Of Love and Non-Heteros
Alexander Lynn, Chinenye Igbokwe, Yolanda Lynn
In our Summer Leadership Training Program we were doing collective community gardening under the guidance of Womanist principles. An initial tension developed between the understanding of organic farming as a spiritual practice, and a lack of such understanding in some of our members. Inside this, there was a little tension developing regarding a machismo, “man-up” approach to the physical labor that was required to plant our organic vegetable garden.
One day, as the work of the day was done and the young people were packing up to leave, one young man, Joven, said to the next one, Artis, who was exiting the farm, “Take care, baby. I love you…” Artis said goodbye to his friend, and then another young man, Tosh, approached Joven, the one who was bidding Artis adieu: “Hey, listen here Joven, that sounded like some gay stuff. ‘Baby,’ ‘I love you’???”
As this exchange got repeated, the Sisters in the group determined that it needed to be addressed, along with some of the macho approach to digging holes in the ground. We did Circle the next day, and people spoke on the issues candidly. We had sixteen people in the circle that day, and we began with our ritual guidelines: No cross talk; speak in “I” statements; no critiquing other people’s testimony; speak with the spirit of unconditional positive regard for everyone else in the Circle. Know that the subjects may be personal, but we place principles before personalities, and we do not judge people for having differences with us.
The first time around the Circle, the large majority of young women (there were five men in the group) spoke to the issue of whether or not it was OK for one man to say “I love you” to another man; whether or not it is OK for men to be warm and affectionate with each other without a sexual connotation being attributed to it. Sister Yemisi stated flatly, “That ‘man up’ stuff has to go. What does that mean?! Does it mean that somehow ‘men’ know how to be ‘tough,’ and ‘strong?’ No, ‘man up’ as a way of addressing each other has to go.”
Out of the sixteen of us, one young man was espousing what he termed “Africanist” principles, and he insisted that “gayness” was a White thing, and that many of us were being duped by white supremacist culture. Fourteen people thought that men should be allowed to be warm with each other, to say “I love you” without being called “gay.”
The second time around the Circle, we got deeper. People started to affirmatively address their sense of identity. First, Sister Majeeda explicitly told the group that “No one in my family identifies as hetero.” Following her, Brother Dimitri said, “That is also true for my family — no one identifies as hetero.”
For the uninitiated, let us break down what this terminology is referencing: Back in the day, after Folks had established that “Black is beautiful,” and other folks started calling themselves Brown and Red people — this is before the term People of Color became the standard-bearer — some white supremacists started calling us “non-White.” We had to explain to these people that this is the equivalent of naming your daughter by referencing the child next door. “The child next door is named Rachel, so I named my daughter ‘non-Rachel’.” That wording had a short life, as a name, by definition, is a positive affirmation, not a marker of who you are not.
However, language is created by people, and words change their meaning as people change the world. In this connection, many of us who are enamored of indigenous ways do not trust the categories of hetero, homo, bi-sexual, and so on. They seem like Western boxes. Sisters in the ‘hood identify as women who love women. This is common. While we at SJE and in Circles Taking Over Boston fully support the liberation movement of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Peoples, we also reserve our right to name ourselves the way our ancestors have done. We believe in love. We don’t believe in boxes to identify how we love.
This is all to say that two people in the Circle that day identified their family as “non-hetero,” while others identified with being “non-hetero.” As Womanism and Indigenism are not ideologies, we are not trying to be “right,” to prescribe to anyone else the names they should give themselves. So, while we did not identify a positive affirmation, that word will come in its time. Today, we insist that we are not hetero.
Furthermore, we do actively support people’s right to love, to love other people in ways that feel comfortable to them. To love — that is, care for, be close to, to get to know deeply, in other words, to be intimate with — other people is a human right and at the core of what it means to be human.
Brother Tosh, the one who advised that to say “I love you” is gay, had been relatively quiet, and he seemed to be listening. On the second time around, he opened up: “I watched my father beat my mother while she was pregnant with my little brother. After my mother gave birth to his second child, he left and I never saw him again. That is about as close to ‘warm and affectionate’ as I got from the men I knew as a child. I have an open mind, though, and I’m glad we went through this.”
Brother Tosh, by the end of the summer, was hugging all of us, whether male or female. We endorse hugging. We are in favor of love.