To my famous LGBT brothers and sisters:
When I first fell for a woman, it was one of the most exhilarating and frightening experiences of my life. Part of me wanted to scream the news atop the nearest Brooklyn brownstone. Another side decided to hide from anyone that would diminish this part of my identity. I was proud but protective. I can only imagine what “coming out” is like when the entire world is your stage.
In this gossip-ridden age where people are constantly prying for personal details, your audience reaches beyond the classroom, cubicle or church pew. But for brown gay girls like me, you represent so much more than the latest trending topic.
Like many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, I remember first turning to the media to find reflections of myself. The depictions, far and few in between, were oftentimes limited. (The lesbian seductress Opal in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. The hot-headed Cleo from Set It Off. The privileged popular girl Evie (played by Nicole Ari Parker) in The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love.) But seeing these characters live in their truth, helped me step into mine. I would seldom find real-life examples of what it meant to be both Black and lesbian. These women embodied existing at intersectional identities—something I didn’t see when I attended the campus Gay-Straight Alliance or the Black Student Union. The fictional Opals, Cleos and Evies reminded me that I was not an anomaly. And I was not alone.
People often ominously predict plummeting record sales or pulled endorsements at any mention of a celeb coming out as gay without being able to cite one example where that has recently happened. Still, it must be hard to tune out all the noise and sideline conversation—naysayers have a way of being more audible than voices of support. The fear of backlash or being typecast is very real. But amidst all the uncertainty, one thing is clear: hearts and minds are steadily changing as we push forward for full equality.
I recall a recent conversation with a straight Black man at a journalists’ convention and the tightness in my chest when I discussed the specifics of a panel I was moderating the next morning.
“LGBT?” he asked. Intrigued by the workshop angle, he proceeded to tell me a story about accepting his LGBT co-worker. When his colleague came out, he immediately asked him to lunch to better understand what it was like to navigate the world as a Black gay man. My guard and assumptions quickly fell.
I think about my own experiences with my immediate family and how my mother has done a complete 180. She went from crying uncontrollably when I came out, to crying uncontrollably when I broke up with my first long-term girlfriend.
Nowadays, it’s more common to find multi-dimensional depictions of Black LGBT people onscreen (think Pariah’s Alike). More and more Black entertainers are also speaking out (pun intended) publicly–from artist Frank Ocean’s letter boldly and bravely professing that his first love was a man to basketball superstar Brittney Griner reminding people to “just be who you are.”
Admittedly, it took me some time not to be disappointed when a rumored-to-be-gay celebrity didn’t unabashedly declare their LGBT identity. How selfish of you not to use your platform, I thought. Now, I realize it is not my place to police someone else’s journey. In fact, it’s counterintuitive. Bullying anyone out of the closet is internalizing the same shame tactics people employ to keep us in.
That is not to downplay the importance of visibility. It matters immensely. People move along their support of LGBT people after personally knowing someone who is gay or viewing an LGBT person onscreen. It’s then that folks realize gay and transgender people are just trying to survive and thrive. It’s then that LGBT youth (and adults) feel affirmed.
But your private life is just that. Yours.
If you choose to let me and the rest of the world in, I promise to come from a place of love and compassion. Despite the critics, there is a family of Black LGBT and ally brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts ready to love on you. We’ll be right here with our arms extended, waiting to welcome you home.
Kimberley McLeod is a D.C.-based media strategist and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocate. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, she is the founder and editor-in-chief of ELIXHER, an award-winning online destination for Black LGBT women. Follow her on Twitter @KimKMcLeod.