prosper in this world, and my story was greater than me. To be frank, I was unsure if my story mattered, but the adversities of folks like me continued. The stealing of our joys persisted. The surveillance, policing, incarceration, and genocide of my community remained. To believe my story and perspective didn't matter was to believe the ideologies that repeatedly emphasized my alleged inferiority due to my Blackness, queerness, and nonconformity.
There was a significant portion of my life when I did the work of the anti-Black ideologies that permeate our society and work overtime to be unavoidable in the lives of Black folks: relying on police when harm and violence occurred, looking to the “criminal justice” system for "justice," celebrating and advocating for someone's imprisonment, equating punishment with accountability, using beauty standards to assess myself and others, frowning upon fat and dark bodies, and hating my own body to where I sought out men for validation. If finding a man meant that I had to pretend to be something I'm not (e.g., hyper-masculine) and comply with the anti-fat diet culture that worships thin bodies, and practice colorism that detests dark bodies like mine, I did so. I oppressed myself because I didn't believe in my humanity. Where did I learn to devalue myself? Why was I so vulnerable to such unforgiving and deadly beliefs? What conspired to ensure that I would be repressed and downtrodden with no remedy? To write these essays meant that I had to examine myself, trace the causes of the self-deprecation that corroded my humanity, and confront the systems that knowingly did so.
These confrontations included naming the pain inflicted on me by institutions of religion. Every Sunday, my parents and I could be found at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic church in my hometown of Durham, NC, where my parents were married. The church members had a front-row seat to my childhood. As a child usher, I sat next to the pulpit facing the congregation during every 8 AM service until it was time for the offerings. I was a major part of our church services because I organized the offerings gathered from the congregation in a special ritual.
In front of the pulpit, the adult ushers would bring me the tithes, which I would dump into the box of offerings. Then, I would turn around to face the pastoral staff as they blessed the tithes and return to my seat. I closely watched the congregation as they closely watched me. I grasped the practice of being self-conscious, monitoring how I stood, walked, and spoke. I absorbed Christianity's traditions, practices, and beliefs as my mother did growing up in the A.M.E. Church in her hometown of Bainbridge, GA. I observed what garnered the most praise. I learned what made church folks uncomfortable. I mastered the art of pleasing members of the congregation when they inquired about my life.
How are you, young man?
Are you staying out of trouble?
How is school going?
Are you making us proud?
Have you found a girlfriend yet?
Such questions were suggestive as they implied certain answers should be given, and I complied. My mental health was consumed by fear and paranoia around ensuring my answers were acceptable.
I couldn't truthfully answer and say, "I'm constantly afraid because I know that I'm not like the other kids around me. If the other kids knew this, they would reject me. I think the church would reject me too. Where are the other people like me? Are there other people like me? If so, I don’t see them here, so they must not be welcomed in church. Are people like me welcomed anywhere in this world? Being different as I am must be that bad because we don’t even talk or learn about it in school. I don’t feel supported or understood there either. My teachers and administrators don't help. It would be nice to have someone help me feel less alone, but I don’t like what everyone else likes. Girls like boys and boys like girls, but because I’m different, I feel like I’m not allowed to like what I like. I feel like I’m not allowed to be myself."
I repressed these truths by learning what folks wanted to hear and kept them at ease so that they wouldn't ask additional questions. I demonstrated normalcy while being acutely aware that I wasn't "normal." Normalcy meant identifying with what was assigned to me, being attracted to what was expected of me, and allowing gender norms and institutions like religion to determine how I lived. I hid my abnormality by mastering my school work as best as possible, distancing myself from attention, not questioning anything, and finding ways to assimilate and belong. For example, I joined my middle school's track team and high school's cross-country team, although I had no interest in sports. Since I knew I didn't belong on a track, I would be filled with anger while running miles and trying to master jumping over hurdles at practice every day, but I acquiesced to keep myself from the disapproval I feared.
