Students share experiences of being black, male and queer at Stanford

Oct. 1, 2012, 1:20 a.m.

Kyle is a recent graduate of Stanford. He identifies as male and as either gay or queer. Michael is a senior who grew up in the South and identifies as gender-fluid and gay. John is a senior from the New York metropolitan area who identifies as gender-queer and asexual. All three students are African American. They agreed to speak to The Daily if their names were changed for privacy purposes.

Finding support at Stanford

Though a variety of support groups exist or have existed within both the black and queer communities, the number of resources for students at the intersection of these groups is low, even given how small the black and queer community is.

“I haven’t found a sense of community as a queer person of color–as a black queer,” John said. “There are not institutional services or support groups that foster community for the black and queer community.”
All three students said they felt comfortable being queer within the black community. The students expressed a varying degree of comfort interacting with the larger queer community.

John was involved with queer voluntary student organizations during his freshman year but said these organizations did not meet his needs.

“I felt that there were certain needs that those communities could not meet or fulfill…part of it had to do with race,” he said.

Kyle found a supportive community in Terra, a cooperative house inhabited primarily by queer students, where many of his friends lived.

The most relevant group to Kyle, Michael and John was Black and Queer at Stanford (BlaQs), in which all three participated because it provided a network of support. But since the club stopped holding regular meetings in the 2010-11 academic year, students have had to look to either the black or queer communities.
Michael described feeling more comfortable with the black community at Stanford than with the queer community.

“I feel 100 percent comfortable being gay, queer [and] gender-fluid in the black community,” Michael said. “I spent my first year coming to terms with the fact that acceptance in the way that I was envisioning it within the gay community was not going to come. Following that, I got a lot more support in general from African American people.”

John said he never felt uncomfortable within the community but that he did not quite feel at home.

“I’ve never experienced any homophobia or any reason to be uncomfortable in the black community,” John said. “But just because there were few publicly identified queer people in the black community, I didn’t feel like there was a community there for me.”

Michael said he misses having a black, queer community support group to relate to.

“What I miss is not always having people who are visibly gay and black around at parties to dance with or talk to [or] hang out with,” he said.

Adding that queer communities “should and could” be a place where he could look for short-term and lifelong partners, Michael said, “I don’t think I get that at Stanford.”

Differences between queer and black communities

Michael expressed how he feels he needs to act differently in each community.

“I feel community with African American people but I always feel like when I’m in the LGBT community, specifically at Stanford, it’s more about a competition,” he said. “I’m much more performative. I feel like I end up being much more of a diva.”

Though Terra Happy Hour serves as a gathering space for many queer undergraduate students, Michael said he stopped going after freshman year because it “ultimately wound up being something that wasn’t healthy” for him.

Michael said that he felt ignored during social events at the house.

“I felt like in the gay community, I was being made invisible,” he said. “At parties and functions, people who are not black or not female almost act like I’m not there.”

Michael described the opposite situation where he said people who ignored him otherwise would approach him as an object.

“[There are] people who disregard me every day of the week because I’m black, but the days that parties are happening, I may be approached during the party [or] after the party,” he said. “People are approaching me then in a sexual way.”

John, a former Terra resident, reported more positive experiences at Happy Hour yet admitted feeling alienated within the queer community at times. He has not, however, explicitly experienced racism within the group.

“Even if someone did find me interesting, intriguing or attractive it was always in such a way that highlighted my differences–that made me realize how non-white I was, how non-middle-class I was or how non-normative and non-masculine I was–but not in an explicitly denigrating way,” he said. “It was in a face-value, superficial way that didn’t allow me to be seen in all of my totality and wholeness and depth.”

John noted that his experience with racial politics of desire in the queer community might be different because of his sexual identity.

“The thing that may make my experience different as a queer person of color is that I identify as asexual,” he said. “Since I don’t date at Stanford and generally don’t date in the gay community, I haven’t interacted with men in a sexual capacity at Stanford.”

Encountering racism

Kyle said he thinks about his sexuality in terms of race all the time, citing the ubiquity of his skin color.

“I always say I’m black first because it’s one of the things that’s immediately noticeable,” he said. “When someone identifies me, they’re going to say, ‘That black, gay person,’ not, ‘That gay, black guy.’”

Kyle said he was shocked to experience racism in as progressive an area of the country as the Bay Area.

“At first I thought, ‘Well, what am I doing wrong? Am I exuding something that is making people think that I am somehow not desirable?’” he said. “Then I was like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with my race–you’re racist.’”

John said he witnessed what some might perceive as “internalized hate” among his black, gay friends.

“A lot of my gay, black, male friends sophomore year were only interested in white men,” he said. “No one was ever interested in each other. It’s another part of the sexual politics of being gay and black at Stanford.”

Michael said he too once internalized the racism he has experienced at Stanford.

“Sometimes I forget how attractive I am until I get off the plane in New Orleans, or Jackson or Atlanta and [notice] the reception I get from African American men,” he said.

Moving beyond

Kyle said that he stopped internalizing the racism he experienced after he began speaking up about it.

Kyle recalled asking a Stanford classmate to explain his rationale for expressing racist thoughts. The classmate said, “I just think black people are sexually inferior.”

The student apologized two years later, Kyle said.

“I think he began to understand why it’s offensive to say it aloud…but I don’t think those views have changed,” Kyle said.

According to Kyle, introspection is key to releasing oneself from the binds of internalized racism.

“I realized that being in the minority doesn’t make me less attractive than anyone else,” he said.

Michael, who said he is gaining back his confidence away from the gay community at Stanford, said that in the moments when he does not feel invisible, “I think, I feel, I know [that] I am an attractive individual.”

Kristian Davis Bailey is a junior studying Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. A full time journalist/writer and occasional student, he's served as an Opinion section editor, News writer and desk editor for The Daily, is a community liaison for Stanford STATIC, the campus' progressive blog and journal, and maintains his own website, 'With a K.' He's interested in how the press perpetuates systems of oppression and seeks to use journalism as a tool for dismantling such systems.

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