“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
My Southern, Christian Upbringing Still Makes Me Question If I'm "Gay Enough"
Maybe normalization needs to look less like glitter bombs and blasting "Born This Way," and more like simple acceptance, encouragement, and space to question.
In the wealthy Virginia community where I grew up, being gay wasn't seen as evil by most people.
Instead, it was seen as a subtler kind of wrong. It was disapproved of in the way that privileged liberal people tend to disapprove of things: passively and even compassionately. My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay and that while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, gay people were a fact of life and we owed them kindness.
Still, it was generally accepted that being straight was the norm. In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we supported gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction that felt altogether removed from our sheltered world.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church in particular—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex, we should accept them as they were as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble.
Still, my church went against the decision of the larger Presbyterian church, and made the decision to exclude gay people from church leadership positions, as they were living in "unrepented sin." A person who admitted to being homosexual but thoroughly renounced the lifestyle and remained chaste? That was acceptable. We would love gay people, my church said, but we would ensure they knew we thought they were inherently evil and we wouldn't let them teach our children unless they promised to be good. As you can imagine, there were no openly gay people at my church.
My peers and I saw gayness as a clearly indicated predisposition with no gray areas. The LGBTQ+ community was a clearly defined group to pity and pray for. In my mind, gay men were easily spottable by their feminine clothes, manner of speech, and lack of interest in "masculine" things like sports or beer. Meanwhile, gay women had masculine bodies and features, short hair, wore flannels, and cargo shorts, and were brusque and unfeminine.
I believed that before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay. Bisexuality was simply a phase for college girls, or a path to eventual gayness for boys.
So, what about me? In this environment of quiet suppression that often posed as progressivism, where did my identity fit in? The story is complicated by the fact that as a young child, I wore exclusively "boy clothes" and was mostly interested in "boy things." This "tomboy" phase went so far as to include the creation of an alter-ego I had named Fireball. When I was dressed as Fireball, I insisted on being referred to by he/him pronouns.
Later, I learned that my mother prayed often that, should I be gay, as she suspected, things wouldn't be too hard for me. Of course, now I recognize this gender exploration as separate from my sexuality, but at the time, gender presentation and sexuality were often conflated. They certainly were in my mind. I'm lucky that my parents took this in stride.
Around the time of Fireball's inception, I had begun to notice the way the other girls in my class could make me feel. I would light up at their attention or approval. Having a crush on a girl seemed like an impossibility, even an insult to the sacrosanct realm of girlhood, so that was never how I viewed those feelings. Instead, they became intense fixations on winning the friendship and devotion of the girl in question.
That's not to say I was entirely ignorant of my queer feelings. When watching movies or TV shows, I would often feel an uncomfortable sense of attraction towards the female characters on screen, though I didn't have the language to name it as such. When I was a bit older and was allowed to watch more adult programs, the feeling I got when I saw a naked female body filled me with shame.
As a result of all of these things combined, as a preteen I began to panic. I thought even the mere hint of these feelings must mean that I was irrevocably a lesbian. I thought my preference for "boy" things was a clear indicator of homosexuality. I would have to cut my hair, live the much more "difficult life" that I had been told over and over again gay people were subjected to, and I would have to stage an emotional "coming out" in which I would inevitably lose many friends. That was the script for gayness, but I didn't want to learn my lines.
I wanted to be popular, I wanted to be approved of, I wanted to be seen as beautiful, and I didn't want to be difficult. To me, being gay was the antithesis of these things. To me, discovering you were a lesbian was kind of like discovering you were going to have massive boils all over your body for the rest of your life. You didn't deserve to be blamed for it, but that didn't mean it was desirable, and it probably wouldn't help with making friends.
I never had to worry about being cast out of my family or put in prison. In that sense I recognize now that I grew up with immense privilege that many queer people around the world don't enjoy. For me, being gay was a question of how I saw myself in the context of the world. It had never been as simple in my mind as attraction or love; being gay came with a lifelong battle, a reinvention of the self, and a complete abandonment of the familiar and extremely heteronormative culture I had grown up in.
Perhaps as a result, at around 12-years-old, I started wearing "girl's clothes" more willingly and took interest in the boys in my class. In retrospect, this interest was largely competitive. Since other girls were taking interest in the boys, I felt I had to if I were to remain well-liked.
