I Learned it from Watching You: Healing Legacies of Trauma and Abuse in Queer Communities
“Who taught you to hate yourself?” Malcolm’s words had me locked into his 1962 speech hungry for more of his anti-white supremacy shade. At the time I was a daughter of the “golden era” of hip-hop - Public Enemy, X-Clan and Boogie Down Productions were heavily involved with the shaping of my critical consciousness.
I grew up in California, a certified tomboy. I was the fastest girl on my track team, the best break-dancer in my crew, the dopest rapper in the cypher. I was one of the best boys I had ever met. And when we started exploring our little sexual selves, I noticed a small tingling in my body that happened every time I had a sleepover at a girl’s house. The tingle was somehow related to the feeling I got when watching Prince videos, particularly the inexplicable yumminess I felt from Wendy and Lisa. The way they swayed together in unison to the Minneapolis sound was similar to the humping my friends and I would do when our parents left us to our own devices. This was 1984 and crack cocaine had landed in my neighborhood, in my house. Many parents were suspiciously gone at night and us kids found comfort and normalcy in each other, chosen family.
“Is the water warm enough?”
“Shall we begin?”
Whatever this was it felt gloriously nasty, a love lesson from the residents of ‘Erotic City.’ What water? Begin what? Long story short, I decided they were together and I wanted in, or at least my own Wendy to run water for. Before I could make a move on the cute girl of my choice, the daughter of my mother’s friend made a move on me. I spent the night at her house while our moms partied on the streets of LA. This girl, let’s call her Keisha (realistic as hell for the Black Los Angeles 80s), started humping me in the middle of the night and as you can imagine, nightgown friction was in full effect. Acting surprised and protecting what little of my heterosexuality I owned, I demanded that she stop, while secretly hoping she continue. And continue she did. “The girls in my neighborhood do this all the time,” she said. I remember feeling a sense of relief, humanized between fear and pleasure. From that point forward, I found girls my age from the block to ‘do it’ with and to my surprise, they were down. Here was yet another area of life where I outshone the boys.
When “The Color Purple” came out around this time (1985), I heard sound bites from the national debate about sexism and abuse within the Black community while hanging out at my ‘big mama’s’ house. My grandmother, Ceola Nunn, migrated from Mississippi to Cali along with hundreds of thousands of others during the multi-decade great migration. She watched Donahue and Oprah religiously and stayed glued to the television trying to make sense of crack (several of her children were addicts), AIDs, hip-hop and Michael Jackson’s rightfully outrageous popularity. The stench of Reaganomics had us all searching the TV guide for answers. To complicate things more, Alice Walker brings Mister, Celie and Ms. Sophia to an already chaotic and confusingly inspiring decade. But why were the Tony Browns, the Ishmael Reeds and the Louis Farrakhans of the world upset with Alice? And what did they mean by “airing dirty laundry?”
We had lots of dirty laundry in my family, and more often than not it was related to men hurting women. My mother, my aunts, my grandmother all had secrets that came to life. More damaging for me to witness, as a kid, were the men continuing this business with little accountability from the women. But women were not inherently cooperative and I know this now. They, too, were indoctrinated by this gendered political system that deemed them invisible—less valuable. But their cooperation in the system of patriarchy and the passing along of its values to me was a difficult space to navigate, as I tried to find my own voice and visibility.
I decided on my own (consciously) that men were inherently abusive and dishonest, that’s what being a man meant. At the same moment, did I also decide (unconsciously) that perhaps that’s what loving a woman meant? It took years and reading the work of Audre Lorde, Patricia Hill Collins, Mark Anthony Neal and so many others, to move from using terms like sexism and masculinity to describe a political system that felt much larger than these words could hold. These scholars/artists gave me the word patriarchy and still, I saw no place where I could in fact be someone carrying out its order, hadn’t yet noticed my ability to outshine the boys in this area of life as well.
I was excited to have an opinion about “The Color Purple,” an opinion based on personal experiences. Alice Walker was telling the truth and not enough of us had the tools to understand it. I was shielded from the film because of its heavy sexual content. Little did my family know, my peers and I were sexually active, even if we were fully clothed, and by that time, like Shug, I was exploring my desire for girls and boys. When I was old enough to watch it, maybe five years later, it became especially clear that I was also a victim of abuse—and not simply the commonly accepted ‘spanking.’ My father would explode when triggered, and typically my mother and I were the first available for the anger’s landing. I have two sisters, but my older sister lived separately from us and my youngest sister was barely five at the time. The brunt of that rage found time on my body. Middle child blues, I bore witness. My mother’s drug use intensified before a divorce happened and I was left to piece together a story that would allow me to understand and survive—or better yet, react to this unsolicited truth. I had little access to what loving someone well meant. From this space, I stepped into a vicious multi-decade cycle of painful love suffering.
