Mutually-Exclusive: The Debate of Theocracy and Marriage Equality

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The Equal Protection Clause, part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides that, in pertinent part, “[N]or shall any State . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Marriage is a legal contract licensed by states which confers certain rights and benefits upon married people (e.g. special estate tax benefits, filing joint tax returns, etc). Denial of those benefits by prohibiting consenting adults to marry, and only allowing opposite-sex couples to marry, is in direct violation of the 14th Amendment. The 10th Amendment does not usurp this power.

I support marriage equality. What I support more, however, is the concept of an inclusive Constitution that protects all marginalized groups. Yesterday, I found myself emotional after witnessing the LGBT community and allies rallying for marriage equality in Washington, DC. Afterward, unfortunately, I allowed myself to enter an interesting debate with a Facebook friend regarding her opposition to “gay marriage” [which has always bothered me since I am not a fan of using “gay” as an umbrella term]. The reasoning behind her opposition was religion. She said, in essence, that in her marriage, she needs herself, her husband, and God.

“Beautiful,” I thought.

Nevertheless, I was confused on how she thought it was logical that her religious viewpoints should be imposed on the lives of others. She proceeded to tell me that the State had nothing to do with her marriage.

Like it or not, from a legal sense, the State has everything to do with your marriage. On many occasions, I have engaged in debates with people who say since marriage is an inherently religious institution, they are in favor of civil unions and domestic partnerships, but not marriage. I, however, find this argument to be dangerous and broad, especially since it implies that ‘marriage’ is nothing more than a label. First, the institution of marriage has existed long before any religion “copyrighted” its concept. Second, even if marriage is a religious institution, are some gays and lesbians not religious? Third, recognizing a couples’ marriage legally is more than label, especially considering that over one-thousand benefits flow therefrom.

While I think marriage is an inherently unequal structure, SCOTUS determined, in Loving v. Virginia, that the right to marry is a fundamental right; therefore, this right should extend to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike. Some argue, however, that Loving only applies to heterosexual couples, but this is untrue. SCOTUS did not say “the right to marry is fundamental only if you are straight.” On the contrary, SCOTUS held that “[t]he freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” This was not limited to a persons’s sexuality.

It is troublesome when someone is so entrenched in their own thought-process that they refuse to see how they are infringing on the rights of everyday citizens. Everyone has a right to their own opinion, but when your opinion begins to negatively affect the civil rights of your counterparts, is when opinions become problematic. If you are an opponent of marriage equality, though I vehemently disagree with you, you have the right to that opinion just like I do. Nevertheless, I wish it was based on law and policy since we are ultimately speaking of a legal contract and equal protection principles, as opposed to hearing why your values from the Bible [or other religious text] should infringe on the individual rights of gays and lesbians.

In my debate yesterday, my Facebook friend proceeded to explain how the purpose of marriage was for procreation, which intrigued me. I immediately responded, “How is marriage only a fundamental right because of procreation when SCOTUS has held that procreation and marriage are two separate and distinct fundamental rights?” I encouraged her to read Loving and Skinner v. Oklahoma [which seemingly intersects marriage and procreation, but still separates them as distinct fundamental rights]. 

Furthermore, this procreative argument fascinates me, especially since discriminating against infertile and elderly couples, who are unable to procreate, would be reprehensible. Quite frankly, the procreation argument seems a bit patriarchal and a sign that the only importance of marriage is a woman bearing children, which certainly is not a sign of preservation. But alas, SCOTUS has only had four women since its inception, so patriarchy abounds.

There is one reason the government would attempt to legislate against marriage equality: animus against gays and lesbians.

Maintaining tradition for tradition sake is not rational. In fact, please view this line of questioning between Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Charles Cooper, Esq., counsel for Petitioners in Hollingsworth v. Texas:

Justice Sotomayor: “Outside of the marriage context, can you think of any other rational basis, reason, for a State using sexual orientation as a factor in denying homosexuals benefits or imposing burdens on them? Is there any other rational decision-making that the Government could make? Denying them a job, not granting them benefits of some sort, any other decision?”

Mr. Cooper: “Your Honor, I cannot. I do not have any – anything to offer you in that regard.”

Even someone who has not taken a single Constitutional Law course could explain that not being able to offer any rational argument for discriminating against gays and lesbians means that no argument exists. Constitutionally speaking, rational basis is the lowest standard of judicial scrutiny, and if there is no argument to rebut that, then your argument is effectively null-and-void. An original intent approach, while understandable theoretically, can only lead to disastrous public policy in an ever-changing America. Without recognizing that laws exist outside of the original intent, slavery would have never ended and places of public accommodation would continue to be segregated.

Though I am not a fan of organized religion – or any other institution that seems to denigrate the “other” – I respect the rights of anyone to have religious beliefs. Not only do I support that, but our Constitution requires it.  Our First Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” While our Free Exercise Clause gives individuals the ability to practice a religion of their choice without government intrusion, under the Establishment Clause, the Constitution also requires that our laws cannot solely be based on religion that everyone must follow. Point is, whether God is in your religion, you cannot force God, or the rules of your religion, onto others.

Fact is, marriage equality should not be legislated or judicially scrutinized under the framework of “God” or “religion.” Marriage is the right of consenting adults to enter into a union with the State. While it exists, it must be equal. Marriage, in and of itself, is not an institution of church, but you can allow it to be in yours. Many people get married in our country that have no belief in God, religion, and can simply get a marriage license at the downtown courthouse.