I muted my queerness and filtered myself into what was accepted, praised, and recognized. I socialized myself through religion and concentrated on being the best Christian I could be. It appeared that I was a normal child because that was my intent, but I knew the truth of who I was behind closed doors. The closed doors were the one thing that I looked forward to because I could be myself there. I could explore my identity independent of masculinity and other standards that didn't suit me. I could release my sexuality by dreaming about the boys that I had crushes on. I could build my own institutions rather than conform to those maintained by systems of oppression.
When the doors opened, I had to become a heteronormative "boy" who was into the things that are typically assigned to boys. I was on the baseball team at my local YMCA. I watched the NBA to learn the names of the players and contribute to my peers' conversations about basketball. You could find me hiking and camping as a Boy Scout despite secretly hating outdoor activities. Despite secretly knowing that I wasn't ready for any kind of dating, I would "like" girls and even had a few girlfriends in elementary and middle school. I needed to maintain this appearance so that no one would discover the truths I had yet to accept. The price I paid for being a traditional heteronormative "boy" was a subdued authenticity that thrived off the opinions of others, especially that of the church.
Our lead pastor, Reverend P.R. Cousin, never used any anti-queer rhetoric in his sermons, but I still knew queerness was taboo. It was what the doctrine didn't say, the affirmations I didn't hear, and the topics that weren't discussed. There were no discussions of the Bible passages that involved queer desires and relationships like the intimacy between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament and Jesus's healing of the centurion's servant in the New Testament. No one in the church took action to support queer, trans, and gender non-conforming lives. No one in the church acknowledged that the church's insistence on traditionalism and respectability alienated and silenced the very populations that Christianity claims to center in its outreach. This taught me to suppress my questions about identity and sexuality and not talk to anybody, including God. I lived with the unanswered questions. I operated with the belief that there was no one queer like me because I didn't see them in the Bible or the church. In a place where I should have felt at peace, I felt alone instead.
To have my loneliness augmented in the church didn't unsettle me to the point where I gave up on God altogether. When my family traveled, I faithfully packed my Bible Stories for Children book and read it wherever we went. I sat with my mother when she watched The Ten Commandments. Every night, I would recite a prayer to God, asking to be protected while I slept. Although I felt uncomfortable examining my questions with God, I could somehow separate God from those who worshipped God. I expected rejection from Christians, but not from God, who seemed different from those who would give up on me because of my queerness. Everything I learned about God emphasized unconditional love. In every sermon, song, testimony, and story, there was a consistent theme of God demonstrating a love that was limitless. I saw it in popular culture too.
As a child, I was obsessed with award shows and watched every single one. Every time a Black person won an award, they always thanked God first. I knew that I had to explore my relationship with God because I could perceive how much God meant to Black folks. Still, it was difficult to embark on this exploration because I never saw any openly queer folks in the church or popular culture, although they were there. It wasn't until the 1997 release of Janet Jackson's The Velvet Rope album that I heard any reference to queerness. On "Free Xone," Jackson says, "Boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets cute boy back. Girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets cute girl back," and later encourages listeners to "Love yourself."
As the 11-year-old me sat in my bedroom alone, listening to my all-time favorite artist address what I found no examples of elsewhere, a flood of previously unthinkable thoughts rushed through my head: What does “Love yourself” mean? Does she mean “Boy gets cute boy back” as in a boy being a boyfriend to another boy? What would two boys in a relationship look like? Where can I find this “free xone”? What would it be like to live in a place where you can be “free” to be yourself even if it’s taboo? Why does anything have to be taboo? Who created the taboos? What if I disagree with the taboos? Is it possible to end taboos so that all people can be free? If it’s possible for two girls and two boys to date in this world, what else is possible?
It was as if Janet gave me permission to explore my curiosities and reflect on questions about myself and the world that I had never considered before. For example, did Black queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks receive God’s love? The purposeful erasure of queerness and nonconformity and the esteem given to respectability seemed to answer that question, but I needed a definitive answer. It seemed that Black folks all around me were looking for answers, comfort, understanding, and peace. Every week, the St. Joseph’s A.M.E. congregation would fill the sanctuary to find solutions, guidance, and solace. What were they seeking refuge from? Perhaps this was alerting me to the anti-Black world that we were living in and would undoubtedly afflict me as it had afflicted my community.
