Quil Lemons turns to face the light and I’m blinded.
We’re outside and the sun has just hit the thick coating of glitter on his cheek. It shines. It scintillates.
He wears a fuzzy orange HBA bucket hat and frayed denim jorts that show off his lanky frame. Tucked under his arm is a Comme de Garçon paper bag tote, a staple of downtown kids, packed full of jars of glitter that clink together while he moves. Although his outfit would suggest otherwise, he’s soft-spoken and shy in front of the camera when we photograph him in New York City’s Battery Park. Though slightly timid when the lens is capturing him, he comes alive at the mere mention of Prince where admiration spills from his mouth.
“I would have loved to shoot Prince. That man was magical.He really broke the mould and honestly gave me the space and the platform to do this.”
The 20-year old photographer has made a name for himself with his Glitterboy series, in which he photographs black boys drenched in glitter in order to confront and break down harmful stereotypes about black masculinity. “I wanted to focus on black boys, I feel like black men don’t really get the space to express themselves, as easily as a white man, even with gender and sexuality, and just the role of being a man,” Quil tells Very Good Light. Recently, the series gained traction. So much so that Quil has been featured in i-Dand Vogue’sPride photo diary.
For Quil, makeup is powerful. But it wasn’t until recently that he wore makeup for the first time. It was just last fall when he dabbled with makeup at Milk Makeup’s party that everything fell into place. He had one request for the makeup artists there: “do it like Frank Ocean.”
The video for Ocean’s Nikes had just dropped, where the rapper is seen dusted with glitter and wearing a heavily embroidered jacket. Quil left the party with purple eyeshadow and stars stamped all over his face, posted a pic to Twitter, he says the photo went viral overnight (Quil has since deleted the account where he posted the photo). “The reaction was polarizing,” Quil tells us. “That was one inkling, and then Frank Ocean was another. And then I just decided that I was going to do it.”
Quil describes a Glitterboy as being a person of color who can express themselves freely. “A Glitterboy is a POC because we aren’t really warranted that space,” he says. “Black boys really aren’t give that much space to shine, and that’s kinda what this is and that’s what a Glitterboy means to me”
Quil photographed his friends for the series, and was initially worried they would be uncomfortable embracing their femininity, “But they were all just like ‘its 2017, fuck it,” Quil tells Very Good Light. “I wanted to make sure it wasn’t all gay men. I wanted to have a lot of straight boys, and just making sure it was all encompassing.” It was crucial that he created an entire spectrum of diversity when it comes to black men. It was intentional for Quil to have a range of skin tones, to have guys with beards, curly hair, or totally bald.
“I wanted to really show the different nuances of what it means to be a black boy, even though the glitter.”
Quil grew up in South Philadelphia, which he describes as conservative compared to New York.
“People don’t really get to express themselves as fully as they want to,” Quil tells us. “They have to fit into this mold and be what a black man is. You had to be a rapper, you had to play basketball, be a gangster, be standing on the corner with your boys. I’m just like, I can stand on the corner with my boys, but I was always the only one in skinny jeans. I was just being me.”
Above all, Quil is hellbent on being 100% true to himself. His platform urges others to do so, too. “I feel like the black community has these limits on what you can do and we are honestly breaking them, showing that we don’t have to be pigeonholed into just being what society expects us to be,” Quil says. “Honestly, I just think of how many of my friends that I grew up with have been in jail and I’m just not that. It’s just another way to show kids under me that you don’t have to be what society says you are.”
When it comes to gender identity, Quil feels terms like masculine and feminine are becoming irrelevant, yet is something that is having a harder time gaining traction when it comes to black men.
“I feel like with everything, within the past five years, with social media allowed people to connect more, and share their ideas,” Quil says. “And with Young Thug on the cover of i-D in a dress, and Jaden Smith at Louis Vuitton wearing a dress, and just having these black boys showing their bodies in that way, gave me a lot more wiggle room to have an acceptance in my art.”
But not all people have been supportive. Quil mentions that he has been overwhelmed by the support for his work, but it was always about much more than that. “I feel like art should make a person question their morals, question their perception of reality. So I didn’t give a fuck if everyone hated it,” Quil tells Very Good Light. He explains that as long as he has made someone think, he has done his job as an artist.
At this point, a year after that first Milk party, Quil wears makeup almost daily.
“I’m out here being seen, photographed, like why not, it gives me something else to work with and pop. It helps me stand out,” he says.
“I shot Glitterboy with NYX because NYX’s glitter is amazing, and so vibrant, and so strong, and yes, so cheap, ” Quil tells Very Good Light. “Shout out to NYX for a low cost glitter, and honestly my application process costs $13 (Quil also swears by the brand’s glitter primer), and it looks amazing.”
As we wrap up our talk, Quil says something poignant.
“I want to use my art and myself as a vehicle for to show the many nuances of being black, and expressing that you don’t have to be this one black boy, you can be whoever,” he says, thoughtfully. “I’m just here to shift culture and to break molds, but also just to be myself.”
A statement that seems to say it all: his future is bright.
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That phrase always sounded like more of a victory than a compliment. It wasn’t an easy look to achieve, even if it did look “slept in,” and the reason for that is probably not what you think.
Sure, there’s a skill in beating your face–although I’d call it more of a learning curve. Doing makeup on yourself or others is not as easy as YouTubers make it seem. There is definitely an art to finessing beauty products in a way that enhances your look. There are so many ways doing your makeup can go wrong, which is why I totally understand why many women and men don’t bother with it. For me, makeup is my “me time.” Some people like to read, others hit the gym, I like to slather my face in beauty products even if the end result looks like shit–it’s calming. This morning is a bit different though. Doing my makeup feels like work.
I’ve just finished moving into a new apartment. I unpacked my last box from my Subaru last night, and my body is not happy with me. My pain could be due to living on the third floor of an apartment without an elevator, or the fact that I’m getting older. But it could also be because of my Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Some people like to read, others hit the gym, I like to slather my face in beauty products even if the end result looks like shit–it’s calming.
At this point in my life JRA is just something I’ve lived with for the past twenty-something years–it’s not really a big deal anymore, especially because the disease is in remission. You get used to the pain after a few years. Well, maybe not quite “used to it,” more like I learned how to cope with it. Which makes doing my makeup a little harder.
I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where at the age of 6-going-on-7, I was diagnosed with a disease that, at the time, no one knew anything about. (Juvenile) Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease like cancer, meaning your body attacks itself from the inside out. Think of it as the human equivalent of self-destruct mode.
When I first got sick, every joint in my body was in the process of shutting down.
While the disease normally only affects a certain number of joints, I have one of the rarer forms of JRA–its systemic, AKA in every one of my joints. When I first got sick, every joint in my body was in the process of shutting down. My entire childhood was spent in and out of hospitals up and down the West Coast. I often joke that because I was never around people my own age, Boy Meets World taught me how to act like a regular kid. Doctors assured my parents I wouldn’t live until age thirteen, and if I did, I would be confined to a wheelchair. It wasn’t until the middle of high school that I began to get a hold on the disease, thanks in part to the wonders of modern medicine. Unlike many of the doctors’ predictions, I’m still not dead or confined to a wheelchair (though I do have a fake hip).
As children, we don’t want to be “different.” At a certain age, everyone just wants to fit in. I tried everything in my power to look normal because I didn’t feel it. I wore clothes I didn’t like, because the other boys wore them. I refrained from asking my mom for the Lisa Frank glitter TrapperKeeper I desperately wanted because I knew it “wasn’t for boys.” I even gave up gymnastics and dance class! Though to be fair, that was my JRA’s fault and not because I was trying to stay under the radar. I was so preoccupied with appearing physically normal, I didn’t even have time to “find myself.”
As the years progressed and arthritis became less of a worry (the hip replacement changed my life TBH), I started to experiment. I experimented with fashion, beauty, and general ways of presenting myself. I fell in love with drag and started to attempt doing my own makeup.
Here’s the thing though: it’s very hard to walk in heels when your ankles don’t work right, and it’s even harder to strap yourself into a skimpy dress when you can’t bend your elbows enough to touch your shoulders. Let’s just say my drag career was very, very short-lived.
Unlike my disability, makeup allows me to declare my individuality in a way that I choose.
My experience with drag makeup, though, did prepare me for my deep obsession with beauty and skincare. And honestly, before my JRA was under control, I didn’t have any time to spend on hobbies or obsessions that weren’t figuring out which strain of medical marijuana will soothe my joints enough to let me sleep.
Unlike my disability, makeup allows me to declare my individuality in a way that I choose. I’m never in the mood to have aching joints, but I don’t have a choice. However, if I don’t feel like wearing makeup, I just don’t put it on. When you’re doing your mascara, even if you fuck it up, you’re in control–you have power over your appearance. That’s why I love makeup.
There are mornings, like today, when my wrists aren’t cooperating enough to put on mascara so I skip it. My beautyblender works great for blending my concealer and light layers of foundation. I use my fingers to blend my NARS Liquid Blush (in Dolce Vita) onto my eyelids and cheeks because I can’t really grip a brush today. Penciling my mustache is a bit messy, but I always do it, I have to, and the slept-in look is in, so it works.
Of course, I have to take breaks, but I don’t like to rush my makeup anyways. Beating my face is therapeutic. It may be messy and a bit editorial looking, but it’s a time when I’m in control.
I make the shots.
I steer the ship.
To me, makeup is my escape from reality–even if brief. No matter what you look like or where you come from, doing your makeup is expressing your creativity. It’s the way you choose to show yourself to the world, and there’s so much power in that. Makeup allows you to feel and be who you want to be and that’s why I love it.
That’s why when she said she liked my eye makeup today, it was more than a compliment. It was a total victory.
Cameron Johnson is a recent grad from SCAD and now lives in Austin, Texas.