This morning, my good friend Tara Pringle Jefferson [Founder/Editor of “The Young Mommy Life”] had a supportive Facebook status about marriage equality (bravo, Tara)! Unfortunately one of her friends was not so supportive, stating, “I don’t agree with their lifestyle choices,” which she defined as “homosexual sex.”

I responded, “Make no mistake about it. I choose to be with someone of the same-sex, but I was gay long before I ever engaged in sexual intercourse just like you were straight before you engaged in sexual intercourse. Sexuality is your feeling of intimacy; sex is the physical act of that intimacy. I don’t agree with dogma, so I will never find homosexuality to be a sin. But if it is one in your mind, and you truly feel like “one sin isn’t greater than another,” then let’s not only analyze the ones that we don’t “do.” Sins are interesting because people choose to mention them based on the level of intensity, according to whether or not they do it.”

From my understanding, God loves all of me, and not half of me. This means that God loves me – Black, gay, and all.

Yesterday, while I was outside of the Supreme Court building, I witnessed an historic moment – one I will never forget. Thousands of LGBT individuals and allies gathered to stand in solidarity for marriage equality. We can debate for hundreds of years about whether this is the ‘proper time’ for this civil right, but my gut tells me that the time for civil rights is always now. We must continue the fight for employment, mental health and suicide prevention, health care reform, poverty, and homelessness, among others. But this, too, is an important moment.

I share this because whenever my identity is being legislated and judicially scrutinized, I will fight. I will fight for myself, and I will fight for others who have yet to realize the power behind their voice. Marriage equality is important, not only for those who have the fundamental right to be married under our nations’ laws, but for society as a whole. I fight because I love myself. I fight because my rights are important, too, even if I choose not to exercise them. I will fight because we do not live in a theocracy.

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The Spirit is Eternal

This blog post will be quite different from the others. No debates. No arguments. No analyzing race, gender, or sexuality. This blog post is just an emotional release from losing my beautiful grandmother. On January 7, 2013, my grandmother passed away. As a result, I have taken the liberty to write, The Spirit is Eternal, to express my feelings toward her life and death. Please continue to love one another.

Peace and blessings!

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I love you.

For once, those three words do not provide justice.

Those three words do not describe the feeling you gave me.

Those three words do not begin to define . . . you.

Your beauty.

Your grace.

Your smile.

So let me try this again: I love you.

I thought saying it again would emphasize my point, but alas, they are mere words. And without action, they are useless.

You taught me that.

You taught me what it was to be true to myself.

You taught me what it was to be humble.

You taught me what it was like to simply . . . be.

On January 7, 2013, my life changed.

All it took was a simple phone call.

My sister began crying, and suddenly, she spoke two words: “Granny died.”

No other words were spoken.

The silence became deafening.

Tears began to fall. First of sadness, then of anger, then of joy.

I can still remember one of our last conversations.

You told me to not fear death.

“Death is inevitable,” you said. “We live on this Earth to die and be close to God.”

God loaned a beautiful woman to me.

To laugh with me.

To hug me.

To smile at me.

Now, granny, I will live for you.

I will carry on your legacy.

I will love people as you loved them.

And when things happen that are beyond my control, I will pray that you, my beautiful guardian angel, will show me the way.

Thanks for raising my wonderful mother.

She taught me everything you taught her.

She continues to do an amazing job.

So granny, close your eyes.

Rest peacefully.

Stay beautiful.

I will wait for that beautiful day when we meet again.

I love you.

I can only pray that my actions of love have meant as much to you as your love has for me.

The physical transitions.

But the spirit is eternal.  

Rest in Paradise.

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Don’t Be Alarmed, We’re Negroes

The title of this blog entry was inspired by the 1995 movie, Bad Boys, featuring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. As Detectives Marcus Bennett (“Lawrence”) and Mike Lowrey (“Smith”) were entering a home, Bennett says, “we’re your new neighbors.” Lowrey followed-up by saying, “don’t be alarmed, we’re negroes.”

Though this quote elicited laughter from the audience (admittedly, I thought it was hysterical), disclaimers about the harm Blacks will not cause our counterparts may be necessary to protect the life of young Black teenagers. Before there is any confusion, declaring a “lack of harm” is facetious, but necessary to make my point – that race, racism, and implicit bias exists, and unfortunately, young Black men suffer deadly consequences.

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Remember this story: On February 26, 2012, a Black teenager walked to a local convenience store, in Florida, to buy his younger brother some candy.  In his hand, he carried a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona© iced tea. Unfortunately, this young man was identified as “suspicious” by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain.  After calling the police, the neighborhood leader approached the young man, and after an altercation, shot the young man in the chest at close range, which killed him instantly.  The young man’s name is Trayvon Martin; and sadly, his tragic death highlighted the continued problems of race-relations.

(Pictured below: Trayvon Martin)

Initially, it was difficult to wrap my brain around the fact that a young man could walk down the street, be targeted because of his race, and end up dead.  My shock turned into anger, which turned into disgust, which turned into action.  About a week after the tragic incident, I noticed that it was not being discussed in the media or even among law students focused on social justice issues.  I, then, approached a few professors at American University Washington College of Law and proposed that we have an event at the law school in honor of Trayvon Martin and the problems of racism in our country.  At that time, I had no idea how successful this event would be, but it was arguably the most successful event of that year.