St. Joseph's A.M.E. Church has been a significant institution in Durham's Black community since the church was established in 1869. Its original location was in Durham’s Hayti District. Since Black folks were prohibited from patronizing white-owned businesses due to Jim Crow, Black residents of Durham built their own businesses. Hayti was once the economic and cultural mecca of Black Durham. Black folks owned over two hundred businesses and services (including a hospital, library, and hotel) in Hayti, thus making it a self-sufficient community.
Under the Housing Act of 1949, an “urban renewal” policy gave local governments large federal loans to obtain and eradicate “slums,” a class-biased term. These areas were to be sold to private developers who would construct new homes, buildings, and highways in their place. Between 1949 and 1973, 2,500 neighborhoods were demolished, and a million people were displaced by urban renewal. For every low-income housing unit, four units were destroyed. Over two-thirds of the displaced were Black or Latinx.
Over four thousand families were displaced in Durham alone, and over five hundred businesses were destroyed, including those in Hayti. Less than 1 percent of federal spending for urban renewal went towards relocating displaced people, with Black families being its primary casualties. The intention of urban renewal was to attract investors and middle-class folks into cities by eradicating decaying neighborhoods. Shopping centers, parking garages, stadiums, and political agendas took precedence over helping the poor. The majority of Durham’s Black residents supported urban renewal after promises of financial assistance, new housing, and infrastructure improvements were made by the city government. These promises ultimately never materialized.
Amidst the pain, trauma, and resentment caused by the structural anti-Blackness that manifested as de jure segregation in Durham, Black folks turned to religion and spirituality to make sense of all we lost. Since the state's promises were clearly unreliable, we looked to something that promised never to leave us, console us in our darkest hours, and deliver us from our hardships. However, these promises didn’t materialize for those demonized by religion. This vilification created hardships for those who didn't comply with religion’s expectations and standards, including queer folks like me.
I'm grateful that Reverend Cousin never espoused any anti-queer beliefs when I sat next to his pulpit because it could've crushed me, but no child should have to carry that fear. Too many pastors and religious "leaders" are negligent, irresponsible, harmful, and violent in dealing with queerness. Their opinions and sermons have caused irreparable damage to countless children who grow into adults in need of extensive healing. Some don't make it into adulthood, instead choosing to end their lives due to what they learn from religion.
Hearing any homophobia from Reverend Cousin would've felt like a punishment from God. In fact, religion is where many folks first learn about punishment. Think of the familiar story in the Book of Genesis where God punishes Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit. Punishment is written as the solution for deviance. This same carceral logic is at the foundation of how society deals with those it regards as disposable. The Durham County Detention Facility, located close to St. Joseph’s and constructed in 1996, was and still is filled with such individuals.
My father was an attorney and represented folks who were incarcerated at the Durham County Detention Facility, and I observed his attempts at challenging our carceral society. The Sunflower Radical Journal defines carcerality as "the concept and presence of imprisonment. Imprisonment, in turn, can be understood as the systematic punishment and capture of individuals designated 'guilty.' The word is used in an academic context, most often in abolitionist literature, to characterize government policy or philosophical ideas that embrace the prison as a model for social control”. He practiced the same logic in raising me by using punishment when he was displeased with my behavior. My father and the world at large planted notions of carcerality within me early in life, so I quickly understood that punishment was the primary solution to harm.
