The Glow Is Black, And Queer: Photographer Gioncarlo Valentine Explores The Issues And Faces Of The Community In 2018
Below, you are going to read about seven Black queer and trans perspectives on a variety of issues important to the community. You will know their names, their faces, their voices. We commissioned this piece from photographer Gioncarlo Valentine to add another layer to the BLACK Collection, one that would not just show more opinions and perspectives from the community, but would demonstrate a visual artistry we want to deliver more of to this space and to our readers.
If you notice the lack of women and femmes, please know that we had reached out, and arranged 3 more individuals from those experiences, but were not able to add them to this piece by the time of publishing. We do show a trans masc experience in the group below. We will, however, work to do better, and we hope that you still find value in the individuals and views presented in this piece.
Tylan Cunningham | He/Him
GIONCARLO VALENTINE: Do you ever feel fetishized or privileged for having lighter skin? How do you consolidate the guilt of that privilege and what has been the impact of that fetishization?
TYLAN CUNNINGHAM: I’ve been aware of the fetishization and privilege surrounding my lighter skin since my adolescence. Growing up in a black environment, colorism reveals itself very early on; I was able to identify politics surrounding skin tone from day-to-day life, well before I could identify politics surrounding blackness, which I learned from the media. I don’t know if I necessarily reconcile guilt specifically as a result of being lighter skinned, I understand that life isn’t built on fair terrain, and I don’t approach it from a place of fragility either, rather I acknowledge the privilege and try to do the work to bring it down, and implore my peers to do the same. In terms of dealing with the fetishization, it’s caused me to put up a lot of walls when dating, afraid that I interact with men who have a type, versus men who are truly attracted to me. I’m also hyper aware of how I’m treated in white spaces versus someone who is darker, in an effort to challenge that treatment in scenarios I see a disparity.
GV: Do you believe that we all participate in ableism and the erasure of people with physical and intellectual disabilities? Why or why not? What steps can we take every day that deconditions this ableism and its impact?
TC: I do believe we all participate in a way, thinking from a silence is consent mentality, though many of us acknowledge ableism, few of us are proactive in identifying it and trying to be allies to facilitate more welcoming environments. I think steps we can take to combat ableism, is to actively remove ourselves from spaces that are simply accessible to people with physical and intellectual disabilities, when you enter these accessible spaces, you’ll find that these individuals are rarely present. Being accessible isn’t enough; we need to invest in spaces that are accessible, welcoming and encouraging to these individuals.
GV: How urgent does HIV in our community feel to you today? Does it feel more or less dire? Why or why not?
TC: It still feels very urgent and at the center of a lot of conversations that surround sex. It feels more dire in a way, because while I think in the past, it may have been a taboo conversation, and something to be silent about, today it feels like a conversation that people bring to the forefront. I see the dialogue in contemporary television and film, and living in NYC, I see a great deal of messaging surrounding HIV in a lot of public ads, in that way it feels considerably more present.
GV: Do you feel like you face more or less homophobia in the Black Community? Explain.
TC: This question is difficult to answer, because I grew up in and of the black community, so the bulk of my experiences are black centered. I think for many of us who’ve grown up similarly, it’s easy to say that we’ve dealt with more homophobia in the black community, because we’ve primarily only been in the black community to experience homophobia. I feel homophobia is baked into whiteness as well, at the root of the patriarchy, but just externalizes itself differently. When you loop in the hyper-masculinity that thrives in the black community, homophobia may seem at the forefront, but that same violence is in whiteness too, just better hidden.
Tashan Lovemore | He/Him
GV: Was/Is your family supportive of your transgender experience? Explain. What has been the impact of this?
