This year of 2021, marked 10 years that the Black Daddies Club has been working with the Black LGTBQ2S+ communities to progress this work of Black liberation from a community-based education stand-point. In doing so, the past 10 years has been instrumental in the ways that I have had to re imagine the ways that I observe myself as a Black man, how I look at Black masculinities on a whole. The reasons why I am writing this reflection paper is a few folds:
- Reminding myself Brandon Hay, the founder of the Black Daddies Club, to recognize those Black and Racialized LGBTQ2S+ ancestors (living and deceased) that I have learned from doing this work
- Reflect on my personal work and community work I have been able to do through BDC over the past 10 years (between 2011 to 2021) and in doing so, observe the lessons and processes I have experienced with Black LGBTQ2S+ individuals who I have collaborated with to do this work
- To Fulfil one of my requirements in writing an autobiography over a 10-year span to complete my second year of the Gestalt Institute of Toronto five-year program
- Observing that I was born in Jamaica in the late 1970’s and was trained to see the world through heteronormative eyes, in a societal environment that promoted heteronormativity and constructed the gatekeeping of normalcy, and often positioned the LGBTQ2S+ communities as abnormal. Over the past 10 years I have had to personally learn beyond and unlearn what I have known about the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities and Black masculinity
- Identify varying ways that I have worked and continue to work to disrupt my own understanding of heteronormativity both in my own understanding of Black masculinities, developing my understanding of the varying entry points into Blackness, and learn how to co-create spaces for Black community-based education which allows Black people to bring in all parts of themselves.
- To examine why it has been necessary for me to do this emotional work of shedding or killing parts of myself that doesn’t serve me any longer as I grow as a Black man and recognize that often that work that I do in Black communities in many ways intersects with with each other and not separate from each other
- Recognizing that I am constantly ‘shedding’ and ‘growing’ as a human being doing this work, these works are personal to me and are ongoing:
- Working through my own homophobia
- Working through my own constructed definitions of Black masculinity
- Working through my own constructs of patriarchy, power, privilege, insecurities, as a Black heterosexual man in a big / fat body
- Identify the various ways over the past 10 years and the process of asking myself the questions, “What does Black allyship mean to me?”
I am defining Black allyship for the purpose of this reflection paper, is from my lived experience as a heterosexual 6ft 1 Black man living in a big/ fat body, that was born in Jamaica and now lives in Toronto, Canada. The necessity of Black allyship comes from my belief that if I have experienced discrimination because of my Blackness, my maleness, my fatness, why would I want to discriminate or oppress another Black person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or entry point into Blackness? I do not think we should be using these markers to separate ourselves from each other as Black people. In fact, I believe that we should use these markers of places to come together to learn from each other about our experiences of being Black people, these markers should be opportunities to come together in Black solidarity. I also believe that my quest for Black liberation as a heterosexual Black man, is deeply connected to the Black liberation of Black LQGBT2S+ communities and other entry points into the Black communities (i.e., Black people with disabilities, mixed Black people, Black sex workers, etc.), I don’t believe we can find Black liberation if we are marginalizing other communities of Black people based on their entry points.
Growing up in Jamaica
I think it is important to give a little more background on myself as a cis-gendered Black heterosexual man in a big body, born in a Jamaica and then migrating to Canada at the age of 10. Growing up in Jamaica, the narrative that I received from a young age was that gay Black men where not real men at all. There was a negative perception of what being a Black gay man meant, it was deemed abnormal, perverse, an abomination, that was punishable by death or injury if it was found out that someone was gay by the wrong individuals. Being gay was something that I felt that someone would hide to protect themselves and their families due to the repercussions that come from this information getting into the wrong hands. I learned from an early age that there was no ‘in-between’ Black heterosexual men and Black gay men.
My childhood music of choice which was Reggae and Dancehall music, would use gay men as the “low hanging fruit” punchline in their songs, with the musicians decreeing to murder or injure any Black gay man that they came across. The DJ’s would use homophobic ‘call and responses’ to manipulate the audience into crowd participation, i.e. “Put up your hands in the air or spark your lighters for this song, if you didn’t don’t like batty men (gay men).” Or “if you don’t put up your hands in the air for this song you like batty man”. From a young age and attending those parties, I would put my hands in the air in following with the masses, to be in alignment with the people around me, not daring to go against the heteronormative script that was being performed around me at these parties. After I returned to Jamaica at 16 years and went to a few parties, even though I found the county looked very different in terms of structures, new highways, new buildings, two-way streets (which were originally one-way streets) when I was younger, living in Jamaica. Even though things looked different, there was still this homophobic vibe still prevalent in the culture, that I found more confusing as I was now older and had been gone away and got a chance to make my own choices in how I wanted to see the world, and I knew I didn’t feel the way about gay men or the LGBTQ2S+ communities that was still prevalent in views of some of the folks in the island of my origin (Jamaica), this was one of the things that first made me first feel like I was outsider to my home of Jamaica, when I returned home for summer visits each year between the ages of 16 to 20 years of age.
