What if L. Frank Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had begun after Dorothy’s return from the Emerald City? What if she’d spent years away from Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Kansas only to return to a Midwestern life she barely recognized?
Next week, I will be doing something that excites me and terrifies me as much as the Wicked Witch of the West did in the 1939 film version of Oz, something I haven’t done in nine years. I’ll be stepping foot on U.S. soil for the first time since March of 2010, revisiting and rediscovering what it’s like to be black and gay in America.
I will be returning to an America post-Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Moonlight, Get Out, Black Panther, Empire, and Jussie Smollett, where to be black still can be beautiful and dangerous — but to an exponentially greater degree of both.
The last time I left the U.S., Kevin Hart was free to be openly homophobic, onstage and on social media. Billy Cosby was black America’s beloved father figure. Donald Trump and Omarosa were just teaming up for a dating game show called The Ultimate Merger. “Bill Cosby, Inmate NN7687” and “President Donald Trump” were unfathomable.”
And how will Trump’s America welcome me back? Will Trump’s America welcome me back at all? I’ve written a lot of negative things about him since he became President. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve ended up on a “Do not admit” list.
I wonder if my border control holding cell would have WiFi, so that I at least could experience Grindr for the first time ever in the United States. That’s one of the things I’m most curious about. Will I blend in on the grid (as I did in Cape Town, Berlin, Paris, and London, cities with significant black populations) and still be objectified by guys who have never gone black (as I have been in Cape Town, Paris, and London)?
Is there a gay man left in America for whom that would be a default result of a dearth of black men, as it was in South America, Australia, Asia, and eastern Europe, and not a deliberate choice?
Over the last year and a half, I’ve Grindr’d in 21 European countries (last stop: London, a Grindr nightmare). I’ve encountered subtle racism and overt racism. I’ve been called the N-word by guys who had been courting me only a few sentences earlier. I’ve read “No Asians,” “No fats,” “No fems,” and “No oldies.” The one thing I’ve yet to read is “No blacks.”
My gay black friends in the U.S. have warned me to brace myself. “No blacks” has been an American mantra forever, and apparently, the boys on Grindr back home don’t mince words.
How will I feel the first time I read “No blacks”? It might be in the profile of someone I wouldn’t have been interested in anyway, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sting.
I’ll be returning to an America where phrases like “gender fluid,” “non-binary,” and “looking for?” have become essential to the LGBTQ lexicon. It will be a brand new world where gays can fall in love and legally marry. But it will continue to be a place where being black and gay can be two strikes against someone. We didn’t need Jussie Smollett to show us the darkness and the light.
No, I haven’t forgotten what it used to be like to be black and gay in America. But it’s been a long time since I’ve experienced it firsthand. It’s been even longer since I left the country of my birth to begin my expat life abroad, eventually logging living time on five continents (South America, Australia, Asia, Africa, and Europe).
On September 15, 2006 — the day I moved from New York City, after living and working there for 15 years, to reinvent my life and career in Buenos Aires — the world, and the United States, were completely different places. George W. Bush was President. Social media was basically MySpace. Gay men were still going out and meeting each other in bars and clubs, for Grindr was nearly three years away. (Happy belated 10th birthday!)
Barack Obama had just entered the national consciousness the previous year as the newly elected U.S. Senator from Illinois. He was still a few years from becoming the first black American president, one I never really got to experience from the front row.
I was away for Obama’s entire administration, both of Hillary Clinton‘s presidential bids, the rise of Donald Trump from reality TV star to leader of the free world, and most significantly, the heating up of racial tension to a boil more furious than any level of hostility that scalded me during my previous lifetime as a U.S. resident.
For me, a gay black man who has spent nearly 13 years as an expat, the homecoming will be like my own post-Oz experience. Only I’ll return not to Kansas, but to a United States that, in some ways, feels more like 1964 than 2006, or 2010.
Despite my apprehension, I’m looking forward to my upcoming landing (first in Chicago, then New York City). As Dorothy said as she prepared to depart from Oz, there’s no place like home. And even if I barely recognize it, America will always be home.