On the Down Low
In the black community there are some things so taboo they just aren’t talked about—like being gay. Most black families I know have at least one gay member, but that information is a secret kept so quiet that it feels almost like a betrayal to delve into it. For the women I spoke to for this article—whether they have religious family members with “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitudes, or simply because they were taught to not speak about the thing that made them different—coming out was not an option. Parents might disown you; the community or the church might turn its back. Whatever the reason, many black women keep their sexuality a secret, behind closed doors, on the down low. This is their story.
Kamai Warner describes herself as a “heavily tattooed, copper-colored, Mohawk-wearing, rock-star-wannabe, softball-playing black lesbian” and admits she has always known that there was something different about her. Raised in the South in a family of Baptist preachers, Warner attended church five to seven days a week as a youngster, and remembers her first girl kiss when she was 9. Caught by her mom and spanked, she was never told what she’d done wrong. “I always thought it was amazing that [the preachers in my family] could get up in front of 50-plus people in a church and talk, but they couldn’t sit down and talk to someone young that they were raising as one of their own…about what was going on in my life,” Warner reveals. Partly to prove herself “normal” by any means necessary, she began sexually experimenting with boys when she was around 13 years old, even as she continued to play house and have sleepovers with her girlfriends. It was a pattern of denial and secrecy that would shape her life until very recently.
Warner could never confide in anyone in her family. “To this day,” Warner says of the aunt who is like a mother to her, “She hates gay people…If she knew [about my sexuality] she’d alienate me, keep the kids away. It’s scary.” Growing up, Warner always heard rumors of a lesbian half-sister and a transvestite brother, but everything she overheard was negative—no one wanted to be associated with them and neither, Warner decided, did she. “When I turned 20 I drove out to visit my sister and talk to our dad,” Warner remembers. He said to her, about her very out half-sister, “She’s not my daughter. Do you know anybody gay in this family?”
When Warner moved out of her aunt’s house to live on her own, she was still publicly dating men, while secretly enjoying her first full-blown affair with a woman. At 18, Warner drifted toward, and subsequently moved in with, a 28-year-old man. “But when he was gone, I’d find chat lines to meet women, sometimes even have them over to our house. It was a risk I had to take because it was a feeling that wouldn’t leave me alone.” The relationship lasted three years, and Warner ended it because she was worried he would find out about her affairs.
Warner’s family refused to consider the possibility that she was gay and were thrilled when she started seriously dating another man. When he asked her to marry him, Warner accepted, knowing how happy it would make her family. “I wasn’t in love when I married; I did it because my family was going to be so proud and I was always the black sheep. I just wanted them to love me and be happy.” But in less than a year, her husband became physically and mentally abusive. It was just another secret she kept from her family. “They were so happy for me; I never wanted them to know what was happening.”
Warner was finally able to confide in a good friend, an older gay man who realized the seriousness of her situation. “I told him, ‘I’ve been with women—I think I’m gay, but I’m married.’ ” He helped her move out and supported her through the separation and divorce. Warner left her marriage with nothing but the will to finally live life on her own terms. Three years later, in her new home in Royal Oak, Mich., Warner says she realized it was time to stop fighting and let things be. She gravitated toward the gay folks in her new locale; they took her to the clubs (“It was just like Christmas!”), introduced her to curve and schooled her on Pride.
Warner’s one wish is that her family had been able to accept her for who she was. She thinks it might’ve helped to give her the stable life that she’d been craving. She’s started to come out to her new friends, but not her family. “I feel like there’s such a big part of me that my family will never know because of the way they are. You’re my family, you love me, you should be able to accept whoever I’m with!” Considering her new job, her new friends and her new attitude, Warner sums it all up: “So, I guess, here I am.”
Shauna Felix (not her real name) had a similar experience. “When I was a little girl, I used to play in the closet with my best friend,” she recalls. “We’d pull out The Joy of Sex and act out the pictures,” she laughs. “I ask my friends today—didn’t everyone play like that? And they say, ‘No, that was just you.’ I just thought it was normal, something all little girls did.” When she was 13, there was a butch girl at Felix’s school, a tomboy who made it known that she was gay. She liked Felix, the feeling was reciprocated and it turned into her first relationship with a girl.
“One day we got caught in the schoolyard kissing. One of the school administrators was a friend of my mom and told her. My parents were irate.” They put Felix in counseling and told her that if she was gay she’d never have any friends. “It was horrible,” Felix remembers. “My dad was raised as a very strict Baptist.” Felix wasn’t raised in the church, but always understood that the family religion was coloring her father’s opinions about her sexuality. Felix ran away to her girlfriend’s house, and for a year and a half they had what amounted to a full-blown relationship—going to school, eating dinner together and doing homework. Felix assumed that her girlfriend’s mom would accept that she was a lesbian, but when actually confronted with it, she got upset. “She was like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get out!’ ” Felix remembers. “It was hostile.”
From a very young age, the experiences Felix had with other girls, her burgeoning sexuality and the reaction of her parents kept her closeted, especially around family. “I had lots of cousins, and when we’d hang out I’d play it off like I liked guys.” By high school Felix was back living with her family, sneaking girls into the house when no one was home, going to gay clubs and discovering the gay scene. Then Felix went off to Mills College, an all-women’s college in Oakland, Calif. “If I’d been more comfortable with myself, and out,” Felix
laments, “it would’ve really been an experience. But I pretty much kept to myself. People probably knew, but we just wouldn’t talk about it.” Like Warner, Felix didn’t want to make other people uncomfortable by talking about her sexuality. Based on the way her parents reacted, she decided it was something she’d better not talk about.
Things changed when Felix was the victim of a violent crime in her early 20s. “It made my dad realize how much he loves me, when he realized how close it could have come to things going really wrong. Now he wants to be there and know about my life.” A private person by nature, Felix is working on
becoming less sensitive to what other people think.
“The black community can be crazy. Parts of this world are great and wonderful, but there’s the other part where we’re really hurting each other,” Felix muses, echoing a sentiment shared by Warner, who has finally got to a point where she could say to her co-workers, “I don’t like boys.” She says, “Everybody’s different. Everyone white I work with is OK with this; my black co-workers still talk to me but keep their distance…I’m at a point where I want to get to the bottom of why people in my community, in my family, won’t accept my being gay.”
It’s a question with no easy answers.