I have always associated creativity with a sense of pleasure, and simultaneously, a sense of danger. Self-expression in my mind conjures feelings of the forbidden. Perhaps much of this comes from my Southern black boyhood, as I started to get the sense there was safety in assimilation and considerable risk in being too free.
“Don’t be a punk,” I was told. I imagine many others like me heard this as well. The phrase served as both correction and warning.
Around 7 or 8 years old, I first started hearing other things like “Don’t laugh too hard” or “Don’t smile too much.” I was commanded, “Don’t sit that way” and “Don’t speak with a lisp.” And the most epic one of all: “Don’t cry.”
Being forced to withhold emotion early on stunts us for our entire lives. These are the ghosts that haunt us into adulthood. It’s no wonder so many of us — especially black boys — become people who struggle to articulate our feelings. The words are beaten out of us when we are kids.
Do we ever get to grieve the black boy joy and whimsy we abandoned? Is there mourning for the sense of freedom so many of us felt in our bodies, but spurned, in our effort not to be considered a punk? And for those among us who refuse to assimilate, who resist it with everything in us, do we grieve our lives before the war? I wonder what that grief would be like.
Of all the homophobic slurs thrown around, being called a punk is the one I recall the most vividly. It cut the deepest. I don’t remember the first time I was called a punk, but I do remember the faces of those who hurled the curse my way. I can still see how their mouths contorted as they pronounced the slur and the contagion that followed — poisonous words polluting the air, followed by the deafening silence of teachers and other adults watching passively. I learned two things from this: (1) adults don’t want to be punks either, and (2) you can fight back or run away, but no one will protect you.
When I came out and started hanging around other black gay men, the word “punk” morphed into something different. Gay clubs were referred to as punk bars and frequenting them would be to go punking. Even the club, our most sacred space, was not safe from the word. We brought it with us, hoping that if we could transform the word, we could transform ourselves.
There are people who will argue that the word “punk” has nothing to do with being gay, and that anybody can be a punk. This argument follows that calling someone a punk is not inherently homophobic. To that I would say, yes and no.
First, I acknowledge that white gay men and other nonblack gay men of color may not have the same relationship to the word “punk.” And yes, theoretically, when used as a noun, “punk” may refer to a wide range of people one might associate with weakness, a lack of integrity, or being sneaky. But when black gay men in particular are referred to as punks, it’s absolutely used as a homophobic slur, often followed by violence. It’s far from an innocent word.
This is not an argument against free speech or in favor of censorship, though I would offer that one person’s freedom should not be at the cost of another’s humanity. Words like punk and other slurs proliferate because to maintain the social order, the dominant culture must define the oppressed and rob them of their dignity. The challenge put before us then is to define ourselves, continue to engage, continue to speak up, speak out, dissent, question, and to never remain silent.
CHARLES STEPHENS is a writer, cultural activist, and organizer.