A few months ago over dinner with my mother, I leaned across the table and asked, “Do you wish I was straight?”
During a pause that seemed at least nine months pregnant, I felt myself dancing with the demon I thought had left my party long ago.
Over the past 20 years, my mother has moved from standing over me and shouting, “You are NOT gay because no daughter of mine would ever be a lesbian,” to assuming her place at the head of the large and colorful network that we call our family.
This Thanksgiving, she will preside over our crowded table like the stately queen of a small country. Our family includes my sister and me; my partner, Jana, and our 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter; Lorry, the gay man who fathered the children; and an assortment of friends, exes, aunties and god-children. I am thankful that when my mother bows her head and blesses our family, she means it.
Still, as I looked at my mother’s face that evening, trying to read the emotion I saw flicker across her brow, I wondered, “Does my mother really accept me for who I am?”
That is the central dilemma that plagues so many of us who are black and LGBT. The closet is a dark and lonely place, and even in the gay pride decade of Wanda Sykes, Adam Lambert, Rachel Maddow, The L Word, Ellen and Portia, Brokeback Mountain and Milk, many of us remain stuck inside. Whether we call it on the down low or undercover, large numbers of us are still sitting in the darkness wondering and worrying, will I still be invited to Thanksgiving if my family, my black family, knows I’m gay?
This is the crisis many of us face, and the huge disconnect that keeps the LGBT movement from reaching its full potential. Gay marriage or any LGBT-rights initiative or agenda cannot move forward without the support and alliance of other so-called “oppressed communities.” This means other people of color. To be more precise, I’m talking about straight black folks.
We need you to be on our side. We need your support in the state-by-state fight for our right to marry, to care for each other and to raise our children. We need you to speak up when somebody makes a comment about fags, dykes, queens, homos or sinners, whether it’s some drunk fool at a party or a minister from the pulpit. We ask you—our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors—to join us in the struggle to assure that lesbians and gay men have all the rights, protections and respect that we are owed and that we deserve.
We’re all family; we need you to have our backs just like you would any other member of the family. Help us move from the down low to living out loud. Hiding and lying is unhealthy and unhelpful and prevents us from having full, honest relationships with you, the people who know us best and have loved us the longest and hardest.
That includes my mother, sister and my heterosexual friends. My mother never imagined a family like ours back when she thought I might marry a man and give her a son-in-law and some grandkids. But I know that she loves our crew—her two grandchildren; their father, the gay Peruvian grandbaby daddy who is a “son-in-law of sorts;” and my partner, her “daughter-in-law.”
But does she really wish I were straight? That evening over dinner, I got my answer. She reached across the table, covered my hand with hers and replied, “No, honey. I no longer want you to be straight. I’m used to you this way.” There was no muss, no fluff, no sugar coating to her answer. It was simply honest and from her heart. What I heard, though, was—“I love you just the way you are.”
Linda Villarosa is an award-winning journalist, college professor and author of a number of books, most recently a novel, Passing for Black. In 1991, she and her mother, Clara, wrote the groundbreaking article “Coming Out” for Essence magazine.