I remember the first time I ever heard someone call a gay man the "F-word."
It was 1995. I was 16 and visiting my father’s family in Indianapolis. While eating dinner with my cousins and my uncle “Arty” at a local diner, a group of men—Black and white—came in and sat down. Instantly, Arty became agitated and loud.
And it didn’t stop there. Arty got up and enlisted a random police officer and a restaurant worker to join in with him as they pointed, laughed and hurled more homophobic epitaphs at the group.The gay men buried their heads in their menus and pretended not to hear what was going on. They didn’t say a word. I’m sure it didn’t help that Arty was a well-known cop who patrolled that area—which included a gay bar, one of the few in that area back then.
I just remember being mortified.
Part of that came from being completely sheltered from the real world. Even though I knew my history— saw the Rodney King beating and Mark Furmen testify at the O.J. Simpson trial on television and even heard my brother’s complains of getting pulled over in our neighborhood— I had never really seen the police step this far out of line with my own eyes. But most important, this was the first time that I had seen someone be publicly attacked for doing nothing but have the audacity of being who they were unapologetically in public.
And though I didn’t have the language to call it “homophobia,” I just knew what I was witnessing wasn’t right.
While I was terrified of this man—who was over 6 feet tall, carried a gun and weighed about 300 pounds—I was never a child to hold my tongue either. I asked Arty to stop because the group wasn’t bothering anyone. Not surprisingly, he didn’t take it well and lectured me on how horrible gay people were. Nonetheless, speaking up made me feel better because I knew it was the right thing to do, even if it wasn’t the popular one.
I haven't stopped speaking out since.
Ironically, I didn't even know any LGBT folk back then. Not any who were open, at least. In those days, there weren’t any gay straight student alliances (GSAs), or rainbow flags bumper stickers on the back of cars or LGBT parades in the South suburbs of Chicago where I am from. Gay was AIDS. Gay was silent. Gay was invisible.
Yet despite all the messages I was being force fed by others, I had compassion. And while that empathy was a product of my parents, I suspect that the films Maurice and Paris is Burning had a lot to do with it as well. Those films were my first real affirming introductions to not only gay culture, but Black and Latino LGBT folks, who I were told really didn’t exist. And so just the act of seeing LGBT folks love one another, be a real community, but also be hurt by intolerance, made something click in my head.
There wasn’t a damn thing wrong with being gay. We say "Duh" now, but my, oh my, how things have changed since the mid-1990s.
We have seen real signs of progress. More high profile Black folks such as Brittney Griner and Jason Collins coming out, singer Frank Ocean revealing he was once in love with a man and the NAACP rappers such as Jay-Z and T.I endorsing marriage equality last year. Hell, even being able to write this article in Black media without there being some sort of grand controversy or shock is still a relatively new concept.
But incidents such as the rise of hate crimes against the Black LGBT folks, homophobic rants from Tracy Morgan and Roland Martin and even the recent backlash against an HIV testing billboard in Dallas for having two gay Black men in it, remind us that we have a lot more work to do. And that work cannot solely fall on the shoulders of Black LGBT folks. More straight Black allies, especially straight Black men, need to step up.
For me, stepping up meant using journalism as a means of chipping away at ignorance. This journey has opened my eyes to see how homophobia intersects with racism, sexism and classism when it comes to oppression of LGBT folks of color. It's made me see just how resilient, amazing and beautiful the Black LGBT community is. Most important, this journey as a straight Black ally has led me to some of the best friendships I have ever had and given my life real purpose. I'm no hero, nor do I pretend to speak as a representative for the LGBT community. I am but a woman who knows that we should defend, support and love our brothers and sisters in the most full way that we can. One who knows that tolerance is not nearly enough.
But I want to be clear: Being an ally doesn’t mean you have to be a writer, or work at an LGBT organization or even go to a Gay Pride Parade. Doing the work means engaging people in your life to know better so that they can do better.
It can be as simple as correcting someone when they unfairly blame AIDS on "the DL" or teaching your kids to respect other children who are different than them. Being an ally can be walking out in the middle of a sermon at church because your pastor continues to spew hatred or standing up for LGBT family member at a family picnic.
It’s these small and large acts of kindness that make all of the difference and are desperately needed. So who's willing to join me?
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Body, The Advocate, The Root, BET.com, Glamour, Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post.