In the 8th grade, someone I looked up to told me, “As a black man in America, you already have two strikes against you and to be successful you have to work twice as hard to not fit the misconception that young African-American men are dangerous criminals.” He also stated that “the third strike could lead to you being incarcerated or worse: dead.”
As I grew up and started to figure out who I am as a person, that message deeply resonated with me. I wondered: What if I already have three strikes against me?
Growing up in North St. Louis. I was surrounded by gun violence and drug addiction. I had friends who were in gangs and sold drugs. Some had even committed robberies. I always knew I didn’t want to be a part of that. Therefore, I made my education my number one priority. School became a hobby to me. I genuinely enjoyed learning.
Once it was time for me to go to high school, I realized I didn’t think like most boys do. After many internal conflicts growing up, I eventually identified myself as a homosexual man: my third strike. From as early as kindergarten, I was attracted to other boys. I remember having a classmate that I wanted to be friends with so bad, but being the age I was I didn’t know it was because I found him attractive.
I started off my freshman year at Metro Academic and Classical High School. I came out to my friends and family as gay at 15 years of age, which was surprisingly easy. My classmates didn’t make it a big deal, nor did anyone in my family.
What scared me was how society would act towards a gay, black man. How would my own community treat me? I was openly gay, but out of fear of being ridiculed I went from being the talkative, energetic young man who loved being the center of attention in middle school to a quiet and shy bystander. I didn’t want heterosexual men to feel uncomfortable around me because I had heard stories of gay boys getting beat up or killed just for being themselves. Television always portrayed flamboyant and very feminine gay boys being mentally and physically attacked. I often wondered if that would become my reality.
There were always stereotypes I heard about gay men that portrayed them as atheistic, promiscuous drug addicts, thieves, or pedophiles, all of which incorrectly described me. So, I started to act overly masculine in fear of being judged based off those stereotypes.
I eventually became friends with another gay young man who also didn’t fit the stereotypes. One day my friend took me to The Spot, which is a community outreach program that caters to young black men aged 16-24. That was the first time I met an openly gay black adult. His name was Lawrence, and he was the organization’s director. Lawrence was like a mentor to everyone at The Spot. If you just needed someone to talk to or needed to find housing, he was always there to help.
The Spot is where I met more and more people like me. We participated in group discussions every Tuesday about things from STD protection to planning block parties. It made us feel like we had a voice in the community. Going to The Spot every week was like having another family: one that completely understood what I was going through and my fears of being an openly gay teen. One weekend The Spot passed me a flyer for a ball. I would soon learn about a sub-community within the LGBT community.
Balls are a compilation of different competitions. It started off as an underground society and is slowly but gradually making its way into mainstream. It gives gay youth of color the chance to be the person they want to be, able to express themselves in ways they can't on a daily basis. This eventually became a favorite hobby of mine. I meet people that I feel like I can relate to by going to different balls across the country.
Meeting these people provides an opportunity for me to hear all of their different stories about their upbringings and things they went through being a black, gay male in America. I saw many similarities and differences between me and the people I talked to.
A big problem I noticed within the ballroom community was homelessness. Most people that I met told me about their homeless experiences. They said it stemmed from being openly gay and their family not being accepting of them. Being young and trying to figure out exactly who you are, while not knowing where you could be getting your next meal or when or where you’ll be able to sleep, can be a lot for someone to handle.
How can I help the brothers in my community overcome such a major consequence? One way I can help the homeless epidemic in the black male LGBT community is to be their voice. Most people who are homeless tend to be scared or ashamed of asking for help. I can take action by going to different organizations and giving them more insight on the problem. It may be a small step, but it’s towards the right direction.
Another way I plan to help is to actually work with community outreach programs, so I can learn better ways to help the men in my community. In the future, I plan to help open a homeless shelter.
Elijah Quinn was a STL Youth summer intern in the Race and Opportunity Lab at Washington University in St. Louis Brown School.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, co-edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, in memory of Michael Brown.