On April 9, 2012, the Black Law Students Association (“BLSA”) sponsored The Trayvon Martin Tragedy: A Teach-In and Legal Discussion Forum (selfish plug: I speak shortly at 03:43:56 – 03:45:20). As one of three student organizers, this event helped served several communities because not only did we discuss the legal issues with “Stand Your Ground” laws, we discussed the role of race in the criminal justice system – from arrest to sentencing.  The program featured a legal analysis of the issues and remarks by civil rights experts, followed by a town-hall discussion of activists and scholars.  Included in this program were Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, Laura Murphy, Director of ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and William Yeomans, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice.

After the program, we began a letter-writing campaign to the Department of Justice to discuss the urgency of justice for Trayvon Martin’s family, and for race-relations in general.  In our letter-writing strategy, we researched past racial problems in the Sanford Police Department.  Through our research, we discovered that in recent years, there were numerous complaints that police were lenient on an officer’s son who beat a black homeless man.  Moreover, there were complaints concerning black teenagers being pulled over by police for wearing the wrong color hat because they were suspected to be affiliated with gang organizations.

Furthermore, we highlighted that the Martin case was just one example of a systemic problem of racial inequities and injustices in our criminal justice system.  In fact, there are racial disparities at every step of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing.

Racial profiling is a larger problem in the criminal justice system. Racial profiling occurs whenever law enforcement agents use race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin as a factor in deciding whom they should investigate, arrest or detain, except where these characteristics are part of a specific suspect description.  With the suggestion of Laura Murphy, we advocated for Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (S.1670), and to institute a federal ban on profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin at the federal, state and local levels.  Furthermore, we urged the Department of Justice to amend its 2003 Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies.

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Unfortunately, race and racism has re-appeared in the State of Florida. Similar to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed by Michael Dunn because Dunn claimed to be in “fear” of his life after an argument occurred.

(Pictured below: Jordan Davis)

This past weekend, an argument between Davis and Dunn occurred at a gas station parking lot, when Davis and other teenagers were asked to turn down their ‘loud music’ coming out of their SUV. After the verbal exchange between Dunn and Davis, Dunn claimed to hear threats from the teenagers, and told police that he felt threatened and thought he saw a gun in the teenagers’ car.  As a result, Dunn grabbed his gun and fired into the SUV eight or nine times. After the shooting, Dunn drove back to this hotel room because “he was scared the teens would call their friends and have them hurt him.” Dunn also claimed to see a weapon, however, after searching the SUV, the cops did not find a single gun inside of the SUV (according to the police report). Similar to Trayvon Martin, Davis was unarmed.

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Do not over-simplify this issue as just a man shooting someone because of a purported “fear.” Confrontation aside, when will we begin discussing the fact that when Black men are involved, people always seem to be in “fear” or feel “threatened.” Should I pretend his fear would be present if the individuals in the car were White? This is a systemic issue of race and racism. Besides, the legal standard for self-defense isn’t a simple “fear;” it is “reasonable fear,” and I hope that ‘reasonable fear’ has not become synonymous with Black person.

Self-defense? Feeling scared or threatened? Could those feelings be heightened because the victims were Black? Certainly, this is not to say that a confrontation did not occur. However, what is important is the discussion of why this man claimed to have felt threatened and whether race plays any role in that. This case is another example of implicit bias.  Many legal scholars have researched and written on the role of race and “reasonable” fear as it relates to self-defense.  As Professor Darren Hutchinson, blogger of Dissenting Justice, said, “This situation is similar to psychological studies. Participants are shown images of persons and told to press a button if the person is pointing a gun at them. The highest category of errant shootings: when the image was a black man. So – this man saw a nonexistent gun in the car.”

Dunn’s attorney, Robin Lemonidis, refuses to see any similarity between Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. She stated, “There are no comparisons to the Trayvon Martin situation . . . He is devastated and horrified by the death of the teen.” So the reason a comparison is not being connected is because she believes her client was devastated by the death he caused versus Zimmerman apparently not being devastated or horrified?  The only visible difference appears to be the immediate arrest of Dunn without a national call-to-action, unlike with Zimmerman.

I will draw the connection for Lemonidis —

Davis/Martin: Both Black teenagers who men thought were “threatening.” Both thought to have a gun on their person. Both were unarmed.

Zimmerman/Dunn: Both men who approached a Black teenager. Both men felt “threatened” and in “fear” after causing the initial altercation. Both men thought the teenagers were armed. Both men shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

(George Zimmerman (top) and Michael Dunn (bottom))

“[M]ichael [Dunn] is not a vigilante,” the attorney said. “He’s a brilliant software developer. It was never his intention to kill anyone.” Lemonidis said she is contemplating what defense she will use if the case goes to trial. According to Lemonidis, “self-defense applies because Mr. Dunn was threatened,” Lemonidis said. “We can’t say what the defense will be at this stage . . . but stand your ground is a possibility.”

However, according to Florida Statute 776.012 (“Use of Force in Defense of Person”):

“A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony . . . .”

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So the question remains – is it reasonable to be in fear of your life because you think someone has a gun in his or her vehicle, and as a result, fire eight or nine shots, even after the vehicle attempted to leave when the driver noticed the gun Dunn was holding was real?  Rebecca Dunn, the daughter of the suspect, apparently thinks so.