TASHAN LOVEMORE: From the beginning my dad has always been supportive of any decision I’ve made in this life. His support alone shadows the people who aren’t as supportive. The rest of my family took to my transition pretty well. I’m not sure if age played a part but I didn’t get a “talk” about it being unacceptable . My mom was living in Arizona at the time (2015) I started my hormone replacement therapy. My dad told her about my transition. Mom my send me a card that she wrote in expressing herself like years before. This time around it was warm and understanding. My mom may not know all the variables but she tries to understand and showers me with love in many different ways. I always tell people who slip with the pronouns - “i understand, it’s okay. If my mom who carried me for 9/10 months has made leaps I’m sure you can too.” Normally it’s not faced with any back talk because i mean - it’s my mom I’m talking about. My Queen and my creator. My mom was there for me from beginning to end during my top surgery and healing process - we grew closer. I’m patient with my family. Changes aren’t only happening inside of me but around me.
GV: Do you feel like you face more or less transphobia in the Black Community? Explain.
TL: I believe I face more transphobia in the black community. For a while I didn’t like the idea of fighting or speaking up for the black community because the black community wouldn’t speak up for me. Me = the trans* identified community. If a trans* individual is murdered black folks write it off like we aren’t human beings. I’m someone’s Son, brother, cousin, Godfather, friend. I’m important. I realize that people fear what they don’t know or take the chance to understand. That’s where I come in. I don’t mind having open dialogue to break the barriers - as long as it’s address with respect.
GV: There has been an explosion of new terms, ideas, spaces that expand on the ideas of gender, gender language, and gender politics. How does that make you feel? What are the pros and cons
TL: I love that it’s in people face now. I remember looking up or trying to find trans* identified folks online back in 2008/2009 and for the most part 10 years ago trans* men especially of color was hard to find. I appreciate going into facilities that offer bathrooms that are inclusive of all genders, single stale bathrooms are just as sufficient. When filling out paper work for jobs or going to the doctor(s) they now as for prefer names and pronouns. My younger brother is a Cis male and his preferred name is Blanco. ( derived from his birth last name white) it’s promoting people to be themselves. Look at life from a different lens. The cons are the increasing rate of murders among black trans* women because of how fragile masculinity is in the black community. Instead of ending the intimate relation they rather kill. The increase of worry for trans* people who don’t fit the mold ascetically are targets when they shouldn’t be. On one hand people tell you to live authentically on the other hand everyone else makes it hard for you to.
GV: What has community looked like for you and what kind of impact has this community had on your transition?
TL: One piece of Community is BlackTransTV. A platform of inclusivity and helping inquiring minds find the answers they need in a comforting space. Life is a learning experience. My transition has been impacted in ways of connecting with others from different walks of life but sharing experiences.
Tyrice Hester | He/Him
GV: What is sexual racism to you? Have you ever experienced a kind of sexual racism?
TH: Sexual racism is racism experienced at an individual level within the context of romance and love. It’s when you read “not attracted to Blacks” on a non-Black persons dating profile. It’s responding to a seemingly nice message on an app from a person of another race, only to discover their profile reads “looking for BBC only”. It’s walking into a gay bar that’s frequented mostly by white men and immediately being looked at as if you don’t belong or you’re taking up too much space. It’s having to defend why you’re reading a pro-Black book to the white man you’ve been dating for several months. Yes all of this has happened to me.
GV: Do you think coming out has gotten easier with the development of social media and broader representation in the media? Why or why not?
TH: Social media has led to an increased visibility of our community. When I came out at 17 I didn’t have the resources that are readily available now. Of course I could of asked Jeeves “how to come out?” or visited my schools LGBT center, but that’s different from being able to go on social media and literally watch videos of people sharing their testimonies and experiences. I think it’s a powerful tool for the younger generation.
GV: How can we better love and protect Black transgender women/men?
TH: We have to speak up for trans people during times of injustice because not doing so is complacency and harmful. I was sitting in an Africana Studies class during undergrad once and the professor said “trans women are not women,” and then made disparaging comments about the trans community, specifically trans women. One of my classmates identified as trans and I could literally see them shrinking in their seat. Without hesitation I challenged the professor and the conversation became very heated. I couldn’t understand why she willingly used her platform and institutional power to promote her trivialized opinions. When sentiments are expressed on platforms like hers, they shape societal attitudes and contribute to racialized, gender-based violence against transgender people. It’s literally the reason why Black transgender women have a life expectancy of 35 years.
