The annual celebrations of two liberation histories – Black History Month and LGBTQ History Month – simultaneously take place on both sides of the Atlantic, twice each year. Every October the United Kingdom recognizes black history, while the United States holds events to mark LGBTQ history. In February the focus swaps over, with each country dedicating the month to the liberation struggle it didn’t give attention to in October. Consider this scheduling for a moment.
Black queers have long given lie to the artificial separation of the oppressions they experience, but their warnings are, more often than not, ignored. In 1984 James Baldwin gave an interview to Richard Goldstein for The Village Voice, where he noted:
Baldwin was by no means optimistic about the possibilities for race relations when giving this rare interview on sexuality a few years before his death, and yet for him the two questions still had to remain bound together.
Whiteness is taken as a default position, and among racial categories it is treated as the most universal experience possible – to be white is to have no race at all. Unless we are careful, starting from a position of whiteness when speaking about LGBTQ history, culture or struggle quickly turns into an exercise in substituting a small part of queer politics for the much wider whole. Race and sexuality are certainly tied up with one another, but unless we constantly remind ourselves of that we are threatened by unthinkingly tugging at loose threads of sexuality, which will eventually pull the whole fabric apart.
In a speech delivered at Amherst College in 1980, Audre Lorde explained how a refusal to recognize the differences between us threatens to truly separate us.
In particular, Lorde highlighted how for black women and their children there is no let up in the struggle: “We do not deal with it only on the picket lines, or in dark midnight alleys, or in the places where we dare to verbalize our resistance. For us, increasingly, violence weaves through the daily tissues of our living – in the supermarket, in the classroom, in the elevator, in the clinic and the schoolyard, from the plumber, the baker, the saleswoman, the bus driver, the bank teller, the waitress who does not serve us.”
Though Lorde and Baldwin made these observations more than three decades ago, those of us who are black and queer today repeat similar warnings, seeing that little has changed. Last July, Black Lives Matter Toronto used their position at the head of the city’s annual Pride parade to halt the celebrations and confront anti-blackness as it exists within the LGBTQ community.
A history of the Stonewall riots, Operation Spanner and the criminalization of homosexuality should show that the police have been no friends of the queer community. Yet at Pride marches elsewhere this summer, that community, having now been promised safety at the hands of cops, will embrace floats celebrating the institution, despite its continued dehumanization of black and brown people. Some of us are yet to reach the lofty heights of subjectivity in the eyes of either the police or fellow queers.
But it is obvious too that while acceptability has been offered, it’s at the cost of true freedom. In the Village Voice interview, Baldwin reminded Goldstein that “The discovery of one’s sexual preferences doesn’t have to be trauma. It’s trauma because it’s such a traumatized society.” At the moment, we’re dealing with the trauma and not the traumatized society. So really, the pain might be numbed but it never goes away.
The calendar of annual liberation history events seems to throw up the double coincidence of LGBTQ History Month and Black History Month as an insurgent reminder of the links we’re forgetting. Only by listening to those least humanized – in other words, by listening to those most black – will we make LGBTQ history worth celebrating.