She says, “He got threatened and had to do what he had to do, and it’s sad, so sad . . . A terrible tragedy on both sides. It really is. I don’t know. What are you going to do in that situation? You don’t know what you are going to do. He just reacted.”  But Rebecca, a gut-reaction because of prejudicial (read: implicit) bias does not make the death of a teenager any less serious.

Though Lemonidis said, “Dunn did not intend to kill anyone,” how can she explain him firing into a vehicle of unarmed teenagers eight times? Admittedly, her and I went to different law schools, but have we eliminated “reckless indifference for human life” from our entire criminal law vernacular? Is the standard as simple as, “I felt threatened, no matter how unreasonable my fears were?” Absolutely not.

Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, said, “[I] want to honor the memory of [my] son, and do not want his death to be divisive.”  McBath said her son brought people together and it would be even more of a tragedy if his death divided people.”

McBath has certainly earned the right to have her son’s death classified as whatever she would like. Respecting her wishes is the least that can be done for her at this point. McBath states, “we don’t know what kind of dark place that man was in, but something in him snapped . . . but we aren’t going to call this a ‘hate-crime’ because that wouldn’t honor Jordan.”  McBath’s opinion holds more weight than anyone’s in how to honor her son, but I am not sure anyone considers this a hate crime just as of yet.  On the other hand, most people are saying that Dunn’s feelings of feeling “threatened” were intensified because of Davis’s race, and because of Dunn’s implicit bias associated therein. Not that Dunn was searching for Black teenagers to shoot and kill.

Because of our criminal justice system, Dunn is “innocent until proven guilty,” and rightfully so. Civil rights and liberties should never be taken for granted, especially in the eyes of the law.  Since I have a passion for criminal defense, I will always believe this to be true.  However, I also understand the role of the prosecution, and how racial (and prejudicial) bias can negatively affect the criminal justice system based on who is the victim and suspect. But as Lemonidis said, “[Dunn] is no vigilante; he is a brilliant software developer.” I suppose only ‘vigilante’s’ can be guilty of shooting and killing an unarmed Black teenager.

When will the time come for Black teenagers to have a “reasonable fear” and use self-defense to save their own lives?

Message To Hollywood: Nina Simone Is Probably Not “Feeling Good” About Zoe Saldana Being Cast To Portray Her Legacy

*Special Note: Nothing is wrong with you. Please do not allow Hollywood’s definition of beauty to define what you truly are. Own your kinky hair, your dark skin, your wide nose, your luscious lips, and your curvy hips! No surgery or bleaching will ever be necessary.*

zoeninasidebyside

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No one wants to acknowledge his or her privilege. Not men. Not whites. Not wealthy individuals. Not educated folk. Not heterosexuals. And most recently, not Zoe Saldana.

It is very difficult to have someone understand his or her undeserved privilege, but it is time that Saldana unpacked her invisible knapsack within the Black community.

The controversy surrounding Zoe Saldana has been a difficult one to read. Colorism in the Black community has been a problem for many years. I have sat quiet on the topic regarding Saldana being cast to play the legendary, Nina Simone; however, per usual, I must add my two cents because as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”

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While I do not think Zoe Saldana is a bad actress, she certainly should not have been cast to play Nina Simone. Not now and not ever. Nina Simone was a beautiful, curvy, dark-skinned Black woman with a rich voice. I remember first hearing Nina Simone when I was younger. Immediately, I fell in love from the first note to the last as I embraced her singing of pain, happiness, and even heartache. For much of her life, she experienced trials because of her darker skin complexion.

Zoe Saldana is a lighter-skinned, Afro-Latino woman. Saldana has probably never experienced the same resentment for her complexion as Nina Simone has. This is not Saldana’s “fault,” but the failure to recognize it, is. This is a major problem with Saldana being cast as Nina Simone. Even if Saldana was the greatest actress on earth, what is Hollywood attempting to portray by casting a lighter-skinned woman to play Nina Simone?

I must say, however, this issue is much bigger than Zoe Saldana . . . and must be addressed without “Trayvon Martin’ing” Saldana.

Let me explain further.

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When Trayvon Martin was tragically taken away from us by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, people seemed to speak of racial profiling, violence against Blacks, and selective prosecution as isolated events when, in fact, they were systematic and continuous occurrences. Similarly, Hollywood’s failure to cast a dark-skinned Black woman, and instead cast Saldana, is not only disrespectful, it is not an isolated event, and simply another example of erasing ‘darkness.’

This issue is much bigger than Saldana; it is about displaying a true biopic of the life of Nina Simone. This is about Hollywood’s failure to cast dark-skinned Black women to play a dark-skinned Black woman.

You know who should play Nina Simone? Someone who does not have to paint her face darker to become a dark-skinned woman. Someone who has experienced trials because of her skin complexion by mainstream society, and can embody that into making an amazing film. Someone who has heard society say, “you are pretty for a dark-skinned girl” and understands that, by default, dark must not be pretty. Someone who . . . looks like Nina Simone, unless Hollywood is attempting to argue that dark-skinned Black women do not exist, which of course, is an entirely different conversation.

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The other day, I made the statement that “lighter-skinned Blacks receive a ‘privilege’ for being lighter-skinned.” When I used the word, “privilege,” to describe the treatment lighter-skinned Blacks received by mainstream society (and even by Blacks), I received some push back, though I am still unsure why. Privilege is, in essence, a preferential treatment that is not earned. This is not about whether Saldana has denied her blackness and whether she has always recognized the black part of her heritage. This is about our society valuing things that are closer to European features and devaluing blackness, but more specifically, dark-skinned blackness. The only way we can value dark-skinned blackness is by calling out the erasure of it by society and by Hollywood.

