If life is a game, then black queer people quickly learn that different rules apply to them – or at least, so it seems. Growing up I occasionally heard about the ‘Three Strike’ rule, some kind of unwritten code stating that in a Western society that had been built on the horrors of racism and colonialism, black people already had one ‘strike’ against them. As a result, your goal was to get through life without getting any more strikes against you. Three strikes, and you’re out. Doesn’t sound like much fun, but then this game was never created for our enjoyment.
For many, discovering that you are queer is Strike Two, an additional albatross around the neck, potentially making life more complicated for those who already need to summon great strength to accept themselves in a world that has often denied them the right of recognising their own beauty and brilliance. These were the kinds of questions that came to mind as I wrestled to reconcile this queer identity, stemming from the fear that I was always just one step away from being struck out of the game.
It’s an interesting crossroads to be stood at – on the one side, a queer culture that is becoming ever more prominent, but with many recurring and troubling issues with regards to diversity of representation. On the other a Western society that demands often clearly stereotyped roles for black men and women, to the detriment of all other forms of expression. To go one way often seems like a rejection of the other, a dissatisfying compromise that leaves everyone involved worse off. How can you ever be your best if you can never bring all of yourself out into the open?
These were the kinds of questions I was grappling with as a university student, clinging to the rewarding (if financially crippling) final cocoon of academia before being thrust into the relentlessly demanding adult world. I needed answers – about who I could become, about what opportunities for development were open to me. It’s always hard to know how you should move forward when you have no reference point to refer to. But one final year class would teach me that the things we fear are often blessings in disguise, an opportunity to tear up the rulebook, press reset on the game and discover new territories.
The class was Postcolonial Literature, and was easily one of the best choices I ever made in my time at university. The course reading included a range of well and lesser-known texts. I could never have known at the time that I picked up my copy of Gloria Anzaldúa’s seminal work ‘Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza’ that it would have such a profound impact on me, a beautifully written literary grenade that salved so many of my worries and set me off on a wonderful path of self discovery. I still have my copy now, battered and dog-earred after spending years being jostled around in my bag, read and reread on buses and trains and in the line at the Post Office, almost every page marked with a post it note because it sparked some train of thought that I didn’t want to forget.
‘Borderlands’ is a difficult book to summarise precisely because it’s not just one thing, but rather myriad different stories held together between two covers
. It’s a lot like black queer culture in that sense – multi-faceted, layered, and its many faces only contribute to its uniqueness. To give a somewhat brief (and incomplete) description, the book is a semi-autobiographical exploration of Chicano and Latin American experience, and the borderlands that often exist for people who find themselves on the margins of two or more identities. Anzaldúa (who sadly passed away in 2004) identified herself as a feminist lesbian writer, but actively claimed those identities as part of a powerful rejection of the racist, patriarchal status quo that had tried to contain her throughout so much of her life.
As if this wasn’t already somewhat rich material, it can’t be denied that the above doesn’t do the book justice – it’s part autobiography, part book of essays, part poetic anthology, all of it interwoven with a truly unique approach to language. Anzaldúa believed
that language was a weapon that had been used to subjugate people throughout history, and her unique approach to language in the text taught me a great deal about power, about the possibilities when you use words to shape your reality – to literally create the world you want to live in, based on how you use your words.
It created an epiphany for me – a realisation that that stupid three-strike rule had never applied to me after all, that it didn’t have to apply to anyone. Suddenly what the world had treated like impediments became transformed into weapons that could be used to dismantle the status quo. It excited me, offered me a window into how it might be possible to create and nurture a queer black culture that made use of all of its facets and dormant power. We’re so used to hearing words like ‘black’ and ‘queer’ connected with words like ‘minority’ and ‘niche’, but ‘Borderlands’ was a wake up call to the limitless possibilities waiting to be uncovered in black queer culture.
Now I know better what is possible. I understand that the more strikes and facets the better, because now is the time to step up to the plate and knock that patriarchal ball right out of the park.