As I got older and attended parties, I would get somewhat annoyed at the laziness of a DJ or Reggae/ Dancehall performer when I would see them (still) doing their homophobic “call and responses” during their DJ sets or musical performances. I remember going to a beach party at Hellshire Beach in Jamaica at the age of 20 and when the DJ said to put up your lighter, if you don’t like gay men, and the thought of putting my hands up made me feel uneasy. In this example, it reminded me of this Heteronormative world that we are forced to embrace, whether we are a LGBTQ2S+ person or a heterosexual person. I didn’t like the idea of being told what to do, especially if I didn’t agree with the views of this DJ or those around me in this party. So, at 20 years of age, recognizing that I am not 10 years of age anymore, and that I don’t have to follow the masses. I decided to protest silently at this party by not putting up my hands, however in this simple protest, I found myself terrified not to follow the masses at this party by not putting my hands up, I felt like I was singling myself out as a gay Black man or a gay ally. After, the DJ did his ‘call and response’ and started to play the music, I felt anxious in showing a piece of my authentic self in this public arena of this beach party, by not putting my hands up, and even though no one around me really noticed or was paying attention to me. I felt an urge to perform masculinity in that moment to hide the authenticity I displayed moments before, I started to sip on my red stripe beer and roll up a spliff, standing in a manly stance, while the music vibrated behind me through the speakers as I skanked (dance) in my most masculine dance that I had in my arsenal. I recognize the need (I felt) in that moment to overcompensate on my performance as a straight man, due to the unsafety I had felt in the moment I tried to display allyship to the LGBTQ2S+ communities in that moment at the beach party in Jamaica that night.
Queer as Black folks in Toronto
In 2011, Black Daddies Club (BDC) collaborated with Kim Crosby (who is a Torontonian Queer Black activist, mother, educator, and all-around dope person), to do an event called “Queer as Black Folks” which was held at a Ryerson University, the event was the first time BDC focused its programming on the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities in Toronto. The idea behind the event came from a conversation that I had one day with a Black man, who was gay and he talked about his experience of “Otherness or being an outsider” living as a Black gay man in Toronto. He talked about the othering he felt from the Black straight communities because of his sexual orientation, and being seen as an ‘outsider”. He also spoke about the othering he felt in the mainstream LGBTQ2S+ orientated enclave of (Church Street) in Toronto, he often felt ostracization because of his skin color, he spoke of the doubled edge sword that he faced living in his body as a Black gay man. This conversation had a deep impact on me, because I understood the ostracization from people who were non-Black because of my skin colour as a heterosexual cis-gendered Black man in a big body living in the Toronto, however I never really had to think about the isolation that must be felt to be othered within the Black community for my sexuality, as this community was a place, I would go to find refuge in such spaces as in Black barbershops to hear stories of other Black men who mimicked my own. In thinking about the book “Between Person and Person: Toward a Dialogical Psychotherapy (1993)” by Richard Hycner, it has made me think deeply about why the interhuman experience that happens between Black men, and I felt was so necessary for myself for true contact to be made in a dialogical conversation, as Hycner recalls his understanding of Martin Buber’s writing on the interhuman sphere.
“In accordance with this, it is basically erroneous to try to understand the interhuman phenomena as psychological. When two men converse together, the psychological is certainly an important part of the situation, as each listens and each prepares to speak. Yet this is only the hidden accompaniment to the conversation itself, the phonetic event fraught with meaning, whose meaning is to be found neither in one of the two partners nor in both together, but only in their dialogue itself, in this ‘between’ which they live together. (Buber, 1965b, p.75)
In this space, between Black men, in Black barbershops, is where I found my relatedness with the world around me, it was where I could hear the pain of Black men who mimicked the pain of my own, it was where I could hear the jovial laughter from Black men on jokes that connected our political and social stance to the world around us. This place of ‘between’ connected me to these men, it was a place that I didn’t feel that I needed to be isolated, and I also had the choice to isolate myself in these spaces if I wanted to (which became helpful at times, especially when our views differed). However, the Black barbershop was a place of deep seeded homophobia and I wondered what would be the experience of a gay Black man or a queer Black woman waiting for a haircut and how their experience would differ from my own? I had a glimpse of this, when BDC was doing conducting a barbershop discussion around Homophobia in the Black community in Toronto (2011), and the videographer who was a queer Black woman, said to me during the debrief after the event, that the barbershop discussion session was an experience that was deeply troubling and traumatic for her as a queer Black woman. In that moment, I started to think about the question; what does it look like to create Black spaces that we are able to bring in all parts of us?
Heterosexual Black folks must be willing to enter into the Black LGBTQ2S+ spaces
In 2011, With the help of Kim Crosby, BDC collaborated with Sherbourne Health Community Health Centre, Supporting Our Youth (SOY) division to have a town hall discussion with the young people in their program Black Queer Youth (BQY), and the conversation began the paradigm shift in the way that BDC would approach the work over the next 10 years. The purpose of the townhall was to give us some feedback around designing the ‘Queer as Black Folks” event that was taken place later that year. The discussion with these young people not only informed how we did the ‘Queer as Black Folks’ event, the conversation impacted on the ways BDC has designed all of its community-based events since that day. One young person said that Black LGBTQ2S+ folks are always expected to go into heterosexual spaces to engage straight folks on the topic of homophobia, however very few times do straight people come into LGBTQ2S+ spaces to take part in these dialogues; this was a key learning for me, which meant that I would need to move out of my comfort zone if I was going to continue this work of co-creating spaces for Black heterosexuals and Black LGBTQ2S+ folks to engage with each other.
It will take time to build trust between the Black heterosexual and Black LGBTQ2S+ Communities
The young people at the Black Queer Youth (BQY) program spoke about distrust they had with the BDC facilitators who were Junior Burchall and myself (Brandon Hay), who are cis-gender heterosexual Black men, and we were seen as outsiders, but the fact that we were brought into the space by kim Crosby who was a queer Black woman who the young people in the space trusted because of her past work in the queer community in Toronto and internationally, they were willing to engaged with BDC in the conversation around their experience with homophobia in the Black community. This was an important learning I took from this space, that the distrust between the attendees and us (junior and myself) as the facilitators, due to the fact that we looked like the many of the other heterosexual Black men who had caused the people in the room; trauma, violence and harm to many of these individuals in their past. It was evident to Junior and myself, there was a need for BDC to build ongoing relationships and build trust with Black folks from the LGBTQ2S+ communities, if BDC was going to be a part of the work that was happening in these communities, trust would be vital.
