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A grassroots group nurturing the Black queer community in conservative Oklahoma held a lively discussion on the intersections of being both Black and queer during a panel discussion hosted at Tulsa’s Holberton School on Thursday, June 2, on the second day of Pride Month.
Black Queer Tulsa founder Daniel McHenry was joined on stage by board members Kristy Vann and Neil Wade along with Urban Coders Executive Director Mikeal Vaughn as they lifted up the community and shot down misconceptions about Black queer folx.
“Our mission here at Black Queer Tulsa is to normalize that experience” to come outside, enjoy life and to show people they don’t have to remain in the closet,” personal trainer Daniel McHenry told a crowd of dozens who attended the panel inside Tulsa’s leading coding school, Holberton.
In an April interview at The Black Wall Street Times newsroom, McHenry, a pastor’s son, explained how his active role as a worship leader at a Tulsa church discouraged him from loving himself. In fact, he was actively told to hate himself by his community at Transformation Church.
The negativity caused him to move away from Tulsa for several years to find himself. Returning to Tulsa in 2019, McHenry was determined to create an inclusive environment for other Black queer residents who feel alone. Now, after holding weekly brunch meetups with the community and other enlightening events, McHenry believes Tulsa is finally getting closer to becoming more welcoming to all.
“It was hard to get here to this point,” McHenry said on Thursday.
Can Tulsa become inclusive toward its Black queer residents?
Kristy Vann, a fellow board member and panelist at Thursday’s event, described a similar experience, growing up in a religious household.
She explained how she knew she was gay at an early age, but didn’t feel comfortable coming out to her mom until adulthood. When she did, she received a response she expected. Her mom told her she’d be praying for her soul. Yet, through moving away from Tulsa for a while, she also said she found herself, developing a confidence that outshined any shade people might throw her way.
“Black queer people, you know we fought very hard to have a seat at the table here in Tulsa, and we decided to say fuck it we’re gonna build our own table,” Vann said.
Panelist Neil Wade also grew up in Tulsa. He left the city too, living for years in L.A., where he said he felt more free to be himself.
“My dad was very big on you need to walk like a man you need to talk like a man you need to dress like a man,” said Wade, who now works in children’s entertainment.
Once he finally returned to Tulsa, he said he was pleasantly surprised to see pride flags hanging in windows and a more welcoming, vibrant queer community.
“I’m about to be super gay now,” Wade said as the audience laughed.
Panelist Mikeal Vaughn is executive director of Urban Coders Guild, an organization that teaches coding skills to high school students in Tulsa. While he didn’t grow up in a very religious family, he did experience the height of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in the 80s.
“I really appreciate this next generation that’s coming up behind us,” Vaughn said. “We’ve made some incremental change” as a society, and he hopes Black Queer Tulsa will continue to make the city a better place for LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Misconceptions about the community
According to McHenry, one of the main misconceptions bestowed upon Black queer individuals is that they are weak compared to straight Black folks. Other stereotypes include assuming Black queer folx are over-sexual, ghetto, loud, and prone to fighting. McHenry lamented how being flamboyant is seen as a bad thing, sometimes even in the queer community.
But by building community through Black Queer Tulsa, McHenry said his group is breaking down those stereotypes. “I have people that I love who are lesbian, I have people that I love who are bi,” trans, and across the spectrum, he said.
Notably, some of the most influential leaders of civil rights for Black people happened to be queer, such as Bayard Rustin. He planned the 1963 March on Washington, but was kept in the shadows for years out of fear that his sexuality would compromise support for the movement. A movie about his life, played by actor Colman Domingo, is set for release in 2022, according to IMDB.
For her part, panelist and BQT board member Kristy Vann said she’s tired of people assuming queer folx are simply confused about their sexuality.
“I’m not confused, I just didn’t have the space to be authentically who I am.” Now that she has the space, “I’m gonna let you know, and I’m gonna continue to live my life.”
Neil Wade highlighted how Black queer folx are ignored when it comes to issues facing the larger Black community. Yet, he said “as he sees Greenwood Rising, he sees the Black queer community rising too.
Finding Black queer joy
Perhaps most importantly, the panelists spoke on finding Black joy when most media coverage of Black queer folx focuses on tragedy and negativity.
“You already get targeted [as a Black man in Tulsa],” McHenry said. “So imagine being Black and queer. The struggle is even harder.” Yet, for him, finding joy came when he found his current partner and experienced what it was like to truly love and be loved.
“I found joy in love, and I found joy in completion,” McHenry said. Finding that love, he said, enabled him to spread that love to the community through the creation of Black Queer Tulsa.
To find love, Kristy said she had to first accept that the reason her relationships with men weren’t working was because she didn’t want men.
“It’s such a freedom” she said of being able to be her authentic self anywhere she goes. Apparently, her girlfriend finds her goofy, and that’s OK.
“And the freedom that I have to be myself, it exudes out and gives other people the freedom to show up and be themselves,” Vann added.
Mikeal Vaughn echoed Vann’s perspective, saying he learned early on that it’s okay to be outside the box and live your authentic life.
Meanwhile, for Neil Wade, joy came through fusing his interests with his queerness as a lover of comics.
“When I show up somewhere I’m not gonna compromise my identity, I’m not gonna hide it,” Wade said.
When it comes to joy, that ‘s exactly what Black Queer Tulsa seeks to bring to the community with the organizing of the city’s first ever Black Pride event, from June 10 through June 12 in downtown Tulsa and throughout the city. For more information about Black Pride, Black Queer Tulsa, and how to donate, visit their website at blackqueertulsa.org.
“When people are asking you why you’re gathering in a space, that’s when you know you need to normalize it,” BQT founder Daniel McHenry said.