He talked about watching the other vacationers and locals, and sometimes feeling like he was “the only gay in the village” and then came the words that had pierced my heart, “… Sometimes I think it would be really nice to be straight and wander around with my girlfriend LIKE EVERYONE ELSE SEEMS TO BE DOING…”
On reflection I guess those words had resonated with me because just before opening his email, I had been browsing online through the past covers of a UK gay lifestyle magazine. I had not intended to spend as much time as I did going through the covers. But somewhere after coming across the most recent four back-issues, I was curious to see if the magazine had one with a black person on the cover. “I see no one like me here” I thought to myself; at that stage I had lost count of the number of covers I had glanced at.
I thought back to a piece written by Aundaray Guess for the Huffington Post where he had said “My sexual orientation aside, the absence in the media of people who look like me is pronounced. I flip open magazines such as Out or Details and I’m nowhere to be found. If I allow myself the pleasure of going to a movie, my face is absent there, too, as all I see are larger-than-life gay black men who exist solely to roll their eyes and garner laughs. In the storylines of Glee and Modern Family, I look for my story and find only static…”
As I pondered on the words in my friend’s email and my frantic search to find someone like me, the themes that kept racing through my mind were – Connecting and Conforming, Belonging and Fitting-In. When I reflect on my journey as a black gay man, these are certainly themes that keep coming up time and time again; sometimes the situations are deeply familiar, and sometimes for a brief moment in time I hesitate in my response.
There have been plenty of situations where in my yearning for connection, I have conformed. And there have been moments where in my longing to belong, I have settled for fitting-in. The situations have covered all aspects of life – from the casual to the significant. From the romantic encounters, family gatherings, business meetings to the out of nowhere conversation with the acquaintance who casually asks “so how come you are not yet married”; and I know he is not talking gay marriage!
Connecting and Conforming
I deeply believe that we are all wired for connecting. ‘No man is an island’, the popular saying goes. In my mind this means that we thrive on connecting with another being. This is not limited to a significant other or family, but much more broader – connecting with other human beings.
For many, I think social media does help in providing a platform for connecting – albeit an illusion of connecting. For connecting in my mind, is about – Being Seen by the Other and Allowing Myself (Ourselves) to be Seen by the Other.
There were times where I had mistakenly thought that in order to connect, I had to conform. So, rather than allowing myself to be seen, I presented a self that I felt measured up with the expectation of the other. Very much like the chameleon, it was a case of allowing the person, situation or environment to dictate which ‘me’ I wanted to be seen.
Now I know for sure, that Connecting breads authenticity, whist Conforming does not.
Belonging and Fitting-In
I find ‘belonging’ to be a bit more of a challenge. For what I have come to learn is that ‘belonging’ is relative. There will be moments where I feel I belong and there will be moments where I feel I do not. There will be moments, where others feel I belong; but I don’t feel that I do.
However, what is consistent for me when I reflect on my understanding of ‘belonging’, is that it brings with it a deep feeling of being okay with myself and a deep knowing that I do not have to be anything or anybody other than my authentic self – a sense of being at home with myself, when I am in the presence of the other(s).
Fitting-in brings with it elements of conforming, along with elements of not being seen. Brene Brown explains the issue further when she says – “Fitting in, I’ve discovered during the past decade of research, is assessing situations and groups of people, then twisting yourself into a human pretzel in order to get them to let you hang out with them. Belonging is something else entirely—it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are—love of gourd painting, intense fear of public speaking and all”.
So again, what I know for sure is that, Belonging breads authenticity, whist Fitting-In does not.
When I think of the words in my friend’s email, I remember those brief moments when I am tempted to conform by not expressing my truth, because I think it will lead to connection. The times when I am tired of being the outsider and momentarily sellout for the illusion of being on the inside. I also remember those times where I am desperate to feel a sense of belonging that I play small, and again do not express my truth; and for a brief moment in time, fitting-in means the boat has not been rocked, and I have not been rejected by the other.
Navigating the journey between Connecting & Conforming and Belonging & Fitting-In is certainly not unique to me or people of a particular race, gender or sexual orientation. For to be human means that from time-to-time we will find ourselves in situations or with people where we contemplate – What do I deeply yearn right now? and How am I going to express that yearning?