The Economic factors of Being Black and Queer
During the Queer as Black folks townhall conversation at BQY at SOY, I learned that a lot of the Black young people (especially trans youth) in the room had problematic and even traumatic relationships with their Black fathers and/ or biological families, and often an indoctrination in Christianity was a factor in this. The other thing I learned was that the fact that we were charging $20 ($15 in advance) for a cover charge for the main event of “Queer as Black Folks” which is to be held at Ryerson University, we found out that the amount we were charging was an impediment for most people in the room, as many of them mentioned the fact that they were navigating issues around racial and gender discrimination which had a ripple effect on socio-economic issues of under-employment and being under-housed. More importantly, the folks in the room said they were not going to pay money to BDC, which was perceived as a heteronormative organization with no track record of doing events in the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities prior, and if Black LGBTQ2S paid funds to attend BDC upcoming event Queer as Black Folks at Ryerson University, they would prefer to know that the funds were going back into the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities. BDC decided to create a guestlist for all the people in the room at the BQY forum to attend for free the Queer as Black Folks discussion that was taking place at Ryerson University later that year. Also recognizing that Black LGBTQ2S+ young people didn’t have a lot disposable funds, was an important learning for me, because prior to this discussion I had the perception that LGBTQ2S+ folks all had disposable income, this perception came from watching popular media and from my interactions with gay white men when I had worked with in retail in downtown Toronto; in my late teens, early 20’s, and found a lot of the gay white male customers had disposable income by the items they were buying. What I learned from the BQY townhall and the Black LGBTQ2S+ young people in that room, was that they were living a different experience than the white gay men who I sold $400 pers of shoes to, many of the BQY participants spoke about their realities of couch surfing or living in shelters, and thinking about their daily survival.
“Why is BDC doing events for gay, queer and trans folks?”
The other community feedback BDC received as we promoted the upcoming Queer as Black Folks event at Ryerson University came from Black heterosexual folks, asking us what we were doing, and disproving of our choice of centering a conversation on the Black LGBTQ2S communities, as many of the Black heterosexual people who contacted me didn’t see any connection to them and the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities, with many straight people demanding that they were taken off BDC’s email list serve. I tried to explain to individuals that myself as a Black man and Black father, it was important to include the voices of Black LGBTQ2S+ folks in the community work that BDC was doing, especially knowing that I had three sons, and they themselves could come and tell me that they were LGBTQ2S+ and If that day came, I wanted them to know that they would still be loved by me. Initially, I was upset and disappointed that people wanted to come off BDC’s list serve, however I realized that it was important for me to let these Black heterosexuals go, and it was important to publicly let people know that BDC supported the idea and belief that the Black narrative should include multiple entry points to mirror the realities of what really existed in the Black community in Toronto.
Urban Alliance on Race Relations
In 2013 to 2015, I worked at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) and I deeply feel that this space and the people who I worked with at UARR played a pivotal role in my re-imagining of what it meant to be a Black person doing this work, I was challenge to rethink my own positionality as a Black straight man and recognize that I brought some privilege that other Black folks (living with disability, LGQBT2S+, etc.) who were further marginalized did not. Every Friday at the office, all the staff (Ashley McFarlane, Helen Yohannes, Bishara Mohammed, Jason Merai, and Elizabeth Walker) who were comprised of Black and Brown heterosexual and LGBTQ2S+ folks would gather and eat lunch together and debate things, these Friday gatherings is where I learned and unlearned so much around heteronormativity, intersectionality and my own positionality. At first, I would feel frustrated at being called out for misgendering someone, I felt like I was on eggshells when I spoke at times, however the people who I worked with held me accountable and educated me with a level humanity that was important. I also realized that it was my work to do the research (on my own) that I needed to further my understanding their lived experience, and it wasn’t their jobs to educate me on what allyship looked like or having to put in that laborious work teaching me in which they were not getting paid for. I have a lot of gratitude for the staff at Urban Alliance on Race Relations for they were my first `teachers’ who co-created a work experience which gave me the first taste of Un-University or community-based education and around the various entry points into Blackness.
The importance of inserting Love into the work that we do
My next pivotal learnings took place while I worked at Urban Alliance on Race Relations, came via the 360 Research Project with Ryerson University. The research project looked at the discrimination experienced by two Toronto communities, which were Somali Canadians in Toronto, and Racialized LGBTQ2S+ youth who live in shelters in Toronto. My learning came from a series of interviews we were having with Indigenous LGBTQS+ folks, and we were almost finished the research interviews, and based on the stories that were being shared by folks about the violence and trauma that they experience by services of care (security guards, police, shelters, etc.) and I decided to threw in a question that wasn’t on the research questions, but felt very necessary to ask in the moment. The question I posed was, “When was the last time you experienced love?”, and an Indigenous 2 Spirited woman, who was a sex worker responded by saying,” I do not think I have every experienced love.” Her words sucked the breath out of the room, there was a quietness that filled the room and I was left speechless and saddened by her response. I was also grateful for her honesty about love, as this provided a deep realization that doing work with Black, Indigenous and racialized folks, whether the person is heterosexual or LGBTQ2S+, this community work must include love and must include curiosity.
Bringing in all parts of ourselves, that is community
In 2014, Black Daddies Club presented at the The International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA)
ICOPA conference in Ottawa. During a lunch break, I sat with BLM Toronto co-founder Dr Syrus Ware, who is a trans man who was also presenting at the conference. During our conversation, I asked Syrus, what was his definition of community, and he responded by saying:
“Community is a place where do not have hides parts of ourselves, community is a place is where I am able to bring all parts of myself into that space”. (Dr Syrus Ware, in conversation 2014)
This response from Syrus resonated deeply with me because it gave me critical hope for a Black future that I wanted to be a part of, this idea of being able to bring my whole self, seemed beautiful to me also appealed to me as a heterosexual Black man in a big body. This response became a foundational pillar in how I sought out or approached the work that I wanted to do in my Black communities with the Black Daddies Club.