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At least, when it comes to its latest cover story with supermodel Gigi Hadid and her now-solo-artist boyfriend, Zayn Malik. The two are absolutely stunning, fronting the fashion bible, styled in dreamy, floral-painted outfits. They make for a compelling duo, if not adding a cool factor to Vogue‘s relatively stuffy pages. And they totally make sense as its wildly successful photoshoot from last year, photographed by Mario Testino, went viral.
But what is garbage is the fact that Vogue thinks this makes the couple “gender fluid.” Case in point, its headline alone: “Gigi Hadid and Zayn Malik Are Part of a New Generation Embracing Gender Fluidity,” written by Maya Singer (editor’s note: our editor David Yi, once worked at Fairchild Fashion Media along with the writer in question). In it, Vogue‘s writer casually talks about gender fluidity, as if it’s a passing trend.
An excerpt below:
“For these millennials, at least, descriptives like boy or girl rank pretty low on the list of important qualities — and the way they dress reflects that. ‘I shop in your closet all the time, don’t I?’ Hadid, 22, flicks a lock of dyed-green hair out of her boyfriend’s eyes as she poses the question. ‘Yeah, but same,’ replies Malik, 24. ‘What was that T-shirt I borrowed the other day?’ ‘The Anna Sui?'”
So because a girlfriend happens to casually wear her boyfriend’s tee and vice-versa, it’s safe to note that they’re totally gender fluid, right?
It’s troubling to know that Vogue magazine, one that’s staffed with many in the LGBTQ+ community, had no problems in publishing such a problematic headline, dismissing what the experiences of actual gender fluid individuals are. Gigi and Zayn, as much as we here at Very Good Light love them, are two cisgender, straight, gender-conforming/non-fluid young people who are not known to be LGBTQ+ activists and who have never talked openly about sexual or gender fluidity. None of this equates to either being gender fluid, rather, simply two people in love, who happen to wear each other’s clothing. And what’s truly edgy or interesting about that?
It makes zero sense.
“If wearing men’s-inspired clothing makes you gender-fluid, Hillary Clinton has been doing that for years!” one of our editors in our newsroom, blurted.
In all seriousness, Vogue editors are confused. But they’re not the only ones. In a tense political climate where people from all walks of life are fighting for equality – and understanding! – this only adds to moving culture backwards. If Vogue is the pillar of culture, we’re doomed. Who signed off on this, anyway?
For what gender fluidity really is all about, read our article here.
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“Do I really need to explain to you the difference between throwing shade and reading someone? Girl, do I need to teach you gay history?”
So was a real conversation I had with a seemingly real person sitting across the table from me. He was a white gay man, a flamboyant personal trainer who lived in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, the same kind who has a liking to utilizing the phrase “YASSSS KWEEN” with every other sentence; the same who is content only having white best friends to take shirtless selfies with on Fire Island; the same who says he exclusively dates blonde hair and blue-eyed men. But the same who says they’re not racist because they once “dated an Indian.”
I allowed this man to continue whitesplaining to me, an Asian American, and my African American best friend sitting next to him, on the off chance that maybe, just maybe, we’d actually learn something. Like, please, white man, I beseech you to enlighten me.
“It’s from Paris is Burning, you know, the documentary about the original drag queens,” he whitesplained. “The drag queens are the ones who explain throwing shade and reading someone. There’s a big difference, you know!”
We both sat there, not even bothered by this man because this was just another day and he was just another problematic white gay, so blinded by his privilege that he rarely has to acknowledge that People of Color and their many contributions to culture, even exist.
It’s sad because he’s not alone.
He’s part of the growing white gay tribe that seems to erase the identities of others in the LGBTQ+ community that do not look like them. These are the same gay white men who fight for gay rights but only for other gay white men. These are the men who are fiercely vocal about equal rights, wave the rainbow flag in solidarity, march their proud gay selves on Pride, yet disregard their minority brethren who are also LGBTQ+. These are the men who appropriate culture in their every day speech. So much so that they’re like said Hell’s Kitchen gay above, who didn’t even realize “yasss kweeen” and “reading” someone came from black culture not white gay culture.
Gay white men, then, can be equated to problematic cisgender female white feminists like Lena Dunham, Amy Shumer and Sofia Coppola, women who fight for equal rights but only for others who look exactly like them.
You see, gay white men are still, well, white cisgender men. Meaning, they were socialized and brought up in a society where they reaped all of the privileges of this country.
That is certainly not to say that all gay white men are problematic. Not all gay white men are innately racist. There are plenty of gay white men who educate themselves on the daily about what it’s really like to be a person of color in this country and are continually studying about culture to stay woke. But for every woke gay white male, there are a dozen others oblivious to their complacent privilege and casual racism.
You see, gay white men are still, well, white cisgender men. Meaning, they were socialized and brought up in a society where they reaped all of the privileges of this country. In turn, this means they still have immense power in the gay community compared to people of color. Their sexuality does not negate the fact that they are still privileged because of their race and gender.
Yes, that still means white gay men are still favored in every aspect of our culture. Being gay doesn’t make them any less privileged. Their gay stories become the standard when it comes to mainstream America. Their gay white heroes like Matt Bomer, Ryan Murphy and Colton Haynes cover magazines, land major television gigs, are broadcast on screens nationwide, setting the barometer of attractiveness and superiority. That makes them the standard, where their gay stories from shows like Queer As Folk, to Will and Grace how American society expects gay men to act/be, and those who are outliers are deemed unattractive or disposable.
It’s no secret that this has trickled into the psyches of gay minority men across the country. One only need to look at research to find that 80% of black men and 79% of Asian men have experienced racism in the gay scene. One study found that sexual racism is still racism (shocker!) “Sexual racism is a specific form of racial prejudice enacted in the context of sex or romance,” the study finds. To find explicit sexual racism, anyone can open up Grindr, the gay dating/hookup app, to find many profiles that say “no blacks, no Asians” on their profiles.
Obviously, gay men who are POCs are not looking for white male approval or even the acceptance from while men. I, for one, don’t give two f***s if a white man thinks I’m attractive or not. But it’s the very principal of feeling like you don’t even exist, that you’re invisible, that makes truly does have a negative affect on the self esteems of minority men everywhere. And that’s really not okay.
If you are a gay white cisgender man and still haven’t found what that horrible truth that I’m speaking of is, I’ll spell it out to you: Privilege. You have that white privilege. White privilege so pure, so devastating and so powerful that I equate to being an avalanche, one up on those fancy Rocky Mountains like somewhere in Vail where white people choose to ski.
It’s like an avalanche, eventually comes down quickly, devastatingly, wiping out everything – and everyone in sight. After all is said and done, is when said white people, including Hell’s Kitchen Gays, ski back down, enamored at just how much snow has fallen, oblivious to the fact that beneath their fancy boots and poles, their beautiful skis and bindings, are people of color below that they’ve buried deep below. We, as People of Color, know we aren’t below any white person, we are equals. But to them, it’s just another day, and skiing down this mountain of privilege – this ignorant bliss – never felt so deserved.
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Editor’s Note: As Pride Month comes to a close, we here at Very Good Light are dedicating an entire week on LGBTQ+ voices, stories, and the beautiful diversity that the community has to offer. Below, a humorous essay on gay dating in New York City and the pitfalls of swiping right.
Some idiot once said that there are no strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet.
This is not true for many obvious reasons, but primarily, it does not account for a third, very essential category: the many people we meet once via dating apps and then never see again (or potentially never want to see again). These men or women or non-binary-conforming individuals are certainly not friends. They’re also not exactly strangers, since we know their names, ages, and, depending on how much time we have to Google before we meet them, the number of siblings they have, where they would like us to know they vacation, and how willing they are to allow unflattering photos to remain live and searchable online, a true barometer of self-acceptance in times like these.
“But we did laugh a lot, didn’t we? That’s not a rhetorical question; I can’t remember.”
In the ten years I’ve been living in New York, I’ve been single for just about five cumulatively, and have a tendency to dive into the dating pool headfirst (for better or for worse) occasionally, to the tune of multiple first dates in the same week. As such, I’ve accrued a long list of one date wonders, men who’ve come and gone like so much handsome dust of varying emotional stability in the wind. Now, as Pride Month comes to a close – as good a time as any to reflect on the gays of our lives – I am left to reminisce about all of the men I’ve bought drinks for, explained my job to, and then promptly parted ways with. The good, the bad, and a lot of dudes named Mike.
There was, for example, the man who said he DVR’s The View every day, because he can’t bother to wake up in time to watch it when it airs live at 11am. The Harvard grad who told me stories that all seemed to end with him doing coke, and the Yale grad who wasn’t much fun, despite wearing a very fun blue fur coat in his profile picture. There was the man who talked excessively about his ex, the man who wanted to hook up in an alley, and the man who suddenly burst into tears and fled my apartment (that was actually all the same man).
There was a former child figure skater, too. I didn’t tell him I had also matched with his ex-husband, but I did show him that I have no qualms about consuming several rounds of gin and tonics in a hotel lobby instead of an actual dinner. But we did laugh a lot, didn’t we? That’s not a rhetorical question; I can’t remember.
I nearly also forgot about the man who met me at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen at 5 p.m. on a weekday –he had tickets to Wicked that night –and almost immediately asked me to remind him of my name and to explain the depths of my familiarity with Marxism. Later, he texted me that Wicked had “one good song,” so at least one of us experienced something remotely pleasurable that night.
I should also mention the guy who rescheduled our first date because he didn’t initially realize that he asked me out on the anniversary of his ex-boyfriend’s suicide. That was a lot to digest, although I do give him points for living in his truth. He cut our eventual first (and only) date short, because he was afraid the pipes in his townhouse had frozen and wanted to go home to check. He was going through a lot.
I’d like to thank the trust fund baby/aspiring personal trainer who helped me discover that my personal dating deal breaker is not when someone discusses his lengthy history of incarceration, nor is it when someone has multiple tattoos devoted to his cat, or when someone says they’d like to change into something more comfortable and emerges from his bedroom in a pair of corduroy shorts. It is, it turns out, when someone has an alarming number of biographies of Hitler on open display in his living room. Thank you for teaching me something about myself, in addition to teaching me that corduroy is a neo-Nazi cat hair magnet.