But some of the attraction I felt for the opposite sex was real. I had a long and meaningful crush on a boy in my class in the fourth grade, and around that same time I have vivid memories of watching Pirates of the Caribbean for the first time and experiencing warm feelings of attraction for Captain Jack Sparrow. His off-centered swagger, semi-androgynous appearance, and drunken lilt all appealed to me. And he was a man! I was attracted to a man! That must mean I'm not gay! How could I be?!
My Southern parents, bless their hearts, encouraged this crush (as they encouraged all of my phases and interests, being the remarkable parents they were and are) despite its strangeness, and my room was filled with Johnny Depp and Captain Jack paraphernalia for years. Realistically, the lasting power of my Captain Jack crush was not about the crush itself, but more about the relief this definite attraction to a man brought me.
Later on, as puberty continued, I found that sometimes I liked dressing in traditionally feminine clothes. This filled me with such joy and relief that shopping became a major pastime. I felt wrong in most clothes, so finding clothes that felt right but also looked enough like the other girls' clothes was of paramount importance. This often meant I wore strange combinations of Abercrombie tee's and boy's sweatpants, or oversized t-shirts and absurdly short shorts.
As time went on, the buried secret about my sexuality, and what I have now come to recognize as a somewhat fluid gender identity, became less and less pressing because I felt genuine attraction to people of "the opposite gender" fairly often. Besides, I liked looking pretty, desirable, and sometimes even feminine. I even had a healthy, loving, and sexual relationship with a high school boyfriend. This, to me, was the final confirmation I needed: I was straight! Definitely!
As absurd as it sounds, my desire to be pretty is what most thoroughly convinced me of my straightness. I genuinely believed–perhaps not logically, but intuitively–that if I were gay, the way I treated my appearance would indicate it in a manner outside of my control. As long as I was conventionally "pretty" in the way that women have always been pressured to be in order to attract men, then I was straight.
This is also about the same time that I became friends with a beautiful girl my own age. She was funny, popular, liked to talk about things besides boys, and had a sense of morality few of us did at the time. My friendship with her introduced me into a different group of friends. We often drank during our sleepovers, and this would usually result in sneaking out to meet up with other teenagers (usually boys) or playing Truth or Dare amongst ourselves. In the midst of these games, my friend and I often ended up kissing, sometimes for long periods of time. Squeals and giggles always ensued, and we would laugh it off as drunken antics. But the kisses stuck with me.
Even more affecting was the way the sleepovers always ended. My friend and I would leave the other girls to sleep on various couches and guest beds, while we shared her double bed. It felt good to be her favorite, and I took pride in the fact that the other girls sometimes seemed jealous of her treatment of me. I saw it as a mere extension of our intimate bond when these quiet moments in her bed would teeter between sexual and platonic. It didn't worry me: I was DEFINITELY straight. Even if I wasn't, I surely wasn't gay enough to make a big deal about it.
In college, a pattern began to emerge. I would be intimate with a girl, usually while drunk, and then I would brush it off with my friends. If someone casually described me as bisexual, I would blush and stammer and say something about how I hate labels and how I was "mostly straight."
Am I Gay Enough?
Despite attending an extremely LGBTQIA+ friendly and progressive university, I was only capable of celebrating the non-cis-hetero identities of others, never of myself. My feelings for other girls and my confused feelings about my gender were probably just my way of seeking attention, or wanting to be different, I told myself. Besides I knew I was often attracted to men, why even explore those other parts of myself? There was simply no need, I thought, because I could live a perfectly happy life as a straight woman.
In fact, I was lucky, because I wasn't so gay that I didn't have a choice but to come out. I wasn't so dysmorphic about my body that my lack of identification with my female designation was a real problem. I was comfortable enough in my identity as a cisgender, straight woman that my fluid gender identity and bisexuality didn't matter. Besides, the world had bigger problems.
That, I suppose, is the point of this essay. I share my own story of queerness with the hope of pointing out the subtleties contained within it. Often, we think that LGBTQIA+ people simply "know" they're different. But gender and sexuality are much more nuanced and fluid than that; and the more we begin to acknowledge that fluidity, the better off future generations will be.
We need to make space for questioning, we need to allow for exploration without immediate designation, and we need to stop acting as if being gay subsumes the rest of an individual's identity.
The question I'm trying to engage with, and have been trying to engage with for years now, is how much of sexuality is a choice? That is to say, how much of my expression of my sexuality is a conscious choice and how much of it is influenced by society's rigid misconceptions about sexuality?