Paris is Burning at University of Toronto
In spring 2014, I attended a film screen and panel discussion for the documentary Paris is Burning, which was held at the University of Toronto, downtown campus. I had watched the film prior, however I had watched it by myself at home on my laptop a few weeks prior and jumped at the opportunity to watch (for a second time, this time with people around me) the documentary about the history of the Ballroom Culture in New York City which featured the Black and Racialized people who were instrumental in development of Ballroom culture. The panel discussion that followed the film was especially insightful as the panel did a great job of connecting the film to the experiences of the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities in Toronto. One of the things they highlighted was that so far that year (April 2014), there 8-10 Black men murdered in Toronto, most of those cases made it to the front page of popular media outlets news, in contrast to the over 15 Black and racialized trans-women who had been murdered so far that year (April 2014) in Toronto, but none of their deaths had made it to any major media outlets. The number of high deaths amongst the Black trans community and the silence on the media, blew my mind as I sat in the audience. One of the panelists, described it as the ‘erasing’ of Black trans bodies that takes place daily both when trans people are dead, or alive. While Black trans people are alive, this erasure can look like the lack of policies that supports Black trans folks with employment, or finding adequate housing. There is a silence in the deaths of Black trans people who are being erased as if their stories are irrelevant as human beings, with a lack of coverage in the main stream heteronormative media outlets. However, we see that Black and racialized LGBTQ2S+ communities are not allowing this erasure to happen by speaking up in their own media outlets, or organizing in community in multiple ways and bringing attention to the names of the Black and racialized trans folks while they are alive and, in their deaths, these are the media outlets that are bringing attention to the names of the various Black and racialized trans people murdered, keeping their names top of mind hopefully until justice or closure can come from their death.
Black Daddies Club co-presents Black Love Matters Un-Conference course at York University
In 2016 and 2017, Black Daddies Club worked with York University to deliver the Black Love Matters Un-Conference course, which was open to city planners who were doing a graduate degree, BDC decided that we wanted to make the course open to African, Black and/ or Caribbean Canadians who were interested in taking the course, and we made the course free for these individuals so that the course was accessible to community members. The purpose of the Black Love Matters U-Conference course, was to look at city planning from a Black lens, also we wanted to look at city planning through social determinants of health lens, specifically in the Black communities in Toronto, over the two years the course was co-created and co-delivered by Junior Burchall, Patricia Asabe, Nigel barriffe and Brandon Hay). The premise of the course was to re-imagine how city planners approach collaborating with Black and marginalized communities in Toronto, hearing the feedback from the Black communities that a lot of these meetings with city planners felt more extractive and demeaning rather than a collaborative process. BDC wanted to highlight in the Black Love Matters Un-Conference course, the various Black agencies, Black artists, Black activist, and Black people working in government who are doing dope work in improving our communities in Toronto and looking for ways for the students to collaborate with these Black folks in meaningful and relevant ways.
In the second year of delivering the Black Love Matters Un-conference course at York University in Toronto, BDC wanted to collaborate intentionally with the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities for the course as we wanted to highlight the rich history of Black gay, lesbians, trans and non-binary folks that is a part of Toronto’s extensive Black tapestry of resistance. I realized that I also needed to do more research on Black and racialized LGBTQ2S+ communities globally and to understand more about what was the connection to Ballroom culture that the documentary “Paris is Burning” introduced me to, so I reached out to Michael Roberson.
I was introduced to Michael Roberson in 2016 by a friend and colleague of mine who Dr. Alessandra Pomarico (Ale) who is based in Italy and New York, who I met through our connecting work at the Ecoversities Alliance. Ale, who was good friend’s with Michael, had thought his work in the USA with Black gay men and Black gay men in House/ball community and my work through the Black Daddies Club here in Toronto had some synergies, and she was right. Michael Roberson is a public health practitioner, advocate, activist and leader within the LGBTQ community. His work focuses on the health disparities of Black gay men and Black gay men within the House/ball community Michael created The Federation of Ballroom Houses, co -created the nation’s only Black Gay research Group, The National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Group, and the Nationally Diffused CDC Behavioral Change HIV Prevention Intervention “ Many Men, Many Voices.” Most recently Michael was a consultant for FX hit tv series “POSE”. Michael is also an ICON in the Ballroom community, co-creating The House of Blahnik, Maasai and Garcon, most recently co-creating THE HAUS OF MAISON-MARGIELA.
Michael and I spoke a few times over the coming months, getting to know each other and the work that we were a part of, then we thought what would be some potential ideas that would that make collaboration a win/win approach for both of us. “I have to get to know you, before I can collaborate and work with you in a truly authentic way.” This was something that Dina Bataineh co-founder of Taghmees for Training based in Jordan, who is a friend and colleague of mine who I also met at the Ecoversities Alliance said at Global gathering around re-imagining education that was held in Costa Rica in 2016. When Dina said this this statement, it has stuck and resonated with me as a pillar to my approach to collaboration ever since. This was the approach Michael Roberson and myself took in looking at ways that we could collaborate. In speaking with Michael Roberson about Ballroom culture, I knew I wanted to incorporate it into the Black Love Matters course and I wanted to invite him to be a guest lecturer however I didn’t know how I would be able to pay for this to happen. Michael also told me he was co-organizing the House Lives Matters Convening in New York for Pride in August 2017 and invited me to come down to do some research for my course that was starting in that upcoming September 2017, it sounded like a great opportunity, but I didn’t have the funds to fly to New York and pay for a hotel, food, etc. Michael connected me to his friend and Colleague Shawn Van Sluys who is the Executive Director of the Musagetes Foundation based in Guelph Canada, who was supporting some other international folks to attend the House Lives Matter gathering in New York and Michael wanted to see if Musagetes Foundation would be interested to supporting the Black Daddies Club to attend the New York convening to do research for Black Love Matters Un-Conference course at York University. After some conversations with the Musagetes Foundation, they agreed to support not only Black Daddies Club travelling to New York for the House Lives Matters convening, Musagetes also agreed to support the Black Love Matters Un-conference course (2017) at York University in Toronto by supporting two of the international guest speakers that the BDC course would have featured as special international guest lecturers that year, Michael Roberson from New York and Ajamu from London England (who I met during the House Lives Matters Convening in New York).
