You can’t go home again ― or so that old cliché claims. I’d never given it much thought before, but lately it’s felt like my life in five words.
Born in the Virgin Islands and raised in Florida, I was one of eight million stories in New York City for most of my adulthood before reaching “The end” in my mid-thirties. I’m 48 now, and I haven’t lived in the United States since the George W. Bush years, back when the possibility of a black U.S. president seemed as distant a dream as the first openly gay one.
But a black, gay man could dream.
I didn’t have to dream much longer. (Hello, President Barack Obama!) As it turned out, though, I spent all of the first black U.S. presidency living abroad. Now, for the first time since leaving nearly 11 years ago, I’m seriously considering moving back, and I’m torn. With social, political, and racial tension in America ever-escalating ― a troubling trajectory established alongside the landing of Obama’s presidency and the ascent of Donald Trump ― I’ve been asking myself: Is there a place for me there, a safe place for me there, in these #BlackLivesMatter times?
I’m still reeling from one of the latest incidents, the May 20th murder of black Bowie State University senior Richard Collins III, 23, allegedly by 22-year-old Maryland State University student Sean Christopher Urbanski, three days before graduation. The suspect is said to be a member of the Facebook group Alt-Reich Nation, the sort of racist organization that has found renewed relevancy in recent years.
My fear of this new American normal started kicking in two years ago when I read about a white NYPD officer tackling black retired tennis pro James Blake down to the ground after mistaking him for a suspect in a fraud investigation ― a fraud investigation.
Surveillance video captured the arresting cop’s use of excessive force, which many deemed racially motivated. The incident reminded me of something that happened to me in the early ’90s at The Gap on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. A security guard detained me for more than an hour because I supposedly fit the description of a local shoplifting suspect (i.e., we were both black). Although I got considerably mouthy that evening, especially when he started smelling the Gap items in my overnight bag to see if they were freshly stolen, I went home without any bruises.
Blake wasn’t even resisting arrest, leading me to wonder how my detainment at The Gap might play out today. Would I leave the store in handcuffs on a stretcher?
If anyone had suggested it might one day come to this back on September, 15, 2006, I probably would have waved them away. (“President Trump? Never!”) That day, almost exactly five years after one of the most life-changing events of my life, I embarked on the most life-changing journey of my life. I left the United States, for good. Only I had no idea at the time.
When the plane took off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, where I’d spent 15 years toiling as a staff writer and editor for such leading magazines as People, Us Weekly, and Entertainment Weekly, I intended to spend six months tops in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I was heading there for some R&R (rest and recovery) after the closing of Teen People, a magazine that had been so professionally defining I worked there as an editor twice.
It’s nearly 11 years later, and I’ve spent four and a half of them in Buenos Aires; three more flip-flopping between Melbourne, Australia, and Bangkok, Thailand; one more in Cape Town, South Africa; and another two and a half in Sydney, Australia. The next leg of the most life-changing journey of my life may very well terminate right where it began.
I haven’t stepped foot on U.S. soil since the beginning of 2010, although I’ve returned for two abbreviated visits since taking off for Buenos Aires in 2006. But Australia’s new working-visa restrictions since I resigned from my editing job in Sydney back in February have slashed my chances of securing further employment here. Suddenly and unexpectedly, a one-way trip back home has become my plan B.
But can I go home again? The New York City I left in the mid-noughties isn’t New York City in 2017. My friends tell me it’s changed dramatically in the last decade (bike lanes in Midtown and Brooklyn as the epicenter of trendiness are just two developments), but so has the world in general. Am I ready to experience this brand new world in the place I never stopped calling home?
When I left the U.S., no one was keeping up with the Kardashians. There was no Uber, no “Netflix and chill,” no Grindr, Scruff, or Tinder. Facebook hadn’t yet invaded all of our lives, and neither had Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. “Likes,” “followers,” and “trending” were still well into the future.
Of the current leading ladies of pop, only Rihanna had scored a substantial hit. Justin Bieber was a tween of 12, two years away from being discovered on You Tube, which, by the way, was still in its infancy, having been launched only 19 months earlier. Record stores were still on practically every corner; “tweet” was still something only birds did; and print media was still (barely) thriving.
But it’s not like I’ve been living on the moon. I’ve grown accustomed to the cultural shifts. It’s America’s political and social ones that have me rubbing my eyes in shock, awe, and disbelief.
When I left the U.S., Barack Obama was still a junior senator from Illinois; a major political party had never nominated a female presidential candidate; gays couldn’t legally marry; and Donald Trump was best known as the “You’re fired” guy on “The Apprentice.” Progress, however, hasn’t necessarily begotten progress. Our first black President has been succeeded by one who tacitly, and sometimes blatantly, endorses racism, homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia.