There are many dark-skinned actresses that could have been cast as Nina Simone, lest’ not forget that Simone was devalued because of her dark complexion (in this casting, that should have mattered — a lot). As a young Nina Simone, I can easily imagine Adepero Oduye from Pariah, and as an older Nina Simone, the directors could have cast Viola Davis — both of who are amazing actresses and can portray the triumphs and struggles of the icon.

My question is: what is the difference from this privilege than others? Why is it easy to understand white and male privilege, but not privileges within communities? Most people who receive privilege pretend not to recognize it as such. Being Black is not immunity from privilege; lighter-skinned Blacks should also realize this to be the case. Certainly, this is not to say that light-skinned people do not experience racism; they do. My point is that many receive preferential treatment for having more European features as if something is wrong with African features. Do not convince me that you have never heard someone say they want a “redbone” or someone who is “light-skinned, with green eyes, and long hair.”

Apparently, Saldana never received the memo of her privilege in-and-outside of Hollywood. In September, Saldana re-tweeted someone referring to her negative treatment as “reverse racism” in the Black community. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but racism does not go in reverse. It has been in drive for many years, and this erasure of dark-skinned Blackness is another example. “Reverse racism” is an overused statement by those who have the luxury of benefiting from privilege and entitlement. Reverse racism is fictional and has never existed. Since Saldana is playing Nina Simone, I am surprised she would ever make a statement about her experiencing “reverse racism.”

To make matters worse, Saldana has been extremely defensive of the criticism. I heard someone say “Saldana is being picked on.”

Let us be clear – this is not a schoolyard bully looking for a problem; this is about defending the legacy of Nina Simone and for dark-skinned women in Hollywood. By not even attempting to understand the colorism complex in the Black community, and in Hollywood, Saldana will continue experiencing backlash for accepting this role. I will not even discuss the irony of a minority doing “Blackface” to play the role of a dark-skinned Black woman.

Calling out this type of privilege does not mean that a person is valued less. It simply means that someone must value us as dark-skinned individuals because we recognize that if we will not, no one will — especially not Hollywood.

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I, for one, do not think Saldana should be the person to play such an icon whose music was highly influential in the fight for equality in our country. When dark-skinned women cannot even be cast as dark-skinned women, we have a huge problem in Hollywood and in our country. It should be addressed.

Recently, I read an article that stated, “Zoe Saldana is black ‘enough'” to play Nina Simone. They went on to say that “the quality of her acting” was all that mattered. If all that matters is the quality of Zoe Saldana’s acting, then let Meryl Streep play Harriet Tubman. Let Tom Cruise play Frederick Douglass. Let Nicole Kidman play Maya Angelou. While we are at it, let us pretend that racism and colorism has nothing to do with casting in Hollywood.

There must be a standard and lines must be drawn. If Hollywood does not care to do it, then we can take out our permanent marker and draw one for them.

While I do not think Saldana is 100% to blame, she should have exercised some artist integrity to decide to turn down the role. I reserve most of my blame for the continued erasure of dark-skinned Black America, especially in regards to this film, for Cynthia Mort and Jeremy Lovine for casting Saldana. However, by happily accepting this role, not only has Saldana failed to exercise artist integrity, she has also failed to realize the perpetuation of the racial-hierarchy that Hollywood has promoted, and that she has helped to promote.

People do not believe that the history of Nina Simone should be chastised simply because Hollywood is afraid of casting a dark-skinned Black woman with luscious lips and curvy hips. People care about the image of a woman with kinky and natural hair receiving recognition. People care about Nina Simone. This is about her more than it is about Saldana.

Nina Simone’s life. Her legacy. Her Blackness. Her dark-skinned blackness . . . matters!

Rationalizing The Irrational: The Importance of Not Justifying Sexual Abuse

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“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” – Audre Lorde.

I share my stories because I finally have the courage to define myself for myself. I have become confident because I have to be; no one will disturb my tranquility. Do not allow anyone to disturb yours.

We all have our story to tell. Release your emotions by moving the internal to the external. When you are comfortable to share your experiences, please know that the world is listening. Do not allow others to define your story as “inappropriate.” You define your story; do not allow others to eat you alive by placing you into their fantasy of how they want you to be.

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I should have known. I should have known there was a reason you looked at me so intensely.

I should have known. I should have known why you waited until no one else was in the house.

I should have known. I should have known why you only wanted me to be in the car with you on certain occasions. But alas, I was a child, and though I should have known, I didn’t want to know that my stepdad had an affinity for boys, or perhaps, just me.

I was young. I was impressionable. I never had a father or father-figure for that matter. What was important for me was doing what I was told. Ever heard of the expression, “children are to be seen and not heard?” I lived it. I breathed it. I sat quietly as to not disturb anyone’s idea of this perfect man.

I hated it. I hated myself.

The comments that made me feel uncomfortable began: “do you and your friends show each other your ‘manhood’ to see which one is the biggest?” This received an awkward chuckle, and an immediate “no.” This was often followed by, “well, I’m sure you would win anyway.”

Red Flag!

But this was my stepdad and could do no wrong, so I assumed it was all in jest and moved on. Unfortunately, the comments did not cease. I knew my mom would believe me, but I refused to have her stress and cause any rift in the family.

