I remember the first time I heard that word. It was on the playground during recess at Boone Park Elementary School. I was playing a game of kickball with my fourth-grade class. The game was meant to be fun exercise for our young bodies. It was always my favorite sport. The little black girl who said it had a proud smirk on her face. I had just tagged her with the ball, causing her to be out of the game. I felt a twinge in my gut at the sound of this new word. It felt wrong. In fact, it felt dirty and shameful.
I had always attended schools in white neighborhoods as part of a busing program in my school district. I was usually the only black kid in my classes, especially after we moved into a predominantly white neighborhood at age 6. The n word was tossed around like a Frisbee, even in television and movies. I had been in countless fights with kids in the neighborhood, as they made it clear we were not welcome. This new opponent was unexpected, especially since we were two of the only three black kids in the class.
The other black boy in the class laughed along with her as if they shared some ancient deep secret. The white kids within earshot of the insult stared at each other. Several of them were just as confused. Luckily, the school bell rang, signaling the end of recess. We all headed back inside the building. The black boy and girl walked ahead of me. They continued to snicker and laugh among themselves as they glanced over their shoulders in my direction.
Later that evening, as I sat at the dinner table with my mother and sister, the playground incident ran through my head. I decided to ask my mother what the word “faggot” actually meant. Immediately, an intense look of anger spread across her face. She erupted into a fit of cursing and screaming. I tried to explain as best as a 9-year-old kid could.
After that night, my relationship with my mother was filled by anger, hostility, and sometimes, physical abuse that continued for 10 years. My mother would criticize and call me cruel names, even in front of company. It was one thing to be hated by the outside world. It was another to be hated in my own home.
It’s tough being gay in families of color. Boys are taught to be rugged and hard. We never had time to be soft. All of my male cousins played football. I was a bookworm, preferring to spend my time reading books, drawing, or playing music. I had zero athletic ability.
In high school, I was called the f word on a regular basis, not because I was involved with other boys, but because I was introverted and shy, hardly speaking to anyone.
Some of the other black students said I dressed funny and “talked like a white boy.” I preferred Duran Duran to Run-D.M.C. I played in the marching band. Still, I was 26 years old by the time I had my first sexual experience with another man.
I have Latino friends who have shared similar stories of rejection and abandonment. Family and religion were huge staples in their upbringing, especially in strict Catholic homes where homosexuality is intolerable. For some, coming to terms with their sexuality, even when separated from their family by thousands of miles, the fear of being gay is too strong.
Cautionary tales persist of men of color on the “down low.” Professional sports and hip-hop music are dominated by men of color. Is the world ready to embrace the idea of same-sex relationships among men, especially those considered to be role models? With all of the advances being made in the fight for marriage equality and human rights, many people are still afraid to love the person of their choice. If it were simply doing what our parents told us, many of us would have never taken chances in other areas of our lives that ultimately brought us joy. When it comes to matters of the heart, Father may not always know what’s best.
TIE ZEN DAVIDSON is proudly open and out among his professional colleagues, family, and friends. He is a self-employed marketing consultant and business owner, currently residing in Santa Barbara, Calif.