June 27 2016 02:09 PM

On being an ally, and finding the right words


DG took me to my first gay bar. I'd known him since our freshman year of college. One afternoon, he'd walked across the quad wearing white sunglasses and I had hollered at him, "Where did you get those and why aren't we friends yet?"

DG was a Stingray-driving country boy whose fashion sense never failed to impress me. The night he invited me to a gay bar, I swiped on some hot pink eye shadow, slithered on a tight dress and met up with him to pre-game.

DG had come out to me a few weeks earlier. We had been seated at a small table in front of a big window at a hookah bar. "I'm bi," he'd said.

Out the window, I could see the stoplights at the intersection go from green to yellow to red and back to green against the black night sky before I responded, "Okay. But you're still going to, like, marry a woman when you're ready to settle down, right?"

I didn't know any bi men. I didn't know how DG would lead a life in the middle. I'd gone on Spring Break earlier that year with him and his (now ex-) girlfriend. She thought the two of them were going to get married someday. I worried that his family would reject him if he ventured away from a hetero-norm life of marriage to a woman and a white picket fence and kids. Instead of listening to my friend and supporting him in that crucial moment, I brushed aside what he was saying as a "phase."

He smiled at me, nodded, "Yeah. Right. Totally." Then he took a turn looking out the window or maybe he was looking at our reflection in the glass, a white boy and a black girl, mouths moving with the wrong words.

It would be years before I'd realized what I'd said and done were the wrong things to say and do. Yet still, if anyone had asked me back then if I was an ally, I would have said yes. I didn't have anything against gay people. I couldn't see myself, a black woman, denying anyone else equal rights. And I'd thought that was enough. I was wrong.

Inside the club, we walked across the dance floor to the theater in the back to watch the drag show. I was mesmerized. I stood in a long line to tuck a dollar bill into a drag queen's cleavage; she kissed me ever so lightly on the cheek. After the show, we returned to the dance floor that was now pulsing with hundreds of bodies.

Over the years, I would go to that gay bar with DG dozens of times. I'd spend my 21st birthday at that bar. His friends readily accepted me. We'd both dance until our eyeliner sweated off.

After I moved to Southern California, DG came for a visit. He wanted to go to West Hollywood. All I could think about was what to wear and the beautiful men we'd dance with all night, but when I pulled onto Santa Monica Boulevard I realized the visit to WeHo was more than glitter and good times for DG.

He stared intently out the car window. I followed his gaze. It was a rare sight: two men standing on the sidewalk holding hands in broad daylight. So casual. So normal. So in love. It was 2010, five years before the Supreme Court would legalize gay marriage. Sitting there in my car at the stoplight we had no idea what was to come or that some day back in the city where we'd gone to college two men would just as easily stand on a sidewalk holding hands for all to see; that those two men would be DG and the man he loved.

Last summer, DG and I had lunch at a sushi spot. He wanted to ask me about a recent situation with a friend of his that was racially tense and he wasn't sure if he'd handled it right. I looked at him over a few half-eaten rolls and I remembered the night he'd come out to me.

Yes, I'm black, and I'm a woman, but that doesn't mean I get everyone's struggle. I'm not a part of the LGTBQ+ community. And were it not for DG's grace and understanding that night and his continued friendship over the years, I would not have learned what it really is to be an ally. It's to lend a hand when the party is over and the parade has passed; it goes beyond the glitter and the good times. It's to speak up when it's hard and it's uncomfortable. It's to have these tough conversations with each other and our selves. We are all imperfect in our allyship. When I learned to be an ally I had to constantly push myself beyond my narrow understanding of what a life could look like.

I told DG that all he could do was listen, apologize and do better next time. It's all any of us can do when reaching across all that divides us to connect with someone on the other side. I hoped that his friend would find the same grace in their heart that DG had found for me. I hoped, that after all those years, I had finally found the right words to say and the right way to be there for my friend.


See all events on Wednesday, Dec 7