My heart was heavy, and I had no one to talk to. I spoke to the one person my grandmother told me would always be there: God. But the beautiful, all-knowing Creator didn’t intervene to stop anything. I began to question not only organized religion, but the existence of a deity that would let his child suffer sexual abuse. Say what you will, but as a 9-year-old, I knew enough about life to know what it was about, and the pain I was internalizing was certainly not it.

But again, children were to be seen and not heard, so I just . . . existed.

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It all started in 1996 after those few ever-so awkward comments. As everyone left the house, me and my stepdad stayed behind. I was in my room playing with my Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots when I heard a loud knock on the door. My stepdad said, “Boy, put those toys down and come in the room; we need to talk.” This statement would strike fear in the hearts of most Black children because we immediately knew a whippin’ was coming. So I began to cry until he assured me that I didn’t do anything wrong.

I entered my parents’ room and was told to shut the door. The bedroom door closing sounded like prison gates.

I was trapped.

I should have known better, but fear is one hell of a drug. Something just did not add up. Maybe I should have mentioned something; hindsight is always 20/20.

“Lock the door,” he said. No one was home, but one thing was for sure – he was smart and didn’t want to get caught. On the bed was: a remote for the VCR, a sock, pillows, a condom, and a jar of Vaseline.

The first few moments were innocent questions about school, sports, and friends. The questions quickly changed to affirmative statements of sex, sexuality, and whether I had any girlfriends. “No,” I answered. “Boyfriends then?” he replied. Again, this received a “no.”

Not entirely sure where the conversation was going, he seemed frustrated and said, “What do you know about sex?” I had a good memory, so I began spouting exact details from what my Health teacher taught us about the birds and the bees. This must have disappointed him because he was going to undo whatever it was that I was taught.

Already realizing that I was attracted to my male peers more than my female peers, this made things really, really confusing.

I moved closer to him on the bed as he grabbed the remote to turn on the VCR. He inserted pornography and asked me what I thought about it. My first response was that it must have been filmed in the 1970s. Even in this uncomfortable setting, I had to keep my sense of humor. Nothing was funny. I told him I didn’t like it, which did nothing but get me berated.

He told me that my Health teacher didn’t know everything about sex, and as a father, he needed to teach me.

“Take off your clothes,” he said. The fact that I can hear his baritone as I type this makes my stomach turn.

I obliged.

He told me to lay back. I heard the sound of the Vaseline jar open. I was going to “learn” one way or another. I put the pillow over my face, embarrassed that I may actually enjoy whatever was about to happen. The thing about sexual abuse is that our bodies usually respond to the pleasure, so we get this warped idea that it is “good” even though, it is bad. We get this idea that we liked it.

We don’t.

My body was numb. I felt lifeless. I laid there praying it would stop; again, I received no answer. What this taught me was . . . nothing, except that I wasn’t safe in my home.

A house was clearly not a home. And certainly not with him there.

The more my body refused, the more angry he became. Sexual abuse quickly turned into physical abuse, or perhaps, they were simultaneous; my body can never remember. I ended up getting hit for the smallest things. I’m talking, get out of the shower and have a belt waiting for you type whippins’.

This was on-and-off for about two years. I thanked the Creator for those “off” days. One memory that I will always remember is the night it all ended.

I will warn you – this may be graphic.

————————-

I was called to enter his room – again, when no one else was at home. Typical. In true form, the VCR was turned on, Vaseline was on the bed, along with a tube sock. I was told to move from the bed to the floor. I suppose this would make things easier. I obliged. Things began to get really weird the moment he tied something around my eyes to blind me from what was about to happen. He asked me to bite on the tube sock. The moment I bit on the tube sock, I felt something my youthful body should never feel. A terrible, painful rip.

I screamed.

Fear struck as he immediately pulled himself out. I limped back to my room, cried, and went to sleep. I had to hurry up and get it all out before my sisters and mom came home. Everything had to appear perfect. Nothing would be wrong with me. This was the last time anything occurred.

The moment my mom divorced him was the best day of my life. She had no idea how happy she made me. It was all over. I would never have to see his face again. Ever. The memories, however, live on.

I write this blog today because I know this has not only happened to me. I have friends and family who I know experienced similar treatment from people who we thought loved us. I am here to tell you to speak up and be more courageous than me. I know it hurts keeping everything inside, but please understand that things will be okay. We have to make it okay. People commit acts of sexual abuse and molestation for many reasons, but asserting power and control over the vulnerable is one of them.

I should have known better, but I didn’t.  Remember what I always say: We have a story and I felt it was time to share mine. Don’t feel bad for me. I am living, breathing, and have amazing friends and family. This is about moving the internal to the external.

It is such a beautiful transformation. I am honored to share it with you.

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The Mathematics Of Gay Men Donating Blood: FDA + Queer = HIV-Positive

Contrary to popular belief, all gays are not HIV-positive. This may come as a shock to the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), however, but believe me when I say – some gays are, indeed, HIV-negative.

If you are able to donate blood, be grateful. Every day, individuals die because they cannot receive the proper blood or they receive blood, but there is a problem during transmission. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the FDA is part of the problem of why many people across the country are dying. For the past 30 years, the FDA has discriminated against, among other things, men who have, or has had, sex with men. In 2007, I was one of those men.

