“I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.”
—James Baldwin 1
There is something to be said of emotional and psychological safety, and of the places or people in which we find it. Most of us are more likely to be vulnerable with one another when we feel that it is safe to do so. When we feel that our truest and most authentic selves—as contradictory and imperfect as we are—will not be criticized, shamed, threatened, or disrespected. We need to be absolutely certain that we are safe among the company that we keep.
Several weeks ago, I embarked on a casual bar hop with a couple of friends, I suggested that we stop at the neighborhood gay bar for a few drinks. To provide a note of context: both friends are men, both are straight, and both are white. While I know that they may have been to a gay bar or queer party before, we had never gone to one together. This, perhaps subconsciously, was my attempt to expand the bounds of our friendship. An attempt to foster the type of trust and intimacy necessary for the formation and development of strong personal bonds that transcend oppressive social constructs. An attempt to create the type of environment most conducive to a deep and unwavering love.
We entered the bar and instinctively I performed a quick visual scan of the room to determine what the demographic makeup was—a task that every person of color knows to be the behavioral equivalent of posing the question: “How safe am I in this environment?” On this particular night, although I happened to be in an establishment that was specifically designed for a marginalized population, specifically created for someone of my particular sexual and romantic leanings, I was still not safe. Like many times before this one, I was the only Black person in the room.
Needless to say, I was ready for a good time but now, ever so slightly, in defense mode. Like most of us who live in weighted bodies, I am quite versed in the language of treading lightly. And in these instances, there’s a small part of me that is just waiting for it to happen. Waiting for the “it” that always happens. The “it” that one comes to expect every time she finds herself in a potentially unsafe situation. The “it” that arrived at 16-years-old when I was pulled over just across the street from my high school, and after an extensive line of questioning, the cop asked “Why did you make a left at the stop sign if you live in the opposite direction?” To which I answered, “Because I noticed you were following me, and I was just waiting for you to pull me over so we could get it over with.”
My friends and I ordered our drinks at the bar, took them to a table near the back, talked for a while, and then “it” happened.
A man sitting solo at a table nearby inserted himself into our conversation, which we welcomed him into, albeit reluctantly. Something was already amiss. The fine details of his conversational contributions are irrelevant. What is important to know is that I eventually had to defend myself against a belligerent, racist, verbal encounter with him. But it wasn’t until my friends jumped in to defend me that I realized what a truly complicated moment this was. After more words were exchanged, the man looked at me, and with unmistakable sincerity, admitted that he felt unsafe and attacked by my friends, and that as his brother, I should be defending him to them.
And he was absolutely right. My friends were visitors in this space. Their social positions afford them the freedom to move comfortably through any space, order a drink, and rarely (if ever) run the risk of being denied service or treated poorly solely on the basis of the conditions of their bodies. I turned to them, and let them know that while I appreciated their coming to my defense, this fight was not theirs. In this moment, this was between me and my other brother.
I continued to navigate what I deemed to be a teachable moment, despite my other brother’s insistence that he was the one in danger, and despite my friends’ repeated pleas to leave. But then the bar was closing, my energy waning. Upon exiting, we realized we had actually caused somewhat of a scene. One of the bartenders ushered us out and asked if I was okay. I answered, “I’m not sure.”
And just like every time “it” happens, I am able to hold my head high for a time, to maintain a sense of calm long enough to de-escalate a situation that, for me, could always be a matter of life and death. Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s something else. But, as soon as I am out of sight of “it,” I am never able to hold back the tears. This time was no different. The tears welled and rolled from my eyes as we walked away from the bar. It was in this moment I was my most vulnerable. It was in this moment that my friends really got to witness what simply “grabbing a drink” can sometimes mean for me.
When I think about this night, I think back to a conversation I had many years ago, when I was just beginning to confidently articulate the particularities of my experience. I tried to describe to a friend, a white woman who I thought would definitely understand what it feels like to be alone in a crowded room:
“Imagine that so many parts of your life, most components of your daily experience, whether it be in a classroom at school, or at your job, or in your neighborhood, or at a party, in line at the bank, at the movies, or any bar or restaurant that you’ve agreed to meet someone in—imagine that every time you entered one of these spaces, every single person there is a man and you are the only woman. How do you think you would feel?” To which she replied: “That’s crazy, I would never put myself in that situation.”
EJ Hill is an artist from South Central, Los Angeles.
This is the second in a series of X-TRAonline Summer Reading.