Darnell: Wade, we recently watched a segment of The CW's increasingly popular The LA Complex where rapper Kaldrick King (played by Andra Fuller) brutally beat a man, Tariq (played by Benjamin Charles Watson), whom he worked with and was intimately involved with. You mentioned that it was hard for you to watch that scene. Why?
Wade: It is difficult for me to watch violence occur within relationships, and particularly within LGBT relationships. There are so many negative preconceived notions about LGBT relationships, especially the way masculine-presenting closeted gay men treat their partners. It makes me sick to think that we are constantly recreating stereotypes instead of cultivating new images of gay men, especially black gay men. And the whole idea of this man being a closeted gay rapper keeps the "down low" myth and conversation going instead of offering alternatives and showing the variance that exists in the lives of black gay men. How did you feel when you watched it?
Darnell: Well, I love the idea that there is a show on primetime TV that focuses on same-sex intimacy. It wasn't until a recent episode that the seemingly self-hating and angry Kal identified as "gay." But like you, I worry about the flat representations of black men in general (and black men who love other black men, specifically) that are presented in popular culture. We are presented as the supposed "down low," self-hating man; the homo thug, whatever the hell that means; the bourgeois black dude who has moved on up; the black-gay-hairstylist or gay-best-friend caricature; or the sexy, straight "player" who is sometimes cast opposite the "good" (Christian-leaning, praying) brother. We black men (cisgender and transgender alike) are much more diverse in the ways that we live our lives, but the ways in which we are often represented within popular culture fail to capture that diversity. I also want to acknowledge, however, that LGBTQ folk, just like heterosexual folk, experience intimate partner violence in our relationships, as well, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, or other identity markers. We need to talk honestly about the ways that violence shows up in our relationships, too.
Wade: Yes! Intimate partner violence happens in all types of relationships, and we need to create more spaces where our youth can discuss their relationships openly and honestly (free of judgment) so we can rethink what a loving, healthy relationship looks like. I never talked with my parents about healthy relationships. I had to watch and learn, instead of listen, and then discuss things that happened within my current and past relationships. I can remember watching my parents argue and then ignore each other for days, so when I started dating and any issue presented itself, I similarly ignored my female and male partners. It would have been beautiful to discuss this with someone instead of feeling silenced, because I was too ashamed to show vulnerability, or because I didn't have anyone in my life who wanted to talk about LGBT relationships.
Darnell: Yes, we need to have conversations with youth regarding relationships, but I am not sure that many adults came name the ingredients necessary to build and maintain a "healthy relationship." I mean, what is a healthy relationship anyway?
Wade: That's true. I'm just referring to violence within relationships and the fact that violence (physical, mental, or emotional) is never acceptable. I am also thinking about the need to remove ourselves from relationships if abuse is present. Have you ever experienced violence within a relationship?
Darnell: I've experienced violence in relationships that I thought were healthy even though they felt destructive. It's interesting. In one case, for example, I dated a guy who had been imprisoned for stabbing a former partner prior to meeting me. I was attracted to his "type" at the time. In my early 20s, a period of transition and growth for me, I still had this image of "gay" as meaning "feminine" and "weak." I was attracted to guys who had a very particular gender presentation (i.e., masculine-acting, street-smart men who were seemingly tough). He was that guy. We seemed to have both bought into the wrong type of hype. And I loved it until this same brother began to show signs of aggression. I was scared that my family would find out about him. He showed up at my house once ready to fight, and I was nervous, to be quite honest, that he would hurt me. I am sure that I am not alone. I believe that there are many people (including men) in same-sex relationships who may have had these experiences, but who may have had trouble talking about them.
Wade: How did your understanding of love as commitment change after your relationship?
Darnell: I had this strange understanding of love as a type of commitment that one makes regardless of the harm that might be enacted. In my mind I really believed that violent partners would change, that they would be better friends and lovers. I thought that they would be able to self-correct after hurting me. And I didn't feel comfortable talking to anyone about it, because I didn't want others to know that I was involved with other men, for one. I was also embarrassed to admit that I, a man, allowed other men to assault me. I was afraid to admit that I was hurt. Now I realize that love does no harm in any way! A punch or debasing word or emotional abuse does not equal love. I've also learned to love myself enough to demand that my body and spirit be respected and celebrated and not broken and debased.
Wade: People sensationalize LGBT culture, and there aren't enough good examples of LGBT relationships represented in the media. I can imagine that parents aren't talking to their LGBT kids about healthy relationships (because it's foreign to them), so how would young LGBT folk learn how to act within them? Yes, love is love regardless of sexual orientation, but there are differences between LGBT relationships and heterosexual relationships. I can remember going out with a guy and not knowing how to act or who should open the door. Who pays? Who does this or that? There were no models or folk to discuss these things with, so I just did what my parents did. But I knew I loved him and just wanted to show my love in every way that I knew. Yet the possibility of showing my anger toward anyone, male or female, in a physical way has never crossed my mind, so when I see the images shown on TV, or when I hear the youth I work with express their "love" in such violent ways, it makes me want to cry. We need to talk about ways to express anger and love with our partners.
Darnell: We can begin by creating new ways of being, and new ways of being in relationship that aren't so "straight." The question of who opens the door when two men are out on a date is one deeply rooted in gendered (and sexist) thinking, for example. It is the type of thinking that causes us to think that the man (or the masculine/top/dominant partner in a same-sex relationship) should open the door, pay the bills, be dominant in the bedroom, and protect the woman (or the feminine/bottom/passive partner in a same-sex relationship). That is what I call "straight think." We have an opportunity, then, as queer people (or as people who attempt to resist heteronormativity) to create relationships, friendships, and sexual relations anew. Maybe that's the direction our conversations should be moving regardless of our various sexual identities and/or gender expressions.
Wade: As a 35-year-old man I agree, but if I were a 16-year-old teenager, I probably wouldn't be thinking about that the fact that I was recreating gender roles; I'd just be trying to figure out how to navigate my first LGBT relationship, and probably the only models I'd have are straight relationships.
Darnell: Indeed. It is our job to engage our young people in these conversations so that they can create new representations in popular culture and manifest new ways of being in their lives, but we must do the work, too. At 36 I am learning still, nearly every day, how to live in ways that build up myself and others in my life. The LA Complex might very well help some think about the limited examples that frame the ways we live and relate and sexually engage and think.