In 2015, I was living in Big Sky, Montana for the summer and working as a housekeeper. On my 21st birthday, I went out with new friends. I introduced myself to a guy sitting next to me at the bar. The man looked back, clenched his jaw, and muttered a slur. I grabbed my drink, threw it in his face, and chaos ensued. The bartender yelled while the man’s friends came to his aid. Within moments, my friends and I were kicked out of the bar.
I’ve spent most of my life anticipating the threat of homophobic slurs or violence, an anticipation that prepares me for what is always possible. But I remain filled with rage and sadness for myself and so many other LGBTQ+ people that must live with the possibility of violence or death for being themselves.
“My god. My god. They have to stop doing this,” said one speaker. “We Black, beautiful gorgeous jewels are the most important things in this world.”
For many Black LGBTQ+ people, the possibility of violence is always just around the corner. It can happen during a late-night outing for food, after a slur lobbed from a car, or as a result of this year’s sweep of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
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These thoughts rushed into my head when I read the news of the murder of O’Shae Sibley, a 28-year-old, gay Black man living in Brooklyn. On Sunday, July 30, Sibley stopped to get gas with friends. At the station, he was dancing to Beyonce’s Renaissance when a group of teenagers approached them, yelling slurs. Sibley verbally defended his friends and was stabbed.
There is a particular horror to this. The fight ensued to the sounds of Beyonce’s album, a commemoration of Black, queer art and history. One of Sibley’s friends spoke in a video about tending to Sibley’s wound as he bled after being stabbed, “Y’all murdered him right in front of me.”
Sibley was born in Philadelphia and liked dancing to Missy Elliot’s music videos as a child. He studied numerous dance forms at the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts and as a part of Phildanco, a Philadelphia dance company. He once performed in an off-Broadway play about Black pride. Friends described Sibley as “goofy” and dedicated to attending racial justice protests. He danced with the House of Du’Mure-Versailles and performed at 2019’s Black Pride.
Lee Soulja Simmons, Executive Director of the NYC Center For Black Pride, spoke at a press conference about Sibley’s passing: “He was never able to reach his full potential. The saddest part about is that we wrestle with his death. We wrestle with hate crimes. We wrestle with people within our community constantly facing discrimination, not just because you’re Black, but because you represent LGBT.”
Despite visions of a progressive New York City, anti-LGBTQ+ violence still occurs here and is looming all around the country with a rising tide of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Over the past two years, numerous men targeted, drugged, and stole from dozens of gay men in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. At the start of Pride Month, a Black trans activist, Qween Jean, was violently arrested during a protest. Furthermore, with the rising costs of living and increased gentrification, there is the reality that many LGBTQ+ people, especially those in the community who face job scarcity, may be pushed out of the city altogether.
Since the start of 2023, almost 500 bills have been proposed, a record number of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation compared to years past. Over 200 of these bills target trans and non-binary people specifically. Some bills require that teachers “out” their students to their parents while others prohibit drag performances in front of children or in public spaces.
When presenting HB 1557 (the infamous “Don’t Say Gay Bill”), the Florida House Judiciary Committee argued that the bill is essentially for “parents’ rights” to raise their children however they wish. The demand to censor diverse education spreads into other realms as well, like the proposed erasure of so-called critical race theory from schools in 44 states since 2021.
The fight for marginalized people to have basic human rights should not be considered a “cultural debate.” When we reduce it to this, we allow the oppressor to deem our rights as conditional upon their understanding of our humanity. Furthermore, the push for parental rights has long been a dog whistle for conservatism and belief in the superiority of the heterosexual, nuclear family. The terrifying goal of this new era of legislation is to create a generation of young people (and institutions) who are stigmatized for even acknowledging LGBTQ+ identity.
The violence that led to O’Shae Sibley’s murder was born from efforts to prevent queer people from learning about our histories, defending ourselves, or even existing. This erasure is a continuation of the social, economic, and carceral politics against LGBTQ+ survival. It has led to LGBTQ+ people being sent to jail for defending themselves, like CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman, who was sentenced to 41 months in jail for defending herself against attackers in 2011.
This erasure is structural and personal. It is what led to my brother being kicked out of the military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It is what allowed teachers to stand idly by as I was bullied for being gay, and it is what made me feel so isolated when I came out in high school and was offered no resources by the adults around me.
Sibley and I are only months apart in age. Like many Black LGBTQ+ people, I have pondered the possibility of a similar end. And I have asked – what would my family, community, and country do to remedy my destruction?
To change the trajectory of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in the United States, there must be more active opposition to homophobia and rampant defense of LGBTQ+ education from early childhood onward. Allies must become accomplices in the struggle toward LGBTQ+ dignity at every age. Schoolchildren should have unrestricted access to diverse characters to normalize different identities. Students should have LGBTQ+ role models, like Bayard Rustin, Miss Major, and Audre Lorde, who pushed the boundaries of the status quo. And when sex education is taught, it should be inclusive of non-heteronormative identities.
By defending the right for children to have uncensored education, we acknowledge that LGBTQ+ children exist and deserve to learn about themselves. And we fight for a future where LGBTQ+ people can live as freely as they wish in public without fear of persecution.