It started with a phone call to my mother one hazy June afternoon in Indiana. I called my mother every day, multiple times a day, yet this day was different—this time I was going to tell my mother that I was a lesbian. But before I could even get the words out, I started bawling; I was so fearful of what our relationship would be like on the other side of my declaration. My tears were warranted because after I told her, she told me, “You know I don’t believe in that lifestyle and the Bible says you’re going to burn in hell.”
Having gone to worship with my mother for most of my life, hearing this from her was consistent with what our church believed. But I thought her unconditional love for me would be an expression of God’s grace. As our conversation continued and I tried to explain that I wasn’t “choosing” to be gay, that I was just trying to live my life, she grew more unbothered. I explained that I wasn’t trying to upset her or anger God. Yet through my hysterical crying, she told me that she didn’t want to talk to me “until I was straight again and remembered how I was raised.”
I would test her will by calling her after that, but the conversation would invariably go like this:
Me: Mom, I was just calling to hear your voice.
Her: Are you dating a man yet?
And she would promptly hang up the phone.
This distancing from my family started with my mother and went on to include my aunts, who told my younger brother and cousins not to talk to me. Needless to say, I was devastated, lonely and lost. What did this mean? I did all of the things that respectability dictates are a product of good parenting. I never got into trouble at school, always made good grades, and was involved in band all of middle and high school. I went to a college that my mother wanted me to attend so that I could be close enough to home and she could have bragging rights. I mean, damn. I thought all of the things I did in my life to be a “good girl” would cancel out this one big thing. Sadly, it didn’t. And the result was being emotionally depleted and physically abandoned by my family.
Eventually, in order for my mother to speak to me again, I claimed that I was in a bisexual exploratory phase and that it would pass. But the next year, when I was 20 years old, I just said, “Mom, I’m a full-blown lesbian. I’m not exploring bisexuality, and even if I am ever with a man again, I’m certain that I will have a long-term relationship with a woman.” (In 1998, marriage equality seemed so far away.)
“I hope you can support me,” I pleaded. “I tried to do what you wanted and it didn’t work for me.” Needless to say, she again resorted to her harshest tactic and told me I could not come home; nor would she speak to me. She didn’t even call me to wish me a happy 21st birthday. That was beyond painful and such a low blow. In fact, because of “my lifestyle,” my mother didn’t speak to me with any level of kindness or respect for three long years.
Eventually my aunts talked to me again, but at the same time, they also talked about me behind my back. They said they didn’t want my “gayness” to rub off on my younger cousins, especially because my mother’s frame of reference was that I chose to be gay. I did have one family member, my cousin Bubbles, who supported me and was truly the only person who could get my family together when talking stuff about me. I appreciate her to this day for that.
But even with Bubbles’ consolation, I needed something to fill the void of my mother’s absence in my life. I was still living in Indiana and attending school on a pretty conservative campus. I needed an outlet, and more importantly, I needed community. I found that community beyond my campus, starting with my hairstylist Denzell. He was styling my hair one day, and of course we talked about dating because hairstylists actually double as therapists. I was being evasive about who I was seeing because I didn’t gender the person I talked about.
He said, “Darling, are you family?” I had not heard that expression before, but he then explained that gay folks identify each other by asking if you’re “family” rather than asking, “Are you gay?” He also shared that we call each other family because so many of us are blacklisted by our own families, so we find our kin in the LGBTQ community. My mind was blown; my heart broke open and I found my people.
Once I was part of this big, amazing extended “family,” I felt protected and held again. I was sneaking into clubs, flirting with women, having sex and getting involved in the LGBTQ movement. I participated in this black lesbian social group in Indianapolis called “Indy SoulSistahs,” where a black lesbian couple hosted biweekly Sunday brunches that would go into early Monday morning. I was one of the founders of Indiana Black Pride, a black LGBTQ organization.
I was socially and civically engaged with my community and eventually was “gay for pay” when I worked as a development manager at the Damian Center, an AIDS service organization in Indianapolis, and later at the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.
To clarify, I call the family that raised me my “blood family” and the family that embraced me my “queer family.” I share blood with both—one with direct DNA lineage, the other more symbolic.
Yes, there is just as much violence attached to being black as there is to being a woman and a lesbian, yet within my queer family, I felt that someone cared about me as I am, not as they wanted me to be. My queerness is a reflection of my deep desire to live free for as long as I am gifted breath.
My mother passed away on Feb. 7 this year, which was a Wednesday. The Sunday before her death, we had a conversation about her acceptance of my sexuality, which was as close as she would ever get to understanding how the lack of her full acceptance of me impacted my life. She told me, “I accept that this is your lifestyle and I love you unconditionally.” Though she never met my current partner, whom I’ve been with for three years, she did offer to meet her in that conversation ... but we ran out of time.
Since I came out, my blood family has grown in queerness: My younger brother is a black gay man, and my sister is a biracial lesbian. I have a cousin who recently came out as a lesbian and another cousin who is a black transgender woman. This new wave of acceptance in my family was not granted on my sacrifice alone. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Aunt Betty, was a closeted lesbian who held an after-hours spot in her basement in Dayton, Ohio, from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s and was with her life partner, my Aunt Annie, for 35 years.
My great-grandmother never embraced Aunt Betty, and I suppose her behavior toward Aunt Betty was the blueprint for my mother’s behavior toward me. The intergenerational cycle of homophobic trauma in black families has to end. It is literally wounding and killing us, and leaving our relationships with one another one-sided and incomplete.
The community of queer people of color has also evolved for me in these 20 years. I had the opportunity to be in Washington, D.C., for D.C. Black Pride this year, where I attended a party with my beloved friends Amber J. Philips and Jazmine Walker, co-founders of the wildly successful podcast The Black Joy Mixtape.
In fact, this month for Black Pride, they interviewed me on their show, both talking about my 20-year journey and providing a pussy-eating tutorial that you don’t want to miss. They took me to a queer-people-of-color party at the Howard Theatre, a historic site that has housed generations of black talent and excellence. As we walked toward the building, we took a shortcut through a back alley to get to the entrance. As we inched closer, I saw a light in a doorway and a guy who looked like he was security.
I assumed that this was the entrance because of my muscle memory from the Ten, the gay club I would sneak into 20 years ago in Indianapolis; it was in a back alley, too. It was in that moment that I realized that I was stepping into my righteous inheritance—from the ability to endure my blood family’s silence and still be here and thriving, to my entering into my sanctuary (aka “the club”) via a well-lit building with a front entrance facing a busy street.
Of course, I’ve been to many clubs that had front-door entrances in the course of my 20 years being out, but this time it felt different. This time, I was entering with intention and perspective, as a black lesbian, a black dyke, a black bulldagger, powerfully moving through my life.
Through this process of reflection, I realize it has taken me being a caretaker of my mother for seven years and losing her this year for me to have the time, space, energy and capacity to even think about what being out for this long has meant for my life. In Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters she says, “[G]ot to give it all up, the pain, the hurt, the anger and make room for lovely things to rush in and fill you full.”
I am ready for wholeness. I am ready to live daily in my healing. I am ready to belong to myself and to clear the way for what I need to be loved without sacrificing for others’ comfort. After 20 years with both of my families, I am ready.
Jasmine Burnett is a black lesbian feminist, anti-oppression consultant and writer based in Cleveland. She loves writing about all things black and cannabis, where she contributes to a narrative that humanizes the lives, legacies and contributions of black women and queer folx. Get at her @blkfeminst.