As one of 19 siblings, I grew up with a very particular relationship to the concept of invisibility. My parents did the best they could with what little they had to make all of their children feel as if they mattered—to feel seen. But there is only so much attention poor black parents can give to that many children when the world is intent on taking everything away from them.
As I got older and began to accept my queerness, this feeling of invisibility evolved from a universal fault to a much more complicated experience. Even though I had resented the lack of attention I was afforded growing up, I began to cherish those same moments of solitude—those times where I could build my own queer-friendly communities without fear of having them barreled over by family members working clumsily through their internalized queer antagonism, if they were working through it at all.
While establishing this community, I noticed how so many black queer folks have been forced to do the same—manifesting entire worlds of (often temporary, but always necessary) safety by ourselves, as epitomized in the creation of phenomena like ball culture. At the same time, there remains a constant push from mainstream LGBTQ organizations to increase the “visibility” of these experiences and communities in order to build empathy for and normalize them. But what, if anything, gets barreled over in that process of exposure?
Visibility efforts have long been a staple of mainstream queer liberation movements. Projects like the Transgender Day of Visibility and the It Gets Better campaign rely on the same premise, perhaps best exemplified by (white) queer icon Harvey Milk who continuously pressured queer people to “come out”: If only queer folks were seen, and seen more frequently, they would be respected.
These projects are commendable enough on the surface. But in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s shooter being acquitted, even with video evidence and witnesses—after the similar end to many other comparable cases—at some point the question must be asked: Can visibility, based as it is in a notion of shared humanity, work for us if black people aren’t seen as fully human? What if the many campaigns rooted in drawing power from, or even weaponizing visibility, such as the campaign for marriage equality, benefit those most closely associated with humanity under white society (white, male, cisgender and affluent)? What if they do little for black queer communities still ravaged by more pressing concerns like HIV and homelessness epidemics, while also actually reinforcing the violence facing us? What if black queer folks making ourselves “seen” to a hostile state provides yet another opportunity for our bodies to be further criminalized?
In 2015, Bayna-Lehkeim El-Amin, a black queer man, was attacked by Jonathan Snipes, a white gay man, at a Dallas BBQ restaurant in New York City.* The incident escalated when El-Amin allegedly called Snipes and his boyfriend “white faggots” and derided them for “spilling [their] drinks.” Snipes admits to being drunk and hitting El-Amin first (video from the scene corroborates this), but he still pressed charges against the 6-foot, 6-inch tall black man when El-Amin responded by defending himself with a chair.
The judge agreed with the prosecutor that El-Amin was a bully who deserved to be punished for his over-the-top response to the attacks of “these girly men” (prosecutor’s words) after a media campaign framed the incident as “gay-bashing.” In September of last year, El-Amin was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Mitchyll Mora, a founding member of F2L, a volunteer network aiming to support queer and trans people of color facing felony level offenses in New York City, organized around the case to highlight how the media used queerness to humanize Snipes while simultaneously demonizing El-Amin.
“The larger LGBTQ community did not stand with Bayna, they criminalized him,” Mora said. In response to the incident, City Council member Corey Johnson and LGBTQ organizations held an event in Chelsea against anti-gay hate violence, the New York Daily News put Bayna on the front page, and the NYPD, under the guidance of the LGBTQ liaison Tim Duffy, began investigating the incident as a hate crime.
“A slew of articles, many from gay white men, began to surface, often focusing on the size of Bayna’s body and using anti-black words like ‘brute’ and other racist descriptions to make him sound monstrous,” Mora explained. Though El-Amin’s queerness was a matter of public record, it did not grant him the same empathy it did for “girly (man)” Snipes.
“Not only is Bayna not straight, he was actively involved in the LGBTQ community in New York City, depended upon, and loved,” Mora continues. “But none of the organizations that had gathered to criminalize Bayna retracted anything. The media that went after him continued to go after him. For these people and organizations supposedly dedicated to protecting all queer folks, there was no concern about Bayna’s safety despite this being such a public manhunt for a queer person.”
Cases like that of Bayna-Lehkeim El-Amin illuminate how, for black queer people, visibility isn’t enough. Even for organizations claiming to protect and defend LGBTQ people, Bayna’s black queerness could not register as in need of defending, especially when in conflict with a white queer person claiming that same victimhood. Bayna’s queerness was visible, but it still failed to elicit empathy. Visibility, as a strategy, relies on empathy, and empathy relies on the idea that we are all similar enough that someone else’s pain can be understood through the understanding of our own.
But what happens when we really are different, and substantially so? What if anti-Blackness ensures that these differences cannot be understood simply by seeing? What if the power of visibility critically depends upon who is doing the seeing?
In 2015, Michael Johnson, a black gay man with developmental disabilities, stood trial for “recklessly exposing” others, mostly white gay men, to HIV. Having gone by the name “Tiger Mandingo” on dating/hookup apps, the case was extremely racialized in the media from the start, as Steven Thrasher exposed in a series for BuzzFeed News. Though experts agree that HIV criminalization laws are both ineffective and harmful to queer communities, LGBTQ organizations failed to rally around the case, and some even supported the prosecution and empathized with the white gay men who pressed charges.
Johnson was initially sentenced to 30 years in prison, but recently had his sentence thrown out due to prosecutorial misconduct. He is currently awaiting a new trial, bail, or plea hearing.
“If Michael Johnson had never been seen as ‘Tiger Mandingo,’ he likely wouldn’t be in jail today,” Thrasher explained to me. “The initial press accounts painted him as a black predator and monster in pretty flat ways. But I would hope our stories at BuzzFeed (and obviously I am extremely biased here) helped by presenting a human picture of him.”
Thrasher argues that there is a crucial difference between becoming visible to audiences who understand the extent of anti-blackness, and becoming visible to those who are still invested in anti-black violence and criminalizing the black body.
“Because BuzzFeed and I have invested significant time and resources into this story, Johnson hasn’t just become more visible and the injustice of his story more known, he’s also gotten tremendous support from advocates,” Thrasher said. “Most notably, many organizations and lawyers worked on his appeal after our stories came out, successfully overturning his 30-year conviction.”
Specific attention to anti-blackness and racial stratification in the afterlife of slavery illuminates the fact that there are some structures, particularly legal structures, that are set up in direct opposition to black life, and therefore to black queer life, too. These structures will “see” black queer life as criminal if they see it at all, and therefore an activism that assumes all visibility is good visibility can never fully embrace black queer people.
If queer liberation movements are to include black queer people, they should reckon with not just the limitations of visibility, but the way certain kinds of visibility reinforce anti-black structures inherently. Instead of constantly pushing for visibility, what would it mean to sometimes embrace invisibility? What is the function of those moments of solitude, those exclusive spaces for black queer people to build our own communities without fear of having them barreled over by those working clumsily through their internalized queer antagonism and anti-blackness?
What does it mean to know that every time black people are “seen” by the state, every time the state “sees” anything, black people are not alive? What would it mean, rather, to be unseen? How do we view each other outside this gaze? What happens when we all step outside it together?
*Correction, June 29, 2017: This post originally misspelled Bayna-Lehkeim El-Amin’s first name. (Return.)