For example, Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood animated film was one of my favorite movies as a child, so much so that I wore out the VHS tape by watching it over and over. In one of the ending scenes, the villains, Prince John, Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Hiss, Trigger, and Nutsy, work in a prison yard in chains after King Richard returns to England and sentences them. Prior to that scene, Robin Hood, who is almost executed (in a children's film) after being sentenced to death by Prince John, and Little John help their townsfolk who couldn’t or refused to pay the town’s tripled taxes to escape prison. While these may seem like harmless parts of a beloved Disney fan favorite, it was also one of my first introductions to police and prisons as a child. Such first introductions plant seeds that sprout into something that becomes “so much a part of our lives” that “we do not question whether it should exist,” as Angela Y. Davis writes in Are Prisons Obsolete. One of the reasons why abolition is dismissed as too radical is due to indoctrination about incarceration received during childhood. To me, Robin Hood portrayed the prison as where villains and other “bad” people belong, but my observations of my father’s advocacy for incarcerated folks troubled these understandings.
I didn't realize that it was possible to explore possibilities beyond punishment when harm occurred. I don't believe this anti-Black world wanted me to know that I could imagine beyond carceral logic. By adopting carcerality, I would always assign blame for the failures of others rather than critically engage with their causes. I would always cancel others for harm rather than interrogate the conditions that led to the harm, choose elimination over rehabilitation, and view folks with punitive eyes. This matters because the most marginalized and vulnerable are constantly punished and discarded. I would do the work of police and prisons by giving up on those in my own community and ultimately feeding the prison industrial complex (PIC).
I wanted to write for those of us who resist the PIC, those of us who are weary from its power, those of us who are most vulnerable to its violence, and those of us who have died because they refused the binaries, guidelines, principles, and expectations that stem from anti-Black, anti-queer, patriarchal, and carceral ideologies. Giovanni Melton, a Black queer child, rejected the demands of their homophobic father. When reflecting on Giovanni’s murder, I wondered when systems of oppression first manifest themselves in the lives of Black and Brown queer, trans, and gender non-conforming children today, what these children might need to hear in their darkest moments, and what can be learned from their stories. Searching for these answers seemed insurmountable at times. Still, I knew Giovanni, Nigel Shelby, Brayla Stone, Ashanti Posey, Jamel Myles, Blake Brockington 15, Rhuan Candido 16, Gabriel Fernandez 17, Jeffrey “JJ” Bright, and Jasmine Cannady 18 were worth the exploration. I owed it to them to look deeper when it seemed that I couldn't find the answers that I'll likely always be searching for. I knew any Black or Brown queer, trans, and/or gender non-conforming child who ends up reading this book would be worth the journey.
There's much more to my journey than hardships and injustice. The lives of Black and Brown queer, trans, and gender non-conforming folks go far beyond the adversities that tend to be perpetuated by the media and associated with us. I've traveled to and lived in different states, built a career that serves marginalized communities, formed deep and lifelong friendships, watched my loved ones run their own businesses, pledged a fraternity, volunteered for various organizations, been in weddings, been gifted with three godchildren, been in love a few times, broken hearts a few times, protested and marched in the streets, graduated from college and graduate school, danced and vogued in queer clubs, seen my favorite musicians perform live, written for publications, organized alongside queer, trans, and gender non-conforming youth, and more.
This book is a testament to those who poured into me, believed in me, prayed for me, uplifted me, and loved me when I needed it most. They listened when I vented, grieved when I was grieving, called me out when I let them down, gave me space, sent money when I was unemployed, celebrated my accomplishments, made me laugh with tears in my eyes, and more. Their love made this book possible. This work is based on my experiences and how I've strived to maneuver through the hardships placed in my way.
These writings merge and converse with the growing constellation of artists, poets, writers, journalists, advocates, activists, organizers, abolitionists, educators, podcasters, working-class folks, incarcerated folks, unhoused folks, drag queens, sex workers, and others who have shared their voices and visions for liberation. My essays are a product of their stories because their insights continue to be pivotal in my political education, resistance, and endurance. I hope this book leads you to scrutinize and name how systems of oppression infiltrate all our lives. I hope it helps expand how you envision freedom from the institutions that govern this world. I hope it plants seeds of abolition in your mind that will bring us closer to an emancipated world where everything as we know it is changed, a flourishing place where we all have everything we need.