In a statement released earlier this year, an FDA spokesperson said, “[we are] trying to protect the public and basing [our] policy on science, not “any judgment concerning the donor’s sexual orientation.” While reading this statement, I had to laugh to myself, because the first time I was turned away from donating blood, it felt exactly like being discriminated against because of my sexual orientation.

I love donating blood. No, I mean it – I love donating blood. No, not the awkward feeling after your finger is pricked. And no, I definitely do not love the feeling of being rushed apple juice and cookies because the nurses thought you would pass out. But I love the idea that my blood can be used to save a life.

In the summer of 2007, while still “in the closet,” me and several friends went to an American Red Cross truck to donate blood. One-by-one my friends went up, spoke to the nurse, answered questions, gave blood, and received juice, cookies, and a sticker of good citizenship for donating blood. As most of my friends went outside, I stepped up to the computer screen to answer the same questions they answered so swiftly. The question that stood out was – “Are you a man who’s had sex with another man?” In my head, I knew I could lie and donate blood anyhow, but I figured the question was for a reason.

Instead of lying, I looked around to see if any of my friends were around, and asked the nurse “what does this mean?” She said very bluntly, “Have you ever had anal or oral sex with another man?” Already knowing the answer, I hesitantly said “yes.” She then told me she could not allow me to donate blood because gay men are at a high-risk of being HIV-positive. I attempted to convince her that I was, indeed, HIV-negative, but she told me it was FDA policy that a man who has had sex with another man (even if only once) could not donate blood. In fact, I was told that my name would be placed in a database and I could not donate blood ever. Well, unless the policy was overturned or other circumstances.

I turned around . . . extremely disturbed with tears in my eyes. The fact is, I felt discriminated against. Let’s face it – the sole reason I could not give blood was that I had sex with a man. To make matters worse, I was still in the closet and did not know how I would explain to my friends why I was coming out much faster than they did.

When I came out of the Red Cross truck, a friend said, “Wow, yours was fast!”

Have I just been clocked? Was my secret about to spill out? Did the FDA place me in an incredibly awkward situation?

I felt trapped and unsure as to how I would answer the question. So, I made up some ridiculous lie about the blood and one of my four tattoos or some problem with a heart condition when I was younger – neither of which had anything to do with my reason for being denied. My friends all had puzzled looks on their faces, but seeing how I reacted, they chose to leave it alone. Though we went about our day without any mention of me being rejected from giving blood, I felt sick, embarrassed, and wanted to crawl into a corner. “Is this what being gay is about,” I thought.

——————

In 1983, the FDA enacted policy that refuses “the blood of a man who has had sex with another man since 1977.” This policy was created at a time where no reliable tests for screening blood for HIV existed.  Now, however, information is readily available and technology has vastly improved.  Because of this new information, myself and many groups across the nation have submitted petitions to the FDA. The petitions demanded an overturn on the FDA policy because it was based on archaic notions regarding who had HIV, how it was transmitted, and unintentionally perpetuated the idea that the LGBT community is sexual deviants.

Over the years, the amount of blood donors have significantly decreased. But why do I care more than the FDA? Why does the FDA not care that they automatically assume that queers are HIV-positive?

After speaking with someone from the FDA, I was told that even after blood is tested, HIV-positive blood could remain dormant without the person knowing, and since gay men are at a high-risk, they ban them [me – you – us] from donating blood.

There are major problems with the FDAs thought-process: First, the FDA is continuing the stigma that only gay men can contract HIV, which we all know is illogical and irrational. Second, by focusing on groups the FDA believe are HIV-positive, they completely miss individuals that may actually have HIV. Third, if HIV may not show up in blood for a certain point-in-time, why is this only important if it is from the blood of a man who has sex with another man? Banning blood from an entire community because science shows we are at higher-risk of having HIV is discriminatory. The problem with the FDA statement released is the person presumes that science cannot be discriminatory. I assume the spokesperson never heard of Charles Darwin.

Having my blood refused made me feel unwanted. Having my blood refused made me feel something was innately wrong with me.

“Gay blood” equals “good blood,” too.

Today, I write this blog to challenge everyone. If you can give blood, do; many lives depend on your services. If you cannot give blood because of your sexual orientation, please write letters to the FDA and begin a petition in your communities. I challenge you to speak to those at donor banks about cultural competency. I think back to my experience in the summer of 2007 – instead of rushing me out the door, the nurses could have allowed me to sit down like a “normal” person, faked me giving blood, allowed me to receive some cookies and juice, and sent me out after my “fake donation.” But no. The nurse was concerned about placing me in the banned forever category without giving another thought to my embarrassment.

That day, I was discriminated against. If you put lipstick on a pig, it is still a pig. Similarly, if you cover discrimination by referring to it as “science,” it is still discrimination. Let us work together to eradicate homophobia. This may not be popular, but it needs to be addressed.

Good night and much love.

My First Kiss: Gays, Too, Fall In-And-Out Of Love

I have been in love. I have been heartbroken. Listen to me when I tell you – “gays, too, fall in-and-out of love.” My love was not with my “first.” My first was just that; someone who helped me evolve in the LGBT community, and he made that perfectly clear. Despite what he saw as clarity, however, I saw it as confusion and ended up falling head-over-heels for someone who could care less.

