We Dream a World: Black & Queer in Milwaukee

Illustration for article titled We Dream a World: Black & Queer in Milwaukee
Photo: Getty Images

On any given day, my partner, Lynnae* and I will be driving, engaged in our usual griping at the utterly reckless ways some Milwaukee drivers shit on safety laws while behind the wheel.


It’s become a game of sorts; I’m usually the one who points out the utter disregard for red lights and how cars bogart the bike lane. But recently, as we complained about unsafe drivers, I realized that I wanted to step back and imagine a community where we truly feel safe, seen, and connected. Underneath the surface of this routine conversation lurked deeper concerns about how here in Milwaukee, one of the nation’s most segregated cities, we—a black queer couple—always feel unsafe.

Lynnae and I often talk about our future, but from a more practical standpoint: moving to a warmer climate, career goals, which one of us will carry a pregnancy, the type of home we want to create together. I wanted us to envision living our dreams, but in conversation now.

She indulged me, and we started a conversation on everything from community gardening and neighborhood cookouts to working and living alongside our colleagues. It was evident that we also yearned for a queer safe and affirming community. It also became clear that my partner, who was not out at work at the time, wanted to live a more integrated life where safety as a bisexual woman was not only guaranteed but was the norm; one where she could easily be herself at home, work, and at play.

This world we were envisioning together consisted of joy, fun, and connection—words we rarely feel in our current city, a place committed to centering privileged white people. Milwaukee’s hypersegregation, high incarceration rates for black men and high eviction rates for black women mean that black folk in this city are constantly navigating hostile environments.

How do we access joy, I wondered, if we aren’t consistently dreaming about it and making portals for its existence in our lives?

I was curious about how other Black, queer Milwaukeeans create community. So I arranged a brunch at my house with two people I adore: Lynnae, a 39-year-old teacher from the Midwest, and her best friend, Kwame*, a queer 33-year-old doctor and Milwaukee native I’ve come to know better through thrift shopping—and later, salmon BLT sandwiches from our favorite restaurant.


Over plates of scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, sautéed spinach, and cherries, I asked them what it means to them to be queer, bisexual, black and professional in Milwaukee.

Charmaine: How do you all find community here in Milwaukee?

Lynnae: I come to your house and invite people over for food. But I don’t have a place that I go, where I like to mingle with people. I was going to the gym pretty regularly, but I didn’t make the effort to meet people or to expand the relationship beyond, “I recognize you, you’re the grunting guy.”


Kwame: How Charmaine has formed community [here] is pretty impressive for me, here in Milwaukee. The first time I came over here, I was like, ‘Look at all these beautiful black people.’ I can sense that there’s some queerness here, but everyone’s definitely not queer. But it’s queer-comfortable. If someone from California came and did this, did that here in my city, what am I doing wrong? 

C: Absolutely nothing. How did I meet those folks? The person who was central to me is my friend Akua, who is no longer in Milwaukee. Before she and her family moved, they used to always have community functions at their house, which is where I met many of the people who I am still in community with and where I learned how to build community in the first place.


I learned through Akua’s gatherings that community making is consistent and compassionate. I always try to have a self-care component in the gatherings I now have, whether that’s making essential oil spritzers or meditating. It’s so important that we get grounded with ourselves and each other when we build community.

How do you find community with LGBTQ people?

L: I don’t do anything specific. I don’t really have a community that’s specifically gay. My community is specifically black, but not gay.


K: I relate to what Lynnae is saying. I don’t take special care to develop a black queer or gay community. I probably more often than not just do things that I’m really into, like going dancing, taking dance classes, pursuing a Bible study class, being active in the community. And then in those spaces, community forms naturally.

C: So, Lynnae, you identify as bisexual?

Lynnae: I do. I do. But I’m not as out as ... I would consider myself not out, but apparently, some of my mannerisms and my interactions with [Charmaine] specifically are outing me more and more. I’m having difficulty not being affectionate in public. Or I want you to come to different spaces with me, where it’s clear like, ‘She’s [repeatedly] bringing the same person as her friend. Something is up.’


But if I was as out as maybe I could be, maybe I would make more effort to connect with the queer community, because my only interaction intentionally with queer people is when I go out dancing, which is rare, because I’m so busy these days. Even when I was a student, and I had all the time, my only interaction for years was when I joined a queer discussion group. That was a very safe space for me—a very warm space for me. I was upset with myself that I had waited so long to connect intentionally with queer individuals, and specifically, queer people of color. I felt like I thrived in that environment.

And then, I was nominated for the [group’s] community awards. I declined it because I wasn’t ready to be out in that capacity, and I was [job] interviewing at the time, as well. All I could think about was because you have this ceremony and you get your picture, you’re going to be on the university website, and if a potential employer did a Google search and it popped up, how would that affect my chances of gaining employment?