“Is it the reclaimed barn door and faux distressed countertops that got them both so horny? I may never know!”
Speaking of being covered in hair, shoutout to the Ph.D who ate a slice of pizza so voraciously that much of it got ensnared in his mustache, and remained there for the rest of the evening. I’d love to express gratitude to another mustachio aficionado, the creative director who took me back to his apartment to meet his dog and, like a true gentleman, didn’t rob me when I unceremoniously fell asleep on his couch.
Also a gentleman? The interior designer who explained over beers at an East Village dive bar that he never uses condoms, but always asks if that’s ok first. Oh, yes, and the two guys who I met months apart for drinks in the same old-timey bar, who both said I could touch their boners right there if I wanted to. Is it the reclaimed barn door and faux distressed countertops that got them both so horny? I may never know!
Thank you, as well, to the professor with forearms like tree trunks who told a lengthy story about a closeted lover he had in Egypt who eventually became a heroin addict. He taught me that being an active listener is overrated. Ditto the Australian travel writer, from whom I learned that it is possible to speak uninterrupted for 20 entire minutes and not stumble onto a single interesting topic. I didn’t learn anything from the Québécois who said he liked me because I looked like a young boy, except, of course, how to discreetly pay a bar tab and make a quick exit and how to recognize when someone is about to do that to me, as the guy at the sushi restaurant in the West Village did a few months ago.
Shout out to the man who asked me if I could help him get a new job and the other man who asked if I could write a grant proposal for him. Hit me up, guys. I’ve got some free time this week, and I’d be happy to do what I can to help!
For the cost of a few drinks, a coffee, or a subscription to Tinder that allows unlimited swiping, all of these beautiful creatures have, at the very least, provided fodder for amusing stories
A hello and a sorry to the nice NYU grad, too. In hindsight, yes, it was a mistake to come to your birthday party as the date of your best friend a few weeks after opting out of a second meet-up with you. You live, you learn how to not be a total monster, I guess?
For the cost of a few drinks, a coffee, or a subscription to Tinder that allows unlimited swiping, all of these beautiful creatures have, at the very least, provided fodder for amusing stories at dinner parties and generally served as a hopeful, amusing distractions from the grind of everyday life. Is dating this much exhausting? Yes! Has it also made me that confident that after meeting all these one-and-done homos, I’ll be able to identify my soulmate when we finally cross paths? I fucking hope so.
Oh, and before I forget, I would be remiss not to mention the man with whom I spent several hours at the Brooklyn Inn one crisp fall evening. He later denied ever meeting me and subsequently suggested that my true identity was actually that of a jilted former lover named Jamie. I don’t know what was going on there, but it was very weird, and I am still shook. I’m also single again, though, so call me? I hear the second date is usually the charm.
Steve Dool is a writer based out of New York City. Most recently, he was the deputy style editor at Complex magazine. You can find him on socials @mrdool.
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On July 15, 2016, a small faction of the Turkish military began what would ultimately end as a failed attempt at a coup to overthrow the government.
That same day, thousands of miles away in London, an average-sized Englishman began what would ultimately end as a successful attempt to break up with me. If you had asked me at the time, there is a good chance I would have told you that these events both held equal significance on a global scale.
Such was the self-centered nature of my mind immediately post-breakup. Nothing seemed as urgent or as relevant as my emotional turmoil, not even images of tanks plowing through the streets of Ankara. After I returned to New York, it should come as no surprise, I started seeing a therapist. I had been toying with the idea of going to therapy for some time—it feels like a rite of passage for New Yorkers, doubly so for gay ones—and the end of my relationship was as good a reason as any to seek professional help.
The fallout from my breakup dominated the first few of sessions with my new doctor, who, despite not taking notes or my insurance, instantly gained my trust as a confidante. In a short time, though, my recent relationship faded from our discussions, and we pivoted to focus on the bigger, badder issues I’d been grappling with since childhood—namely what I identified as a lingering sense of feeling unfulfilled.
Self-care is a buzzy topic in our Me First, Confessions on the Internet times.
I’d always thought of myself as fairly introspective, but never to the degree that weekly therapy sessions require. I was more than a bit lost wading through these waters. My therapist and I discussed self-care regularly; it was largely missing from my daily routine at the time. It became readily apparent that I needed to take care of myself mentally and physically if I ever wanted to address the parts of my life that I wanted to fix.
Self-care is a buzzy topic in our Me First, Confessions on the Internet times. Even more so in the wake of an election that left the most sensitive and vulnerable among us feeling desperate and anxious. I would soon understand the appeal, too. For someone who had made a comfortable home nesting inside my feelings for several weeks, official permission to go all-in on me was like an invigorating gift from above, a non-transferrable golden ticket for myself from myself.
The author, pictured here, realized self-care can become addictive. (Photo courtesy Steve Dool)
I quit drinking for the month of September and got eight solid hours of sleep most nights. I religiously revamped my workout regimen; my abs never looked better. I experimented with face masks. I was always well-hydrated. I threw myself into work and dating with a renewed vigor. I said yes to every invitation that landed in my inbox and even one that slid into my DM’s (a first). My social calendar was jam-packed. I rode taxis with the windows down and texted my friends that I loved New York once again. I even began to build the tenuous foundation of a friendship with my ex (a concept that may or may not ultimately be a Pyrrhic Victory—but that’s another essay altogether).
For the first time in a long time—including even pre-break-up—I felt good. That was big news and it ensured that I wasn’t only a self-care convert in 60-seconds, I was a full-blown self-care missionary—and you better believe I was going door to door proselytizing the Gospel According to Me.
It was a house of cards, built atop a Jenga tower, resting on a wobbly table in a crowded bar where a DJ spins bass-heavy EDM while a drunken bachelorette party shimmies arrhythmically nearby.
Any occasion—dinner party, lunch meeting, press event, walk to the bodega—became an excuse to espouse the benefits of self-care I’d discovered. My friends, parents, and colleagues were along for the ride, whether or not they actually wanted to be. I was the Magellan of meditation, the Lewis and Clark of the power of green tea and the Neil Armstrong of visualizing your goals. Any opening in a conversation was enough to get me going.
“You see, all it takes to feel good is to try to feel good!” I’d say.
“The world is my oyster, and it can be yours, too! It’s all so easy!”
To say that this swell in confidence stood upon an unsteady foundation would be an understatement. It was a house of cards, built atop a Jenga tower, resting on a wobbly table in a crowded bar where a DJ spins bass-heavy EDM while a drunken bachelorette party shimmies arrhythmically nearby.
One morning, months after my first session, I walked into my therapist’s office secretly thinking that I might not need to see him anymore. I’d arrived in a good place. It’s been real, but I’ve got it from here.
It turns out my therapist is pretty good at reading the room. As I settled in and began prattling on about God knows what, the good doctor made one small statement. “I would say this was never really about your ex,” he said, referring to my time spent in therapy. “This has been about you feeling somehow unworthy of feeling fulfilled.” As supporting points, he then connected elements of my life that I’d never connected before. It was actually quite impressive. Shout out to wherever he went to medical school—I realized I’d never asked.
Self-care can also be addictive and self-indulgent, particularly when it’s treated as the end—as I’d been treating it—rather than a means to getting to said good place.
The house of cards obviously fell, the Jenga blocks scattered across the floor, the whole damn table collapsed on itself. Why the hell had I been working so hard to get 8 hours of sleep, and to keep my apartment spotless if I still had this monster of an issue to deal with all along? What about all that green tea? My abs? What about that spa I had just visited? I floated in a goddamn salt pool for 20 minutes.
It was here when I was reminded of the initial assessment, that the real work starts once your body and mind are in a good place. For the first time, it clicked. Self-care can also be addictive and self-indulgent, particularly when it’s treated as the end—as I’d been treating it—rather than a means to getting to said good place. It’s a supplement, an appetizer to the entrée. To pile on the metaphors, somewhere along the way, I’d allowed an admittedly worthwhile opening act to creep its way up the marquee until it was headlining. Self-care had become self-obsession, and ultimately, it was all just self-distraction keeping me away from what I needed to address most. It was also kind of expensive, if we’re being honest.
A good moisturizer can really do so much therapy.
I left my therapist’s office that day and immediately went home and took a nap. It’s worth noting that it was 11am on a Tuesday; I hadn’t quite cleared the indulgence zone just yet. And yes, I am aware that I’m still not totally clear—this is a personal essay about six months of my inner life, after all. But in the days and weeks that followed, with my therapist as my guide, I started picking at the underlying issues I’d been keeping down for years. It’s been tough, but it’s also amazing how much depth there is to feeling good based on actual growth and progress, as opposed to burying real feelings with a moisturizer. Though, a good moisturizer can really do so much therapy.
There’s a part of me that wishes I had understood this balance earlier, particularly as it seems so obvious in retrospect. I wish I could have saved myself from delivering a few cringe-worthy monologues about the way in which radiating positivity helps you make new friends. But I don’t know that I would have even been able to recognize and internalize any of this without faltering so dramatically first. Through it all, though, I know without a doubt that there is one thing for which I am most thankful—and that is that no one, by the grace of God, asked me my thoughts about that Turkish military coup back in July.
Steve Dool is a writer based out of New York City. Most recently, he was the deputy style editor at Complex magazine. You can find him on socials @mrdool.
Jessie Rodriguez is a freelancer illustrator and artist from Texas and recently relocated to Brooklyn, NY. He was a bachelors degree in fine arts from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Find him @jessiesupreme.
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It’s something that James Burge has been paying ever since he entered the workforce. A notion that the 27-year old says he’s been aware of even before entering corporate America.
“Black people have to work and perform a regular task twice as well as white people in order to get half as much recognition,” he says.