He can brag about sexually assaulting women, and we’re supposed to respect his authority and judgment. He can build a figurative and literal wall to keep out immigrants, and we’re supposed to just burn the bridges that connect us to the rest of the world. His Vice-President, Mike Pence, can support “conversion therapy” to “cure” gays of their alleged deviancy, and we’re supposed to feel proud. The Ku Klux Klan, revived after decades of irrelevancy, can celebrate his Presidency, and we’re supposed to think he can “make America great again.”
I lived through Rodney King, Abner Louima, and Amadou Diallo at relatively close range in the ’90s. Due to my lack of physical proximity, I’ve only had a “nosebleed” view of what started happening toward the end of Obama’s administration. The carnage, though, has remained hard to watch. We finally put a black family in the White House, but in many ways, things got much worse for black people in the U.S. It’s like the simmering white outrage over having a black President finally boiled over, bringing out the worst latent impulses – the virulent and violent racism, the unyielding homophobia, the seething sexism, the hypocritical xenophobia – in what Hillary Clinton would call America's “deplorables.”
From a relatively safe distance, I’ve watched the U.S. become no country for black men – or for gay people, or for women, or for immigrants. In some ways, it’s like 1965 redux. Do I really want to go home to that?
I recently shared my fears with a white Canadian acquaintance who has lived in Sydney for as long as I’ve been an expat and has spent considerable chunks of time in the U.S.
“What do you mean? America is awesome. You’re so lucky to be from there,” he said, somehow maintaining a straight face.
Spoken like a true product of white male privilege, I thought. Don’t get me wrong. I love my country. But it has never been easy there when you’re black like me. And life has become much more precarious for people of color.
I tried to explain where I was coming from, my black, gay point of view, but he wasn’t hearing it. He spouted some hackneyed nonsense about how America is the land of opportunity where anyone can get ahead, regardless of race, sexuality, gender, or nationality, and missed my point entirely. In doing so, he underscored a number of my misgivings about America’s so-called “deplorables.”
They’re people just like him, ones who are obsessed with material success and their own personal comfort, ones who value the well-being of the individual over social responsibility. They’re the ones who made Donald Trump the ultimate U.S. success story. It’s their way of thinking – If it doesn’t hurt me, who cares how it affects everyone else? – that’s making America anything but great again, and reducing it to a bigger international punchline than ever.
For 11 years, I’ve listened to U.S.-bashing abroad with a certain level of detachment, pretending I’m not really one of them. But I’m hardly a disinterested party. I’m American to my core. I’d never dream of giving up my U.S. citizenship, although it’s an option (ask Swiss citizen Tina Turner). Changing my race and sexual orientation, however, is not.
It’s not just my fear of becoming a black statistic that gives me pause as I seriously mull a permanent U.S. return. I always faced a heightened level of danger as a black man in America. But what will it be like to be black and gay there in the Trumped-up Grindr age?
I’ve experienced gay racism abroad, occasionally in person, usually on hook-up apps. The sexual objectification of black men and the occasional spewing of the N-word aside, though, it’s usually been directed at someone else. (In Australia, for example, the white gay majority typically gives Asians the “Do not touch” treatment.) I’ve never actually seen “No blacks” in a Grindr profile – not even in South Africa, a country with a racial divide just as deep as the one in the United States.
It must be an unspoken rule in gay communities outside of the U.S.: You can launch a pre-emptive shutdown against pretty much any group, but you cannot touch “No blacks.” I’ve already heard this is not the case in the U.S., where, despite what the children of white privilege might say, casual racism has always been a grassroots condition. How will I feel the first time I read “No blacks”?
My first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, was all about my fish-out-of-water expat experience. It was Eat, Pray, Love from a gay, male perspective. Am I about to relive my book, only in reverse? I’d practically be guaranteed plenty of new material for my next volume. Would it be worth it?
I’ve spent all of my forties, my best gay decade, living abroad. My college days aside, I’ve spent the best years of my life outside of my homeland.
Would I survive the next years of my life there? Part of me is eager to rip off the Band-Aid and dive back in. But in recent years, I’ve kept up with too many U.S. stories of senseless fatalities involving the unprivileged: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, among so many others. The informed part of me is terrified of what my future in the U.S. might hold, of what the future of blacks, of gays, of women, of immigrants in the U.S. might hold.
But then, just as darkness and depression threaten to overwhelm me, I’m reminded of what an American friend said to me shortly after I relocated to Argentina: “It takes a lot of courage to leave a country where you’ve been successful and move to one where you don’t know anyone and don’t even speak the language.” I’d never thought of myself as being brave. I was just living. But I can’t let fear stop me now.
On second thought, yes, you can go home again. Fear won’t keep me away. For even if Trump’s America doesn’t welcome me back with arms wide open, a black gay man can still dream.