#BlackTwitter is never far from the media spotlight, as black people campaign, debate and discuss black culture. Marcus Stow investigates how black LGBTQ+ people are uniting globally via the power of the tweet.
Twitter often gets a raw deal from traditional media outlets, who scoff that “It’s just Twitter” while simultaneously combing it in the hope of finding click-worthy content. In particular, Black Twitter in the USA has garnered considerable mainstream media attention. The need for a constant stream of ‘edgy’ content has seen news outlets turn to subcultures to create a buzz for their own Twitter feeds, and often this involves covering what black people are talking about today, stealing tweets and ideas with the notion that ‘Twitter is public’.
The important #BlackLivesMatter, which was started by three black women, two of whom identify as queer, has brought the international spotlight to the issue of police brutality towards black people in the USA. We’ve laughed along at the gallows humour as the calling out of racism goes viral (#HasJustineLandedYet springs to mind). Black Twitter is not only generating column inches, it’s also getting specific coverage, with the Los Angeles Times deciding to recruit a black Twitter correspondent.
And the phenomenon is not limited to the USA. Here in the UK, a group of predominantly young black people discuss issues facing their communities, with the #doilookdstrkt hashtag highlighting sexist and racist profiling in night clubs, a protest that took to the streets. Then there’s the ongoing debate on whether Ghanaian or Nigerian jollof rice is superior and regular light-hearted discussion about the cultural differences between Caribbean Islands. In South Africa, #FeesMustFall was the tag for widespread student protests against increases in university fees.
Hashtags and Twitter discussions not only inform, entertain and campaign against injustice: They also help like-minded people connect. And within every group there is an LGBTQ+ splinter group discussing our own issues. There’s discussion of racism on queer dating apps, with #NotYourPornHubCategory deconstructing the fetishisation many black LGBTQ+ people face. There’s also celebration of the rise to prominence of black trans women such as Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. Across the diaspora, black LGBTQ+ people are sharing their experiences, offering contemplation and mutual support with regard to the issues we face.
The important #BlackLivesMatter, which was started by three black women, two of whom identify as queer has brought the international spotlight to the issue of police brutality towards black people in the USA.
So is Twitter just chat, or can it unite black LGBTQ+ people in positive ways? I spoke to black queer Twitter users from across the diaspora and asked three pertinent questions.
1). What do you perceive as the differences between say black LGBTQ+ ppl in your country and the UK?
Mcebo, South Africa: “In the ways we socialise, identify and physically manifest our queerness, then I would note that fundamentally, we’re all just as shady and witty as the next queen halfway across the world. The humour – especially the sexual humour – is the same. The flamboyance, the tea, vogue drops and the messiness is oddly universal. More seriously, the commentary on racial divides and social justice critique within the gay community is astoundingly similar.
However, I do find that in the USA there is more of a visible spectrum of gender and queerness that is represented that I don’t find to be visible in South Africa I remember the kind of stark binary gender expressions in Port Elizabeth, for instance, between those who were hypermasculine/ dominant versus those who were high femme/ submissive. For example, it was confusing to a friend of mine that a feminine guy could also be sexually dominant in a same-sex relationship. Here in the USA, I’ve found that there is greater consciousness about the spectrum of gender and sexuality in a way that I had not been exposed to in South Africa.”
SageSaturn, Brazil: “I think we differ in ways that mostly have to do with where we come from. Our activism comes from different soils and we’re all trying to grow the same tree but it doesn’t really pan out that way all the time.”
Yves, USA: “There’s not one black American culture: for example, I’m from Georgia and it’s hard for me to fully relate to people who have lived in NYC all their lives. As far as differences go, we benefit from having a cultural history of black LGBTQ+ history such as Paris is Burning and the ballroom culture in general, which I’m so grateful existed. That could only happen somewhere like NYC. I think black British people can identify with that. They’re black and LGBTQ+ as well, so it’s their culture too. We have a history of black LGBTQ+ such as voguing, and I see our fashion, slang terms being stolen from us and co-opted by pop stars and rappers and then it’s exported out to the world. People may not realise that the fashion or the slang came from the ballroom, but it is shared among us globally. Then it passes into the white and heterosexual mainstream.”
Here in the USA, I’ve found that there is greater consciousness about the spectrum of gender and sexuality in a way that I had not been exposed to in South Africa.
Chanelle, London: “Twitter definitely helps people find the like-minded. But for me, UK voices are not prominent, and that’s not to say there needs to be a battle for dominance, but a UK context can be difficult to come across.”
2). As we talk about things on Twitter do you think it has any impact other that chat, do you think we are learning and supporting each other and are we creating an international community of sorts?
Denzelwynter, London: “I feel like we are connecting, but I don’t think there is an international community just yet, a lot of us are not comfortable or safe to be out on Twitter, and my friends and I often get direct messages from young gay and bi black men and they say “what you post on Twitter gives me hope and I feel like someone understands me”. I’ve met a really good friend on Twitter who is also black and gay and that friendship has transferred into real life.”
