how paris pride and james baldwin shaped my experience of coming out
Embracing the dualities that come from being a queer person of color.
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The city streets were filled with color for Paris Pride. The beers in my backpack clinked as Enzo and I walked along, our arms draped over each other's shoulders. My most sincere wish for the year had been actualized — to turn 24 years old in the city that James Baldwin had escaped to at the same age 70 years before.
For the past few weeks, I'd been traveling with friends to visit political spaces or typing on my laptop with wine, a cigarette, or music playing in the room that I shared with Enzo. At night in bed with him, I'd talk about the parts of my book that I'd written during the day – always unearthing some chapter of my life that had long since been closed, but not fully resolved; a bit like the process of coming out. There was a wonder in his voice after he finished a new essay of mine.
“I knew these things, but to read them... it's different,” he said.
The sun was hot, and bothered the beer in my stomach. We roamed the crowds and I smiled at the floats of drag queens, femmes, and teenagers learning to live in the city of romance. This summer, I'd learned to live in my body like never before.
Maybe it was the fear that I'd held onto and let go of many times that had always held some part of me back. The same fear that forced me into fit of crying as I said goodbye to my mother, to America for the millionth time in my life before this second excursion in Paris.
“Why are you so upset?” she'd asked.
I stared at my half packed bag and hiccupped. The wall between my mother and I regarding my sexuality had still not fallen. I was upset because I realized, once again, the endless list of things I'd embark upon in my life without her empathy to guide me. It would be my job only to go out into the world and be brave enough to take what I wanted.
The seed of this realization had already planted itself when I'd been twelve years old and watching Brokeback Mountain with the volume on low in my bedroom. Often at night, I'd do the rehearsing that many queer children do to prepare for a monsoon of a life — what I would scream at my mother as she slammed the door while she kicked me out , what I'd tell the police if I'd been attacked while sleeping in bushes at night, or what I'd tell myself to believe that I could find peace.
“But how can you want to lay with another man?” my stepfather asked after I came out to him when I was 17. We were in my hot bedroom in Kingston, Jamaica. His face was unmasked in a grimace as he looked at me, a stranger.
At the time I froze, immobilized momentarily by my lack of experience in the act of being sensual, as James Baldwin had so memorably put it.
Enzo and I turned another corner. He kissed me with tenderness. Before us, the crowds were massive and celebrating.
“Coming out” is often the process of learning to live in your own body despite a world that wants to exorcize you from it. In our own way, we all aim do this, but to be doubted in your right to explore love and sex with another human being challenges what we are taught to seek from movies, novels, and grade school chatter.
As a black man, I'd learned of another coming out – to believe that I had the right to be happy and angry with a world that aims to kill me. In Standing Rock, men and women were dragged off by police, shot at with rubber bullets, thrown into ditches and carted off to jails cells before my eyes. I jostled with the crowds as we ran in panic from flash grenades, tear gas, and batons. At night in the camps, I did the rehearsing again — would I be able to handle weeks, months, years in prison because I'd pursued a life of justice? What would it feel like to become another statistic in The New Jim Crow?
A panic filled me as I fell asleep and thought, “Is this what the world has come to?”
But it was anger towards the wrongs done against myself and others that compelled me to be there, which was noble. It was happiness that propelled me towards France, a first love, and Paris Pride.
I could ask the same question at night in Enzo's bed whenever he awoke from a bit of sleep and gazed at me under lamplight with bright, hazel eyes. If my world had come to our laughter floating out of his open bedroom window at night, then I could be satisfied.
With him, I understood Pride in a new way – not only loving yourself, then loving another with force, but doing so savagely in the present because at any moment the world or circumstance could take it away. Why try to fit into a box when you were born unique, crafted by misfortune to be strong, and then lucky enough to decide for yourself the kind of person you wanted to be? How many people throughout human history had ached for what I was feeling?
That night as I danced with my friends, my chosen family, possibly in the same way that James Baldwin had at 24 when his spirit had enough room to celebrate his blackness and queerness, I realized had done younger self proud by giving him a life he could look forward to.