I feel I owe a bit of an explanation behind the name you’re reading. I call this exercise “Your Friendly Neighborhood Black Man” as a play off the wording of catchphrase of the popular comic book character Spider-Man, who often reminds people that he’s your “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.”
More on that later. But in case you don’t know this about me, I’m a pretty huge geek about comics and their culture. One of the reasons why is I think they’re able to tell our story and our history in a way that’s actually a safe medium for people to understand without it being too serious. And one of the better books and characters to ever do this in comics is The Uncanny X-Men. You know the group of superheroes like Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops and Iceman. Now, the thing that makes these superheroes so unique is the qualities of their superpowers. Whereas someone like Spiderman got bit by a spider to mimic their abilities or Superman gains his powers from his strange alien physiology and Iron Man built things and used his mind to make him “super”, the X-Men were born with their special abilities.
As it has been written in the comics, these heroes, who were collectively called “mutants” by the public at large that often shunned them, were born with certain qualities that made them different. Some of their abilities were rather conspicuous , like Nightcrawler’s blue skin or Angel’s feathery wings, which made them a strange oddity by appearance alone. Other characters had abilities that were more hidden that you couldn’t outwardly see. Jean Grey could move things with her mind but otherwise looked like a normal teenage girl. Rogue, who also looked normal, could kill or injure a person with just a simple touch. Obviously, the characters that looked strange or foreign to regular people were immediate outcast. But those who felt they had to “hide themselves”, their abilities and who they really are from a public that would also shun them if they knew that they were different, walked the same path. They too were “mutants”, ie. people with differences that don’t fit in among regular people.
If you haven’t figured out by now, a kid growing up reading these comic books in the 1960s could gain much more insight on the plight of minorities and marginalized people than their parents would ever assume. While they think they’re reading stories about heroic characters fight against menacing villains, they were learning what it’s like to walk in the shoes of those who society treats different and less than and what it feels like. Obviously, the characters like Nightcrawler and Angel with their appearance tell the story of Black Americans living in a America that refuses to treat them as the Americans that they are. But what about the X-Men characters like Jean Grey and and Rogue who look “normal” but they know they are different and if society found out how different they are, they too would be treated like the other X-Men? What story in the 1960s told their tale?
51 years ago this week, something happened in a bar in Greenwich Village, New York City. During the heyday of mob activity and organized crime, Mafia soldier, “Fat Tony” Lauria bought a rather small and rather dilapidated “Christopher Street Club” pretty cheap. It had no running water at the makeshift bat. No liquor license. The bathrooms hardly worked and the toilets would constantly overflow. Fat Tony(always seems to be a “Fat Tony” in at least every Mob family) renovated the club, illegally sold alcohol, controlled the sale of cigarettes and even controlled the money made from the jukebox and he reopened the club as a exclusively gay club. They called it the “Stonewall Inn.”
To keep the police at bay, Fat Tony would have the club managers pay off the police with a $300 weekly bribe. What they got in return was information. As typical with many gay bars in those days, they were raided quite regularly. The Stonewall Inn’s management would be able to get tipped off when raids were imminent and frankly they were done early enough that they hardly interrupted business. They had time to hide their booze, alert patrons and when the raids would happen, patrons would produce identification and police would leave(with their bribe) and the night would continue. But of course, Fat Tony and the mob got greedy and found a new racket out of the Stonewall Inn; extortion. They began to extort some of the more prominent patrons who were not out publicly or those who felt comfort in their gender identity behind the walls of the club. This new income stream quickly began to cut into the kickbacks to the police, which lead to the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.
Different than most raids, this night the Stonewall Inn was raided hours after the time raids typically happened. Not to mention, the managers received no tip off either. Moreover, the police weren’t really prepared to actually conduct the raid and many of the club-goers were practically held in the club with the police without actually being arrested or allowed to leave. Things exploded when the police, who were not only sexually assaulting the gay female patrons and physically assaulting the male patrons, none of which weren’t exactly rare occurrences for patrons at Stonewall, they finally did both to one particular female by whole heaving her forcibly into a police vehicle. The crowd that had formed outside reacted to the police’s tactics. From there, the police barricaded themselves in the club, the Club itself was practically destroyed and soon, the riot police showed up to further inflame and assault those who were there. After the press reported on what happened through the night, more protest continued the following days.
