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Janis Ian Advocate Cover

Black Like You

Originally published in The Advocate
Issue #729, March 1997

I was sitting in our local coffee house, speaking with a famous songwriter friend whose skin happens to be black. We were wrapping up a discussion of Black History Month when Mr. Lesbian came crashing to a halt before us. Excusing herself for interrupting, she gracefully plopped herself into a chair and ordered coffee with skimmed soy milk, honey on the side, don't over-fill the cup, and two spoons in case one was dirty.

"I hear you just gave a speech on being black in a white industry" she said politely, noting that the Music Industry could hardly be called an Industry when no one ever seems to work. My friend laughed and said yes, the speech went well, given that the audience was mostly white. But that was to be expected in Nashville, where the higher education is mostly white, after all.

Stirring her coffee thoughtfully, Mr. L. dropped a casual bombshell onto the table. "Why not talk about being gay in a homophobic industry?" she asked.
I reminded her that our friend isn't out.

"Well, it strikes me that while our famous acquaintance is busy singing to thousands every night about how hard it is to be black, there's no mention of how hard the industry is on black gays. In fact, the silence is so thick that I've been wondering..." she paused mysteriously and whispered, "...where all the black gay people went."

My friend paused, taking the question seriously. "There are plenty of black gay people in the arts who've come out."

"But not in music" said Mr. L. "Here we have Elton, Melissa, kd, Janis, the same tired bunch they keep trotting out, but no blacks. Why?"

Our friend sighed. "I'd lose my base if I came out, that's why. The black community has a very low tolerance for gays."

"Balderdash", said my tactful wife, "Your audience base is white and you know it. Come on, why don't black gays come out?"

I personally was stumped. I've never been pro-outing unless someone's actively working against gay rights; it's always seemed to me that everyone has a right to choose their own destiny. But I knew from personal experience how much the role modelling does for young gay people, and I had wondered about my friend before. I also knew how demeaning staying closeted became as the years passed, and your lover was never acknowledged as more than a friend. And your family could insist that you spend Christmas there without your friend. And your friend finally died, and you weren't even allowed to sit in the family seats during the funeral.

"Do your parents know?" I asked. "They must, right?"

"Yes, and they say it would set a bad example" the writer replied.

"Hah! Anything's a good example after OJ, don't you think?" snickered my wife.

"They say it would cause a division in our church - you know how important the church is in my community" our friend retorted.

Mr. L. continued to press, saying "Why did churches in the white community begin to change? Why did public opinion begin to change? Because people came out and insisted on being treated as normal. People like you, respected for their integrity. People the church had to admit were good people. Just think of the effect your coming out might have on the entire black community's perception of gays."
The songwriter winced. "Why me? Being famous in my field doesn't mean I have any obligation other than to do my work well."

We thought about that for a while, then I opined "It's true in a way. People coming out from ‘the top' may create massive publicity, but it's the grassroots people who affect real change. Day in and day out, teachers, choir members, factory workers -- in the workplace, at home -- those are the people we need to come out."

My friend looked relieved.

"But those people gather courage from the people at the top of the publicity machine, from people like you and me" I continued. "We have access to the media."

My friend groaned. "And what if I lose that access by coming out? It's hard enough being black –"
"Oh, no you don't!" Mr. Lesbian interrupted, banging her cup on the table. "Enough of that excuse. It's hard being black, it's hard being gay, it's hard being in a wheelchair - life is hard. Being human is hard! Besides, since when is being black more important to you than being famous?"
I cowered, prepared for flying dishes.

"Look," said our soon-to-be-former friend, "I don't want people to say ‘There goes so-and-so, the famous gay writer.' I don't want to be defined as that. I just want to be a writer."

My wife glowered. "But you see nothing wrong with people saying ‘There goes so-and-so, the famous black writer', do you?"

The songwriter nodded. "I have no choice about that - my color shows. But I live in a white world - I have a responsibility to my community, who are already afraid I'm losing my black identity."
"You can't lose something you don't have" sneered my spouse.

Both cups hit the table with a bang as the writer's voice began to rise. "I don't want my audience to focus on my being gay! Being black is a fact I can't escape."

Mr. L. threw her hands up in disgust, spilling soy milk all over them. "And being gay is fiction, is that what you're saying? Just another life-style choice?"

She paused for breath and a handi-wipe. "You call yourself an artist. It's an artist's job to represent truth, isn't it? Not The Truth, just truth as you see it. Your songs are about that. Your speeches are about that. Why isn't your life about that?"

The writer lifted a defiant chin. "Sometimes you have to choose your battles; I've chosen mine" she said. I've been called names all my life, and fought against every kind of racism you could imagine. No one can question my commitment."

"Your commitment to what?" With that phrase, Mr. L. threw caution to the winds. "The convenient thing about being gay," she drawled, "is that you can hide it. You had no choice about your color. You were outed as black when you were born. But maybe, underneath it, the reality is that you're just a coward. Maybe, if you could change your skin color, you would. Go on, choose your battles - which is worse, faggot or nigger? Bung-holer or spear-chucker?"

My friend leapt from the table, landing in a crouch and shouting "You stupid potato-eater, en garde! I know karate!"

Mr. L. raised both narrow fists and yelled "I know Pee Wee Herman!"

I sighed and said "I know E=MC2, but none of that is relevant." I threw a glass of water on them to get their attention, then demanded they sit down and cool off while I took the floor.

When I judged both of them had calmed down enough to hear me, I began. "Words have power over us only if we fear them" I said. "It's the words we dare not say, but continue to think, that wound to the quick when they finally slip out of our mouths during the heat of an argument. Look at the two of you, at each other's throats after ten years of friendship. Shame on you!"

I talked about two of my godchildren, who happen to have been born black and "difficult to place", and the lesbian couple who adopted them. Their parents are gay in a world where the only gay role models in the major media are white. What message does that send to these kids, I wondered? Was anybody thinking about that during this argument?

I pulled out an old book I'd been re-reading, and quoted from a passage I'd underlined years before.
"To live in hiding – to cower like an animal at the back of its den, ever-fearful of being flushed out into the waiting arms of a hunter in search of fresh prey – to spent every waking moment waiting for discovery and its accompanying loss of freedom – this is the plight of the Coloured Woman passing as White."

Or as Mr. Lesbian says, "Doesn't that feel familiar?"

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