"... If we are not honest enough to say: Who are our friends? Who are our enemies? To know what a friend is, to know what an enemy is, we will be constantly trying to get into people's parties to shake our butts with them. To get them to like us, and that's not the question! The question is, What can we build amongst ourselves to secure, amongst ourselves, so that we will be able to survive into the future ... who told me who I was, who showed me my history, who told me who my enemies were, who let me know that this was not an easy world, who let me know that this was a cold environment, who let me ... No, no, what he is not a part of is dilly-daddling with the minds of Afrikan children, and letting them know what the real situation is here in Amerika, where they will be killed if they do not know ...
- Sistah Souljah, The Issue of Race: The Donahue Show, 1992
Given the recent serial suicides of young men, and soon after a young woman from the Bronx, NY, who have "come out" about their sexual orientation and have been subjected to different forms of violence, I believe that it doesn't have to be this way, but the reality is -- it is. I want to take the time to talk about what is wrong about the current landscape of building the capacity of youth and those who work with them when we talk about disclosure, aka "coming out" -- whether that is around sexual orientation, HIV status, drug use, etc.
In addition, in working in an asset-based approach, I want to offer some recommendations for how we should deal with the reality of disclosing the things about ourselves that the status quo has considered taboo, an abomination, and/or morally wrong. The fact that you are (1) same gender loving/bisexual/transgender, (2) HIV positive, or (3) using drugs, are among those "things" society thinks are working against you. God forbid you are immediately associated with all three ... society will be doing a lot of damnable praying (preying), bashing and disowning to ensure that your ability to live whole will fail. The idea is that you should be able to live without these things working against you, right? Right, but the fact is: they do.
Showing that you can reaffirm your pride in your identity, culture and behavior will not totally save you from being a target of oppression. Pride does not equal wholly loving oneself. We are multi-faceted in our identities. It's disheartening when people consistently say things like "well I am a drug user, homeless person, etc." You are a person who uses drugs, a person who engages in same-sex practices, and a person who is homeless. You are a PERSON first who has many lived experiences that shape your context. We should not put ourselves or allow others to put us into boxes that limit our experiences to the one or more identities people oppress us for existing in.
In all honesty, I believe one of the hardest things to do is be truly authentic, truthful with ourselves and to the ones who care about us the most, because of fear in the expectations people have of us. It's a process that we find ourselves in as we struggle to carry the burden of other people's problems. For some, this work is difficult because of sexual orientation. Being marginalized isn't like Peggy McIntosh's Invisible Knapsack of Privilege. It's more like the visible backpack of oppression that you can barely zip up that is wearing your shoulders down. However, in working toward being comfortable and confident in our skin it requires unpacking that burden of internalized oppression, while also facilitating a process where you can work toward a place where people don't see you as a problem or a threat to their being. That isn't about you -- it's about them and their issues about being uncomfortable about your life experiences.
When you live in a society that proclaims itself to be drug-free (even though it never will be), that needs to eliminate HIV (don't have a cure yet, but we have prevention/treatment), and is very heterosexist (while we act out of fear about people's sexual orientation and sexuality overall), these all become problems for the status quo while they become burdens for people who are marginalized. I say all of this to say that I would actually like to challenge this idea of "coming out."
Many of the young people who have lost their lives this past year may have thought that "coming out" would lift the heavy burden of internalized oppression and that such an act would provoke a feeling of liberation. While externally looking for belonging, many were fatalistically destroying themselves with no chance of reconciliation and rebirth. You can't externally look for belonging when people on the "outside" are actively oppressing you. With this in mind, we should reconsider the utility of coming out and the notion that disclosure, in itself, will achieve self-actualization. Here is what I think ought to be considered:
1. We need to prepare our young people to navigate a nation that is characterized by various violences (racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist ...) and was birthed out of violent circumstances. What is at stake for those who are asked to "come out" in that kind of environment?
We don't know what it means to protect and serve our young people (and for them to protect themselves) because we have been conditioned to punish, enslave and slaughter each other. We, adults, don't prepare young people to face the oppressions that they will inevitably confront. By these young men killing themselves it will only propagate the idea to the status quo that their identity, behavior, culture and practice are disposable and not valued.
2. We need to facilitate a process for young people to deal with the reality of their circumstances.
Instead we teach them that everything is black and white and it's a zero-sum game. Then we wonder why young people go out and do drugs, drop out of school, have unprotected sex, or consider committing suicide without being well informed about their options and decisions. These things can resort to different outcomes of violence that threaten the livelihood of a person. Young people are not taught to cultivate healthy coping mechanisms nor the critical thinking skills necessary to better deal with and disarm ignorance and mitigate harmful situations.
3. We need to guide young people on a path that promotes them to be their own leaders.
When you actively divorce what you say from what you do, you ruin the ability to marry your trust in yourself and in others. We need to model what leadership means to young people in a way that does not reinforce oppressive practices. Reviewing concepts of transparency, accountability and trust are important in developing self-efficacy and resiliency.
Thinking about what you base your decisions on, based on your identity, culture and behavior, may be a start from really thinking about how to save yourself from being a repeated offender and victim, because through our multiple identities at some point we are all playing the oppressor (even within ourselves). Our programs and interventions should be based off this notion of how and why we make the decisions we make in life. At a basic level we aren't doing a good enough job at addressing these major attributes. "Coming out" is not beneficial if it leaves people more vulnerable to further experiences of hurt and trauma and/or practices such as bullying -- especially when young people are not given the tools and resources to protect themselves and mitigate the harms associated with being marginalized in society.
Taking a page from Darnell Moore's "Coming Out, or, Inviting In?" I am also proposing this idea of us preparing our young people to be whole by empowering them to control their own narrative. That gives them the right to allow themselves to "invite" people, at their discretion, into their lives and to tell their stories through embracing all of their identities.
It's like the police coming to your house, because they have probable cause (or not) that you have done something wrong (like having drugs), so they need to search your home for evidence. If you are not aware of your rights, you will consent to a search and have the police violate your rights; but if you know your rights and know that the police need a justification and a warrant to search your home, you would probably ask what the police wanted before allowing them to enter, and if they told you that they didn't have a warrant, then you tell them that you have the right not to consent to a search without a warrant.
Inviting people into your experiences requires having the tools to navigate and have control over your experiences (your home) so that they are not miscommunicated or used in ways to inflict harm onto others in the name of being genuine and truthful. This is what disclosure should be about -- giving people access into your experiences (knowing what your living conditions are) so that they truly understand the nature of your experience, so that they can be shared, learned from and also enjoyed in environment where now everyone can actually work toward being safe and protected.
Allen Kwabena Frimpong is the capacity building assistance specialist at Harm Reduction Coalition in New York City.