Black, LGBT, American

A search for sanctuaries.



At left: Sakia Gunn

Gay in a Black Space
Whether they are the dark, asphalt-paved roadways of large urban landscapes like New York City or dirt-lined thoroughfares of unfamiliar towns, streets carry the traces of so many of our black queer encounters in a mostly white and straight America.

Seventeen-year-old Wauynee Wallace, a black gay teen who grew up in Camden, N.J., was shot dead in the summer of 2012 on the very streets where I had played as a youth. Tragically, Wallace was shot in the back of the head while walking with his friends one night. Whether or not he was killed because of his perceived sexuality and gender non-conforming expression, the case is an eerie and tragic reminder of the ways that queer and trans people are placed under surveillance, policed, attacked, and killed throughout the United States, even in this post-Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act moment.

Yet Wallace, like 15-year-old black lesbian Sakia Gunn, who was stabbed in the heart by a black man in Newark in 2003, did not entirely match the profile of HCPA's namesakes, white gay Matthew Shepard or black straight James Byrd Jr., who was brutalized because of his race. Gunn, a young black girl, did not entirely match the image of any of the male victims. Indeed, Wallace, like Gunn — like me — existed within a crossing where sexual identities, gender expressions, and racial markers not only meet but are thoroughly entangled.

Wallace and Gunn existed in a complicated intersection of identities. And crossings can be precarious spaces to occupy for those who must dodge multiple arrows of racism, homophobia, sexism, and so much else daily. I know what it feels like to be multiply marked: I was brutally attacked on a street not too far from Wallace's home when I was 14. The Whitman Park section of Camden, or "Polacktown," as it is called, is a distressed area of an underprivileged 16-square-mile slice of urban America. The neighborhood is lined with small-porched row houses, vacant lots, and some trash-lined streets. And yes, the media calls it the "hood," but it was my home.

The close proximity of our living quarters made community-building easy. It is difficult to disengage those whose conversations you can overhear on connected porches or through walls of closely attached homes. Like Wallace, I was a peculiar black boy who preferred to hang out with the neighborhood girls. I was a good dancer and enjoyed the arts. My difference made for a series of intriguing conversations and rumors on my block. There were whispers. The news of my perceived queerness traveled quickly in a densely populated neighborhood where it is impossible to be invisible. And even though I desired to be undetectable and unmarked, I was often targeted by neighbors and strangers alike.

Several boys coming from the grocery store one day during my eighth grade year surrounded me. A few of the "hard" boys on my block were my classmates, and one happened to live next door. After some words were exchanged while walking down the street, I heard the word "faggot." Then, one of the boys, whose nickname was OB, uncovered a gallon of kerosene, taken from the small yellow moped given me by my uncle as a gift, which had been stolen several days prior. I was actually relieved when it disappeared, because I was too scared to take it for a ride.

Kerosene in hand in a tightly closed milk jug, OB uncoiled the plastic cap and emptied the gallon on my head. The liquid enveloped my body. I could barely see. My eyes were glazed and throbbing. I felt hands — many hands‚ — violently hammering my body. Then I heard a match. It flickered several times. The wind, however, seemed, instinctively, to put out each fire.

My aunt, returning home from work, saw the assault and quickly intervened. She is a woman with a small frame, but a lot of courage. She gathered my things and quickly walked me to West Jersey Hospital, about 10 minutes away from our home. She held my hand as I moved about embarrassedly, with kerosene in my eyes and on my skin. I cried uncontrollably when they covered my eyes with nozzles spewing water to cleanse them.

OB was determined to burn me alive that day. I still don't understand what would provoke him to set me afire. What made him so angry that he would want to dispose of me, his peer? I knew little about his family and personal life, but I knew enough. I knew that the immense poverty he and his siblings encountered and the violence that had become mundane in our neighborhood had begun to shape him in the same ways that they had started to shape me.

Maybe OB and I were more alike than I wanted to believe. For instance, I shed fewer and fewer tears every time I was told that another young person had been murdered in my neighborhood. The real tragedy of living with gun violence is often the way it deadens emotions. I can still feel the sensation that moved through my body when one of my friends stayed over at my house. He was a black teen, like me. But unlike me, he was a drug dealer and fighter. He lay opposite me on my grandparents' couch, where I would try to sleep every night. He smirked, moved his leg under the covers, and placed his foot on my crotch. I was aroused and he knew it. He smirked again. A few months later, he was dead, shot while walking. I can still see his grin and feel his touch. The memories haunt me. I cannot begin to imagine the memories of the many dead friends that troubled OB so much so that he was no longer able to see life in me.

We were all black boys living in the same black neighborhood, but it was clear that day that some of us were different. Some of us were gay. I was gay. And the streets in Camden remember my queer encounter in that black space in the same way that they now contain the ghostly imprint of Wallace's blood.