It was August 9th, 2016 when my girlfriend and I walked hand in hand down Canfield Avenue in Ferguson, Missouri. It was the two-year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown, and the two year anniversary of the following events that would change both of our lives forever. Her and I both grew up in Florissant, Missouri, a mere five minute drive from where the bulk of the protests, tear gassing and overall chaos took over the typically quiet St. Louis suburb two summers ago. For months at a time, we lived on the edge as tanks rolled through the streets and news crews swarmed through our backyards and neighborhoods.
The two of us approached the Canfield apartment buildings that overlooked the street and a sizeable collection of teddy bears and flowers. We each held a rose in our hand to place amongst the endless amassment of trinkets and “We love you Mike,” post cards. I remember clutching onto the flower so tight, attempting to swallow away the lump that had been forming in my throat since I parked my car a few blocks away. My palm was bright red by the time we finally made it to the center of the residential street.
My girlfriend turned to me and gave a slight smile before pulling me closer so that I could rest my head on her shoulder. I closed my eyes for a moment and truly processed the fact that I was standing next to the last place that Mike Brown ever walked. The moment was heavy; like many St. Louis residents, I was still struggling to come to terms with everything that happened two years prior. Visiting Canfield Ave was a way for me to show my respects to Mike while also gaining more closure about the entire situation. It’s been a process, as I sometimes still have dreams and memories of being tear gassed on North Florissant Ave, but I’ve slowly gotten closer to a sense of peace and normalcy.
Then, I felt my girlfriend tense up beside me. I snapped out of my trance and spun my head around, finally truly noticing the scenery around me. Other than the posters, the flowers and the stuffed animals were also dozens of sets of eyes. Staring. Directly at us. Old eyes, young eyes, curious eyes, angry eyes: All from other people of color. An older black woman made a face at me while slowly shaking her head in disapproval while muttering under her breath. A group of young black men a few yards away were staring at the two of us, making gestures and pointing.
I became acutely aware of the fact that I was wrapped up in my girlfriend’s arms, and that people could see us in plain view.
Not everyone was happy to see me there, very black and very obviously queer.
My reflex was to push my girlfriend away — to create distance and create the illusion that we were only friends, maybe even cousins. But I couldn’t do that. I, like the rest of my city, was mourning on that day. I needed to be wrapped up tight, to be comforted and to feel love on the anniversary of such a terrible day. I didn’t need a friend or a cousin to stand a safe, platonic, distance away from me. I needed my girlfriend, no matter how radical or unorthodox it seemed to have been.
I’d felt a barrage of emotions that day; angry at the events of 2014, sad that Mike was gone, hopeful for positive change in my city. Suddenly though, as I stood frozen in the street with my girlfriend beside me, I felt frustrated and overall fed-up with my own people for making me feel unwelcome and anxious in a moment of healing and closure. As a local who’d seen and experienced the madness of St. Louis in fall 2014, I felt as if I’d earned the right to make the short pilgrimage to Canfield Ave to show my respects, as I had the two years prior. Like others gathered around me, I had returned to this street to gain closure and to help preserve the memory of a fallen neighbor. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel a sharp pain in my heart as more and more disapproving glances were being thrown my way. It felt like disappointment from the same community that I marched beside two years prior, running home through smokey streets and helping one another get tear gas out of our eyes. Yet it seemed like when the sun came out and the rubber bullets stopped flying, the underlying bigotry toward the LGBT community would ruin any chance I had of having a safe space to heal.
Which is a shame, because my community is a family that I would quite literally put my life on the line for. My girlfriend and I weren’t doing anything radical or even interesting. No rainbow flags or techno music. No picket signs or significant PDA. Just a warm embrace from one woman to another, at a time where we both needed it.
My girlfriend spoke out loud before I could.
“I can feel pretty uncomfortable around people of color sometimes,” she said. She looked down for a second. “Being openly queer, I mean.”
It struck me that she’d been thinking the exact thing on my mind. There’s an indisputable irony of feeling shut out by people of color, when we’re both women of color. Homophobia within my own community is something I’ve dealt with and witnessed my entire life, yet it’s not something that I’ll ever truly be numb to.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt disapproval or anger regarding my sexuality from my own community. It very well won’t be my last. But rather than write off my own black community as unsalvageably homophobic, I rather acknowledge the fact that we’ve made progress and that the work left to do is completely manageable. As much as I wanted to retreat back to my vehicle and zoom off into the sunset, we stayed long enough to pay our respects as we’d intended.
Intersectionality means that there will be moments when one identity clashes into another full force.
I’ve accepted that sometimes it’ll make me feel defeated and hopeless about acceptance in my own community. Other times, someone will give me a knowing smile to let me know that everything’s okay and that I’m welcomed in that space. I’ve also accepted that sometimes it will be my job to offer a smile or approving nod whenever I see another young queer woman of color walking around in spaces I’m occupying. Small gestures like that are what make the small difference between fear and intimidation, comfort and healing.
I challenge the black community to check their prejudices at the door, especially when it comes to times and places of healing. Like colorism and classism, homophobia is dangerous and divisive. As a black woman, I should feel comfortable enough to mourn with my own community without feeling like a nervous wreck with fear of being berated over my sexuality.
As the night wrapped up, my girlfriend and I walked hand-in-hand back to my car. We decided to make a quick stop at Walgreens; the same one that had been broken and tattered this time two years ago. The same shop that had been posted all over the news to show the chaos that had erupted in our hometown. The broken windows have since been replaced, the walls restored. The new shiny floors squeaked underneath my sneakers as we laughed and twirled our way through the aisles. She picked up a Slim Jim while I grabbed a bottle of sparkling water.
We stood in front of the young, eager cashier as he rang up our items. His fade was fresh, likely cut by one of the famous barbers in Ferguson. He looked up over his register a few times, trying his best to hold back a smile before finally cracking and showing his pearl-white teeth. I held my breath and prepared myself for whatever chauvinistic comment he was about to make about me and my girlfriend. My girlfriend held my hand, probably anticipating the same thing.
The cashier smiled, looked down, and mumbled under his breath. Finally he rose his head so that his brown eyes were staring back at mine.
“You two are cute as hell together,” he said, still grinning from ear to ear.
I could feel my girlfriend loosen her grip around my hand as she giggled and thanked the young man. For the first time at all that day, I was able to breathe.