Mcebo: “We are absolutely creating an international community. Social media has this amazing way of showing us how we’re actually very similar. From the Palestinians experiencing tear gas injuries tweeting survival techniques to South African #feesmustfall students who are experiencing the very same thing, to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the ways it has sparked a global black zeitgeist, of sorts. The impact of connection on social media has created spaces where similarly situated people all across the world can virtually organise and amplify their voices in ways that are revolutionary and historical.”
SageSaturn: “I think we are creating a community, but we don’t take our “agenda” (do we have one?) offline and so we don’t spread our knowledge as far as we could. I feel like I have international friends and a great group on twitter but I’m not sure we’ve reached “community” yet.”
Yves: “I think that Twitter can facilitate discussion, but you have to be careful of different contexts, so for example when we discuss racism on the gay scene, I would have said why not just date other black men? However I’ve learned that it’s more difficult in the UK due to the lower numbers of black queer men in the UK. I feel more empowered and sensitive to other people’s lives across the diaspora. I hope it makes people in other countries more sensitive to our issues – for example #BlackLivesMatter has been discussed around the world – and awareness that we do not always have a thorough understanding of news abroad because our media doesn’t cover it. The only way we could get our own media to cover the Trayvon Martin case was through campaigning. As more conversation happens, the more we learn and grow and become sensitive to the plight of others in the diaspora. I think we are creating a community, and a space where our smaller communities are becoming connected and that’s paving the way for a larger community.”
Chanelle: “There are benefits to the discussions, it’s just that your average LGBTQ+ POC would not find it easy to find a dialogue that represents them. Also, Twitter is public and not everyone can be out or more expressive. Maybe I’m late but I don’t see too much that represents me as a bi black woman, particularly one who is married. And there are limits to what I feel I can say about myself sometimes, but I could be the voice I want to see.”
3). Is international black LGBTQ+ unity actually necessary and can it benefit us?
SageSaturn: “Honestly, I don’t know. I would have been so sure about this before but at the moment I ask if we can we get anywhere and is this the way? I’d say yes it is, but for what goal? Like, economic or feeling good internally? What’s the end goal?”
I think that Twitter can facilitate discussion, but you have to be careful of different contexts.
Yves: “I definitely think that it can be beneficial. As far as whether it is necessary, it depends. If I lived in France, do I really *need* Americans’ support? We have survived without it. I feel it is certainly helpful and inspiring for example to see the LGBTQ+ community in Jamaica fight for change – it helped to renew some hope and faith in the movement in general, and hopefully they are inspired by us. So yes, it can certainly be beneficial.”
Denzelwynter: “I think we might able to use our Western voices to amplify the voices of black LGBTQ+ people who are not as privileged as us, who don’t have the same rights and protection, to get their voices heard and help them to change their situation. I don’t know how but I think we can draw attention. For me, being more connected with black queer people on Twitter has definitely made me feel less alone and that there are cousins across the water, it does feel like it’s a family.”
Mcebo: “Unity of any sort is necessary because we can magnify our impact through our visibility as a united front. However, I do think that it might be problematic to use ‘black LGBT’ as a naming category to galvanise a global ‘black’ queerness. Since for the most part, race is defined by the state, North American and South African queer men might more readily identify with black queerness. However the same may not be true for queer men who identify on tribal lines, or who don’t identify as gay or queer at all but go to bed with the same sex. There is also a way that when ‘gay’ becomes ‘global’, it ends up actually becoming hegemonically Western or Euro-centric. Subsequently, if black queer folk had to identify with a global community, we would have to take seriously the multifarious identities, cultures and histories that we all come from whilst also acknowledging the ways we exist under the rainbow. Is it possible, yes. Will it be difficult? Yes too.”
Twitter is public and not everyone can be out or more expressive. Maybe I’m late but I don’t see too much that represents me as a bi black woman.
What I took away from my discussions about the black LGBTQ+ experience on Twitter is that while there are as many black LGBTQ+ viewpoints as there are people, rather than merely being a chatroom and a way of sharing memes and gifs, black LGBTQ+ people are learning and finding affirmation from stories across the diaspora. Unlike Facebook, the openness of Twitter’s platform allows global debate to flourish as ideas and discussions are shared via retweets.
Similarly, the use of pseudonyms as user names – again unlike Facebook’s ‘real names’ policy which was insensitive to the needs of queer and trans users – allows LGBTQ+ people who may not feel safe enough to come out to participate, and there’s always the direct messaging function for confidential discussions, or maybe even some hooking up. This is not to say that Twitter is always safe: there are major issues with the harassment of women that Twitter has failed to address in a serious manner. There are language barriers and different interpretations of what LGBTQ+ or even ‘black’ is, but common ground can always be found and this can enrich our lives, even down to making real-life friends and meeting partners. It’s ‘Just Twitter’? Far from it.
Follow Marcus Stow on Twitter (@marcusjdl)