A public Zoom seminar hosted by the Newark Public Library and the Newark LGBTQ Community Center took an awkward, unsettling turn last month, when an anonymous viewer posted a photo of the Confederate flag during the discussion; enflaming many participants on the call. It was a blatant attempt at racism, during a seminar geared toward Black members of the LGBTQ community.
A few minutes later, someone else posted what appeared to be a derogatory meme aimed at the LGBTQ community.
Meeting organizer, Beatrice Simpkins, 60, said she tried to ignore the trolls. After all, it’s something she has dealt with most of her life.
“The climate in this country, unfortunately, is some people have targets on their backs and LGBTQ people, especially Black trans women, are a part of that group,” Simpkins said. “They’re easy for other people who have hate in their hearts, to victimize.”
These incidents highlight the challenges that can come along with being Black or brown and queer. Black and LGBTQ youth are more prone to discrimination, a 2019 Human Rights Campaign study said; Many deal with racism on top of homophobia and transphobia from within their own communities, said Simpkins, who is Director of the Newark LGBTQ Community Center.
It’s why the work of LGBTQ centers in predominately Black cities, like the Newark LGBTQ Community Center, is crucial, advocates like Simpkins said. Despite the heightened risk of mistreatment, Simpkins said today’s LGBTQ youth are brave.
“Young people now will identify as being queer, trans, lesbian, gay, at a very young age,” said Simpkins, who came out as a lesbian 30 years ago. “You didn’t see that a lot 20, 30 years ago, especially in the Black community, especially in communities of color, because we have cultural stigma…we’re homophobic.”
“I was Black. I was female. I was a single mother and I was a lesbian. And so, all of that were things I had to navigate,” Simpkins said about her experience coming out.
Historically, Black Americans have been “lukewarm” or less likely to support gay marriage than white Americans, according to a study by Pew Research Center from 2014. That year, 42% of Black Americans supported gay marriage, compared to 53% of white Americans, the study said. By 2017, that figure grew to 51%, according to another Pew Research study.
Gay marriage was legalized nationwide by a Supreme Court decision in 2015.
Simpkins said she regularly interacts with LGBTQ youth who can’t fully be themselves at home. At the Newark LGBTQ Community Center, members can access several programs and services: community dinner, support groups, game nights, book club meetings, yoga and more. Most importantly, it is a place where many feel most at home, Simpkins said, noting that some transgender members change their clothes before heading back home.
In 2019, 59% of Black LGBTQ youth said their families make them feel bad about their LGBTQ identity, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The trend takes a toll on their mental health, the study said.
The Newark center opened in October 2013 as “a safe space, especially for people of color,” according to its website.
Ten miles away, in New Jersey’s second largest city, and one of its most diverse, The Hudson Pride Center is a resource for LGBTQ people in Jersey City.
Mercy Villa, Youth Program Associate at the Hudson Pride Center, said she focuses on intersectionality — the way multiple forms of discrimination can be combined to impact marginalized groups.
“Even before more awareness and light has been shed to racial injustices and violence against trans communities, especially trans Black indigenous communities of color, youth have been using, not only our safe spaces, but just in general, safe spaces are important for youth of intersecting identities to not only have their LGBTQ identity validated and seen, but also their cultural identities, their racial identity, their class identities,” Villa said.
Villa said discrimination LGBTQ youth of color face is indicative of generations of systemic marginalization.
“As organizations working with youth of color, it is very important to consistently work on being antiracist and naming systems of white supremacy, transphobia, heteronormativity, classism, as the barriers (to fair treatment),” Villa said. “(People’s) intersecting identities (are not) the issue.”
The Hudson Pride Center offers a litany of services as well: access to HIV education and counseling, open mic nights and other fun group activities, support counseling, and an annual LGBTQ+ prom celebration. Villa is involved with the center’s Youth Connect program, for ages 13 to 24. They have called for more LGBTQ education and resources in New Jersey schools.
Both centers have moved many of their services and programs, such as support groups, online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Tennyson Donyèa may be reached at [email protected].