I’m joined today by Christopher Coles- poet, sign-language interpreter, and civil rights activist.
SG: Thank you for joining me this interview for National Coming Out Day. I wanted to talk with you about your coming out story, and share the advice you have for someone who is thinking about coming out. To get started, how do you identify on the LGBTQ spectrum?
CC: I am a black queer man.
SG: When did come out?
CC: It was probably 1999. I was around 17 years old, when I finally knew that what I was feeling for the same gender wasn’t a phase. I came out to myself after a lot of frustration, and pressure. I came out at that time just knowing that if I accept myself totally, then I could perhaps find God more in myself.
SG: How did you come out to your friends and family?
CC: Given that context, at age 14, I was a minister in the church. I came from a line of people that were in the church. My grandmother was a minister, and we were raised in the church. So at age 14, I got my first title. I ran revivals, healed people, I did Sunday school. I carried a bible when I ran around high school, I never swore, I never drank; I never did any of the things that people would know and chuckle about me now. When you’re a young minister, and people know you for things, there was a way that you were supposed to act. So coming out for me, I thought it was more of a spiritual struggle, a moral and spiritual battle, that you know that the enemy or the devil was trying to taint the gift that was inside of me. Going to the black church, it was labelled as this clinical definition- it wasn’t that you are gay, it was this spirit of homosexuality, who takes over you and causes you to do these evil things. And even with the subset of Black culture, people think that being gay in the black community is something that white people taught you, that we’re not inherently gay, that’s something that is oppressive. So, I’m coming through all those things. I came out to myself knowing this was a struggle for me. I ask God to take it away, to let me wake up in the morning and not be gay anymore. He still didn’t. I came out to others three or four years later.
SG: When you came out to others, what was the reaction?
CC: My first philosophy when I came out was to only come out to those who were deep in the relationship with myself. So for me, because I have a lot of family, friends, a lot of people who knew me, and knew the pedigree of my family, knew how big we were in the church world. Who knew I was a soloist, I was a minister. So for me, it was more about telling my family. So the first conversation was with my mother. Who I thought- she has a lot of love and compassion. I have an older sister that’s lesbian, so it might be a softer blow. It was series- we were playing a lot of these like, games- do you know, are you going to ask me? A lot of back and forth for a lot of months. I remember the moment that it happened- I was on Gay.com- this was the 90’s, we were on these chat screens. And my mom said to me when I came back in the house- “Next time you leave, you might want to make sure all of your computer screens are closed.” And I said, “well, I think it’s time for us to have a conversation.” I brought my mother to Charlotte Pier, and I remember being by the water. I love being by the water- it always seems so calm and passive, and spiritually, water is a source of reflection. And we had this conversation. I was like, “I want to tell you something about me that will deepen our relationship.” I originally told her I was bisexual. Years went by, and mom wondered why I had only been dating men. And I told her that I was gay.
The hardest conversation was with my younger sister, for me. Because we were and are such great friends, and for her to shun me or feel any different would crush my spirit. And to the rest of the family, I came out by just living out. I just always believed the concept of living the truth.
SG: Being a black, queer man here in Rochester- what do you perceive are some of the challenges the LGTBQ community faces locally?
CC: The LGBT community is not inclusive. And even when you are within the subsect of gay and lesbian and queer culture, we are a close-knit scene, so racism is more pronounced. Even if we don’t like each other, we still have to go to the same bars, you still have to be seen in the same social atmospheres, you still see and know of each other.
I think the second problem, is that a lot of LGBT people don’t realize the advancements of gay rights due to people of my culture that are queer. You know, you have Marsha P. Johnson who is the mother of pride, She’s a black trans* woman, who held the police off and started the marches. You also have Sylvia Rivera who was a Latina trans* woman, they were the mothers of the gay pride movement you know now. Black queer culture has always been around. You have Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin. A lot people don’t know that queer culture has influenced the world. Even in Martin Luther King’s time- he marched alongside with and was advised by Bayard Rustin who was an out, black, gay man. Martin Luther King’s ideologies were influenced by a black, queer man.
It’s a powerful perspective that black queer people have. Even in our own culture, we’re black, but we still have prejudice against us by black straight people because we are queer.
SG: You identify as a black queer man- what is the difference between that, and identifying as a black gay man, to you?
CC: The difference to me is identification to both cultures- to both straight culture and white culture. To anyone in an ethic culture, first of all, identifies as their ethnic self. So I don’t identify as gay first. I’m a black man. And then, I’m queer. Queer to me is an attitude than a sexual preference. Its more of a mental and philosophical spectrum. I am peculiar. I am eclectic. I am eccentric. I am all those other things that the word “queer” would bring about. More than a clinical perspective. I’m queer. I am out of the box. I am my divinely created self.
SG: How are you active in the Rochester community?
CC: I am, by trade, a sign language interpreter. I am also a civil rights activist. I am also named BakariPoet here in Rochester. Bakari means “one that is with great promise” and it also means “first fruit.” I’ve been writing for years, probably since I was 18. A few years ago, I started writing to heal, first myself, heal my psyche, and some traumatic experiences. And then with that idea, maybe because of the church, the idea that the experiences you live through are for someone else to understand or appreciate. I started with that idea, just writing things that everybody could relate to. And then, in about 2016, after the deaths of Philando Castile, and Alton Sterling, I wrote a piece called, “I Love Black People.” It was a prescriptive piece, that just gave us a momentary space of healing. You know, we are dealing with the resurgence of police violence, racial violence. So I started writing things that were healing, but specifically targeting my specific group, writing for black queer people.
SG: If you were to give advice to someone who is thinking about coming out, what would that be?
CC: Close your eyes, and listen to yourself. Feel your heartbeat. Hear the sounds of the world rush by, and realize that your divinity is inside. Remember who you are, no matter where the spectrum takes you. Every day you evolve. It’s in those moments- the murky and the questionable, that beautiful things come out. I would encourage someone coming out, to know they stand on the shoulders of some people who have done some really courageous things. The sun rises tomorrow, no matter what happens today. Put a smile on your face, love yourself, and continue in the journey.
SG: Thank you for sharing your story, and perspective.