The "born this way" and "not a choice" mantras that much of the LGBTQIA+ community espoused in the early 2000s most certainly had and still have their merits. Overcoming the cultural misconception (largely driven by the lingering puritanism at the heart of a lot of American morality) that everyone is really straight, and gay people are simply sexual deviants who need to be led back to the path of righteousness, was no small feat. The idea that gay people have no more choice over their sexual preferences than straight people do over theirs was an important, persuasive, and largely true rallying cry.
But what about people who do have a choice? And I don't mean "choice" in the sense that one day a person with no previous stirrings of attraction for the same sex can decide to try their hand at being gay for the hell of it. I mean the choice to engage with and nurture a part of yourself that you know is there, even if there's no urgency to expose it to the world.
If we continue to present homosexuality as this undeniable compulsion, how many queer kids will simply ignore their queerness because they don't think it's urgent enough to be valid? How many people who "present as straight" or masculine or feminine will remain in the closet because they don't see themselves in the archetypes of what gay or transgender/genderqueer people look like? How many people avoid the LGBTQIA+ community because they don't think their gray areas and uncertainties have a place there? I know I did.
Now, in my early twenties, having dated and fallen in love with both womxn and men, I still shy away from labels. "Bisexual" feels constricting, and "queer" often feels too vague. Meanwhile, older people within the LGBTQIA+ community have affectionately used words like "dyke" or "lesbian" to describe me, which doesn't feel right either–even if women-loving-women in their generation fought hard for those words. As for my gender identity, that's still something I'm exploring. But for the first time, that exploration doesn't feel like it needs an end date or a definite conclusion.
While these truths about myself were certainly not choices, it has been a conscious choice to nurture, explore, and talk about these facets of my identity. No, I'm not so exclusively gay that being with a man is undesirable to me, and I still often like to dress in traditionally feminine clothes and move through the world as a woman. Because of these things–and because of my whiteness–I am more privileged than many of the members of my LGBTQIA+ family, as I am decidedly less likely to face harassment or abuse.
In fact, it's a privilege to even have the mental and emotional time and space to engage with these questions. But I have also realized that the existence of my privilege is not an excuse to ignore or dismiss questions about my gender identity or queerness as inconsequential. When I pretended those questions didn't exist, I was making a choice out of my desire to avoid being difficult or too complicated, and to conform to heteronormative culture. And now my choice is to embrace and explore those identities and questions.
Not long ago, a friend of mine came out as gay to his parents. They responded positively with acceptance. Still, my friend's mother spent a lot of time "grieving" for the heterosexual life she had previously thought her son was going to lead and now never would. She grieved the biological grandchildren and the daughter-in-law she had felt she was owed.
While I by no means intend to invalidate her feelings or experience, I think it is worth noting how strongly this reaction speaks to the persistent kind of "compassionate distaste" directed at the LGBTQIA+ community–especially by the liberal elite. It's not that she wasn't willing to love and accept her son as a gay man, it's just that she likely had the same mind set I once did, that gayness was an entire identity. She was, in some sense, grieving the son she thought she knew who was now subsumed by this otherness. As time has gone on, I'm hopeful she has come to see that her son is the same man he was before she knew he was gay. She has likely realized that his sexuality and the gender of his chosen partner is, simply, not that big of a deal.
But what if, instead, her son had space to question and explore his sexuality as a teenager before concluding he was gay? What if he had felt free to go on that journey of exploration without thinking a gay experience labeled him as irrevocably gay? What if he didn't have to be sure before he said anything to the people he loved the most?
Clearly, being LGBTQIA+ is not an unfortunate, undeniable, black-and-white affliction as I once thought it was. It is a beautiful and often subtle facet of identity. For many people, it is a world of gray areas and changing feelings, but there is no such thing as "not being gay enough" to be a part of the community.
While I think it's important that we continue to celebrate all LGBTQIA+ identities as important and valid—particularly given how much of the world still wants to see them as abhorrent and unnatural—I also think it's important that we normalize these identities in a way that takes some of the pressure off of questioning young people. Maybe normalization needs to look less like glitter bombs and blasting "Born This Way," and more like simple acceptance, encouragement, and space to question.
I think that it's very likely that in a different time, I would have lived a relatively happy life as a straight, cis-gendered woman. I think I could have gone my whole life quietly attracted to other womxn, without saying anything to anyone or acting on those feelings in any way. But it is only in the past few years that I have begun to acknowledge that we don't owe the world the simplest, most easily digestible versions of ourselves. If we are going to transform society in the ways we need, from racial to gender equity, we owe the world the truest, and often most complicated, versions of ourselves.
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