GV: Do you feel like you’ve had adequate representation in the Black gay community in spaces like film, television, and music? What would you like to see more of?
TH: Adequate? No. Is mainstream media coming around? Yes. Recently our identities have been explored more, but the majority of our narratives center around trauma and hardship. I’m looking forward to a more carefree Black gay film where the protagonists doesn't die or get gay bashed. Or perhaps a mediocre film where nothing happens and the two characters are just existing, in love. This might be too idealistic though.
B Hawk/ He Him
GV: How complicated is it living as a Gender deviant/GNC person? What are some of the bright spots?
BH: It can be complicated at times living as a GNC /queer person especially when your of color. But I don't let those complicated moments ruin my daily performance and hustle. I love being black and I love my queerness. They both are my magical superpowers that most people don't have or want.
GV: There has been an explosion of new terms, ideas, spaces that expand on the ideas of gender, gender language, and gender politics. How does that make you feel? What are the pros and cons?
BH: Honestly the titles and labels used for the the LGBTQ community have grown dramatically in the past few years. And it's really hard and annoying at times to keep up. But what I've learned is that people want to be individuals and be understood more then anything. So a lot of the new terms used to describe different forms of sexuality are coming more from a individual personal level and people are connecting to them. I'm trying to become more open to learning new ideas and terms within my community but I can't even remember my damn email password half the time..so bea with me.
GV: How important is media representation to you as a LGBTQ person? Does it feel like media is doing a better job of representing people like you?
BH: I was just having this conversation with my best friend about how we would love to see more representation of LGBTQ people on TV. Keep in mind we were watching "Love & Hip Hop Miami" which is a mess but it would still be cool to have at least ONE queer "character" on the show that wasn't messy and was a GNC character. I feel like the only two "popular" representations we have for Queer men of color to see are Drag Race and LHH Miami. Which are two totally different forms of queer energy. We had shows like "Noahs Arc" in the early 2000s but that was sadly taken away from us unfortunately without a REAL answer. But I know a lot of creatives are really working on shining light on diverse characters. YouTube is such a huge stage for amazing new Queer media content from networks like Bawn Media, Slay TV & many more. We do have more great characters on cable TV then ever before but its not enough. We have to create more content OURSELVES and do the work. Because most cis (straight) white men & women who are ahead of these "popular" networks are not thinking of us or want to see us shine in a positive way unfortunately.
GV: What makes you feel the most beautiful?
BH: I feel most beautiful when my skin isn't breaking out and my hair is DONE. But on a deeper note..when I'm feeling confident with a group of my really close friends pumping through NYC.
Emil Wilbekin He/Him
GV: Does life as a Black, gay man really get easier after 40? If so, in what ways?
EW: I'm not sure that life gets easier for a Black gay man after 40. For me I am more clear about who I am and what is important to me. I believe we live in a state of constant growth and transformation so there are always new challenges and learning. Physically, a man's body changes as he gets older so there are differences in metabolism, hormones and energy. It's all a journey and a process.
GV: Do you think that we have an obsession with age and role in the gay community? Explain.
EW: I believe society overall is obsessed with age. The gay community is definitely a part of this obsession. Historically many cultures are enamored by youth and what's new. We see this in popular culture, fashion, marketing and beauty. In general, I think people are more open to intergenerational perspectives, beauty and conversations. Ageism is being discussed more in the conversations around identity —sexual gender, body politics and race. I believe Millennials are more open to the wisdom of intergenerational conversations and experiences.
GV: What makes you feel the most beautiful?
EW: I feel most beautiful when I am at peace with my spirit.
GV: Why has creating space and cultivating a sense of community been so integral to your work?
EW: I believe it's important for Black gay men to have a safe space where we can be who we really are and to have conversations about what's relevant to us. My hope is that these spaces will help our community grow and be more self actualized, healthy and loving towards each other and show the world our beauty, brilliance and power.