It became all too real when one day, he learned about his white colleagues’ salaries, which were much more than his. “[We were doing] the exact same job, he says. “Not only were we doing the same job, we were also hired at the same time.”
It’s a reality that isn’t new for black Americans, who are largely underrepresented in corporate America. A recent study showed that only 6.7% of black Americans held management positions among the country’s 16.2 million management positions. Among the Fortune 500 lists year after year, there’s been only fifteen black CEOs. Ever. A new corporate diversity survey showed that black Americans were a mere 4.7% of executive team members in the Fortune 100 companies. Being black in startup culture isn’t even better. A recent study from last year found that less than 5% of startups in Silicon Valley had employees who were black American.
But these mere statistics are merely numbers. They don’t come close to the human experiences and frustrations black Americans feel in their own respective workplaces. To be a black professional in America, after all, oftentimes means that you are alone, the lone wolf who must fend for yourself. It means you’re the “token” black person who must bear the responsibility of carrying the entire black race on your shoulders. It also presents challenges for many who feel they must undo stereotypes and stigmas others have towards black America.
What’s it like in a post-Trump fueled era? For a new president who vows to make businesses thrive, has there been a change in office places across America? Is there even less restrictions and regulations when it comes to cultural sensitivity now that we’re living at a time where political correctness has become obsolete?
“I’ll be honest, it was scary because we didn’t know if the precedence that the Obama administration set was actually going to be upheld or simply thrown out,” says Sarah Springer, co-founder of Inclusion in Digital Media, a non-profit based in NYC that promotes diversity in work places. “I certainly had a fear that people all over, people in positions of power, hiring managers, etc. would finally say, ‘Yes, forget this quota stuff! We don’t need to hire diverse candidates because our president doesn’t say so!’”
Certainly, hate crimes spiked after President Trump’s election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 42% of hate crimes “included specific references to Trump, his election, or his policies.”
From the many black young men we’ve interviewed, many hold the same sentiments. Some have vocalized how they have been judged by their skin tone, or put into a box. Others, felt that racism was still alive and well, microaggressions as prevalent as ever. Many of them are like Marcus Scott, a writer based in New York City.
“People like him are lazy,” he once heard a publisher say about him.
Or like Taj Reed, an integrated producer in New York whose white co-workers use the term “my nigga” casually.
From writers, lawyers, startup employees, to students, Very Good Light™ reached out to 13 black American men to share their very real experiences. Here they are in their own words.
1 Taj Reed, NYC, integrated producer
Maybe it was a testament to my blackness, but I developed savvy before I could even grow a mustache.
Young black men are hyper-aware if their surroundings (at least, they should be), and, with each close-minded interaction, either reinforce the stereotype cast on them or do their part in enlightening someone.
There’s a larger conversation to be had about white America’s fear of race and religion dissimilar to their own, but, in short, I’d sooner change careers than to be less of who I am.
My experience with class and race varied, however—I went to twelve schools in four states through grade school—but I never felt burdened to enlighten people who didn’t understand me, or, in worst cases, didn’t like me because I was black. Instead, I learned to be malleable without compromising my integrity as a young black American, and it’s my assumption that most black men in the professional space have the discerning ability to adapt to any environment they’re in, as well.
Fortunately, I’ve never experienced having to change my identity for work—I just refused to compromise. I’m also pretty straight edged. In most instances the ask was to straighten their “curly” hair. “Curly” in this case means natural hair: afros, dreads, braids and most non-chemical hairstyle solutions for black people. Which, to me, reads as being told dial back the blackness. With respect to their employers, fuck that. There’s a larger conversation to be had about white America’s fear of race and religion dissimilar to their own, but, in short, I’d sooner change careers than to be less of who I am.
I worked for a company based in Germany, and for a while was the only black American, male employee. There was a situation where one of the German editors made mention of someone referring to him as their “nigga” and how proud he was of the declaration. Now, it’s either ignorance, or the fact that before having to work with many black people, he could be as candid as he wanted in the group Slack channel. Whatever the reason for the remark, I thought our bosses would address him and every other employee about their intolerance to this kind of bigotry. That address never came. My reaction was to come up with an exit plan. A company that didn’t find comments like that disturbing, or at the very least, unprofessional, wasn’t a place that would champion for my success.
In a post-Trump era, it’s scary. And I was the optimist at the start of it all. I was the person that said, “let’s see what he does in office, and give him chance to be a decent leader.” I’ve seen nothing close to decent leadership since the inauguration. Just self-aggrandizing, self-serving rants of tyranny and bigotry. I think this era has only fueled people to become more of who they are. As creatives, we should do the same. We should be using our platforms to create art and movements that incite change in a positive, more unified direction.
2 James Burge, Denver, digital marketing
Growing up in America as a black male was challenging. I spent much of my childhood years growing up in Birmingham, AL where I attended predominately black schools. In my ways the south, specifically Birmingham was still stuck in the 70s and 80s. I can remember learning that there were “white schools” and “black school”. Many of the “black schools” were in the poorest parts of the city, while the “white schools” were in the more affluent areas.
There were challenges like being told by white teachers in middle school, “black kids don’t get into college”
Now this segregation wasn’t based on a law, rather, based on the post-civil rights era culture of the 90s. School and education was very important to my family, and me, as many of my family members were teachers. I can remember from a very early age seeing college as the end goal. Fortunately for me, I was able to accomplish that goal but it didn’t come with its own share of challenges. Challenges like being told by white teachers in middle school, that “black kids don’t get into college”, and I should give up my goal. In many ways, I face some of those same challenges today.
As a black American, you’re expected to fall into a certain role/category and stay there. It’s rare that black children are told or even shown that they can be more and can do more. I can imagine this is a challenge for many other children of color.
“I’m glad you cut your hair because we almost lost our client.”
Years later as a professional in the work place, I was taught you must perform, present and prepare. Growing up I learned a lot about “black tax,” the notion that black people have to work and perform regular task twice as well as white people, in order to get half as much recognition. This point was driven home with me, when I learned that one of my white peers was being paid more than I was to do the exact same job. Not only were we doing the same job, we were also hired on at the same time.
I can also recall a time I grew my hair out into a hairstyle called twists, while working for a firm. Obviously, I had been growing this hairstyle out for a while, but no one seemed to notice until I cut it off. The very next day at work, I was pulled into the office by management and told, “We’re glad you cut your hair because we almost lost our client.” I was confused; my hair was never a point of conversation or attention, so I asked, “Why would the client leave?” The answer still haunts me to this day: “It made you come across aggressive and uneducated.”
My reaction to the hair comment was minimal, as I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers and at the time really needed my job for income. I think that many people of color find themselves in this type of dilemma. A) Do I say something and hope that they understand where I am coming from and the comment never happens again? B) Do I say something and they don’t agree with me, and then eventually find a way to get rid of me? C) Do I keep my mouth closed, continue to come to work and keep my job in the process?
In Trump’s America, I feel as though we all are in a position where we must look out for each other. In these days, it has become apparent that we must do what the government has chosen not to do. This change in leadership has driven me to be even more involved in my community, with the intent of helping those who need it. In times of hardship, it’s important communities come together and not divide.
3 Sabir M. Peele, Philadelphia, founder and creative director of Men’s Style Pro
Growing up as a black American is an experience. What I mean by that is as I’ve gone through the different phases of my life there have been moments of extreme consciousness of how the world views me and how I viewed myself.
As a child, I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood of North Philadelphia. I knew that as a small child I wanted better for myself. My family roots were strong, so I decided that I would do my best and that no one could deny my greatness. At the age of 6, I turned my focus to my education. I got to school early and stayed late.
I’ve always been perceived differently because I valued my education more than my peers. Especially as a kid growing up in an area where the only options are selling drugs, going to jail or playing basketball – my focus was always centered around consuming as much knowledge as possible.
During my adult years, I think my work ethic has propelled me as being viewed somewhat favorably amongst most people. After college, I became a social media influencer. Being a part of the industry I do feel as though I’ve been passed over for campaigns because of my skin color. There have been instances where I’ve been contacted and pretty much handed the contract to see at the last minute brands will have had a change of heart. Then two weeks later, I’ll see that campaign executed with a white dude. That’s when I realize that many brands still think “black people” don’t sell well to the majority.
Other than business, I do feel how different life has become under Trump. For the first time in my life, I truly fear for my safety. The day of the Presidential election, I saw a white neighbor outside brandishing a gun, almost in a gesture of “This Is My Country Now.” I lived in my home for seven years and never felt that this country was more mine than his. It was a clear reminder that I have to continue to work hard and show the world that I’m contributing member of society, which is sad.
There’s a great opportunity to realize that the black experience is the American experience. We don’t need white people to apologize for things that happened in the past because most of them have nothing to do with it.
If we want to truly be good people, good citizens and good Americans we have to truly embrace the idea of this country being a melting pot. I bleed red, white and blue and it breaks my heart that the country that I love doesn’t show me and all of its people the same love we have for it.
4 Journey Streams, Los Angeles, Student
My childhood and adolescence don’t feel as though they’re marked by any feeling of prejudice, or even discomfort really. I come from a very small, diverse, and accepting school environment, so the racial barriers that I’d expect in retrospect were never really there. It wasn’t really until I was exposed to the Internet that I really acknowledged my blackness, and even then the environment I grew up in made it something to embrace rather than try to hide or stifle as I came into my own.
I feel lucky to have a community where I can walk on to campus with gold nail polish on my fingers and my ‘fro piled high on my head, and have that be considered acceptable – or even normal.
Growing up I was always the loudest, the most energetic, the most out there. This obviously rubbed some people the wrong way, as I was always quick to say whatever was on my mind, but being an outgoing person usually led to more people wanting to support me than tear me down. While I haven’t yet entered my “adult years,” I expect some challenges as I enter the Ivy League world an face the obvious institutional biases that come with it.
