Within every Black LGBTQ+ person is a deeply unique and personal story, one in which we grapple with our intersectionality, the complexities of race, sexuality and gender. In the case of Black men like myself, our deeply personal and unique experiences within the queer community are complicated by stereotypes, long-standing inequality and on-going racism. As we grapple with our own idiosyncrasies and intersectionality, I wanted to understand better, and from my peers, how they’re navigating what has become a particularly fraught moment.
There is a long history of Black men stereotyped as aggressive, hypersexual, unemotional and violent – stereotypes rooted in racist characterisations employed to justify the enslavement and persecution of Black people. 1915’s Birth of Nation, which cemented Black men as the eternal sexual predator in the (white) public imagination, was the first time the world saw this propaganda on general release. It undeniably shaped the way we were represented and treated. Representation in the media, as we now know in 2021, is integral to how we all navigate the world. Today, consistent images of Black men as either strong and hypermasculine or femme and sassy obscure the multitude of ways we show up in the world and for ourselves.
I spoke with Black queer men and discussed how societal expectations and stereotypes – largely shaped by porn, social media, mainstream media representation, European beauty standards and digital dating in our community have impacted our identities and journeys. We spoke about the ways in which we have conformed to, rebelled against or leveraged stereotypes, and how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement created introspective pause and served as an opportunity to remind ourselves of our inherent value.
According to a 2015 study**, we make up our minds about someone’s gender, race, age and even their sexuality within 100 milliseconds of seeing their face for the first time. We have a strong, effortless tendency to engage in social categorisation designed to sort ourselves and other people into what we perceive as meaningful social groups. Yet as with most elements of human behaviour, matters become complicated when they pertain to desire, underscoring the problematic nature of stereotypes, which helps shape wholesale assumptions about the person standing in front of us.
In his 2019 essay ‘Masculinity and My Black Male Experience,’ Daniel Edmund wrote: “I came to realise that society frequently viewed us as harder, colder and more aggressive. Either I was expected to fit in with how others believed Black men to be, or I was told with surprise that I acted ‘different’. Sadly, common misrepresentations of Black masculinity can also influence Black men ourselves.”
I spoke with Hakeem*, 35 from London: “I’m Black, 6’2”, and athletic: I ‘know’ stereotypes!” He tells me a series of stories about making people “jump out their souls [when] I’m just walking home from Boots!” However, it has been the community’s response to his frame that has presented the steepest climb. As such he “avoids” online dating: “There is a clear expectation of who I should be, at the very least I have to be masc[uline]” and has felt the sharp “drop-off” when explicitly listing bottom on his profiles. As queer men of all stripes know all too well, the gay scene tells us, overtly and covertly that our value is linked to our utility – our sexual serviceability to others. “There seems to be an expectation, especially from white men that queer Black men are big power tops designed to make dreams come true [and that] if we’re bottoms we serve little purpose.” Hakeem and I discuss this phenomenon; does it derive from porn and its obsession with the reductive ‘big Black dick’ stereotype? Or is it in-fact rooted in western culture’s problematic ‘strong Black man’ trope? “All the above! It’s homophobia, racism and the deep misogyny and femme shaming that is very common in gay culture. It’s about limiting us, but yes porn has a lot to do with white men’s expectations. [A theme I explored in a previous GAY TIMES piece on: ‘race-based sexual ‘preference’] But there’s a lot of pressure from other Black men about how we move too.” Hakeem points out that while he experiences this conjecture across the community “irrespective of race”, there is simply more “room to be me in queer Black spaces.”
Seeing Black men in porn labelled as ‘Thugs’ or, ‘BBC’ (to name but two harmful categorisations) or ‘Black [insert search term] has off-line and real-world psychological consequences, not only for the Black men limited by racist tropes about our sexual utility but for the white viewers who metabolise pornographic representations of Black men as reality.
I had a long conversation with Adam*, 26, who has been an adult entertainer for five years: “Now that I am an adult content creator myself I can film scenes and choose actors I want to work with, my name is longer associated with mad search terms.” I had never framed platforms like OnlyFans as safer places for BIPOC content creators, or a tool for autonomy but Adam was clear: “There are implications to how we present on film; most porn production companies are white-owned. [OnlyFans] is a big deal for Black online sex workers: we’re in control. We can present as we want; that carries responsibility.” I ask Adam about this responsibility. “We get to capitalise on the [existing] sexual objectification – if ‘we want’ to. It’s not about white audiences, the responsibility is in how we see ourselves.” This begged the question: Is there room for nuance in porn and online sex work? Adam contemplates this for a while: “Actually, yes. There are more Black-owned production companies now, there’s OnlyFans and Just for Fans – people do have a choice [as to who is producing the porn they’re watching] and there are ways to see us as full sexual people.”
Adam’s reflections on regaining his image via OnlyFans reminds me of the work of E. Patrick Johnson, Professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, who argues that Blackness is where “discourse and flesh conjoin in performance”. Our Black bodies are already read as “exotic” or “dangerous”, but we, as those inhabiting these bodies, can and often do choose to signify who we are through our bodies. Johnson theorises that we have to create space for Black people “to not only speak of the body, but through it as well.” Does OnlyFans – and other platforms of autonomous pornography allow Black men such an opportunity?
