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Nat’l Coming Out Day presents unique challenges for communities of color

‘For some people, visibility equals greater danger’

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NBJC’s David J. Johns advocates ‘inviting in’ rather than ‘coming out.’ (Photo courtesy NBJC)

On the 34th anniversary of National Coming Out Day, LGBTQ people across the country honor the community and its fight for equality. But not everyone sees coming out as a celebration.

“Coming out is not always the best option for persons of color who already — because of our pigment on top of our identity — face discrimination, hatred and violence,” said Kimberley Bush, executive director and director of Arts and Cultural Programs at the DC Center for the LGBT Community. 

The first National Coming Out Day was in 1988. Psychologist Robert Eichberg and gay rights activist Jean O’Leary, both of whom were openly queer and white, created the holiday.

In the U.S., being queer — and what that might look like — often centers whiteness. For many, the term “coming out” continues to center whiteness as the norm for LGBTQ identities.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition said, “usually the narrative and the images revolve around white folks that sit down with their families and have maybe an uncomfortable conversation, but at some point they celebrate them. Those folks move to gayborhoods like Hollywood, Calif., or Chelsea, N.Y., or Boystown, Chicago. And then they get to join associations around their LGBTQ+ identities that also give them access to forms of capital and privilege that most Black folks don’t get to benefit from.”

The cultural and historical myopia inherent in the term “coming out” can minimize the complicated relationship between pride, visibility, and safety for LGBTQ people within communities of color.

“It is often challenging to be heard, seen, and just simply listened to as a LGBTQ+ person, but when you add on being a person of color, that challenge becomes much more unique and saturated. We are inherently judged, not given credibility to our own life stories and further pushed into the margins and often cannot take or retain the power in the who, when, and how we disclose our identity,” Bush said. 

When talking about coming out, Johns, who identifies as same gender loving (SGL), prefers the term “inviting in.”

“The process of inviting in is a term that we use to sort of shift power and highlight the problematic nature of coming out, while also acknowledging and sometimes celebrating,” Johns said. 

Inviting in” signifies that, “no one is entitled to information about the lived experiences of other people that are not voluntarily offered up.”

And “inviting in” reallocates the individual responsibility of “coming out” and challenges the heteronormative expectation that LGBTQ or SGL people should be required to “out” themselves. 

The idea of “inviting in” instead of “coming out” for communities of color also intersects with very real safety concerns for many in the community, given the current political climate, the widespread escalation of anti-LGBTQ threats online and attacks on members of the  community and providers of trans-affirming healthcare across the country. 

“The fact that our lives are dynamic and we face moments, sometimes daily, where we’re forced to think about inviting people in and often have to consider safety, especially now in this current political environment, is often missed,” Johns said. 

For people of color living at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, “coming out” can be even more dangerous because of heightened safety issues specific to communities of color.

“Black and brown humans have always had to fight for our freedoms,” Bush said. “Coming out can be a pressured, intense, repressive and oppressive journey that may not allow a person to feel the freedom to choose inviting in versus coming out. In addition, persons of color also exponentially experience various levels of trauma. Coming out can be an extra layer of repetitive trauma and abuse.”   

In LGBTQ communities of color, interpersonal and religious violence and parental or familial responses are some of the traumas community members can face. 

A Williams Institute study about parental acceptance of LGBTQ identities across different age groups found that parents gave invalidating responses to their child’s sexual identity across all age groups, and parents of children in younger age groups referred to coming out as “just a phase” or something the child was “too young to know about.”

Religion is often used to invalidate marginalized sexual and gender identities in communities of color.

Dr. Sydney Lewis, a lecturer in the Harriet Tubman Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, attributes this negative religious response to Christianity.

“Many Christian churches have a history of being homophobic and transphobic,” Lewis said. “And I think that our reliance on Black Christianity for our community, our safety and our growth and development, has been detrimental to LGBTQ folks of color, specifically Black folks.” 

