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LGBT Pride Month and James Baldwin: When Identity Matters

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The Obama administration has declared that June is LGBT Pride Month.

There is nothing new about June being Gay Pride Month. This anniversary of the gay liberation riots outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969 has long been celebrated unofficially and officially as Gay Pride. But it is new that we now have a president who is solidly behind LGBT rights and it is new that that president is African American.

There was a time -- say a quarter of a century or so or more -- when the gay and lesbian movement was made up of primarily white individuals and it is true that the movement contained racial prejudice -- as pointed out by many, including the icon James Baldwin.

But times are a-changing. Several years ago, my partner and I attended a LGBT Kwanzaa celebration at the African American Museum in Philadelphia. This in itself was a sign of change. The auditorium was packed with young African American LGBT people, many of whom were there with Black Christian LGBT groups. My partner and I were among the few white people there -- and we knew only several people. A quarter of a century or so ago when we had just come out, we were part of the interracial lesbian-feminist group Lavender Bridges and attended Kwanzaa celebrations at a now defunct feminist bookstore where we knew everyone. Clearly this was much more our scene. But we were heartened by the crowd of African American LGBT young people at we saw at the Museum.

I feel compelled to come out to people that I have just met -- in casual conversations. And I have noticed that most people -- especially young people -- of all races don't seem to have the same knee-jerk homophobic reaction that they used to have. And this is progress.

I think James Baldwin would agree.

James Baldwin is a writer who is worth returning to. His collection of essays, Notes Of A Native Son, was reissued by Beacon Press to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death. Described as a leading American thinker on race, Baldwin was an openly gay Black man whose second novel, Giovanni's Room, published in 1956, was a love story between two white men. Giovanni's Room placed Baldwin squarely in the center of the LGBT literary cannon.

I first read Baldwin shortly after I had come out and had mustered up the courage to enter the country's oldest gay and lesbian bookstore, named after Baldwin's ground-breaking novel. I was raised in a primarily white tract-house suburban neighborhood, studied journalism (not English literature) in college and came out in the early 1980s at the age of 23.

I was aware of the politics of class and had come out in an unusually racially diverse lesbian community, but still there was much I learned about American racism from James Baldwin. That Baldwin wrote primarily from his perspective as a Black man, is not surprising considering the hostilities of the time that he lived in. In his essay, "Notes of a Native Son" (the central piece in the recently released Beacon reissued collection by the same name), Baldwin, who was born and raised in Harlem, and who had moved to New Jersey as a young man, wrote:

I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people... I knew about Jim Crow but I had never experienced it. I went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee; it was always an extraordinarily long time before anything was set before me: I had simply picked something up. Negroes were not served there, I was told, and they had been waiting for me to realize that I was always the only Negro present. Once I was told this, I was determined to go there all the time. But now they were ready for me and, though some dreadful scenes were subsequently enacted in that restaurant, I never ate there again.

As I read about Baldwin's life, I found myself wondering about what was written between the lines -- about his gay identity. When he talked about his difficult relationship with his preacher father, I wondered how much more difficult this must have been given Baldwin's sexual orientation. In "Notes of a Native Son," Baldwin writes that when he was in high school, he was the editor of the high school magazine and he was a "Young Minister" and had been preaching from the pulpit. He writes that his father noticed that he was preaching less often and abruptly said to him, "You'd rather write than preach, wouldn't you?"

Baldwin answered "Yes," and then goes on to write that was "all we had ever said." For Baldwin, this was a tragic memory and a reminder that he was never close to his father. But it was also a life-changing moment, one in which, Baldwin's father just may have prompted his son into making the realization that he was going to be a writer. A great one.

Another one of Baldwin's life-changing moments came when he had finished his second novel Giovanni's Room and, as he writes in the preface to the 1984 edition of Notes To A Native Son:

Publisher's Row, that hotbed of perception, looked on the book with horror and loathing, refused to touch it, saying that I was a young Negro writer, who, if he published this book, would alienate his audience and ruin his career. They would not, in short, publish it, as a favor to me. I conveyed my gratitude, perhaps a shade too sharply, borrowed money from a friend, and myself and my lover took the boat to France.

Considering that Baldwin spent many years living and writing abroad, this decision to leave the country again undoubtedly influenced his work. He was quoted on PBS's American Masters as saying, "Once you find yourself in another civilization ... you're forced to examine your own."

When I think of June being LGBT Pride Month, I think of all the contradictions inherent in identity. A late friend of mine, a poet who died far too young, had moved from a small town in New England (where she was asked to read at Black History events in February) to Philadelphia (where she was asked to read at Women's History events in March). She used to joke that in Philadelphia she was just a woman.

Clearly, we still need our respective identity months -- whether it is February for Black History Month -- or June for LGBT Pride -- and all of the months in between. It's important to know who you are and to celebrate that identity -- especially when that identity has been marginalized. Identity, then, helps us know ourselves better and it also connects us to each other.

But for most of us, one identity is not enough.

In the words of the other LGBT literary icon and great American writer Walt Whitman, "I am large, I contain multitudes." And in the words of James Baldwin, written in the Preface to the 1984 Edition of Notes of a Native Son (included in the Beacon Press reissue edition), "My birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever."

You can learn more about Tea Leaves: A Memoir of Mothers and Daughters here.