House Lives Matter Convening in Harlem New York
Attending the House Lives Matter Convening in Harlem New York which was a part of city’s Pride festival, was a game changer for me. The week-long event had me learning and unlearning a lot of things that I knew about the Black and racialized LGBTQ2S+ communities, Ballroom culture and approaches to community engagement as well as community education.
The first event I attended during New York Pride was the Arbert Santana Ballroom Freedom and Free School convening at Union Theological Seminary in Harlem that took place on August 15th, 2017 (the day before my birthday), this event which was hosted by Michael Roberson of Ultra Red. During this event, I noticed the how many continents that were represented by the people that were in the room, there were people from Brazil, England, across the USA and people from Toronto (myself being one of them). The first question I wondered was, “Am I the only straight man in the room and if my straightness would make me an outsider in the space?” however this could have been the furthest thing from the truth, as the vibe in the room was very warm and welcoming. In hearing everyone that spoke, I was amazed at the brilliance in the room and hearing more about the work that each individual was doing in their home continent, I found myself inspired in many aspects.
After the presentations were over and people were socializing, I introduced myself to a brother named Ajamu, who is an educator, as well fine art photographer and archive curator/activist based in London, England. He was the co-founder of rukus! Federation and the rukus! Black LGBT Archive and is one of the UK’s leading specialists on Black queer heritage and histories. We started to talk about our work around Black masculinities and he mentioned to me that in the 1980s and 1990’s he had organized an ongoing meet-up group for Black men who were gay, straight and bi-sexual to come and speak about things that they were navigating, I was blown away at the concept and wished that I could have attended one of these sessions myself, however the Black men meet-up were no longer being organized. I thought to myself what a brave space this would be to attend, and I also had so many questions, one of those questions was, did homophobia show up in these dialogues between the straight men and the men who identified as gay or bi-sexual? and the other question I wondered was, if there was any kind of tension between the men in the room around masculinity itself and if straight masculinity was taken up as more credible than the gay and bi-sexual masculinity?
Ajamu also spoke to me about his work around Black joy, Black sensuality and Black sexuality, the erotic was something that I heard in regards to Black folks in an academic sense was through Audrey Lourde, however Ajamu was talking about Black sex and the importance of it in a way that was not theory but rather from a place of embodiment of the act of sex, and speaking about the joys of when Black bodies meet and connect to fuck. I was blown away by the lens in which this brother spoke about Black masculinity and the emancipatory possibilities of Blackness without the Black respectability politics.
“We have to create events that allows for both the mind and the body”
The next event I attended “Health As A Human Right” Town Hall which took place LGBT CENTER in New York, on August 16th 2017, which was my birthday, and I received one of the greatest gift at this event by an elder. The event was packed, with people standing because all the chairs were taken. The event began with a panel discussion with people who identified as Black or racialized LGBTQ2S+ folks who had HIV or AIDS, and they were talking about their experiences living with the disease, it was a powerful panel. It was also the first time I had the opportunity to hear from people who were living with HIV, talking about what it meant to be in loving relationships with partners who did and did not have the disease; the panel not only gave voice to this community, it also humanized them. During the Q & A, one elder who was a Black man, who was a health outreach worker, spoke about the issue of organizers not creating events that the young people who were LGBTQ2S+ wanted to attend, and stated the fact that a lot of the events were boring to the young people, he spoke about the importance of Ballroom engaging communication of the body. I was intrigued by what he had said, but I wasn’t fully comprehending, because up to this point, I had never attended a ball before in real life, only seen them on TV. The elder continued by saying,
“Some people feel comfortable speaking from their mouths and their minds, and nothing is wrong with this, that is why traditional panel discussions have been effective. However, some of us like different ways of communicating, such as using our bodies to speak and use of the body to dialogue with each other, this is the importance of ballroom; it is because the young people are able to use their bodies to be in dialogue with others.”
This was such an eye-opening comment for me, that I sort of sat in my seat in awe of what this elder had just said. It resonated with me a lot because his comment about the importance of creating events where we leave space for the entire body to enter and not just our minds aligned with the Un-conference modality of organizing that I was learning over the past few years through the Ecoversities Alliance, however what the elder was speaking on was directly speaking to me as a Black man. It made me ask the question, what does it mean to co-create Black spaces that gives the opportunity for people to bring in all of themselves into those spaces.
House Lives Matters Convening
The House Lives Matters Convening took place on Thursday, August 17th 2017, at Union Theological Seminary in Broadway, New York. The first thing I noticed when walked up to registration table was how much excitement and love was being shared amongst the people in the space, people were in the space from various states across the USA and also various parts of the world, however their seemed like a deep connection amongst the individuals in the place and I was immediately curious about what was the connecting point to all these folks. I still had this feeling as an outsider, so I found walking around with my camera as a remedy for this feeling of not belonging. My strategy in foreign places, is that I use my camera as a tool of connection, I first introduce myself and then by asking folks if I could take a photo of them as I wanted to document the moment, would help me settle in the space, but in some ways my camera allowed me to hide my outsider-ness behind the lens. I was greeted by some folks I met the previous two nights at the various events across New York.