My high school experience actually led me to be more proud of my flamboyant (somewhat feminine) behavior, my colorful wardrobe, and my quickly-expanding afro. My high school has an abnormal number of queer kids, so coming into my own and understanding how I want to express myself as a gay person was a process that was met with no resistance. I feel lucky to have a community where I can walk on to campus with gold nail polish on my fingers and my ‘fro piled high on my head, and have that be considered acceptable – or even normal.
The past couple months have been hard. Not only physically (I can only march to City Hall so many times!), but also emotionally as I watch the ideological tides turn within days against those with with I empathize. Looking forward I can only see the liberties of my fellow black and queer folk be diminished as this administration continues to press its bigoted agenda on its citizens. I’ve been down, but through marching and interacting with the LGBTQ community, I’ve felt more invigorated to be proud of my ideologies and identity, as it’s the only way I feel I can show continued resilience in these increasingly-frustrating weeks
5 Marcus Scott, NYC, playwright
James Baldwin once wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
On paper: I did everything right, more or less. After I graduated high school, I went to college and got degrees in Communications and Theatre Arts. During five years in undergrad, I interned at several publications and media outlets, writing over 200 hundred original stories.
“Because people like him are lazy.”
Before my final year of undergrad, a mentor of mine, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, even said I rivaled that of most master’s degree candidates. I have since received my master’s degree and yet, in my profession I’ve often lost various positions to people with less experience. I don’t necessarily believe this is a race issue, perhaps it’s nepotism or that I came to this city with zero connections.
But there have been several times where I was told to shrink myself because “I come off way too strong” or that I am “way too defensive,” right after someone has just blatantly offended me. Nowadays, perhaps I overcomplicate things because I march to the beat of my own drum and I’ve been around the block a few times for anyone to speak down to me. That sends a message to some. It says that I need to “learn my place.”
There were three instances that really stand out over my career. I did an internship for an independent publication, and in conference, the publisher reached out to my mentor and told him that a person “like Marcus would never make it as a journalist and that he has no talent.” When my mentor pressed him, this publisher said something like, “because people like him are lazy.” My mentor told me this right after I received a fellowship with a major publication. Meanwhile, the editor that I worked directly under wrote me a stunning recommendation letter.
That sends a message to some. It says that I need to “learn my place.”
Another instance was when I worked as a part-time editor for a now-defunct publication that catered to women and the CEO, who at this point had lost several editors and assistants, embarrassed me in front of my interns. He called me “an imbecile” when I asked him who the target audience was; over the course of my time there, he changed the demographic all of seven times and questioned my experience and acumen at every turn.
Today, I actually find most black people have been very accommodating to non-diverse people who seem to be more enraged and flabbergasted. In fact, I’d be remiss to say that most black people are not surprised that Donald J. Trump and the alt-right Republican Party won the electoral vote. I’d say we’ve become more accommodating to the white fragility of well-meaning liberals who have had their minds blown after this “revelation” that demagogues like the 45th president of the U.S. were capable of taking the White House.
Since this election, I’ve never heard more white women addressing intersectionality nor have I seen more white people in transit on the subway reading black literature in hopes of being “woke,” nor have I seen more white people address disenfranchisement as I have seen in the last few months. This is all very good and for the people who have been doing this years before it was trendy, good for them. But for the others, I don’t celebrate their newfound awareness.
I think diverse people, especially people of black descent, have been waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. I know I have.
6 Oluwatomi Lawal (Tomi), Pinehurst, NC, student
I grew up in a predominately white community and have attended predominately white institutions for as long as I can remember. However, most my my parents’ social circles were black (specifically Nigerian), so my blackness has always been affirmed and grounded in a familial setting. Growing up, I got some of what I would consider to be the usual string of comments/micro-aggressions: do you play basketball, can you swim, do you know this other black person in the school, do you like the one black girl in class, do you like The Cosby Show, etc.? Most of these I could answer with some variation of “yes, but…” which usually helped curb the stereotypes.
During my high school years I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult. I especially noticed this once the shootings of unarmed black men permeated the news regularly from 2012 onward.
Thinking back, people seemed to say that I was “growing up so fast,” which by itself was not really an abnormal comment for a friend or relative to say. However, during my high school years I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult. I especially noticed this once the shootings of unarmed black men permeated the news regularly from 2012 onward.
I became acutely aware of how common it was for black youth to be characterized as an adult.
I definitely believe that my high school experience allowed me to grow a lot as a person, because it was in high school that I began to learn how to articulate my feelings around the importance understanding difference, being open-minded, and valuing diversity and inclusion. I was fortunate enough to attend a more diverse boarding school in New England that gave me the exposure to be able to develop these new feelings in a setting that I would not have experienced otherwise. The proximity allowed me to connect with members of my high school community and find my voice. With greater exposure to people of color in an academic setting, I developed a propensity to want to keep cherish those connections that I would not have been able to experience outside of familial circles at home. Through this, I certainly became more Afro-centric (I spent most of my senior year with an afro, a necklace of Africa, and a metal hair pick in my pocket), and I loved being able to experience that.
In a “post-Trump fueled era” brought me back from a whimsical idealism back down to a mellowed optimism, which has been ultimately good. It has forced me to be more curious about understanding the differences within people in this nation, while hold firm to my values of diversity and inclusion. It has also made me think more critically about what kind of radical thoughts and actions need to be taken in order to understand and come closer to having a more perfect union.
7 Adam Hyndman, Brooklyn, broadway actor
Like many, growing as a black American was an experience of intersection. (I am of African American descent, and I am also bi-racial with Filipino/ Asian American heritage). I was raised in a rural and homogenous region. Apart from the presence of my own family, the world I looked out on was very white. That is what I became accustomed to, assimilating into the conventions, perspectives and behaviors of the community in order to find belonging.
There have been many times that the roles I am sent in for had descriptions that read simply: “early 20’s -late 30’s, African American. Drug Dealer.” Like, that’s it!
Although, I had respect for my heritage, I was thought that being “white” was default, and therefore being properly white meant being properly accepted. This resulted in a degree of dysphoria as I began to mature, age, and becoming exposed to the world outside of my home town (especially during college and beyond). Growing up as a black man in America is a process of coming to terms with intersectionality, and a journey of finding belonging.
Overtime however, I did develop a responsibility to be good and be the best, in part because of a desire to be an example that black folks can be highly accomplished as well. I didn’t see images or representations of minorities being celebrated often, so I feel like I had to carry the torch whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. That responsibility can quickly distort into, expectation and then further into a burden, and that is not healthy or sustainable. This certainly carried over into my adult life until I started to diversify my network.
Going into my industry, as a professional performer, I was confronted with many mixed messages. Here I was, I had been this over-achieving “token” my entire life who was able to code-switch and gain access in different spaces… yet that is not what I was wanted of me. My intersectionality was confusing. My levels of complexity were not universally “black” enough. my authenticity wasn’t “black” enough. In the very onset of my career I certainly felt push back to compromise my authenticity in order to present a more stereotypical representation of my blackness in order to fit a particular idea or narrative.
Well, in casting there is no shortage of mirco-aggressions. Understandably for convenience and efficiency sake, casting departments need to send out short descriptions for the characters they are casting actors for. Often times these descriptions can become extremely over-simplified. There have been many times that the roles I am sent in for had descriptions that read simply: “early 20’s -late 30’s, African American. Drug Dealer.” Like, that’s it!
During this era, I am so clear of the need for visibility. The journey of my life and figuring out my place as a black man in this country has developed a deep love and respect for my heritage and contributions of many that have made me the man I am. To compromise the truth I have found because of fear would be antithetical to my purpose. I am empowered with the conceit that it is the stand we are for our authenticity that will hold us during these times, offering our integrity sustenance.
8 Alex Freeman, San Francisco, design researcher
I grew up in Palo Alto, or as I like to call it: The Land of Milk and Honey. It really does seem like a tech-fueled utopia, and for the most part, that’s true. However, only 2% of the population while I was growing up was Black. I felt like I was pulled between two cultures: my cousins on both sides of my family grew up in black neighborhoods and I found it hard to identify with them. However, growing up in such a white community also gave me an unsettling feeling of being ‘other’. I loved growing up in Palo Alto, but I often wonder what how much experiences of my white friends growing up there were different than mine.
Black people are so underrepresented in tech that a meritocracy only hurts us until we find equity.
I was the ‘token’. Almost all of my friends growing up were white or Asian. They didn’t treat me disrespectfully, but I was the sounding board for anything related to being Black. I took a more passive view to race while I was growing up, focusing almost all of my attention on forging ahead, getting into a good school, and landing a respectable job. When I got to Georgetown, I started to find my voice as a Black man in Washington DC under the leadership of President Obama. Now that I’m back in Silicon Valley, I’m far more outspoken about equality and equity for minorities in tech and the broader Bay Area.
I think my childhood prepared me for Silicon Valley much more than others. Those of us who grew up there are expected to end up in tech, and our education and social cultures focused on that expectation. I did grow more cognizant of my Blackness while working in technology, particularly the design field.
The really famous designers tend to be white, male, and more often than not, European. I’ve had a hard time identifying with those people and picturing myself rising to prominence in both design and in tech — there is simply no precedent. It’s exhausting walking the unbeaten path, but it’s also exhilarating. My mom was the first Black, female city council member in Palo Alto when she was elected, so if anything, I’ve learned to look to other people’s successes in order to find the motivation to stay the course.
I think the moments that really pain me, are the moments of omission. Silicon Valley takes the meritocracy very seriously (or so they say) but a meritocracy is a double-edged sword. Black people are so underrepresented in tech that a meritocracy only hurts us until we find equity. So the fact that so much of what Black people in Silicon Valley achieve is unrecognized even though it was done against the odds if particularly heartbreaking to me.
