I know, with certainty, that my father would not murder me.
Earlier this month, police discovered the bodies of 24-year-old Britney Cosby and her same-sex partner, Crystal Jackson, dumped like so much rubbish outside a Texas convenience store. Authorities later arrested Cosby’s father, James, a registered sex offender who lived with Cosby and her grandmother. While details and a motive for the killings are not entirely clear, family members have said that Cosby disapproved of his daughter’s “lifestyle.”
Trying to wrap my mind around this particularly heinous act of domestic violence (or, rather, trying not to think about it), my thoughts kept returning to my own large Southern Black family. While I can say with confidence that none of my kin would kill me for my sexuality — for that’s the implication in the Cosby-Jackson murders — or any other reason, I’ve also heard too many kitchen-table comments about “lifestyle” from relatives and too much snickering about that one who “had sugar in his blood.” All this in a clan that’s chockablock with gays on the family tree, but has operated under our own suffocating “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Violence doesn’t always have to be physical.
Many of those casually homophobic comments revolved around my cousin Patrick, who died several years ago and would have turned 47 on this St. Patrick’s Day. As kids, we rode on the back of my uncle’s pickup truck in the North Carolina mountains. He grew to be a man of both substance and model-worthy beauty. Whenever you saw Patrick, you also saw his impossibly spoiled Chihuahua-Yorkies, Dexter and Divo (the masculine form of “diva”). Whenever he saw you, he made you feel like you were the most important thing in his world. Though his life was often a life of struggle, he wrote in his journal that “abundance is my natural state.” His worst flaws were also his best qualities: He cared nothing for money (particularly, the bills), and he had the habit of generously loving people ill-equipped to love him in return.
And, yes, Patrick was gay. I don’t mean to reduce him to his sexuality. But it needs to be said directly, emphatically and affirmatively. I’m a historian. Believe me, I know it’s far too easy to write someone’s sexuality out of their eulogies and their histories.
When I was a college junior, a friend and I visited Patrick in Los Angeles. Giving us the grand tour of his apartment, he threw open a closed door to his roommate’s bedroom. It had the un-lived feel of a hotel room, with a few items artfully strewn across the futon. When I returned home, I called Patrick and, after chatting a while, I said quietly, “Patrick, I know that wasn’t Donnie’s bedroom. I know he’s not just your roommate, and I know you’re gay.” A long pause, then “What are you talking about? Does everybody in the family think I’m gay”? My clumsy attempt to signal my openness threw him into a panic.
Patrick was born to a teenage mom and a hellraiser who was reincarnated into a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. As a child, his father made Patrick don his sister’s dresses and pushed him out the house for all the neighbors to see and mock his “effeminate” ways. Patrick left home as a teen (not a surprise) and worked for a a record store, where his father’s congregants sometimes laid “Rest in Peace” wreaths on the sidewalk. For years, he would meet his mother and sister only at the mall or public places. When he came out of the closet, Patrick became an “apostate.”
The anguish of Patrick’s “homegoing” was compounded by the need to raise funds for his funeral; Patrick only had a small life insurance policy. Thinking the large Greenlee extended family could crowd-source the expenses, I called and talked to relatives far and wide. There was the elderly relative who insinuated that Patrick had AIDS, saying “you know that boy was out in California in those bathhouses”; another who doesn’t go out the house without a few hundred dollar bills in his wallet, but “didn’t have the money”; and a cousin who prefaced her public commitment of $250 with “I’ll give, but I don’t approve of his lifestyle,” and then gave a fraction of what she promised.
I couldn’t understand why some people were talking about “lifestyles” when others of us were reeling from Patrick’s death. Before he died, Patrick told me that being born in a family is itself a social contract: that we were bound to love each other and do each other right. He planned to make us live up to that contract. But invoking “love” and “family” wasn’t particularly effective. My family’s reluctance to open their wallets or do so only after moralizing indicated just how badly we had failed Patrick.
Our failure began well before his death. I could think back more than a decade, when a cousin who cozied up to Patrick suggested that Patrick’s bout of skin cancer might be “the AIDS” — this said in a stage whisper. And then there was the aunt who would allow me to take her grandson anywhere anytime, but wouldn’t let Patrick take the teen to the movies without others along. When I talked to another cousin about the aunt’s obvious bigotry — based on the idea that Patrick would molest his younger cousin because he was gay and therefore a pedophile — the response: “That’s not her. It’s her church.”
I won’t absolve The Black Church — which often wraps its retrograde gender and sexuality politics in scripture and choir robes — and I won’t deny its impact on how many Black families view homosexuality and their loved ones. It’s hard to counter homophobia in the family when it comes with a readymade quote from Leviticus, and the church has been a pillar of Black survival. But I don't believe that Black families are inherently more homophobic than any other communities in our society.
Bigotry is never simple. And I know my family’s story is not a simple story of villains and victims. When Patrick became ill, I saw his father rub his feet to alleviate the painful symptoms of his cancer, the numbing of his extremities — a humbling act of kindness from a man who will likely always believe his son was “deviant.” I remember Patrick’s grandmother, who took him in and didn’t blink at rumors that he was “carrying on” with another preacher’s son in their small town. I appreciate my cousins who loved Patrick — the messy, sparkling, lovable entirety of him — and didn’t balk when he needed the last support we could give him.
Patrick was infinitely more forgiving than I am; having to leave home at an early age meant he gave up family connections, a safety net, the possibility of college and years of enhanced earning power. I still feel angry for him, and I struggle to make even banal conversation with relatives who have spouted homophobia at the kitchen table. I grapple with trying to understand their intentions and whether intentions really matter when your actions alienate and stigmatize your family. One day soon, I’ll start this conversation … with them.
There is now a cottage industry in “how to be an ally” lists. But I don’t know what it means to be an ally in my family, how to speak so others will listen, but not be tolerant of intolerance. “Ally” seems too pale, too neutral a word to describe the action of being radically loving, not that provisional “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” kind of love.
For me, justice is the highest expression of love: To love you, I must want for you what I would want for myself, the same opportunity to live your best life. We need to be radically loving to counter the real emotional violence done to our relatives simply because they are gay; the imposed silence of the closet at the old homeplace; and the family reunions where not all family could be sure of their welcome.
Cynthia Greenlee is a doctoral candidate in African-American history at Duke University and a member of the #EchoingIda Black women’s writing collective. You can follow her @CynthiaGreenlee.