The Moistness of Icon Hector Xtravaganza, grandfather of the house
One of the individuals I spoke to was a vibrant individual named Icon Hector Xtravaganza, and there was something about his warmness and his willingness in supporting me grounding in the space that morning inadvertently with his kindness through the dialogue that we shared that morning. Hector spoke about his past growing up in the New York in the 1980’s and the kind of toughness and grit that he had to display for a survival as a part of his masculinity as a Puerto Rican gay man of color. This toughness the Hector Extravaganza spoke about, was also echoed by other older Black men, that I spoke to that week at the House Lives Matters convening who themselves also grew up in the 1970’s and 1980’s in New York as gay (Black) men. Who talked about fighting a lot with other boys to display that they were not sissies or any less men because of their sexuality, some of them spoke about making sure they were more violent than the other person to prove a point and to send a message that they shouldn’t be messed in the future. Hector shared with me some of his experience in ballroom in choosing family after he was ostracized by his own family (this choosing of family was also echoed by other folks I met at the gathering). Hector’s experience in choosing family began when he joined the House of Xtravaganza and I realized during our conversation by the amount people showing him love, how much of a force in Ballroom culture this man in whom I was talking with was and how much of a family environment this was.
Hector’s demeanor was playful but he also exuded wisdom, he spoke about this idea of him being ‘moist’ as a man, which made me smile when I heard it, as I only heard of women saying that they were moist. This moistness he spoke of taught me that there is strength that comes from being free and vulnerable in expressing yourself, as a man. As a Puerto Rican gay man Hector Extravaganza was able to express his strength and softness, his masculine and his feminine in duality and this was a beautiful learning that I took from that conversation. The importance of intergenerational wisdom became evident in the space, there was engagement between the elders and younger generation in the LGBTQ2S+ communities at the convening, and there was a beautiful learning that arose from the various conversations that took place over that week. Hector also spoke about the importance he plays as an elder in the Ballroom community, saying some people call him grandfather of House of Xtravaganza and that it is a title that he sees as an important role in the Ballroom community. Hector also told me about his advocacy work and his own lived experience as someone living with HIV/ AIDS, he spoke with a sense of humility and vulnerability that wasn’t lost on me. He politely ended the conversation and told me to keep in touch, and left me with a powerful sense of gratitude from his wisdom that he had shared with me during our brief conversation. A few years later Hector Xtravaganza was asked to be one of the consultants for the FX hit TV show POSE, and the Ballroom community was devasted to hear that Hector Xtravaganza died of lymphoma in New York City on December 30th, 2018. Here are two videos of some folks speaking of the impact of Hector Xtravaganza in the Ballroom community (Video A, Video B).
My views on Black masculinity getting disrupted
When I first looked into the space of the House Lives Matters convening in New York, a part of pride, I saw gay Black men who looked like me, who dressed liked me (or at least how I would like to dress, if I had the budget), I saw Black men who were heavy set, wearing baggy jeans, with full beards. My ideologies of gay Black men having sculpted bodies from living in the gym, because they had to stay physically attractive, wearing only fitted clothing was disrupted. This brought up the complexities of Black masculinity heterosexual eyes that I had been trained to look at the world in, was being disrupted with this new idea that Black masculinities can allow multiple entry points. I state this to say that prior to the House Lives Matter convening, I perceived gay Black men with a certain aesthetics and mannerism, this all got disrupted for me when I entered the House lives Matter convening, seeing these gay Black men who ranged from flamboyant, vibrant, stoic, reserved, etc. The gay Black men in the space highlighted to me that there were multiple ways to enter or perform Black masculinities, that there was plurality to our manhood and this was a new discovery for me.
The Trans Sounds of Justice: The Trans Sounds of Freedom
One of the most important moments for me at the House Lives Matters Convening took place during the plenary session entitled The Trans Sounds of Justice: The Trans Sounds of Freedom, which was a dialogue between Black and Racialized trans men/ women & non-binary folks. The set-up of the session was important, as it promoted the centering the voices of Black and Racialized trans people, the panel wasn’t set up in a traditional conference style with a moderator and 3-4 panelist on a stage or at the head or end of a room. The set-up of the 10-14 panelists, were seated in a circle and the audience was seated at their tables on the outside of the circle. This set up was powerful and effective, as it centered the voices of Black and Racialized trans peoples who, who were in dialogue with each other sharing their lived experiences and connecting with each other and in doing so, these panelists of Black and Racialized trans people were educating the audience members that sat behind them and were around them, the audience sitting facing the panelists backs.
Black trans-folks are also discriminated in the Black LGTBQ2S+ communities
The dialogue held on the ground floor of the Union Seminary cathedral, and I went from my seat to go up in the upper pews to grab photos and also to listen to the dialogue. As the panelists shared their individual stories, a few things became apparent to me; the first thing were that Black trans women/ men are facing a lot of discrimination and violence from heterosexual cis-gendered Black men and Black women. The second thing that become apparent was that Black trans people face discrimination and violence from Black lesbian women, Black bi-sexual folks and Black gay men in their communities. This was a surprise to me as a Black heterosexual man, as I thought that if you were a part of the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities, meant that you were loved and appreciated by everyone in those communities. I know this is a naïve thought on my end, however I assumed the Black LGBTQ2S+ communities would have learned from the homophobia that was prevalent amongst a lot Black heterosexual folks and I was surprised to hear about the of reproducing queer hierarchy of which Black LGBTQ2S+ identity was closest to being normal or “passing or blending in” as normal. In this context the panelist of Black and racialized trans folks defined passing or blending as some who is perceived as cisgender instead of the sex, they were assigned at birth. The panelists each spoke about the pressure put on themselves as well as the pressure from society to pass as a cisgender person. The Black trans-women on the panel talked about the importance of being perceived a cisgender woman, not because of vanity but because passing or blending in can keep Black trans women from feeling the violent wrath of being identified as a Black trans women in a heteronormative society.
