Until I was 10, my father was nothing more than a faint memory. Then he seemed to want to make up for his absence, and he would show up occasionally to take me on different adventures. We’d go to the park, where I would hop on the swings and he would push, and to the bowling alley, where I felt my stress rolling away each time the ball spun forward and knocked over the pins. We’d go to his house, where we would sit and watch horror movies (my favorite genre).
As a preteen, I was growing into my sexuality and did my best to mask my true self. But one evening, when my father and I were watching “Seed of Chucky,” I said, “Oh, he’s cute,” referring to one of the characters onscreen. Immediately, I felt the air shift. I didn’t say another word for the rest of the movie.
My father made his disapproval known a couple of weeks later. That’s when my godmother, who raised me, called out my name, saying that my father was on the phone asking to speak to me. I rushed into her room and held the phone. The moment I put my ear to the phone, I heard a torrent of homophobic slurs. He told me he was going to beat me up to turn me “into a man.” The fact that my father uttered those words to his own son over something as minuscule as a remark about a movie character baffled me. But I also somewhat expected it after the way he had tensed up.
I handed my godmother back her phone and slowly left her room. Once back in my own room, I opened my journal and began to describe the emotions fluttering through me: rage, sadness, confusion, anger.
When I asked my godmother to cut off all forms of communication with my father, he would ride around my school early in the mornings to try to spot me. My godmother’s mother, whom I think of as my grandmother, lived across the street from my school and let me stay inside her house until his black sedan completed its daily ritual of circling slowly around the block five times before disappearing. At one point, my father tried to pick me up from my school without my godmother’s permission. Then, as suddenly as he reappeared in my life, he packed up his things and moved away. I don’t know where he went. I haven’t had contact with him in the six years since.
It wasn’t just my father pushing this version of what it means to be a man. Growing up, I remember family members telling me how I should be strong and not display my emotions, as denying vulnerability is just the way of life for Black males like me. I would always ask: Why is this a thing? Why can’t I show emotions? What if I’m not as strong as I’m always told to be?
I learned subsequently that notions of Black masculinity and homophobia among Black Americans have been reinforced since the 1960s Black Power movement. In his memoir “Soul on Ice,” Eldridge Cleaver, an early leader of the Black Panther Party, attacked the racial authenticity and masculinity of the acclaimed author James Baldwin, writing that Baldwin’s homosexuality was an attempt to distance himself from his Blackness.
And Cleaver’s ideas are hardly a thing of the past. The phrase “no homo” is still common in hip-hop.
It takes a toll. A 2022 study conducted by the Trevor Project, the world’s largest crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth, found that there is a high prevalence of homophobia and homophobic abuse that is linked to significant rates of family disownment, homelessness, and loneliness within Black LGBTQ communities. According to the study, 68% of Black LGBTQ youth either considered or attempted suicide in the past year, and 50% were physically threatened or harmed due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Black LGBTQ youth were 58% more likely to attempt suicide than their white counterparts and were six times more likely to feel misunderstood by their care providers.
I have often felt ostracized by my peers. Many seemed apprehensive of my flamboyance, including my Mariah Carey and Britney Spears super-fandom and my interest in skin care. I imagined that if I could somehow stop concealing my sexuality, my chronic sadness would disappear. My hopelessness, at times, veered into thoughts of self-harm.
I talked recently with one of my school’s math teachers, Kysung Tisdale, about the challenges of being a Black queer male. “When I come to school, I’m no longer Kysung,” he said. “I am Mr. T. I am the teacher that people can come to for advice.” Kysung is more outgoing and flamboyant, while Mr. T is more stern, more conventionally masculine. He also said that he tends to code-switch in order to ensure his safety. When he’s in typically male environments like the barbershop or at basketball games, he dims his personality and deepens his voice.
What if I’m not as strong as I’m always told to be?
River, my school peer, was assigned female at birth and is nonbinary. River said they conceal their masculinity when they go to places where their queerness might not be accepted, such as a hair salon. They feel they lose a part of their identity with each switch. But when they feel safe and secure, River loves to lean into their masculinity, dressing in baggy pants and sneakers.
Kysung and River are fellow travelers. I’m fortunate to know them. I’m also lucky to have been raised by my godmother. She is a lesbian and has faced discrimination and hostility similar to what I’ve endured. She was kicked out of her grandmother’s house, where she lived as a child in Alabama, because of her sexuality.
She wants a different upbringing for me, so she takes me to various pride events, shows me movies and documentaries with queer characters, and gives me space to express myself. At her job, she has hosted a series of workshops on LGBTQ inclusivity.
And yet, I still fall prey to the stigma of being a queer, Black male. Like Mr. Tisdale, in male-dominated spaces, like going to the barbershop or hanging with friends as they play basketball, I find myself deepening my voice and acting more “masculine.” That’s me subconsciously yearning for acceptance — not just from the Black community but also from society as a whole. Of course, homophobia and harmful stereotypes of what it means to be a man are not limited to the Black community. They’re everywhere.
As I prepare to leave for college, a place where I will live as my most authentic self, I’ve been thinking a lot about something Kysung once told me, “Queer men are diamonds that are made with pressure and time.” I’ve come to realize that discrimination, marginalization, isolation, and shame can lead to the development of a strong sense of self and a deep understanding of one’s own identity. Despite the challenges, queer Black men often demonstrate remarkable resilience. Like diamonds, we are formed through the application of pressure and time, emerging beautiful.
Dashawn Sheffield recently graduated from North Star Academy Washington Park High School and will be attending Lafayette College in the fall. He was a Chalkbeat Student Voices Fellow in Newark and was among the recipients of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations for his work on racial equity.