I screened “The Color Purple 30 Years Later” in Atlanta, Georgia and posed the question to a mainly lesbian and queer identified audience. “Who taught you how to love women?” Because if the answer is men, then depending on what the men in your family did, some of us were in trouble. “Who taught you to hate women?” is another way to frame the question, pulling on the same Socratic method that Malcolm did, probing the audience to go further into critical thought about ways we learn to love.
Alice’s work also had me thinking about radical change as a possibility for everyone and that change can be instant, or manifest over the period of a lifetime. The film encourages us to reflect on the work that must be done to investigate the context of behavior, so as to avoid dehumanizing folks when working towards interrupting the cycle of abuse. Since then, with an open heart, I have watched my father, like Mister, become a gentle, remorseful and loving man and I have watched my mother reach each year of sobriety with dignity. We are not a broken people.
The decision to unlearn patriarchal masculinity has been and continues to be a journey. After moving in and out of abusive/dysfunctional partnerships, I’ve finally landed in a space where I can see my pattern and build a way out of it. I have the honor to be working directly with Dr. bell hooks and be in conversation with her about what unlearning patriarchal masculinity looks like in real time. Some of those conversations look like me pushing back on recent comments she’s made that could be seen as ideas that uphold patriarchal masculinity. The biggest, most valuable lesson here is that absolutely nobody is perfect, but we owe it to each other to provide safe spaces to learn.
I’m finding peace in where I am now, a place that makes asking for forgiveness from those I’ve harmed, forgiveness from myself for harming others and the forgiveness of those (family and former lovers) who have harmed me, necessary for my healing. To find this forgiveness I had to first admit to myself, then to my partner, then to my community, that I have been, at times, a womanist and a womanizer, a healer and a heartbreaker and a conscious and controlling human being in relationships. And my most passionate relationships were with women who have similar contradictions and patterns. In fact, many of the people I’ve partnered with have been survivors of abusive fathers, have had a parent with an addiction and have had relationships where intimate partner violence existed—painful love suffering. Like me, some of these magical women have been powerful forces in the community, with a touch of madness that complicates our public, personal and political identities.
We attract people who reflect where we are, and because I wasn’t ready to look at myself, I kept selecting partners who showed me, by mirroring aspects of my own behavior, the work I needed to do. Inevitably, we triggered each other sometimes to the point of violence. My hope is that they, too, will share their history, so that transformative justice and community accountability is a process we all have access to, a process that is detached from the desire to control the narrative of the ending of a relationship. This truth telling will encourage less shame around finding the support we need to be in right relationship with each other and create less space for blaming and demonizing people who do struggle to be their wholes selves in love. I strongly believe that abuse in the queer community should be reviewed with a unique and specialized lens. It requires a nuanced discussion that works to understand the entanglement of verbal, emotional and psychological abuse that sometimes creates the conditions for physical abuse and a mutually abusive dynamic.
It is through radical self-awareness, energy healing practices, and a partner whose work is rooted in complexity, compassion and the creation of alternative realities that I have begun the work of unlearning abusive behavior. I will spend the rest of my life committed to becoming whole, working to bring together the schisms that threaten my peace and stability and the peace and stability of women I love. I share this while holding the understanding that ancestral and familial trauma, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, anger, race rage, domestic and state sanctioned violence showed up in my life, shaping me, before I learned to speak. The hurt from it stayed lodged in my body as untreated trauma until I had enough tools to begin the healing journey.
Brooklyn based journalist Esther Armah describes this struggle powerfully, asserting that, “Trauma cannot be treated by legislation or ideology alone - no matter its power. It is neither political, ideological, nor philosophical. It is emotional. Emotionality masquerading as ideology creates cyclical arguments that end in hurt feelings, repeated individual narratives, exchange of insults, imploding organizations and untouched institutional power. Platforms alone were just never enough. We needed process. Why? Some wounds we buried. Some wounds buried us. We became living graveyards. We carried bodies and bones in our living bodies and our bones.”
The fact is, none of us can escape patriarchal conditioning and ‘the farming of bones,’ but learning that I have other choices to give and receive the love I deserve, I have found my relationship with masculinity to be a less charged and quite frankly a less hurtful experience for those who invite me into their heart space. I possess two gender spirits (out of the many available to us) that I’m in deep relationship with and at deep peace with. I am a Black woman who enjoys performing masculinity and I do it well. More accurately, I’m a fag. Born in 1975, I’m an 80s baby type of gender bender and it’s taken me years to ‘wake up like this,’ fully comfortable in my body and excited about the skin it’s in. I now see masculinity as an extension of my style, as an expression of my layered identity, and as an opportunity to revise masculinity in a way that feels empowering to all who come into contact with it. It’s a conscious way to perform my personality and my taste, and this performance is finally, or should I say constantly, because I’m a damn work in progress, one that cultivates the parts of myself that are not rooted in trauma, but in transformative love.