I am so lucky to work at a company that cares about the movement, and cares about black people on a deeply personal level. I’ve had several conversations with our CEO and our COO about the subject matter and their responses are so genuine and so empathetic and so personal, that I feel incredibly lucky to have them in my corner. This sentiment has permeated the workplace and it’s a magical thing to see the empathy and alliance that come from my coworkers on this front.
I feel more empowered if anything during this new Trump era. I feel myself getting more and more unapologetically Black and more and more cognizant about how I can influence the narrative of the Black citizen in Silicon Valley. There’s a long way to go, but I think this general mentality of #resistance in San Francisco is adding fuel to my fire, and I’m excited to hit the ground running.
9 Landon Dais, Bronx, attorney
I attended a Catholic High School, Fordham Prep in the Bronx. My school was mostly white. However, there was a decent black/latino population. During my younger years, I joined Jack and Jill, because I went to majority white schools, my parents wanted to ensure I had a social circle of black friends.
I have never been arrested or charged with a crime, but I have been treated like a criminal many times by a police officer.
After high school, I attended an all black college (HBCU), Morehouse College. I wanted to go to an HBCU because I wanted to have the black college experience similar to my older brother. I also attended Columbia University for grad school and then to Hofstra Law School. At Columbia and Hofstra I was one of a handful of black Americans. Even with my education and resume, I have been profiled by police numerous times: stop and frisk, unwarranted search of my car, physically manhandled by a cop in HS, guns were drawn on me while working on a social program in Harlem, etc. I have never been arrested or charged with a crime but I was treated like a criminal many times by police officers.
In my professional career, I am usually either the only or one of the few black males in my office. Black women are outpacing black men in corporate America. I do not know how many times in the first 10 years of my professional career I have been complimented on the way I speak or conduct myself. I appreciate that was not an issue at my current law firm. Oftentimes, I am one of the few black males a colleague interacts with on a consistent time frame. I believe our interaction allows them to know more about the black American experience.
A former co-worker pissed me off during the anti-police shooting protests, the former co-worker would say why can’t “they” protest peacefully like MLK Jr.? I would calmly explain every MLK protest wasn’t peaceful and often the issues you see were escalated by another source and not by those protesting.
I realized that because of their one-sided positive view of police, they naturally took their side unless there was direct evidence to show the cop acted unprofessionally. Without evidence, it was assumed that they were in the right. I just could not understand how they couldn’t see the issue black America was facing with the police in America, and still don’t. Though, the introduction of camera phones and videos has begun to turn the tide.
10 Justin Fenner, NYC, editor
I had a really happy childhood. My dad worked for the government, and we moved around a lot: I was born in the Philippines, and by the time I was in high school we’d also lived in Guam, North and South Carolina, and California. Living in these different cultures and traveling from place to place gave me this exposure to the world that a lot of people don’t get until they’re older, if they get it at all. It took me a while to fully appreciate that.
I won’t lie: I was a pretty sheltered kid. My family employed live-in housekeepers until I was maybe 11 years old. I was the bougie cousin, and no one ever let me forget it. We lived in predominantly white neighborhoods, primarily because they were always the ones closest to great schools — and the one thing my dad wouldn’t compromise on was getting me and my little sister the best educational opportunities available to us.
I’m incredibly grateful for that, but I did have a lot of moments growing up where I felt like I was living between two worlds. I think that’s something all black kids experience regardless of where they live, how they’re raised, or who their parents are. If you want to make a way for yourself in a world that’s dominated by people who, at best, aren’t really motivated to help you succeed, you don’t have a choice about figuring out a way you can communicate with them. And that’s far from being the easiest thing in the world to do.
No matter where you grow up or how much money you have, you always feel distinctly watched if you’re black and male.
I got a lot of schoolyard teasing about how I “talked white” growing up, especially from other black kids. There was this perception that I thought I was better than other black people because of how fortunate my family was, but that was never the case.
No matter where you grow up or how much money you have, you always feel distinctly watched if you’re black and male. I can remember being followed around stores at the mall, for example, as if I might steal something, or teachers having me sit at the front of the classroom because that made it easier for them to keep an eye on me, like there was some inherent danger in putting me on the periphery.
I still feel those eyes on me now. I’m fairly confident I always will. I used to get really angry about it. But it’s just part of the territory now.
Dave Chapelle once said that “Every black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview.'” I think that’s among the truest things anyone has ever said. Code switching is a pretty vital skill to have if you want to survive in a world dominated by people who don’t look like you. But because I spent a lot of my life surrounded by the kinds of people I work with now (namely, privileged white people), I think I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in the professional sphere.
I’m really fortunate to work in an industry that prizes diversity and inclusion, even if it doesn’t always feel that way in practice. I’ve never felt targeted or discriminated against at work, but I have had a number of moments where I’ve had to do some educating. Explaining the importance of Black Twitter to a white editor in his 40s who doesn’t really use social media, or reassuring someone that, no, headline option three isn’t going to mobilize the social justice mechanism is as much as I’ve had to take on in an office. And I’m glad to be around when those questions come up. Each one teach one, you know?
“Every black American is bilingual. All of them. We speak street vernacular and we speak ‘job interview.'”
Sometimes I think the best response to the Trump era is to be who I am fearlessly and without apology. Maybe the best way for all of us to stand up to the extreme celebration of homogeneity that led to Trump’s rise is to highlight every single one of our individual nuances as joyously as possible.
11 Scott Pierce, Columbia, SC, attorney
I can’t really answer what it was like to grow up as a black American. I can answer as to what it was like growing up as me.
I’ve had a lot of experiences that link and bind me to the black community, but my upraising was quite different from the “so-called” average black American. I don’t mean that to indicate quality, but simply that in many ways, the world I grew up in was white.
I knew that my state was hopelessly on the wrong side of history and proud of it.
As I grew older, and shed the innocence of childhood, my perception of America and the way I was perceived changed. I learned that certain privileges were taken from me without my consent due to where I lived. I learned that police officers looked at me a slightly different way than they did at some of my classmates, and I learned that this could be an advantage, on occasion, if I played my part well. I learned that any white girl who pledged in a sorority became off limits for dating and basically college life friendship in general. I knew that when someone yelled slurs out of a pickup truck window while I walked back from the bars, more likely than not the exact same words were being used in bars covered in Battle Flags of the Republic and long live the south graffiti. I knew that my state was hopelessly on the wrong side of history and proud of it.
So I used it to my advantage. I used my charisma and intelligence to open every door I could, sometimes just because it felt like someone put a door in my way. In a sense, I wish I could have given up on the anger that led to me jumping at opportunities like none others will come, but it’s made me who I am.
In the work world, I’ve never felt like a black man at the expense of my work, with the exception of this last summer of 2016. I was working in Texas with far too many Texans. And to hear people I had respected in the office uttering the most vile filth about black lives matter and police brutality broke me open.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I became more or less a shell of myself, ruined a relationship that meant the world to me and slipped back into depression. White Texans, who should know better than anyone that racism still exists today, casually compared BLM to the KKK without seeing the shudder on my face every time they spit out black lives matter, clearly thinking the opposite.
I had friends try and calm me down, saying I shouldn’t be so upset over something as simple as “politics” in the office. It isn’t just politics. I feel like it used to be. I used to stay up watching re-runs of the West Wing with my dad and having such a noble view of politics and the world. Then 2016 happened and I had to address my normal average fear of getting pulled over for a speeding ticket or a broken taillight, and expand that completely rational irrational fear into a new terrified worldview as a black American and I broke.
I honestly think that I was never prepared to fear that many people that I got along with great on a professional level. I couldn’t see how I wasn’t the same level of American they were-and yet, I grew up in that country. I remembered being near that feeling, but never experiencing it. As soon as I graduated from the bubble of undergrad, I hopped in my car and drove out to California-never to return to the South…only ending up there again and again.
I learned how to code switch like a magician
I grew up without a group. In middle school, a group of white kids in my neighborhood whom I’d been friends with for years had gotten in the habit of egging their friends’ houses for kicks. They’d write stupid jokes and cause minor mayhem but it was no big deal. When they egged my house, they also took the time to scrawl on my dad’s car, “NATOW” in shaving cream across the hood. I told my parents I didn’t know what it meant, but they’d invented a new slur for me since none of the others seemed to fit: Not A True Official White.
But every time, my heart heals. It heals with anger. Almost malice.
And the same year, on the track team which was nearly all black, they dubbed me, “Brady Bunch,” because they said I talked like I was on a sitcom for white people. Needless to say, I learned how to code switch like a magician, and there was never a “black” reference that I didn’t know because it cost too much hard earned social capital not to.
In the post-Trump era, which I feel like really started about a year ago, I just feel sad, scared and furious. Everyday my heart keeps breaking that my words are dismissed as whining and fake news and ‘libtears’ nonsense. But every time, my heart heals. It heals with anger. Almost malice. I know it’s unhealthy, but I can’t let it just wash over me anymore.
I’m almost glued to my phone for the next injustice, and with this administration you hardly have to refresh your twitter feed to find the next injustice. Yet I know that I’m just screaming into the void. Mainly, it’s made me get off my ass and actually act. I’ve marched. I took a government job. I am no longer complacent that my America is smaller than it is for a kid who grew up in the exact same family I did, but without my skin color. And frankly, I know I’m stronger for it.
Now, I just have to turn the anger down long enough to accomplish something and prove that I’m not just another black exception. I am exceptional, but we all are. We all have the ability to be. That knowledge cost more than I wanted to pay for it, but I’m proud to be me.
12 Ernest Bannister James, NYC, public relations
I was always seen as “soft” which automatically made me gay to my peers at such a young age.
In the African-American community, being soft is not the norm, so you’re automatically labeled gay if you don’t fight, constantly talk about girls, or have an obsession with sports. Being raised by three strong women definitely shaped my perspective on life, because they taught me to work hard, never complain, and take care of others before yourself.
