Josh Rivers explores what it means to grow up black and gay in the semi-autobiographical “You’re Hot… for a Black Guy”.
I tied my grandma’s multi-coloured scarves around my head and walked around her bedroom feeling regal and empowered. Perhaps because they were hers. Or maybe the colours mirrored how I felt inside.
I danced to Whitney Houston in my living room when no one was home, with a can of aerosol in one hand, the other gesticulating wildly. I still want to dance with somebody.
I felt light and bright and free. I dressed my sister up and then pushed her down the stairs. As she cried, I pretended I was Oprah and interviewed her about her pain: you shouldn’t let men push you around. Does a wise sage ever follow his own advice?
I made out with my cousin. We played The Bodyguard. I was Whitney, obviously.
I got caught with a girl doing things I now find, frankly, unspeakable. How did I even know how to do that? From wherever the tricks came, they surely went back after that.
The boys started to notice I was different.
I was carted off to church every Sunday, moisturised as if God would get personally offended if my knees were ashy. The potent aroma of cherries and almond I’ll never forget.
It was my grandfather who delivered the damnation. A shiny, sweaty messenger from God and he had one thing to say: don’t be that, whatever it is you’re thinking of becoming.
The suffocating cloak of religion became unbearable. It’s funny that I remember feeling what I felt so clearly now. I felt for sure I was going to die.
I escaped, often, into the inner recesses of my mind, where dancing, laughing and being me was the only thing I had to do to survive. And that was even before I realised my skin colour had anything to do with my place in the world.
I dulled my colours, I shrunk in size. I stooped so as not to draw attention to my expanding shoulders. I wore baggy jeans to hide my thighs.
This body that’s been given to me, painted black and built of bricks, feels heavy. My skin is oily. I feel different. I feel like my teeth glow in the dark.
It’s an awkward stage for any of us, but my shoulders and hips started to sway. I felt like I couldn’t help but strut everywhere. Some of us have more regal struts than others, but we strut. And it’s not just gay men of colour who strut. Men of colour strut. I learn to embrace the strut. When you can work a room like me, let’s talk.
I was put forward for sports I didn’t want to play, kissed girls I thought smelled cheap and had sex with overdeveloped white boys who would never introduce me to their families.
I took a summer job to buy the clothes my dad wouldn’t, so I could craft my persona for the world, which was opposite to the person I was hiding away inside.
I tried coloured contacts because apparently green eyes are better than brown.
I burned my scalp straightening my hair because apparently straight hair is better than curly.
I stayed out of the sun because apparently light skin is better than dark.
I navigated mine fields. I broke out in eczema. The stress of school, the stress of lying.
It feels like my sexuality flows freely from an inner well, pulsing and rushing through my body. Indeed, it often feels like even my blood might be gay.
I admit it to myself: I’m gay. Through osmosis, the energy from that well lights up my skin. I feel effervescent. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been sure of.
I come out. I cry. A lot.
My dad is upset: I already have one mark against me; now I have two.
“I didn’t do anything for these marks against me.” None of us have.
What feels like the boulder of my exterior, a mountain weathered and hardened by insults and promises of damnation, is actually only a fragile facade. It was not built to last.
I would learn I am.
I graduate top of my class. I get into all the schools I want.
My first real boyfriend is white – the type of white you see on magazine covers. I feel like he uses me for cultural cache. I get in heated debates with him when he says he doesn’t see colour. I’m unsure if bold-faced lies about race are reason to break up with someone or if I’m being sensitive.
I push my sexuality out of the way to interrogate my race. I feel like I have to choose one over the other.
I break up with Magazine Cover Boy – it turns out if one is deluded about race and privilege, he’s deluded about a lot else.
I learn that we all learn truths we can’t unlearn and that we have to do something with those truths.
I lose myself in the scene. Drugs are a comfortable respite.
White men either can’t get enough of me, or can’t get far enough away from me. I learn there really is no middle ground.
The first time he stroked my skin and commented on how soft it is, I took it as a compliment. I watched his blue eyes stare at my brown skin in awe, his breathing getting heavier, his body coming closer with each stroke.
I took it as a compliment when a second guy grabbed my thighs and my ass, as he celebrated the curve of the small of my back, the muscular leanness of my frame, the power in my shoulders.
Just as I was starting to appreciate my body, so was everyone else.
My mind was growing, too.
When a third guy stared into my brown eyes, his green eyes brimming with curiosity, and called me exotic, I was flattered. As he tried to place my origin – “Brazilian, right?” – he prodded at my body. He grabbed at my arms and pulled me into him. He wanted to dominate me. He wanted to own me, my body. He was sure it belonged to him.
No one asks me if I’ve read any books lately.
Four, five, six, seven. Is it normal to be stared at like this? Is it normal to be grabbed, pulled, stroked, dominated? Do I like it? Am I asking for it?
I hear “You’re hot… for a black guy” a lot, as if an entire race of people can be condensed into one person you’ve seen at a party. It turns out I am used to it, though. We, as a race, are used to it.
It makes people uncomfortable when they see my eyebrows twitch upon hearing it, when they realise they have just been accidentally racist. Despite my rearing, my face always gives racism away, no matter how subtle or unintended.
I feel like I’m in a fucking petting zoo.
I read Malcolm X’s autobiography and the powerhouse novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I realise my gay body and my black body are currency in the world, that I’m a commodity. A commodity, but in both worlds, less valuable.
I stop ignoring the Black Lives Matter movement. I become “woke”, if you will.
I bring sexuality and race into the same equation. Mind. Fucked.
As I try and navigate my place in the world as a gay man of colour, I start to feel heavy again. Is my light ever going to shine like it used to, undimmed by the filters the world puts over it? Am I too gay? Too black? Too effeminate? Who am I allowed to be?
I retreat. I ruminate. I reflect. I react.
I read James Baldwin: “Our crown has already been bought and paid for; all we have to do is wear it.”
If my body has adjusted to all the pressure and from it been carved into a vessel capable of carrying more weight than usual, then this crown is mine for wearing. It’s what I’ve been primed for.
And so I’m moisturising like I’m going to church.
I’m nurturing my body because I need it to last.
I’m losing my mind at parties because I need to relax.
I’m rebelling at the lack of images of men like me in the media because I need to be seen and heard.
I’m filling my head with books and arming myself with knowledge.
I’m telling myself I’m beautiful in the mirror in case no one else will.
I’m falling in love with my nose and my rough hands and the stretch marks on my ass.
I’m growing into the man I want to be – the man I was designed to be.
I’m starting to feel light and bright and free.
My place in the world might not be well-defined, but that I belong here or that I am beautiful is. I now know that to be true.