GV: How important is legacy to you and your work?
EW: My work is important to me. My intention is to create work that moves culture, changes people's perspectives and opens people's minds. I'm grateful that my work has inspired others.
Sir Knight He/Him
GV: Do you believe that most Black LGBTQ people deal with mental health issues as a result of their experience? Why or why not?
SK: I believe that American Black Folks in general are prone to mental health issues because we've been brainwashed by The American Society and it's false ideologies and doctrines of how one should be and what it means to be American. In America, American is a word that simply refers to white people. Outside of America, American references all people who inhabit and live in America. See the difference? We live in a society that constantly denies our humanity due to the color of our skin. Now add sexuality and gender identity/expression on top of race and that's where it becomes even more complex.
American Black LGBTQ Folks are even more prone to mental health issues due to their experiences with navigating their identity and/or sexuality within the confines of The American Society and The Black Community. The American society does not cater to difference of any sort especially not difference of identity and/or sexuality thus making Black LGBTQ Folks feel like outcasts and shunned in a multitude of situations from work, to school, social settings and beyond. Being LGBTQ is one level of difference but then add to that being Black and you have two levels of difference that often find conflict within themselves. The Black Community doesn't like to accept the fact that LGBTQ Folks exist within the black race and treat our existence as "a phase" or as "a result of the white man" when in fact Black LGBTQ Folks are simply living naturally and authentically. Historically all ancient cultures including Africa had names for third genders or queer folks. It wasn't until America was "found" that this notion that men and women had to be a distinct way came about. This conflict of identity tends to lead many Black LGBTQ folks to have mental health issues because in certain spaces they must deny their truth while they are celebrated and free in others. This duality of living and navigating the world is frustrating and stressful for the mental health of Black LGBTQ folks.
GV: What has been the most fulfilling part of your transition?
SK: The most fulfilling part of my life has been recognizing, accepting and living my truth. I choose not to call it a "transition" because I'm not going anywhere I'm just letting my soul unfold and following as it instructs me to become my highest self. My life is a journey as is the case for all humans. I do not have a destination other than my happiness which is nonnegotiable. I am fulfilled by existing. I am fulfilled by utilizing my voice to help others navigate through this experience. I am fulfilled to share my story with the world so that those who come after us will know that we were here that black trans men, black folks of the trans experience existed and resisted and didn't hide in the shadows. I am fulfilled that I am living in my happiness and taking whatever steps I see fit to simply be happy and comfortable in my skin so that I can live in/on purpose. I'm fulfilled to have had the opportunity to take nonnegotiable steps towards my happiness so that I can live more comfortably in my skin while navigating through this life as I know a lot of black folks of the trans experience don't have the privilege, funds or resources to do so.
GV: Do you believe it is easier for Black transgender men in our society, than it is for Black transgender women? Why or why not?
SK: Black Trans Women experience extreme harassment and violence at a high volume because 1) the woman's body has been hyper sexualized and objectified and 2) black men have a toxic/fragile masculinity.
Just last year a reported 27 trans women were murdered. There were 27 trans women reported murdered in 2016. Every year the numbers are the same or growing. These are just reported murders because often the reports record trans women with the improper gender and often times these murders aren't even documented.
The majority of the women murdered are black trans women. The majority of these black trans women murdered are at the hands of cisgender black men. The American Society has a lack of respect for women's bodies deeming them only acceptable for the pleasure of a man. When a trans woman exist she is "complicating" the narrative even though she is a popular woman of desire for most men even though they don't like to admit it. So when men find trans women attractive and then are informed that the woman is trans they become enraged because of their fragile masculinity. Most men can't handle being attracted to a woman of the trans experience which often leads to violence and most often their murder. The criminal justice system enforces this ideology that trans women are not women by not seeking justice for these deaths which leads to men thinking it's ok to inflict violence on trans women because often times they will get away with it.