The aftermath of the Stonewall Riots was an awakening of yet another segment of America that realized that their rights and dignities were being neglected the mainstream and oppressed by those in power. Like Black America with the Civil Rights Movement and women in the Women’s Liberation Movement, Gay and Lesbian men and women found their cause in Stonewall and spoke up. Quite loudly.
And why shouldn’t they? They are as human as the rest of us. They live, they love, they feel and they exist like the rest of us and are exposed to a society that has and will reject them for doing ANY of that. Of course they would have a problem with being rejected. And as a person of color, we should understand that as much as anyone. And that’s the rub.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen this country transform with an awakening of what it’s like to be black in America and what we have to live through. I have had white friends of mine, from ALL walks of life, from the very conservative to the very liberal, personally reach out to me with concern and thoughts of appreciation and empathy. Many black people have seen our White allies do this. And honestly, it’s a goddamn shame and embarrassment that the Black Community has not and can not toe the line and stand with the LGBT Community as the White allies have done for us. I mean, I get it. There is an immediacy in Black Lives we’re seeing today. It’s deserving of the attention. But frankly, it shouldn’t have taken a death of a George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery to awaken the public consciousness of what we go through in America and our Gay brothers and sisters don’t need another Stonewall Riot for us to wake the fuck up to the constant barrage of embarrassment, slights and humiliations they are forced to accept legally or socially by a society that they every right to be a part of as all of us do.
And this is the worst part. It is physically impossible for White America to walk our path and to know our truth. Apologies to John Howard Griffin, but can only empathize. Many gay and Transgender men and women are every bit of Black and American as I am. If anything it shouldn’t be that hard to know what it feels like to live a life in society’s margins. Their Black lives matter as much as mine. But with the circumstances of their sexual or gender identity, as well as their racial identity being constantly at odds with the expectations of our societal standards, they EASILY walk a harder path than anything I could EVER experience on my worse day!
Now, I cannot accuse anyone in particular of blatant discrimination, but as clear as I’ve see White Americans step up to the plate for Black Lives, we have to accept the truth in our community, that in our own lives, we have not returned the favor to a community we definitely can and should empathize with. And frankly, it shouldn’t take a shared struggle for us to realize this. And it shouldn’t even have to take us knowing someone who is gay or transgender and wanting them to be happy and safe like you would want for ANYONE who you love and respect. Even that is a disgracefully low bar. Yes, I have gay friends. But damnit, they’re human. That is the standard for which we all should demand dignity and rights. I shouldn’t have to know you to know your life matters.
So, despite the outward appearance of the X-Men’s Nightcrawler and Angel, who can hardly hide who they are, they are still on the same team of Jean Grey and Rogue who are just an action away from being outed as a societal outcast. They obviously have their differences, but they are still one team. They fight the same fight against ignorance and hate from people who can never understand their path. Just same, we share some of the very same stressors and microaggressions as the LGBT community. They understand the code-switching and moderating how you sound and act to be more socially accepted. They know what it feels like to not feel welcomed in certain places and with certain people because despite however much they try subjects and behaviors makes it hard to fit in. They definitely can understand negative and dangerous assumptions of sexuality and state of mind that are way too often thrusted upon us as well. They can’t help being gay no more than I can help being Black. It’s a part of who I am, as it’s who they are. So why can’t we join them in the fight for the same respect and dignity that they have fought for themselves? How dare we expect White America to join us and our struggle, but we refuse to join the LGBT Community for theirs? Yes, being black in America is hard enough alone. But damnit, we’re not expecting White folks to fight our fight. We just want them to give a shit and respect our lives as much as their own.
That is not a lot to ask. And I, for one, have the capacity to do the same for people I know have the pain of acceptance as I have had in my own life.
We know what they experience is wrong. We know we don’t accept it for ourselves. But we insist on treating them and their lives with the same regard we reject in our own. And that has to stop. Yes we fight different villains. But they all have the same superpower of hate and ignorance. We know how to defend and fight against it. Fight for their team too. Because they are already on ours.