Try and think back to anytime you’ve heard the following words being used to describe a person in general or just their behavior: sus, zesty, a little “sweet.” You probably have an idea of what kind of person that those words are referring to, right?
Well, for those who don’t know, these are words that are commonly used in the Black community to insinuate that someone is gay or that a man is more feminine-presenting. While some people may say these words and others like them in a light-hearted manner, they’ve often been used with a negative connotation to label any behavior that is thought to go against the model of what certain genders “should’” act like. It isn’t just these few words that provide evidence of a shared bias though; that is only the beginning.
Intersectionality is a relatively new term coined by the accomplished scholar and activist, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in the late 1980s. In her own words, the concept of intersectionality describes how systems of oppression can overlap to create distinct experiences for people with multiple identity categories. When it comes to being Black in the LGBTQ+ community, many of us are exposed to a unique brand of prejudice that is brought about in response to our overlapping identities. It is thought that a person can be Black, yes, and they can be queer or trans, but god forbid that they choose to be both. This, however, is a nonsensical belief since neither of these parts of a person’s identity occur by choice. It does lead us to discover a preference amongst most closeted homophobes that a person can be gay, just as long as they don’t make it their whole personality. A glaring example of this exists in the 2021 BET awards. Lil Nas X and Tyler, the Creator, both extremely popular young rappers, performed live and the comments following them were very…different. Both artists are known by many for their queerness but only Lil Nas X actually ‘displayed’ this during his performance.
He shares a kiss with one of his male backup dancers in a fiery closing number which is then reposted on BET’s instagram account. The comments on that post were all kinds of homophobic with people wondering ‘what happened’ to the award show and insisting that it was pushing a new and harmful (clearly gay) agenda. BET also reposted a clip of Tyler, the Creator’s performance which was met with a great majority of positive comments about his talent, artistry, and stage presence.
Although both rappers have a history of making “sus” comments regarding their attraction to and romantic pursuits of men, this was particularly used against Lil Nas X when it was convenient and right in the audience’s face.
Part of what makes the Black community so close-knit is our shared humor and ways of communicating certain thoughts, emotions, and sentiments without even having to say much. A new generation of people, specifically through social media apps like TikTok, have started to refer to our unique way of verbal communication as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). We’ve found ways to connect with each other that are unique to us and only us. Part of these connections include certain brands of humor and media that often get passed down as classics throughout the decades.
Most African-American people have heard of and came up on movie series such as “Big Momma’s House,” a collection of films in which actor Martin Lawrence plays an FBI agent who dresses up as a woman in order to remain undercover. This is only one example of a specific brand of humor that involves grown men dressing up as, usually bigger, women and dramatizing their behaviors, as well as making them seem particularly unattractive or overwhelmingly provocative. It also commonly includes the climactic moment where the character is exposed to be a man who was only posing as a woman, which warrants a great deal of shock, embarrassment, and disgust from those around them. (“Mrs. Doubtfire” would be another popular film that fits this narrative.) This type of comedy often wrongly paints trans feminine people as individuals who only seek to seduce, confuse, and deceive others.
The first installment in the “Big Momma’s House” series was released in 2000, but that does not mean that this issue has faded over time. More recently in 2021, Dave Chappelle, an increasingly popular Black stand-up comedian, faced a considerable amount of backlash after the release of his Netflix special entitled “The Closer.” Throughout the course of the 72-minute special, Chappelle manages to misgender multiple women (including late comedian Daphne Dorman), refer to himself as “Team TERF” (the term T.E.R.F. meaning Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist), and argue that he, in addition to the entirety of Black people as a whole apparently, are envious of the LGBTQ+ community for how far they’ve come in their movement in comparison to Black people.
The last statement is actually reminiscent of a sentiment that is quite common amongst the Black community: that queer and trans individuals have more rights and are, in turn, more privileged than Black individuals. While it may seem easy to look at bold headlines from movements having their own successes, it doesn’t do anyone any good to argue over two very distinct struggles. It also fails to address the fact that there are Black people who experience discrimination simply because they are a part of both groups, since the two are not and have never been mutually exclusive.
Marginalized peoples don’t need to be pitted against each other any more than we already are; instead of competing for liberation in areas where we’re disadvantaged, it would be the most helpful for all of us to work together in ending stigmas and uplifting each other.
So, with all of this deep-rooted bias and marginalization in our own community, how can we work toward moving forward? I’m not saying that our community should stop using its common slang or throw out all our favorite films, but rather that we should reevaluate the reasons why we use certain words, enjoy certain forms of media, and make certain kinds of jokes.
It wouldn’t be surprising to me in the slightest if this commentary was met with any remark along the lines of “We can’t have/say sh*t anymore!” While it may seem that way because these things are so ingrained in our vocabularies and senses of humor, we should want to have and say things that aren’t harmful to people, especially those within our own community. It shouldn’t be an inconvenience to express concern for members of your community who are marginalized in ways that are both similar and different from you.
I urge everyone reading this to reflect upon their own biases and consider how the “jokes’” and comments that they make and laugh at every day — you know the ones that earn sideways glances or uncomfortable shifts from others around you — could actually just be blatantly homophobic and/or transphobic, not a reason for you to curse the current generation for being “too sensitive.”