It was a chilly Saturday night in New York City, and my husband and I decided to spend it at an East Village restaurant, slurping ramen and sipping sake. When our server first approached the table, I knew immediately he was “a member of the family.” But not because of his warmth or camaraderie.
He was immediately withdrawn, doing his best to avoid eye contact with us both. His statements were brief, like he was going through the motions. It was clear that he would not attempt to go above and beyond. I gave him the benefit of the doubt—maybe it was an off night. I worked in retail for 11 years, and I know it’s hard to be “on” every day. But I watched as he approached other tables, with a more pleasant demeanor. I saw him kiki with his co-workers. He wasn’t having a bad night. He had a problem with us.
Throughout the evening, he only returned to the table to deliver our food, which he practically threw in front of us. And when he cleared the plates, he moved so quickly that the chopsticks fell back onto the table. I’d never met this man before, but his hostility was familiar.
I, a black gay man, was sitting there with my Mexican husband, who looks vaguely European to many. I could practically hear the server’s thoughts: “Another one lost to a white man.” Without asking, without any need to confirm, I knew this server had silently read me for filth, created my narrative, and decided that I didn’t deserve his respect. I wish I could say this was a one-off occurrence, but sadly, it wasn’t.
I’ve gone out with friends who’ve noticed the shady looks from other black gays, and in my retail career, I often had the greatest difficulty managing other black gay men. With the exception of a few, they were unreceptive to me. Though I’ve always wanted to connect with other black gay men, who’ve gone through many of the same experiences, there has been a barrier. I often wondered if there was something I needed to change, but when I read Sampson McCormick’s piece, “Black Gay Men, We Must Treat Each Other Better”, I realized I wasn’t alone.
In his op-ed, McCormick shares several poignant observations:
- We often go far beyond light reads, shaming others for everything from looks to financial status.
- We seek validation from everyone except those within our community.
- We give in to the inferiority that we’ve been taught to feel, and we project it onto each other.
- Despite the adversity that we all face, we perpetuate it.
This lack of support and kinship is a known fact. It’s important to acknowledge it, but how do we move forward?
I don’t think there’s a definitive answer, but I can think of some ways to start.
First, we must express a willingness to learn about someone else’s decisions and empathize with their situation instead of assuming we know all the answers. If that server had engaged with me and my husband, instead of treating us like second-class citizens, he would have learned more about us. Our interactions could have changed the narrative he’d assumed.
And going deeper, we need to favor connection over shade. When we meet each other, we immediately search for ways to value ourselves over others. We have our defenses up, scanning others for weaknesses in case we have to fight. We’re living in tumultuous times where it’s certainly necessary to fight for our equality, but that battle shouldn’t include fighting each other.
But perhaps what’s most important is the need to be open-minded. It’s crucial to acknowledge that though we’re all gay black men, we come from different backgrounds, geographic locations, religions, experiences, and socioeconomic circumstances. We are a multifaceted group, not a monolith. And when we encounter another black gay who’s a bit different from us, that should serve as an opportunity to build community. Our differences don’t make us any less worthy of friendship or acceptance.
The battles we face against society and our communities and our families are hard enough. Why complicate that even further by breaking each other down just to feel better about ourselves?