I wondered how I would confront what I thought was my worst: my sexuality.
The L Word
I also got jealous of what he talked about. So often, I’d sneak over to the kitchen as he sat with the other men. From the corner, I listened to them laughing and talking loudly about women and all the things they’d do with them. I envied how joyous they seemed to be with women. I wanted their freedom.
When everybody went home, it was just me and him.
“I ain’t get to be no kid, Brit. That’s why I do what I do for you,”he’d say.
It’s because of all he did for me that he found out my secret.
In true lesbian fashion, my first girlfriend and I spent a lot of time together. We ate lunch together. We walked each other to class. We even rode the same bus home. We’d sit in the gray seats and plan our weekend together. When I got home, I’d call my brother and ask for a ride. He didn’t question who she was or why I went over there every weekend. Just what time he needed to drop me off and pick me up.
Then we broke up, and I stopped asking him for rides. One Saturday night, he brought it up.
“Why you don’t go to Kay Kay’s house no mo’?” We sat on my granny’s porch with the sound of mosquitoes buzzing around the question. It felt like they wanted an answer too.
“She was trippin.”
Then he stared at me. “She was trippin?”
“Yeah. She was trippin. I couldn’t be bothered no mo’.” I stared straight ahead at another apartment complex. I felt him watching me, and, somehow, I knew he was putting the pieces together.
“You ain’t sad or nothing, huh?”
I side-eyed him and turned my gaze back across the street. “Nuh uh. Not really.”
“Well das good. It be like dat sometimes. Girls be trippin. And I ain’t gon tell nobody yo business.” He didn’t say anything else, and neither did I.
After that night, our relationship shifted. Brother wasn’t a sufficient-enough title anymore. He was my friend and ally. With a girlfriend out of the picture, my weekends were free, so he let me go with him everywhere. I’d meet his friends, some who were lesbians and wore clothes like my brother. They’d open their mouths to talk and I heard their femininity. Their softness.
On the way home from being out all night, he’d tease me and accuse me of sneaking glances at them. I’d laugh and deny it vehemently; then we’d settle into silence. That was all the discussion we needed on the matter.
“You mind if I read my book?” I’d ask him. My mama hated it if I read books around her. “It ain’t that much reading in the world,” she’d yell at me.
“Nah, Brit. Keep readin’ yo lil books and shit. You prolly da only one dats gon be somethin’ in da family.”
I’d been in the courtyard taking pictures with my friends when I was called to the office. It was our Senior Breakfast, sixteen days before graduation, and it was time to savor all the years we’d said we were tired of. Once I got there, my relatives and the assistant principal ushered me out one of the side doors. I knew something was wrong. They told me my brother had been murdered.
Hours later, I found out that while I had been applying my makeup and rehearsing the poem I was going to perform at Senior Breakfast, he’d been lying dead near an apartment alleyway around the corner from our house. A friend of his had set him up.
Nine days after my Senior Breakfast, we buried him. As I watched his casket lower into the ground, I felt like parts of me were being buried too. There’d be no more weekend nights riding with him. I wouldn’t see any more of his queer friends. There’d be no more winks and teasing smirks across the kitchen.
At the funeral repast, I overheard a family member say, “Well, when you live that kinda lifestyle, you either end up in jail or in the grave.” I remember thinking, He got both he got both he got both.
Seven days after we buried him, I attended my graduation ceremony. I cried as we moved our tassels from the right to the left side of our heads. He had paid for my cap and gown, and he wasn’t there to see me in it.
I don’t remember much about the summer after I graduated high school. What I do remember is staring. I did a lot of staring. I’d lie down on the bed and stare up at my ceiling. I’d sit in my closet and stare at the floor where we’d hidden some of his drugs and money. I’d sit on the front porch and stare at the apartment complex across the street. I’d walk to the edge of the driveway and stare at my bare feet as I stood there. I’d stare at the street sign that gave a name to where my brother breathed his last breath.
I’d stare at the street sign that gave a name to where my brother breathed his last breath.