It’s a thought that came to mind when I spoke with Darren*, a designer from London who told me, in part, he knows, deep down, that while he enjoys working out, “I think I look the way I do to prove to my brothers and my dad – and maybe myself and society – that I’m a man, too.” It was a sentiment that forced me to contemplate my own uninvestigated relationship with my body. While Darren had identified the way subconscious expectations may have manifested and the safety he created in his effort to live up a masculine ideal, he also felt that his determination to speak through his chiselled physique has come at a cost: “Messages online get ugly. There are clear expectations of who I’m meant to be. I’m not taken seriously as a professional. I’ve inadvertently made people feel inadequate. I leveraged the stereotype as it offered me comfort – but I get it, my pictures aren’t exactly PG.” I remind Darren that no matter how we present or how deeply a stereotype generates expectation, consent and boundaries are not limited to the physical world. As we freely express ourselves through our bodies, it’s useful to consider the toll when we rationalise harassment, unsolicited fetishisation or belittlement.
Darren tells me he remembers going clubbing as a “young impressionable man” and witnessing how men responded to guys with muscles, which further compounded the desire and pressure to pursue his physical aesthetic: “I noticed the Black guys with muscles were being seen, by everyone.” What followed was years of steroid use. “I know you want me to say something like ‘I regret it!’ ‘I wish I had more respect for myself!’ The reality is, as a young brown boy I finally felt attractive. I grew out of [taking steroids] but I don’t regret making a decision that for a time made me feel worthy.” It was rewarding to hear Darren’s unapologetic decision making that ultimately assisted in his navigation of the world. Darren did express, however, that this was to the detriment of his physical and mental health. I asked Darren what he’d say to his younger self? Through a mood-changing belly laugh, he said: “Other people’s opinions of us are none of our business!”
A lot of gay men look down on femme guys; we represent the parts of them they hide. That struggle is real.
It’s a concept Olaoncé, a beauty blogger based in London, understands all too well. Ola sports a clean-shaven head, eclectic four-inch acrylic nails, large hooped earrings and glowing skin. “Listen, I’m naturally a femme-presenting guy, [growing up in a Black household] I was very policed as a child ‘why are you holding your cup like that?’, ‘why are you sitting like that?’” We agreed that society already reads us as different and yet there is distinguishable weight when the response is from our own community, LGBTQ+ or not. I spoke with Professor Rusi Jaspal, Chair in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, for my previous piece in which he told me: “Ethnic minority gay and bisexual men are at disproportionately high risk of poor mental health partly because they tend to face more stigma from their families, and ethnic and religious communities. These groups matter to them.”
Ola and I discussed the possible impact this policing has and Ola ensured I understood: how he presents today is not about rebellion, it’s about authenticity. “There came a point in my life where I decided to do me. My nails were never about rebelling against stereotypes or policing. I’m just being me, boo.” However, this authentic self has not been effortless: he has experienced harassment, conditional and non-visible relationships and there have been near-violent repercussions. “Violence is almost suggested [by my presence]. Why are you threatened?!” This unnerving feeling isn’t just reserved for non-LGBTQ+ spaces: “A lot of gay men look down on femme guys; we represent the parts of them they hide. That struggle is real.”
“It took me seeing another Black guy being his true femme-presenting self. In 2021 that’s representation, us seeing each other. Whether that’s on social media or on the street, we are making our own spaces; who’s relying on TV and film?!” says Ola. I thought of the long journey from Birth of a Nation to Paris is Burning to Black Panther and asked if I’d given real thought to the versions of Black men presented that I didn’t relate to, particularly in my formative years. Ola is thriving at an unprecedented time, a landscape filled with Billy Porter’s, Todrick Hall’s, RuPaul’s, Jay Jay Revlon’s – how wonderful that must be. Ola and I discuss mainstream media’s limiting approach to the depiction of Black queerness as either masculine and hypersexual or sassy, femme queens and he offers insight into the sanctuary that is social media: “There are no stereotypes, and no centring of European beauty standards on my platform or any platform that I consume: that’s how I’ve rebelled.”
In the digital era, we are encouraged to profile ourselves into limited characters, reduce full lives to pictures, often without the space for nuance and texture. Arguably, this reduction encourages the propagation of stereotypes, which have very different consequences when one’s race is the defining catalyst for expectations and prejudice. Our very human social parameters aren’t going anywhere, for many they provide safety. So what is the solution to the reductive imagining of Black men that pervades the gay scene?
According to Psychology Today, there is a version of ourselves that can be thought of as the Adaptive Self, the self that prioritises fitting in and getting along. This self is not without value and purpose but is ultimately strenuous, limiting and destructive. Yet to realise our Authentic Self, the self that prioritises living according to our truth, requires work and living publicly in our truth – whatever that truth may be – carries real-world dangers and limitations for people of colour. As queer Black men, we navigate spaces, both in and out of the community, predominantly Black or not, in which preconceived expectations of who we are or should be. This directly impacts how often we engage our Adaptive Self and whether or not we feel safe or supported enough to realise our Authentic Self. Perhaps in a sociopolitical and cultural moment that calls so loudly for reimagining ourselves in relation to others, we Black men – straight and queer, cis and trans, femme and masculine and in between – may finally have the opportunity to be seen and heard on our own terms.
*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
**Principles of Social Psychology: Social Categorization and Stereotyping