I think that translated into my adulthood, because I remember employers telling me that I had a great work ethic even though I thought that working hard was the norm. Being perceived as gay in my adulthood doesn’t bother me as much now because, well, I am gay, and that’s just one of many things that define me in addition to being a man, a brother, a husband, a pet owner, a publicist, a friend, and the list goes on and on. But being young and given that title by others before printing it out and giving it to myself was harder and may explain why it took me a while to come out to my family and friends.
I have been blessed to never have been treated with blatant racism in the workplace. There have been times that my peers who were of different races felt comfortable to discuss/say things around me that could be perceived as racist, but I think it’s really in how you look at it. Since these were friends that I know and respect, I know they weren’t coming from a place of hate which never made it uncomfortable for me to be around them when those situations occurred.
Whether it’s a women’s rights issue, a gay rights issue, a black issue, etc. they’re all human issues and we need to remember that when we decide to choose who we stand up for and who we don’t.
My experience at work has always been, a hate issue is everyone’s issue. Being blessed to work in the fashion industry has allowed me to work alongside many groups that at one time or another were marginalized so we all stand in solidarity when something happens that affects a particular group.
I feel now more than ever I need to be more involved overall! I think we as people mean to do good in our lives, but we get so bogged down in our own lives that we forget to reach out and really lean in to help those around us who can benefit from our assistance. I’ve definitely been more attuned to what’s happening around the world in general because now is not the time to live in a place of ignorant bliss. Whether it’s a women’s rights issue, a gay rights issue, a black issue, etc. they’re all human issues and we need to remember that when we decide to choose who we stand up for and who we don’t. We can all be a little kinder and a little more open to each other these days and that’s my mission during the current environment we’re existing in.
13 JD, NYC, merchandising manager
I grew up as a person with black skin in America, but my family is Caribbean, which culturally, is a bit different than being black American. I found myself not understanding a lot of the historical context that was applied to the black American experience until much later in life, when I was old enough to experience it for myself.
I was told by my mentor that I’m big and black, and that my job is to be as invisible as possible.
As a first-generation American, I spent a lot of time highlighting the cultural differences between people throughout the diaspora because these differences are what make us beautiful, but here, in America, everything is skin-deep. You are forced to be conscious enough to know how you are being perceived by the world versus how you perceive yourself. How I perceived myself became low on the list of tools necessary to navigate America.
I was told by my mentor that I’m big [6’5″] and black, and that my job is to be as invisible as possible. That always stuck with me. “Your physical stature is drawing attention to you, so no need to bring more attention to yourself by not following protocol.” Being Caribbean, you live in a multi-dialect space. You speak one way at home, one way with your American friends, and another way at work. Code switching. A phenomenon that is intrinsically passed down, and also learned. If you work in banking, no tattoos, no long hair, no facial hair. I always took this personally. Forcing myself to shave felt emasculating. I now work in a more relaxed environment and one of the first things I did was grow out my hair and beard. I’ve had a beard for the last 3-4 years as a personal protest.
As insane as it may sound, I’ve had white co-workers use the word “nigga” in front of me. Once, reciting a Kevin Hart joke, and another trying to be “cute.” I didn’t think the person was racist, but I did think they were f***ing stupid and had no sense of awareness. The level of comfort you have to have, to say the word “nigga” in front of anyone, much less a black person, in the office, is a downright privilege. I was offended at their comfort level. There was zero concern to how I could respond. Deal with it. What did I do? Nothing. I was in complete shock.
Stand your ground is an interesting choice of words. The day after the election, I felt the way I did on 9/11. I’ve since recovered under the idea that, this whole shit is a joke. Americans should feel embarrassed about electing him. This is beyond governance, and political strategy. It’s about human decency.
I tried contouring for the first time and my Instagram photos are fire
Young, black and living in Trump’s America
Is it time to start using a highlighter?
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Oscars look took all of eighteen minutes
I made my own face moisturizer at home and this is what happened
It wasn’t at all awkward when he bought me a drink or when he put his hand on my knee during the Uber ride home, but there’s no way to avoid the slightly uncomfortable tension of waking up next to someone who probably can’t spell my name correctly (though he’s not alone) and who doesn’t have a toothbrush at my house.
Luckily, I’ve memorized the script. And not only have I gotten it down pat, but I’ve perfected it.
The script is necessary. It’s part of me, albeit something that feels like an unnatural, uncomfortable learned reaction to the culture of misogyny in the gay community.
The script is necessary. It’s part of me, albeit something that feels like an unnatural, uncomfortable learned reaction to the culture of misogyny in the gay community.
It’s self-protection, a form of armor to fend off the critics of my identity. Spoiler alert: The boy who might want to sleep over that night may not like you the next morning. He may not approve of the parts of you that have been deemed less desirable or stereotypically attractive.
You see, I’m a pro, the Meryl Streep of morning afters.
Now back to the scene. Action!
He will maybe stick around for a bit and eventually amble to the floor and collect his belongings. Socks, jeans, jacket. As he reaches over and grabs his watch and/or glasses and/or beanie from the top of my dresser, his eyes will probably flicker with vague recognition of the many products scattered atop.
“You’ve got a lot of… stuff,” he’ll mutter.
Occasionally, he’ll say makeup as opposed to “stuff,” but only if he’s feeling especially bold. That word is usually treated with disgust. I’ll feel my heart sink slightly as I repeat something that I tell myself is a harmless little white lie.
“Oh, yeah. I like doing my friends’ makeup. It’s fun.”
He will move on. Sometimes we’ll hang out again, sometimes we won’t. It doesn’t get mentioned again.
I will put on makeup after he leaves (especially if a hickey is involved) and sometimes I will do my friends’ makeup, but honestly, I just prefer doing my own. Before a date I apply my go-to Milk’s Sunshine Skin Tint in the shade “Sand.” I follow it up with a light dabbing of concealer on the high points of my face, powder foundation to set it all, a quick dusting of bronzer on the hollows of my face for a light contour, generous amounts of cream and powder highlighter, and then I flick my Anastasia Beverly Hills Brow Definer through my brows. I follow it with Urban Decay All Nighter setting spray in honor of the all nighter I will hopefully pull.
It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.
It costs a lot of money to look this cheap.
It’s not easy to feel like your hobbies and passions are shameful, and in a culture that looks down upon all things “feminine,” it can be tough not to feel like Hannah Montana, like someone living an exhausting double life.
It’s the frustrating reality of dating.
This form of gay misogyny is most evident on the dating apps, carefully placed in Tinder bios and Grindr ‘About Me’ sections.
“Masc for masc.”
Those are my warning signs, the painful stings of recognition that whoever he may be, he just isn’t for me.
I’ve accepted my femininity and I celebrate it. I’ve written about it before, but I still stand by it. I honor it every morning when I put on my favorite makeup. With the help of makeup, I feel relaxed. It calms me. It’s fun. Without makeup, I feel attractive. With makeup, I feel amazing.
With the help of makeup, I feel relaxed. It calms me. It’s fun. Without makeup, I feel attractive. With makeup, I feel amazing.
I’m also aware of the fact that these anti-feminine “preferences” exist and that, though it’s pretty gross, there will always be men who will be disgusted by my embrace of my own femininity, who will dismiss me because of it, or who, at their kindest, will just simply say I am not their type.
What I’m still having trouble with is reconciling my femininity with my desire for something serious, for finding someone that accepts me unconditionally. It can feel impossible to have both.
I struggle with the fear of being told that I’m not somebody’s “type” after thinking that maybe I will be exactly their type. I shy away from revealing what doesn’t make me “masc” because the letdown seems inevitable. It’s bred from insecurity, making it part defense mechanism and part fearful, anxious observation.
Though the men aren’t exactly lining up outside my front door, I don’t have any issue finding guys who want to hang out with and get to know me, nor do I have trouble reciprocating. I do find myself avoiding giving them the chance to truly get to know me, my hobbies, and how exactly I can make my eyebrows look so perfect.
Frankly, the routine of looking just masc enough isn’t very masc at all. Sometimes I revel in the intricacy of it (#SCAM), but most of the time it’s just really annoying. It not only requires extreme precision and a lot of time, it’s disheartening.
As a secret diehard romantic, I want to be myself without the fear of someone walking away. I want to wear highlighter and bronzer. I want to wear tinted moisturizer without having to worry that the blending isn’t impeccable or seamless (even though it always is).
As a secret diehard romantic, I want to be myself without the fear of someone walking away.
It feels like a trap to be asked by a boy, “Are you more masc or fem?” To quote Nicki Minaj, “I’m a human beeeeeeeing.” Our identities aren’t simple. I am not one thing.
For now, my true, unscripted identity feels like a secret. A secret I love and celebrate, one that I hold close to me and that I find ways to love, no matter how hard it can be. A secret that, when the time is right, when I feel safe, I will be able to reveal to someone who deserves it. To someone who can emerge from the awkwardness of the morning after and see me for what I am and like me, not as though my identity is a burden or “despite” it, but who can see my true self with a happiness in its revelation, an eagerness in discovering it.
One day the pesky morning after “script” will be ripped to shreds.
And until then, I will let them think these brows are natural. As if that’s even possible.
Louis is an Ohio-born journalist now living in Brooklyn. He likes eating burritos, doing his eyebrows, and watching episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians without fear of the future. Find him on Twitter where he tries to be funny.
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As I sat in the theater waiting for Moonlight, now the frontrunner for this year’s Oscars (nominated for 8 awards), to begin, I thought about how Chiron the film’s main character had represented the type of man I had grown to resent in the last year – black, muscular, virile. Instead, I saw a man, 25, so weighed down by the desire to appear a certain way that he deprived himself physically and emotionally. He reminded me of me, an Ethio-Eritrean-American, then 25, just learning how to keep my inhibitions from thwarting my sexuality.
