By Damon Shearer
I know this might be controversial to say, but I find it is easier being gay than it is being Black. I say this understanding the dangers of comparing the two. However, I find that this statement has less to do with the struggles I encounter because of the color of my skin versus my sexual orientation, and more to do with how individuals who call themselves my allies handle conversations about their part in how these two experiences play out in the world.
I have always been very vocal about social justice. That did not change when I moved to San Diego in 2011. Over the years, I have made friends who are not Black, and friends who are not a part of the LGBTQIA community, and for the past two years I have had the honor of having many conversations with organizations and people of influence in San Diego due to my position as president of the San Diego Black LGBTQ Coalition, a duty that I officially completed on July 1. During my term, I had more conversations about LGBTQIA issues and race than ever before, and I have observed that discussions regarding these two topics are met with very different energy, even among fellow liberals in San Diego.
A year or so ago, I remember sitting with co-workers discussing gender-neutral restrooms in our place of work and the use of pronouns in our email signatures. These were hot-button topics, and I was surprised to learn that we did not all share the same opinion. I remember one individual, who I hold in high esteem, saying that they would add their pronouns to the email signature if the company mandated it, but wouldn’t do it voluntarily because it just seemed too “complicated.” I challenged them on this idea, others chimed in with their personal opinions, and a comfortable exchange of ideas was had. No one got upset or defensive, and eventually this person added their pronouns to their email signature voluntarily.
Over the past two months, with Black Lives Matter protests happening everyday around the world, I have had a lot of conversations about race. In particular, conversations about anti-Black racism and what it means to be an anti-racist. Many of these conversations have been with people I love, people who say they are forward thinkers and allies to the cause. To my surprise, many of them have turned uncomfortable, and sometimes heated. Ideas like defunding the police or reparations are quickly shut down with comments like, “Is that really going to fix anything? There has to be another answer.” While this is not the reaction 100% of the time, it has happened enough that I am now very careful before having these conversations with people, even when I am being eagerly invited to do so.
As I reflect back, I find one possible explanation for these two very different reactions. When dealing with LGBTQIA rights, cisgender heterosexuals are simply asked to live and let live. They might need to use different pronouns, or lobby for a change in the law that does not necessarily detract from their own personal life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. But when I ask White people, or even other non-Black people, to consider how they perpetuate anti-Black racism either consciously or subconsciously, things get personal.
When White people have to examine the ways they benefit from cultural, political and economic systems built on the principle of white supremacy, they are faced with a choice: work to change the system, which might result in disadvantaging themselves and their children, or make no changes, which is then consciously choosing racism. To be anti-racist, you have to do more than add a hashtag to end of your social media posts. You have to dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism, which might mean dismantling your own beliefs about who you are and your place in this world.
Life in the intersection of Black and LGBTQIA is hard. If it is not one thing, it’s another. However, in my 40 years on this Earth I have found a way to thrive in this space between the rock of racism and the hard place of homophobia. (Frequent trips abroad help.) But what makes it most difficult is waiting on you, the people who say you want to help, to move the rock off my back. You have the power to dismantle the systems of injustice your forebears put into place. We are waiting.
Damon Shearer is an educator, a community activist, former President of the San Diego Black LGBTQ Coalition, and the recipient of the 2020 Spirit of Stonewall Community Service Award who lives in North Park.
As seen in San Diego Union Tribune