Black trans women are Black women, and Black trans men are Black men
Black women’s body has been the site of trauma and violence, the violence has been inflected by people and systems that are outside these Black women communities, the violence has been inflected by people and systems that are inside these Black women communities, and the violence has also been inflected by people and systems inside the homes of these Black women. Where does Black trans-women come into the conversation around gender and Blackness? and what are the violence that they face in their daily lives as Black trans-women?
I have had to constantly retrain my eyes and my brains over the years to see of Black trans women as Black women, and Black trans men and Black men, and not as sex that they were assigned at birth. This was difficult and it has been constant and ongoing work that I do to put this into practice, even though it can often feel uncomfortable to practice, because of the vulnerability it can bring up for me, it is worth it to ensure that I can respect the person’s identity I am in dialogue with. One of these ways of practice for me, has been to ask what is a person’s gender pronoun (how that person identifies), or offering my gender pronoun first during an introduction. In this small act, I am able to ground myself in knowing that I am not assuming someone’s gender but rather I am getting direction and permission from the person `that I am speaking to, in address them in way that they identify with. In the past, I would feel really uncomfortable asking a person how they identified, and then I inadvertently misgendered them, inflicting micro aggressions of violence onto this person and this didn’t feel good to me knowing that this was happening.
The fragility of immature toxic rigid heteronormative Black masculinity can be very problematic for the safety of Black cisgender women and Black trans-women, some Black men inflict violence on trans- women when they have found out that the women that they have been attracted to, is not a cisgender woman, but is a Black man assigned at birth. For some of these heterosexual Black men who feel that they have been betrayed are not able to see any duality in these women, their response to these Black trans women is with violence. Even amongst heterosexual Black men who are in consensual sexual relationships with Black trans women there is violence, which is a growing concern. I was really surprised to hear stories of violence being inflicted on trans women as an outcome from immature heteronormative Black masculinity being performed not only from Black gay men, but also butch lesbians in romantic relationships with trans women. I learned from this, that the performance of an immature toxic rigid heteronormative Black masculinity is hurting both Black heterosexual men, and Black LGBTQ2S+ folks, and that we have to look at different ways of performing Black masculinities that will allow for tenderness, softness, strength and fluidity. This also brought up the question for me, which was why did it seem like there was perceived disposability of Black women and Black trans women bodies, and why did violence and erasure seem to be normalized with their bodies?
The Heritage Ball: Family Reunion III
The Heritage Ball: Family Reunion III, took place at Irving Plaza, Irving Place New York, New York, FRIDAY AUGUST 18TH, 2017 and this being my first ball, it didn’t disappoint, the production value was on point and the people who walk stage at this ball were immaculate in their attire, a lot of the people that attended the ball was dressed in custom made outfits, I quickly felt underdressed in my button-down shirt, jeans and converses. The venue was a huge two floors space, with the first floor being packed quickly because it was where the catwalk stage was mounted with people standing around it, and the second floor was a circular space with the middle part of the room had no floors and were protected by octagon bannisters, for the people on the second floor to be able to see the first floor from a bird’s eye view. I went to grab a drink and headed to the second floor and I noticed how electric the energy in the venue was getting as the ball was getting closer to beginning. The emcee (or commentator) of the event and DJ worked in unison having the commanded the crowd and began to do a type of roll call called “Legends Statements”, saying the names of various ICONS and Legends that were present at the event, as the commentator said each name, that person would come up onto stage, using the stairs that was at the nose of the stage that was accessible to crowd on the first floor. Some of the ICONS and Legends were seniors, some of which had to get support from people from their house or entourage to walk the stage. This display of intergenerational respect was dope for me to take in, how the roll call which took place at the beginning of the ball was the indication that the ball was about the begin, but more importantly the roll call was recognizing people of ballroom who were a part of co-creating the culture of ballroom. This made me think of the importance of honoring our ancestors at Black community events, whether it is through ceremony like pouring libation or having Black elders take part in the event in some capacity if they are still alive.
How “Real” are you?
As the Ball started and I quickly realized why House Balls where such a big event, there is a lot of effort that goes into a person’s performance. A House Ball in essence is where various houses in Ballroom walk in balls compete based on costumes, appearance, vogue skills and attitude with each other and is then scored by the judges and the audience, so the really big houses with a lot of members, have an advantage to some degree because the audience who is louder during the judging component may influence the judges in their scoring. The Heritage Ball like other Balls had a series of categories in which people competed, the categories ranged from Butch Queen Vogue Fem/Female Figure Performance, Sex Siren, Body, Face, Best Dressed, Femme Queen (FQ) Realness, Bizarre, to name a few of the categories. During the intermission I went to the washroom and I saw a Black trans- woman was crying, I realized that she was one of the performers who had lost in one of the realness categories. I realized in that moment how serious these performers take the loss, even though when they lose on stage, they smile and hug the competition and walk off the stage as if they did not care that they just lost the category. In this washroom, I was seeing a totally different disposition, this woman who on stage walked off with dignity and smiles, was now bawling her eyes out and being consoled by one of her friends, who was telling her that it is was bullshit that she had lost and should have won. I realized how difficult the experience was in having another person (s) or a crowd of people judging you on how real you looked as a gender, especially if you identify with that gender.
I thought about the ways that I perform masculinity daily as a heterosexual Black man in a big/ fat body and the ways that I look at myself has been impacted by how society on a whole says what kind of Black men are deemed attractive i.e. Idris Elba, Lorenz Tate and Morris Chestnut to name a few popular celebrities and for the Black men with body compositions that fit outside of those moulds find it harder to find love for themselves, or maybe this is an issue that I am navigating on my own. However, I feel that this is a part of the important self-work that is necessary for me to do, to fully be able to love myself and by doing this self-love, I will only then be able to receive love from other people.
