I know what it feels like to be invisible.
One night a few summers ago, I stood in a nonexistent line outside of the Chelsea Hotel for what felt like an eternity. Hours earlier, a friend had invited me to the club located in the basement of the historical hotel, and being new to the city, I was excited to have an “authentic” gay social experience in an “authentic” gay neighborhood in New York City.
As time went on as I stood in line, it became clear that the bouncer at the entrance did not share in my excitement. I stood and watched as he started letting in the groups of White gay men that came up behind me—leaving me alone again behind the velvet rope. I quickly inspected my outfit to make sure I was appropriately dressed and then stepped out of the line and called my friend, who was already inside the club. Moments later, my friend, who is Black, appeared at the door with his White friend. They both looked at me apologetically. “We need him to get in here,” my friend told his companion. Satisfied with the cosign from a White patron, the bouncer ushered me inside, offering me a flippant apology by claiming that he had not noticed all six feet and three inches of me standing in front of him. I, like so many other Black men attempting entrance into mainstream gay life was noticeable enough to be ignored.
In that moment, I realized who I was: a Black man; where I was: Chelsea—a historically gay mecca in New York City; and what space I occupied: the unseen, unnoticed, and unheard intersection where marginalized race meets marginalized sexual identity. I was five minutes on the 1 train from where the Stonewall riots protesting gay discrimination took place in 1969; 20 minutes on the 2/3 train from James Baldwin’s, Countee Cullen’s, and Bruce Nugent’s Harlem; and a few years and club experiences away from fully reconciling the sad truth: racism is alive in well in LGBT circles. So where does that leave men and women that wear my hue as we are told to rally around a decidedly White LGBT agenda, knowing the impact race has on our lives in and out of the LGBT community?
Questions of intersectionality—that is, the intersection where one’s divergent identities meet to create one’s singular identity—are coming to the forefront now more than ever as LGBT activists proclaim “Gay is the new Black.” By invoking the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, some have grown to overstate the similarities while ignoring the reality that race- and class-based schisms are all too common within the greater LGBT community. Race and racism seem to remain an afterthought in and to prevailing conversations about marriage equality and equal representation. So the real questions become, who is speaking on behalf of the LGBT community and why? And how are they creating an “authentic” LGBT experience that we all unknowingly buy into.
My generation of diversity and inclusion does not just use the general public as a state of social intervention; it assumes the role of interventionist within the marginalized communities that I reside. As a Black gay man, I am keenly aware of how difference is seen in either community. But while the pendulum seems to be moving within the Black community when it comes to overt acceptance of LGBT people, one need not look any further than LGBT interest organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, to see the degree to which racial diversity has yet to be adopted.
Rewinding back to that night a few years ago, I still question what truly happened. Was it just business as usual at a trendy gay nightspot? More than likely, yes. No stranger to “politics at the door,” I know that New York City’s nightclubs are notorious for being exclusive. However, business as usual is not an appropriate response to an ever-evolving community of gays and lesbians. The intersection of race and sexual orientation is something that so many of us stand on, behind a figurative velvet rope waiting for admittance into an even more figurative gay club—and invisibility is no longer an option.
Diversity Best Practices members can read more about the intersection of race and sexuality and other issues in LGBTQ at the Tipping Point: How Changing Mainstream Views Affect the Workplace.
About the Author
Michael Collins is the Research and Publications Manager of Diversity Best Practices.
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