I am a cisgender heterosexual (CisHet) Black man. That sentence is easy for me to write now, but it was once hard to claim in the community spaces I occupied in clinical research. I used to think that being a CisHet man was a liability to my capacity to be an effective public health practitioner, particularly when I worked in spaces centering LGBTQIA+ people of color. I assumed that my identity would make those I worked with uncomfortable with my presence, creating an insurmountable barricade between us. I didn’t realize at the time that the only discomfort that existed was my own, and I was projecting it onto the people around me.
Recognizing what it meant to be CisHet in queer spaces became one of my first lessons on privilege in my public health career. Until then, I could float from space to space, not concerned by how those around me perceived my sexual orientation or gender identity and how that impacted my actions. Growing up as a Black cisgender man not identifying as queer or trans in a low-income community (better known as the hood, projects, or ghetto), I felt like privilege was something I was always working to obtain. I never considered I could have privilege, especially not enough to bring harm to anyone. My feeling of disempowerment blinded me, making it hard for me to see the impact of who I was or what I could be, let alone how my actions could affect others.
To make matters worse, my resources to increase my understanding of privilege were few. Becoming a “reader” has been a relatively recent development in my life. When discussing the complexities of Black CisHet privilege in relation to queer Black communities, a friend emphatically proclaimed what they saw as the root issue: “Niggas don’t read.” While I would like to think there is more nuance to the matter, being aware of my own experience, I could not deny the weight of their words. I came from an environment where there was this unspoken divide between that which was “normal” (i.e., straight, heterosexual, cisgender) and that which was “queer” (i.e., LGBTQ). Looking back, I know I spent much of my life living on the “normal” side of this divide, shielded away from perspectives, understanding, and insights that would allow me to envision a world outside my own identity. Sadly, after living in such a divided world for an extended period, you begin to fear what is on the other side. It astounds me how comfortable people become fearing the unknown, even when the unknown are people in your community you see daily.
Fortunately, I have always hated being afraid. I grew up in de-powering spaces, steeped in domination and fear as tools of control, providing an opportunity for systemically disempowered individuals to feel powerful. Fear was the worst form of disempowerment and the hardest for me to endure. As a result, my relationship to fear has been a double-edged sword. There are moments in life where fear arises through circumstances in clear and blatant forms. Blatant fears are the easiest to face, typically through courage, frustration (resulting from anger and anxiety), naïveté, or some combination of the three. However, when the source of my fears is murky or too complex for me to grasp, I bury them. Consciously or subconsciously, I push that which I do not understand into the emptiest, most bottomless pit my mind can conjure and I bury it. I conceal it deep beneath my Blackness, my maleness, my marginalization, my education, my ignorance, my culture (often self-affirming), my habits (good and bad), my wealth, my lack, my suffering, my longing, and certainly my pride. These burials weren’t just ritual, they were my secret weapon against anything that contained the potential to challenge my privilege. They were a weapon of choice I deftly and frequently deployed into early adulthood.
Though my ability to bury my fears was my most potent weapon, it eventually led to my awakening to privilege. I saw my ability to effectively blot out the portion of the world that was incongruent with my identity and perspective as one of the central components of my privilege. As such, it was the component of privilege I needed to perpetuate to maintain the fallacy that I existed in a world created in my image. Here lies my gratitude for service, my immense appreciation for community, and my eternal gratefulness for love. When I started my career in clinical research as a peer community navigator in my first HIV prevention research study, I knew little about public health and how to support those in need. My one confidence area was my ability to show love to the people around me. A person I consider my spiritual mother instilled in me the belief that anything that keeps me from loving people is inherently not of God, because God is love. I didn’t know it then, but that belief would redefine who I was as a person, man, and community member. My peer navigator role required me to love people in my community who lived on the other side of my “normalcy” divide, and it was the duty of my position to help them meet their basic needs. Yet, to fulfill my duty and address their needs required that I see them fully in all their humanity. I had to listen to their needs; I had to process their stories, their truths. Their truths clarified my role, created unforeseen pathways to shared problem-solving to address their needs, and centered our relationships on wellness and healing. I had to learn to see beyond our differences to be a sounding board, a confidant, a colleague, a friend, a brother, an ally, and a co-conspirator.
My love for my community required me to grow in ways I never knew were possible. I would not be the person I am today if I remained in the comfort of my privilege and limited perception of the world. I had to humble myself to grow beyond my privilege. Humility centered around acknowledging the privileges afforded to me, being intentional concerning when and how I take up space, recognizing not all community spaces are designed for CisHet people, and taking accountability for my language, especially when related to people who are different from me. Humility also means communicating beyond surface-level honesty, learning to be vulnerable in uncomfortable situations, and increasing my capacity to listen more than speak. It is seldom easy, but it is always worth it.
Though this process demanded much of me, I have gained more from it than I ever could give. My gains include life-long friends and connecting with people with perspectives and backgrounds that have given me a new understanding of what it means to be fully human, present, and valued in society. I have achieved new levels of compassion and empathy, becoming infinitely more thoughtful than the man I once was. Best of all, I dismantled the artificial mental barriers that siloed my sense of community. Forming intimate relationships with people in my community of different genders, sexual orientations, classes, and life experiences has taught me how much I had in common with people that societal indoctrination demanded I perceive as “other.” Often, in reflecting on the lives of my same-gender-loving and trans friends as compared to my own, it is hard to find differences outside of how we identify. And yet, I am still learning and remain fallible. I make tons of mistakes daily as I strive to divest from privilege, discrimination (internalized racism, colorism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.), and patriarchy. However, I have accepted that my best days are not fictional ones in which I make no mistakes; they are days when I find fewer faults and can acknowledge that I am growing.
Regardless, my community has invested too much in me to be silent in my support and love. I owe all the people who taught me when I knew nothing, who gave me an opportunity when they didn’t have to, and who took the time to share their most cherished or tumultuous experiences to connect with me. Most importantly, they have granted me the grace to share space with them as family, an act of love that has reshaped everything about who I am today. Love made me aware. Love made me brave. Love made me fully present. Love made me see the unseen. Above all, love keeps me growing.
Louis Shackelford is a External Relations Project Manager with the HVTN.