The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and The Black Liberation Ball in Toronto
In 2018 and 2019, Harborfront Centre in Toronto, approached the Black Daddies Club to curate a symposium for their renowned Black history event called Kuumba festival, which was a month-long event during the month of February. They had asked me to curate a three-day (Friday to Sunday) symposium on whatever topic that BDC wanted to tackle in the Black community in Toronto, and I thought that the Kuumba Festival would be the perfect backdrop to do an international collaboration between the Black heterosexual communities and Black LGBTQ2S+ communities, so I contacted Michael Roberson (New York) and Twysted Miyake-Mugler (Toronto) to see if they were interested in a collaboration and they were.
After a few planning meetings between myself, Michael, Twysted, and with Harborfront Centre in Toronto, we decided the three-day co-curated project would include a three-day symposium called The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and the weekend would be capped off with a The Black Liberation Ball to pay homage the Ballroom community that started in New York City, but had now migrated and evolved nationally and internationally in present day. We wanted to the symposium to be a convening or un-conference, which would allow multiple entry points of body, mind and soul into the event, we included art/ photo into the symposium, which was an exhibit that our friend Ajamu (who I had initially met at House Lives Matter convening in New York in 2017).
We felt that the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium should include as a multiplicity of voices from our Black communities, so each panel included individuals who were Black who identified as heterosexual, LGBGTQ2S+, and other entry points. We also wanted the plenaries to have a mix of international and national (Canadian) panelist, so that we could hear about the connections, similarities and differences between Blackness, gender and geographic locations; in hopes to create more of a rich experience.
The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium (2018 and 2019) plenaries included:
- Panel discussion around Blackness and gender
- Panel discussion around Blackness, monogamy and polygamy
- Panel discussion around HIV/ AIDS and Blackness
- Panel discussion around Radical art and Blackness
- Panel discussion around sex workers and Blackness
- Panel discussion around Fatness and Blackness
- Panel discussion around Black masculinities which included world renown Black masculinity documentarian Byron Hurt and a broad panel which also included Black men who identified as heterosexual, gay and trans men on the panel.
- we included a vogue workshop (lead by world renown Ballroom Icon), to ensure that we had a plenary that got people into their bodies (this session was packed)
Celebrating Trans Black and Racialized Women
The co-curating team of Michael Roberson, Twysted Miyake-Mugler and Brandon Hay; for both years of The Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and The Black Liberation Ball, we wanted the events to have headliners that spoke to the purpose of the th3ree-day un-conference and the re-imagining of what Black liberation meant for us as Black straight and gay men and we made the decision that both years we wanted the headliners to be Black and Latina trans women; both women came through the networks of Michael Roberson.
In 2018, for the first Black Liberation Ball, we wanted to go with a performer that would be memorable, and someone that was the epitome of Ballroom and after weeks of brainstorming and negotiating we landed on Leiomy Maldonado (Amazon Mother), who is an International ICON in the Ballroom community and is also a Latina trans woman. When Michael confirmed that Leiomy had agreed to be the headliner for the first Black Liberation Ball, I was geeked out and Twysted Gagged (When you are so impressed by something you are left speechless –THE DRAG QUEEN DICTIONARY), I had recently seen the Nike commercial which featured Leiomy Maldonado and was excited to see her perform live. Apparently, a lot of people in Toronto and outside of Toronto, wanted to see Leiomy perform at our Ball, a week after we publicly announced that she was the headliner for the Black Liberation Ball, the event was sold out. Since that event Leiomy has been featured on the FX hit tv show POSE and is also a judge on the HBO show LEGENDARY, which highlights Ballroom culture from around the world.
In 2019, we wanted to follow up with a strong headliner for the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and after months of working with her lawyers we were able to get our wish list and confirm to the public that Dominque Tyra A Ross- Jackson, who is a star and show favourite on the FX hit tv show POSE, was going to be the 2019 headliner. Once we made the announcement Dominque was going to be the headliner, her plenary at the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium was also sold out.
Learning not to center my heteronormative lens was necessary during this process of collaboration between Michael, Twysted and myself. There was a lot of compromises I made, a lot of heated conversations around the direction of the event; that left various curators feeling unheard or unseen at times, and there were a lot of time that I had check my ego. The process of collaboration is something I have found necessary and fascinating for BDC over the past 10 years, but I found that for me there is a richness in the process of co-creating a collaboration or partnership with another person. And this confirm one of the most important learning that I took from this collaboration, which is that sometimes the process of collaboration has made more impacts on me in terms of learning, rather than the outcomes or deliverables of the collaboration; the Journey to Black Liberation Symposium and The Black Liberation Ball was a beautiful experience that I still hold deep into my heart to this day.
Sunday Dinners: Online Gathering for Black Men
In November 2020, Black Daddies Club launched Sunday Dinners which monthly online gathering for Black men, that takes place on the last Sunday of every month on the Zoom platform. The Sunday Dinners gatherings are for Black men in all of our entry points; heterosexual, LGBTQ2S+, Living with a disability, mixed race, etc., if someone indentify’s as a Black man, then the Sunday Dinners space welcomes that individual. The seed for the Sunday Dinner initiative was planted during a conversation I had with Ajamu back in 2017 at House Lives Matters Convening (New York) and I thought it would be a beautiful experience to co-create a space virtually (due to COVID-19) for Black men that recognize all of our entry points. The initiative has been going on for the past 7 months and the online space has been a beautiful and grounding space for both Black heterosexual and gay, trans and bi Black men.
by Brandon Hay (MES; Business)