Charles Stephens: Perfect black gay men; on being thrice as good

Atlanta is the city of perfect black gay men, or rather the illusion of perfection. Perfect bodies. Perfect jobs. Perfect homes. Perfect cars. Perfect clothes. Perfect credentials. Perfect boyfriends. And if you’re not yet perfect, you better be working toward it, always. 

But the thing with unattainable ideals is that you eventually discover that they are unattainable for a reason, which is why I think some of us become very disillusioned and experience significance despair along the way.

Not all of us are driven toward perfection. Of course not. I imagine most of us just try to live our lives the best we can. But like a shadow, this ideal of perfection still follows us around. It haunts us. It’s a voice we internalize, a voice that is very much rooted in the racist, masculinist, heterosexist culture we live in, and survive. A voice that Toni Morrison once described as the “master narrative.”

Part of our quest for perfection, or projecting the perfect image, is it provides us with a weapon. In a world that despises us for being black and gay, maybe we think if we are just as good, if not better, we have a chance. Maybe we think only through perfection, can we be loved.

As little boys we imagine that if we are just good enough, we can be accepted. If we are just smart enough we can deflect the disappointment of our parents, once they discover our sing-song voices or the slight swish in our walk. We can hide behind our accomplishments: grades, extracurricular activities, awards. 

When I was in high school for example, all of the other black gay boys I knew were overachievers. It’s often how we found each other. Then we would come out, often into black gay men’s communities where we struggled again not so much for acceptance but for recognition and affirmation. The most painful thing is to be around other black gay men and feel completely invisible.

Structural violence isn’t just about downward social mobility, it’s also about upward social mobility.  Both are connected to the same system. This notion, which is in fact a reality, that we have to work twice as hard and be twice as good in a culture that despises us is very much linked to structural violence. And if you are black and gay, you have to be thrice as good, a kind of triple-consciousness.

Black gay men are far from the only group that seeks to use social status symbols as weapons and for protection. But I often wonder if for us, the consequences of such a course of action, are more severe. No matter how perfect we attempt to become, we will never embody the ideal that these notions of perfection are based on. And so perfection for us is the sword that cuts both ways.

Charles Stephens is the founder of Counter Narrative Project. Follow him on twitter: @CharlesStephen2