Religious homophobia and transphobia complicate the coming out narrative for many queer people. Elle Moxley, a Black trans woman and founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, has experienced the harms of religious homophobia and transphobia firsthand. 

“I didn’t necessarily, as a Black person, feel comfortable coming out or aligning with any rhetoric around that because a lot of times people are forced out,” Moxley said. “In my experience, growing up as a child in the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) religion, there wasn’t an invitation to come out. I was forced out at 12 years old.”

While queer people have always existed, there is an intentional erasure of gay, trans, and non-binary people within Christianity that stems from colonialism. 

The visibility of queer sexuality in Black culture can be traced back to the Harlem Renaissance, where literature and music were full of stories about lived queer experiences. And non-binary identities have always been visible and integrated in some communities of color like in North American Indigenous cultures and Pacific Island cultures. Terms like “fa’afafine” in Samoa and “māhū” in Hawai’i are used to signify that someone identifies as non-binary (or “third gender”). 

In LGBTQ communities today, the idea that “coming out” means being more free to openly be yourself in public often elides the very real danger of visibility in trans lives of color. 

“There’s this idea that visibility somehow equals greater freedom, but for some people, visibility equals greater danger,” Lewis said.

The Human Rights Campaign reports that 31 trans people have been killed so far this year, while a Williams Institute study found that transgender people are four times more likely than cisgender people to be victims of violent crime. 

On a day like National Coming Out Day, which is thought to not only symbolize pride but also inclusion, people like Elle Moxley are asking not for inclusion, but equity. 

“I always say that inclusion is something that happened after the fact. I don’t subscribe to that,” Moxley said. “But what I do subscribe to is that reparations are an essential part to how equity in society happens.”

People like David Johns are also calling attention to how complicated a celebration like National Coming Out Day can be for LGBTQ communities of color. 

“For the Black trans woman with a disability in Jackson, Miss., or my parents’ state of Texas, given the position that those governors have them in, it probably is not safe for them to come out even on a day we’re raising awareness as a part of a goal,” Johns said. 

(Editor’s note: This story is part of a new Blade Foundation initiative focusing on the intersection between race and LGBTQ identities. It is funded by a grant from the Leonard-Litz Foundation.)

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U.S. Federal Courts

Guilty verdict in first federal murder trial based on gender identity

Dime Doe killed in S.C. in 2019

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Dime Doe (Family photo)

A federal jury on Friday handed down a guilty verdict of a man accused of murdering a Black transgender woman in what is classified as the first in the nation federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity.

After a 4-day trial in a federal hate crime case, a jury found a South Carolina man, Daqua Lameek Ritter, guilty of all charges in the indictment, which included one hate crime count, one federal firearms count and one obstruction count, all arising out of the murder of Dime Doe.

“Acts of violence against LGBTQI+ people, including transgender women of color like Dime Doe, are on the rise and have no place in our society,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer. “The Justice Department takes seriously all bias-motivated acts of violence and will not hesitate to hold accountable those who commit them. No one should have to live in fear of deadly violence because of who they are.”

According to court documents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, evidence presented at trial showed that Ritter was upset that rumors about his sexual relationship with Dime Doe were out in the community. On Aug. 4, 2019, the defendant lured Doe to a remote area in Allendale, S.C., and shot her three times in the head. At trial, the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Ritter murdered Doe because of her gender identity. Ritter then burned the clothes he was wearing during the crime, disposed of the murder weapon and repeatedly lied to law enforcement. 

This was the first trial under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for violence against a trans person. The Shepard-Byrd Act is a landmark federal statute passed in 2009 which allows federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“A unanimous jury has found the defendant guilty for the heinous and tragic murder of Dime Doe, a Black transgender woman,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The jury’s verdict sends a clear message: Black trans lives matter, bias-motivated violence will not be tolerated and perpetrators of hate crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This case is historic; this defendant is the first to be found guilty by trial verdict for a hate crime motivated by gender identify under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. We want the Black trans community to know that you are seen and heard, that we stand with the LGBTQI+ community and that we will use every tool available to seek justice for victims and their families.”