Black Trans Men endure violence and murders as well but it tends to mostly be through intimate partner violence. Navigating black masculinity is complex at times but because most men don't want to talk about how they feel when/if they see me navigating male spaces they don't think twice about it because overall I present male in their eyes. I do know a lot of guys like to intimidate men whom they deem as feminine, flamboyant or gay. I've seen/heard situations where men are harassed in male spaces due to those reasons but in my experience I've not experienced any harassment or violence due to how I identify.
I do believe because of all of these factors and so many more that Black Trans Men do have it easier than Black Trans Women. This is one of the many reasons why myself and Tashan Lovemore created BlackTransTV as a platform on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube to bring awareness to the black trans experience. We utilize the platform to weekly shine light on a Black Trans Women who has been murdered as our #WCW. As well the platform uplifts, motivates and inspires black trans folks to live their truth. We also educate the masses on what it means to be black and trans in America in hopes that we as a black people can come together and rise up as one regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexuality.
You can find us:
Facebook : @BlackTransTV
GV: Was coming out difficult for you? Share a bit about your experience. Was your family support? What were the more fulfilling parts of coming out?
SK: As a queer child growing up I struggled to navigate who I was because I knew I did not align with who everyone was telling me I was and/or the person they believe I should be. I struggled to try to fit into the binary and the rigid societal norms of gender. I never felt comfortable, happy or aligned so I kept asking questions and being curious. It wasn't until I was 14 that I started dating. My girlfriend was beautiful. I ran track and she was the track manager. I knew something was different about me the moment I saw her. I never had or felt this attraction before. I could not take my eyes off of her and I just wanted to be close to her. A few weeks later we became official. I trotted around my high school halls proudly as I held her little hand in mine. I was happy and I didn't place a label upon myself. I just knew she was the person I was dating and she made me feel good so what was there more to define? We expressed our love for each other through writing notes back and forth. One day while at home my mom approached me with one of the letters I had written my girlfriend. That day my mother labeled me as a lesbian. I had heard that word before but I knew that couldn't be who I was. I didn't even identify as a woman how could I be a woman who loved women? And I realized then the expectations placed on gender and the label lesbian was applied to me. I never called myself a lesbian. I was simply me. My mother showed me nothing but love because she thought it as "a phase" and assured me that I could still catch STDs so when/if I had sex to use condoms.
From that day forward I dated women and sometimes a few guys here and there to appease my parents and to have a gender appropriate date to school functions. The more I was forced to wear dresses and conform to female gender expectations the more I loathed them. To other people I looked good in feminine dress to me I felt like I was cross dressing. I was extremely uncomfortable.
Overall I think my family ( mom, dad and sister) were supportive but again they all thought this was "a phase" so there was no deep thought put into my identity. Meanwhile I was diving deeper into my masculinity and trying to explore my personal identity outside of the labels placed upon me.
It wasn't until I was able to leave home and go to college that I began identifying as male. I just knew that I was more than just a masculine lesbian. I was a man. I navigated as male by dating only straight women to affirm myself and them being attracted to me sealed the deal. I never told my family about navigating as male because I was away from them and I didn't feel the need to. At that time I didn't know that I could alter my body to match what I was feeling. I lived that way until in 2015 I decided I couldn't live in a body that did not align with my mental, emotional and spiritual anymore and started to taking the steps to do what I needed to do to be comfortable in my skin.
Khalid Livingston He/Him
GV: Do you feel like you’ve had adequate representation in the Black gay community in spaces like film, television, and music? What would you like to see more of?
KL: I don’t think I will ever consider it to be adequate representation. There are too many nuanced stories that have not been told. I’m more interested in seeing people adequately positioned, compensated and funded within those industries so that more dynamic bodies of work can be created without the current barriers.
GV: When do you feel the most beautiful?
KL: If we are talking about beauty in the context of being desirable by others, I feel the most beautiful when I have committed time to the details. Groomed and polished. But in the context of being desirable by self, I feel the most beautiful when I’m full of enough love to share with others.
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