It was very shameful for me to admit that I didn’t want that … because the community was there for me, and I wasn’t there for them.

K: [to Lynnae] Do you experience concern right now about your interactions with Charmaine? People in Milwaukee, I believe, could reasonably be expected to react very negatively to same-gender-loving expression in public. Is that on your mind?


L: Never. Never. The thing that I’ve grown used to hearing, which is a form of violence, is men asking for me and my partner to do things for them. Like if they approach one of us, it’s like, “Oh, no, that’s my girlfriend.” They say, “Oh, word? Kiss her. Let me see some shit.” Or, “You all should make out, or why don’t you all come over to the house?” Things like that. But I’m never concerned about my safety, in the sense of someone’s going to attack. I do get concerned when you’re telling men no, and they just don’t want to hear no as an answer.

K: Being a woman in a world where men are aggressive in that space?

L: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

C: That’s a good question, Kwame. Have you ever felt any threat of violence or just concerns of safety?


K: Growing up, I think I’ve never been a fully straight, “hetero-appearing” kind of child. So, yes, as a kid, I experienced some violent things, even though I wasn’t kissing someone or holding someone’s hand. I was merely walking or listening to music or whatever. But coming into my life as an adult, no. Not as much.

But I think I’ve done better at masking. As I grew older, I’ve learned to be a person who will avoid actions [that flag me as queer] with what is in my power. I have conformed to a certain degree, where I think some people don’t see me. They see me as unattached. Maybe there’s a question about my sexuality, but there’s no just like, “gay, gay, gay, gay…”


But I feel that if my partner and I were affectionate somewhere, that there could be words approaching violence, or words necessitating a response that then encourages conflict, whether it just be verbal conflict or actual physical conflict.

Being able to express affection for your partner should be as easy as breathing; like oxygen is just here and we can take it in. My breathing doesn’t affect the way you breathe. For some reason, the way that people express affection with their partners affects someone else’s existence. It doesn’t make sense to me. Why does that image cause a physiological response in your body, to get angry, and then what moves you to act out on it? How is your life decreased, affected, depreciated that you need to do something to “correct” it? How does that happen?


If forming community or having affectionate moments with your partners puts that at risk, you are obviously going to choose to be safe.

C: Ideally, what would you all want a black queer community to look like in Milwaukee?


L: Definitely has to be supportive of the different lifestyles of blackness. A lot of variation between ages, between socioeconomic status, having the flexibility for people to exist along the scale of earning potential or earnings or earning potential... I wouldn’t want it to be 100 percent queer. I would want it to be diverse in sexual orientation and sexual identity. And ideally black, because I feel that those are the spaces that I can be my most authentic me. Even taking into consideration queerness, I would advocate for blackness before queerness.

C: Really?

Lynnae: Mm-hmm. That may be because I don’t operate in queerness enough to find where it’s safe, where it’s comforting, where it’s nurturing, where it’s delicious in the same ways that I’ve been able to experience that in black-centered spaces.


C: [to Kwame] What is your vision for community?

K: It would include diverse sexual orientations of people of color. Not just black people. I would definitely need my own core group of black folks to be with, but it’s important to me to include other people. I first mean Latino, and then after that Southeast Asians and people who identify with being refugees. [Community means] a minimum standard at which everyone can have a civil conversation, think critically, engage and listen to each other. That would be really important for my community.


I feel like I was fortunate enough to have a good family and a good community when I was growing up. I want that for myself now. The community that I would form would be distinguished from the community I grew up with in the way that we could have honest, open dialogue and conversation, really being able to discuss [any topic] and redistribution of power. [My community would operate with] disregard of the old social order rules, governing who can do what.

C: Amen.

From this interview and other gatherings with beloved community, I learned we can do collectively what we can’t do in isolation: Envision and practice what community needs to be for us and for us to be healthy individuals.


This conversation was just one of many—conducted in multiple homes and restaurants, and over board games or making herbal medicines, or during travel—with my partner and friends. As I was writing this piece, I reminisced over our time together creating, re-creating and maintaining community. Lynnae shared with me that just recently, she and Kwame slowly started coming out to colleagues.

I asked what changed for them both. Lynnae’s response had me in tears: “I think being in love helps with us being out. We want to celebrate that space. You don’t want to hide it. You want the world to know.”


*First names and occupations have been changed because, at the time, neither was completely out.

As of the past week, Charmaine is now a Southerner with a forever love for Milwaukee. Winston-Salem is her new home. You can catch her looking for the best places to get a pedicure, playing the Singing Bowls, and adjusting to the sun in June with her fiancé.