The miseducation of Black, queer, southern youth

Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.

By Joshua Baker

We have all, at one time or another, been a student left alone. I am returned to memories of elementary school when our teacher, owed to some menial task, left the room. For a restless and rowdy bunch, a teacher’s departure was freedom. As if unmasking, we were granted the privilege of devolving into something simpler—ourselves. But no matter how deeply we enjoyed these fleeting moments, we recognized them as just that: escaping in the very instance we lived them.

Truthfully, we never could have fathomed the dark reality of an extended abandonment. A room full of fifth graders left to figure it out. As much as we reveled in this pseudo-sovereignty, here we first learned a truth we could not yet pronounce. Not simply absence of authority but absence of instruction. No mere absence of restraint without absence of guidance. Here, the teacher returned as teachers do. But there is a classroom where the teacher never even arrives.

For Black, Queer youth in the South, an adequate opportunity for the exploration of sexuality is as tangible and accessible as the proven existence of unicorns. A beautiful conjuring but only theoretically so. This consequential reality comes as no surprise. When even the South’s approach to cishet sexual education remains antiquated, the muddling of a Queer-voiced counterpart does not become inconceivable. So, what happens? The marginalized begin a work that almost seems transcribed in our DNA: mobilizing and making do. Inhabiting an empty and desolate classroom and—with an inimitable alchemy—carving out home.

Intersectional Shame

Before coming out, I remember so often standing as a silent witness. Calculating the shifting of my eyes within conversation to avoid seeming too invested. Measuring what defense of Queer life without devotion to it looked like. Creating a barrier between myself and the community I so longed to embrace. Structurally, I knew that there was an intentional lack of space for us. Institutions devoid of room for our questions. For our needs. For us. No room outside of that we would be forced to create ourselves.

And it is of no matter what age sexual intercourse itself became of interest to me for two reasons. One, there would be no formal space for my questions when they did arise. Two, sex is never seen as an extension of Queer sexuality—only the sum. So like so much of my extended Queer family, I found myself scrounging through the rubble of our abandoned classroom. Attempting to piece together an education amalgamated of whispers and Google searches and fumbling fingertips and discreet viewings of Noah’s Arc with my thumb latched to the “back” button. I always understood that this makeshift pedagogy was deeper than sex. That it was deeper than me. That it spoke to the character of an unrepentantly flawed system.

And I was left, even in my own bondage, to consider the plight of those bound to the same intersectional shame. To be Queer is to be an honorary outcast almost anywhere. To be Black and Queer is to be unsafe among your own kin. To be Black and Queer and Southern is to sleep with a knife beneath your pillow because the safety of home has always been transitory. It is a heavy task for Queer folx to prioritize education when survival is an inescapable concern.

I remember giving my friend the details of a lavish date: a day at the art museum. I remember being so impossibly full. I could not forget the way he reached for my hand. How he wouldn’t let it go as we walked throughout the museum. The kiss outside, in broad daylight. And I will never forget her warning to be safe. How my body initially heard to be safe with sex but subsequently to be safe with my life and the ego of men willing to rob me of it. I will never forget that her “be safe” was sent with the intention of the latter. And I will never forget who I am or where I am or the irrevocable implications of either.

The Risk and Reward of Liberation

Marginalized folx are often lauded as being brave, as if there is any survivable existence that doesn’t necessitate it. And so often, we are the only ones left to reconcile the cost of that bravery. Survival does not come without compromise. An outside view allows our grief to be window-shopped. Admired. Commercialized. Sold without a percentage returned. Not even—at the least—social equity. The decision to pay the price is most often contingent on the return on investment.

Once it was impossible to imagine I would ever come out. What such a world would look like. What desperation could provoke such a Hail Mary toward freedom. But when I did and could finally breathe again, I recognized a newfound power. I was no longer a novice or stranger within this classroom. And the same hands that guided me would now become my hands guiding others. The sheer possibility of someone operating in the fullness of who they are because I am operating in the fullness of who I am is worth the debt one thousand times over.

And it is my hope that any inhabitant of this classroom will leave with an unconquerable resolve. I am rested in who I am. As long as I have been, it has been. And of this, I am unashamed.

Based in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Joshua Baker is a writer, performance artist, and social worker impassioned by minority mental health and LGBTQIA+ advocacy. While having work published by Out Loud HSV, Hypertrophic Press, Aura Literary Review, and Button Poetry, Baker is also the author of two poetry chapbooks—This Here Side of Creation and Love Poems & Other Ways to Lose A Poetry Slam.

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