My first was beautiful: caramel-complexion, beautiful smile, perfect teeth, average height, and athletic. I remember the first time I met him at Trotwood-Madison Middle School. I was new, so he walked up to me and introduced himself. As he approached me, this big smile grew across my face as I reached my hand out to his. Intentionally shaking his hand longer than normal and looking into his eyes, I nervously mumbled, “My name is Preston.” He smiled, said his name, asked where I was from, and one lunch break later, we instantly became friends. We exchanged numbers and our friendship with one another blossomed into something beautiful.

My freshmen year at Trotwood-Madison High School was an interesting one. Girls searched for the cutest boys they could find and boys attempted searching for young girls that caught their attention. This is when I noticed I had no interest in girls. I always thought they were attractive, but no real connection. I began to pay attention to masculine behavior and how I should act in order to be accepted. Boys constantly talked about girls, sports, and parties, and though I liked to enjoy myself, these were of no interest to me. So to fit in, I dressed “masculine” in an attempt to overcompensate for my growing femininity and lack of desire to be with women. This did not last for long.

Still attempting to find myself, I pretended to have crushes on different girls in my high school. When I was not pretending about having crushes, I fabricated stories about girls I dated from work. I could hear the lies getting bigger and more ridiculous, but that never stopped me. At one point, I remember telling a friend that I broke up with a girl because she was pregnant and said the child was mine, though we never even had sex. But, of course, there was no girl and most certainly, no pregnancy. Though rumors about my sexuality began to spread, I went on with my life until someone would blatantly ask, “are you gay?” That never happened.

As senior year arrived, me and my first reunited after he left for another school during our junior year. Homecoming came by, and being selected for homecoming court brought me some attention. Was I masculine now? Is this how I was supposed to reach the pinnacle of manliness in high school? In short – no, but it was worth a shot. After homecoming, me and my first exchanged numbers after losing brief contact and made a commitment to continue speaking; and we did.

During senior year, my depression increased. Externally, I would smile and show all signs of positivity, but on the inside, death seemed to be a great option. From problems at home to remarks behind my back, I was at my wits-ends. So I called my first to talk; he immediately picked up the phone, came over, and we just sat in the car as he listened to me vent my frustrations. Something was odd about this friendship though; the way he looked into my eyes felt like someone who could see inside my soul. I ignored it and continued talking. We sat in the car for hours just talking about senior year and what colleges we would attend.

The night of senior prom changed me completely. After I was announced Prom King, I remember being tapped on the shoulder, heard “congratulations” whispered inside my ear, followed by a “call me later – it’s important.” After the limo dropped off me and my prom date, I waited for my best friend to take us to the charter bus for “After Prom.” All day, the only thing on my mind was “call me.” To my surprise, I received a call later that night offering to come take me home after the bus dropped the seniors back at the high school. I graciously accepted.

That 15-minute car ride felt like an eternity. We said no words; we just let Usher’s “Can You Handle It?” play in the background, which made our interactions increasingly awkward. He dropped me off, and just as he was about to drive off, I said I needed help carrying my bag into the house. That was a lie; he knew it, but that same beautiful smile lit across his face, and he decided to help me anyway.

He walked into my room, shut my bedroom door, sat on the bed, and he talked to me. “Preston, you can sit on your bed,” he said. It was probably best that I didn’t, I thought, but I sat down anyway. He looked in my eyes and said, “You know I won’t hurt you right? I will always be here.” I let out a nervous chuckle out of fear of saying something stupid. Before I knew it, warm hands grabbed my face to turn it slightly, and I felt soft lips press against mine. Did you know heaven had a taste? From that moment, I did.

It was my first kiss from another man.

I didn’t budge. I didn’t flinch. It felt . . . perfect. He took his lips away, chills ran down my spine, and immediately, I wonder what just happened. Should I be kissing another man? Better yet, should I have liked it?

That summer, we grew closer and closer. Every morning, I knew I would receive a “good morning” text, followed up by an “I hope I see you later.” Suddenly, however, the messages stopped, the phone calls stopped; it all just – stopped. After not speaking for weeks, I received a phone call urging us to talk. Already thinking I had fallen head-over-heels for the wrong person, he came over so we could speak. My heart started to pound; pound so hard that it felt it would explode out of my chest. He approached me, gave me a hug – he always had this amazing smelling cologne where you could easily identify him in a crowd.

The first few moments were awkward, so I finally said, “What happened to you?” His response will never leave my head: “I wanted to help you figure out yourself.” In other words – “you got too clingy and this will never happen; we will never happen.” I politely asked him to go home. I sat and cried for minutes, which led to hours, which led to days –  thinking of how stupid I was to ever think that an attractive, assertive, secure guy would want me in the same way I felt about him. That, coupled with my first kiss from the same-sex, did not help. So I grew even more confused; hating myself on the inside, but still attempting to pretend I was happy on the outside.

Finally “coming out” to my best friend, Felicia, I had someone to talk about too about my internalized feelings and emotions. That helped to a degree, but I needed to find another outlet. So I prayed constantly and wrote everything I was feeling in a journal, but I never shared it with my first.

So, today, I write this blog post not only for myself, but for those who never brought their internal feelings to the external. It is important for us not to internalize negative emotions or negative energy. We always need a healthy outlet for the preservation and progression of our mind, body, and soul. I write this because, somehow, when homophobes think about “homosexual relationships,” they refuse to take their mind off the word “sex.” Same gender-loving relationships are much more than about sex – they are above love, heartache, and confusion – just like many opposite gender-loving relationships. If you are reading this blog, just remember an important lesson that I learned the hard way – that “gays, too, fall in-and-out of love.”