Ritter faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled at a later date. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering federal sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.

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Oklahoma

Okla. lawmaker describes LGBTQ people as ‘filth’

State Sen. Tom Woods made comment on Friday

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Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Woods (Photo courtesy of Woods' state Senate website)

Republican Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Woods took part in a public legislative panel forum on Friday, during which the panel was asked by a constituent about the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary Owasso High School student who had been attacked and beaten in a school bathroom. 

The Oklahoma Voice reported that Cathy Cott, a 64-year-old semi-retired resident, asked the lawmakers why the Legislature had such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of the state, what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children, according to the Tahlequah Daily Press, which first reported the remarks.

When she got no answer, she asked about the bills targeting the LGBTQ community.

“Why does the Legislature have such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of Oklahoma and what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children?” Cott asked.

Woods replied, “We are a Republican state — supermajority — in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. You know we are a religious state. We are going to fight and keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we’re a Christian state” 

The Tahlequah Daily Press also reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked.

Cott said in an interview with Oklahoma Voice that she was not surprised by Woods’ answer.

Cott said she has many family and friends who are LGBTQ.

“I have dealt with other state representatives and senators and been to lobby day and tried to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community when I can so I am used to it,” she said. “They haven’t said anything like this to me before where they describe citizens of the state as filth, but they let me know they just don’t care.”

She said Woods’ remarks absolutely contribute to the hostile climate in the state for the LGBTQ community.

Prior to his election to his seat to represent Oklahoma’s Senate District 4 in 2022, Woods was a farmer and business owner. He ran a dairy farm, feed store and trucking company. His district runs along the eastern border of Oklahoma from West Fort Smith to Grove, and runs into Tahlequah.

Another Republican, state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a former teacher, told the audience he’s always seen educators’ jobs as “to educate students, not indoctrinate students.”

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf said:

“The only ‘filth’ here is this vile statement from a sitting state senator. This is the kind of hate speech that incites deadly violence against our communities. This is what we mean when we say that the flames of dehumanization and hate have been fanned in Oklahoma. Enough is enough. There needs to be accountability for this climate of hate — and the damage being done.”

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis told the Blade:

“Enough is enough. Oklahoma’s Republican leaders are continuing to nurture a climate of anti-LGBTQ animus, modeling disgusting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, questioning our very humanity, attacking marginalized youth and educators who support them and improperly handling bullying and assaults at school. Leaders with a bully pulpit have the power to inspire empathy and understanding, but they also have the power to inspire hate, bullying and physical attacks. These so-called leaders fomenting hate, Sen. Tom Woods, Supt. Ryan Walters, Gov. Kevin Stitt are failing Oklahoma’s youth in dangerous and myriad ways.”

There has been national outage in reaction to the death of Benedict. Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are among those in leadership decrying the death and the political climate that LGBTQ advocacy groups say have been contributing factors.

HRC President Kelley Robinson has called for federal investigations by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.

In her social media post, the vice president said: “My heart goes out to Nex Benedict’s family, friends, and their entire community. To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you and you are not alone.”

Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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Oklahoma

Police release Nex Benedict bodycam footage

Nonbinary teenager died earlier this month after a fight in school

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Owasso Police Department bodycam footage. (YouTube screenshot)

The Owasso Police Department on Friday released bodycam footage from the interview conducted by the Owasso High School resource officer taken at the emergency room, investigating the attack on a nonbinary high school student who died a day after the attack.

In the video, 16-year-old Nex Benedict describes how they were bullied by three girls for “the way that we dress.” After Benedict dumped some water on them, the girls pinned them to the floor of the restroom and beat them until they blacked out.

Benedict’s mother stresses that they did not throw any punches or get physically combative during the attack. Facts that Benedict then verified in their account to the investigating officer.

Police have confirmed to multiple media outlets that the school failed to follow procedure and notify law enforcement about the beating.

Owasso police department bodycam footage (video courtesy of the owasso police department)

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