Moonlight’s first trailer melds a variety of images through a kaleidoscope: the muscled, gold grill-adorned Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) peering over his shoulder; his love Kevin (Allen Holland) French-inhaling, tightly shot while seducing the camera; Juan (the sublime Mahershala Ali) on the beach with young Chiron, meditating on the importance of following one’s own path. These are glimpses into what makes Moonlight a poignant, cathartic film for its countless gay, bi, or otherwise queer viewers (if not the ideal platform to reveal themselves to their traumatized, conservative, immigrant mothers, at least that’s how I felt when I backed out of seeing it with my own Mom).
Self-actualization and coming to terms with one’s identity were ideas burning into my mind before they were on the tip of my tongue. I knew I was bisexual by the age of 10. By the time I came out at 18, I had already been living in cold acknowledgment. Queerness was and still is a social more amongst Ethiopians and Eritreans, but a tangential concern compared to my value as a person.
As a child, my quiet demeanor and detours into heightened silliness stood out amongst my ball-playing, chest-beating peers. Parents held me up as the standard for their own children, an unusually good-mannered, often quiet boy who preferred to sit and read than run and sweat. Weathering my teens towards the dry-humored black hipster I would happily blossom into, provided enough cover for people to overlook my queerness as simply “offbeat charm.” Consequently, I’ve never felt the need to come out to my parents, although certain classmates, without fail, came to test me, leaving this awkward nerd desperate for role models to identity with and draw power from. Through trial and error, my education fortified me against the rigors of life.
The author (left), talks about coming to terms with his own bisexuality. (Photo by Jason Nelson)
I am very much my father’s son – analytical; diplomatic – raised by a doting mother habitually in fear for my life for reasons I couldn’t place, other than that she was strict. My mother wanted me to mature into a doer – handy, active, present. Worship of the fantastical armored my thin skin piecemeal from my toddler years onward, empowering me to shrug off aspersions thrown at my sexuality with a wit and verve that softened the doubt I felt towards myself.
As horny, inquisitive, first-generation American kids go, I had a wide palette to draw from. Daydreams of living out the adventures of superheroes, child messiahs, and intergalactic bounty hunters came with a curiosity that traversed religion, philosophy, and culture. I learned from the masters – the chic mysticism of the Sailor Moon cartoon and manga; the way Janet Jackson clapped her hands on her lap in the “You Want This” video; the self-mythologizing, self-revering rappers of the golden ‘90s; the lurid grunts shared between Javier Bardem and Olivier Martinez in Before Night Falls (2000); the rhetorical fierceness of Malcolm X; the unhinged self-love of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard; the wailing elegance of Morrissey; the regal campiness of Freddie Mercury.
Much credit is due to my varied role models from childhood to now, for helping me mature into a nuanced person partially of my own choosing.
Chiron is not as fortunate, backed into a corner by bullies. They torture him for being outside of that hypermasculine black mold. When he finally lashes out, he starts reinventing himself in the image of his father figure, Juan, a noble, nurturing but ruthless man, who is compromised by the same trap he sought to protect Chiron from. At his breaking point, Chiron assumes the mantle of Juan and buries himself in a construct; I swallowed hard for him.
When Chiron reconciles with Kevin at the end of the film, I cheered him on as a viewer and a peer. Identity is about choice as much as it is circumstance. The power to choose for one’s self is crucial, the confidence to do so is hard won.
I’m fortunate to know myself at 25 amid love, heartbreak, and conjugal appointments on the KIK app. Moonlight has shown LGBTQI youth their power, armed them with a hero like Chiron to emulate in the face of unyielding fuck-shit, and a sign that the Chirons of the world are on the right track. My friends, do not wait to seize power of self out of fear.
Caleb Wossen is a Dallas native and writer specializing in arts and entertainment. Growing up in a tight-knit Habesha community, Caleb learned English through a careful diet of rap videos and Peter Jennings. Follow Caleb at @OozaruParfait.
Cat Baldwin has been a Brooklyn-based illustrator for 8 years after fleeing the scent of patchouli that haunted her formative years in the Pacific Northwest. She spends her free time seeking out delicious food and maintaining what she likes to call her “moon tan”.
Follow her on Instagram @catbee643 for photos of cats, pizza, and colorful city living.
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Let’s get ready for the day with our favorite guys who give good face in our series called #GRWM (Get Ready With Me). In this very special edition, we get insight into the life of Zachary Coleman, who was preparing for his special night out as Stella, his rambunctious, flirty, outrageous alter-ego. Very Good Light was there to document Zachary as he transformed into Stella. It was just before her debut as a drag queen onstage.
“Stella was always trying to come out but everyone was telling her not to.”
Photo by Hennessy Vandheur/Very Good Light
So says Zach Coleman, a boyish 20-year old who lives deep on the L Train in Brooklyn. Zachary, who speaks with a slight Southern drawl, works at the NYX store in Union Square. He’s new to New York City, but his walk and talk is filled with a confidence and swagger that would suggest otherwise. “It’s more because I feel like I belong here, I’m finally free,” he tells Very Good Light. “I’m finally me.”
It’s the quintessential story for every misfit or unique character who grew up in the wrong city. They find they’re just too this, too that, too big, too small, too much for their provincial towns and pack their bags, seeking refuge with all of the other freaks in New York City, their mecca.
For Zach, his story begins in a super religious family tightly embedded in a Southern church. Houston Texas to be exact where he was taught to pray the gay away. “God is going to heal you from your homosexuality and you’re going to get married and have kids with a woman,” they’d say. “You just have to pray. Pray harder and Jesus will heal.”
God is going to heal you from your homosexuality.
But he couldn’t help his hormones. As any responsible teenager, exploration and curiosity naturally possessed him. So he lost his virginity at 16. “That’s the first time I had sex with a man.” He had tried doing things with his girlfriends but found that he was just not into it. He’d always come to a screeching halt whenever any article of clothing came off.
“I’d breakdown before sex,” he recalls. “I was with this woman for two years. She’s my best friend now. I came out as gay after we broke up and I hear she’s now asexual.”
“I’d breakdown before sex.”
He thought he’d change. Nay, God would change his sinful ways. He had no power of that. God would heal him like he did the demon-possessed man, the man with leprosy, the man who was blind. Any of the stories in the bible’s Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. All Zachary would have to do is take it to church. Take his sins and nail them to the cross.
And so he did.
He enrolled in Bethel ministry school located in Redding, California, just miles south from the Oregon border. High up in the mountains, far removed from the sins of Houston, he’d be able to call on the name of Jesus, conjure the Holy Spirit and transform anew.
In his daily bible readings, his classes about sacred scripture, he began visualizing himself coming out of the closet, this time as straight. So he diligently studied each verse, memorizing them until he could bury his homosexual self. He grew a large beard. Spoke in a lower voice, a slower cadence, dressed “like a hipster.”
He grew a large beard. Spoke in a lower voice, a slower cadence, dressed “like a hipster.”
Weeks went by. Then months. A year. After his second year of ministry, enough was enough. “I was living in shame. I know one thing, God does not like shame. I needed to get shame out of my life,” he recalls.
And so he took baby steps to become his authentic self. “I was always an authentic person. Why was I pushing things down?”
It was at this time when he turned on the television. While flipping through the channels he found a spiritual being so close to the Jesus he’d read about, so holy, he needed to kneel. Standing in his TV set wearing a blonde wig higher and closer to Jesus was none other than RuPaul. He was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race for the first time and it was an experience that was completely transformative. “That’s how I was introduced to the drag world for the first time.”
“I was always an authentic person. Why was I pushing things down?”
He’d found that itch. He started to scratch until he got deeper and deeper and finally felt someone inside him. Was the Holy Spirit, perhaps? Or something else? And so, with the help of itch, he set out to evangelize his newfound self. His gay self. His man-loving, homosexual self. So he started to preach. Preaching his own gospel, his own unabashed gayness, first, to his best friend, a woman who had become his confident.
“Zach, you know I love you and I don’t have all the answers but what I know is what we’ve been taught,” she sternly told him. Next, were his brothers in Christ, his teachers, his professors, his ministers. “I was told I was wrong.” After bottling up his inner true self, one day he decided it was time.
“I can’t do this shit any more,” he said one day. “I have to express myself how I want.” And so he graduated that year with a handful of people knowing he was gay. But everyone would soon discover his true identity, including his family. On commencement day, while accepting his diploma, Zachary twerked across the stage. “I shook my ass for them!”
“I can’t do this shit any more.”
But a degree in ministry didn’t feel complete. After all, he still had to get out that something bottled like a genie inside of him. It was the summer of 2016 when he decided to head to the Mecca: New York City, the spiritual destination for sisters in drag like him.
“This past summer I painted my nails and because I didn’t know how to express this feminine side of myself,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how to get it out of me. I would try to do my makeup in secret, hoping no one would find out.” It was at that moment, painting his nails, when he finally met Stella. “She was always there,” he says, coyly. “Stella was always trying to come out but everyone was telling her never to come out.”
Later that summer, when Zachary learned to embrace Stella, is when he told his own dad. They were walking across the Williamsburg bridge one night, when he leaned to his dad and told him who he was.
“Does this mean you’re … transitioning?” his dad asked.
“No dad, this is not what drag is,” he explained. “Drag is an expression of me. In drag, I can embrace my masculinity even more than when I’m not in drag. It allows me to love being male, but there’s a part of me that can only be expressed when I’m a woman.”
That is, being bold, brash, bombastic.
“Stella is a very heightened Zach,” he explains. “When I’m in drag, nobody knows it’s me but everyone wants to know me. She’s hot! Stella’s sexy. That’s something Zach isn’t necessarily. As Stella, I’m more confident.”
As Stella, I’m more confident. She’s hot!
As for God? Who is God? What is God?
“I am spiritual,” Zach says, now putting his final touches on Stella. He glues back his eyebrows and layers foundation over his face. He then creates two, thick arches for brows. “I love God. I don’t know who He is because the world has tainted who God is. My friends talk about Him as a man. But if He created us and we’re an image of Him, why do we box how He looks?”
“To me, God isn’t male or female, or he’s male and female both. Or, why can’t we just accept that, well, God is just God?”