That street sign and his obituary were the only things I read that entire summer—if you call staring at words reading. I thought if I stared long enough, he might appear. Maybe he’d walk around the corner and see me waiting for him at the end of the street. Or the picture on his obituary would wink at me. Maybe if he knew I was looking and waiting for him, he’d come back.
I stared so long, I got embittered. How dare the heat still burn and my brother was dead? How dare the apartment complexes not collapse into themselves knowing their alleyways held my brother’s blood? How dare the sky be the same blue of his casket? I was enraged that life was continuing, that everyone all around me was living and he wasn’t. How dare it? How dare they?
I entered college grieving. Despite being a first-generation college student, I wasn’t nervous or excited, just sad and angry and always thinking about him. I spent my freshman year studying and writing poems about him.
One day, my roommate walked into our dorm room and asked how my day was.
“Okay, I guess. You know, I tend to just go through the motions.” The night I moved in, I had told her about my brother. I figured she deserved to know her new roommate would be sulking in bed. She was incredibly talkative and bubbly. I needed her to know I wasn’t. Especially then.
“I heard about this new Black professor who’s teaching a #BlackGirlMagic class next year,” she said. “It’s through the English department. I bet it’s gonna be so good!”
I hummed in acknowledgement. Could she and I have been talking about books and Blackness and queerness and women all this time?
“You should keep me posted on if you end up taking the class or not,” she said.
“Will do.” But I didn’t. I had cut off all my friends from high school and I hadn’t really been intentional about making new ones. My brother had died at the gun of one of his so-called friends; I wanted no part in friendship. Escaping into fictional Black characters was as close to companionship as I was gonna get, and I welcomed the brief but blissful balms they’d provide my grieving self.
The next school year, I started taking English 3674: #BlackGirlMagic. I went to the campus bookstore and bought all the required books and even a few from the Additional Reading section. The syllabus wasn’t just #BlackGirlMagic, it was #QueerBlackGirlMagic, and it was filled with literature by Jewelle Gomez, Alexis De Veaux, Ana-Maurine Lara, and, of course, my girl Audre Lorde.
Being in English 3674 felt like a sin at first. With my brother, our “discussions” on queerness were confined to winks and playful teasing. My sexuality was a secret that I only shared with him. My thoughts didn’t have to go past our conversations. Now I was expected to talk about it aloud and with other people? I didn’t feel ready.
Being in English 3674 felt like a sin at first.
I thought of my mama, who would kill me for telling other people about my “sinful ways.” I thought of my granny, who I had to hide Sister Outsider from. There was no way I could talk aloud, with strangers, about my queerness—about other people’s queerness. I could picture them both frowning and twisting their mouths in disgust, the way they do when they find out a friend’s child is gay or lesbian. “That don’t make no sense,” they’d say. “They going straight to hell.”
One day, the professor walked in and asked us what we thought about Yabo by Alexis De Veaux, a novel about Jules and Zen, two characters going back and forth in time and experiencing their sexuality and race in “other heres” while always finding their way back to each other.
I thought about how my brother might react if he knew what I’d read: “Lemme find out you want some Jules in yo life.” Jules was the queer intersex character who identifies as “bn” for both neither.
I slowly inched my hand in the air and watched the professor turn my way and nod her head at me encouragingly. Deep breaths, Brittany. You’re safe here. “Honestly, I read this part like six times. It felt so subtle yet purposeful. And it makes me think about the Audre Lorde essay we read a few classes ago, ‘Uses of the Erotic.’ At one point Audre Lorde talked about allowing ourselves to feel our deepest feelings and how that allows us to free ourselves from suffering and self-negation, and I just imagine how free Jules and Zen must’ve felt in that moment. There was no shame or self-hatred. There was no shame or self-hatred about their queerness throughout the whole book, and I just wonder how I can ‘tap into my erotic power,’ as Audre Lorde might say, to feel more free in other areas of my life.”
“Wait a minute, y’all. Yabo done got Brittany talking for real for real,” a classmate said.
The class laughed, and I picked up my water bottle beside me because my cheeks were on fire. Is this what hell feels like? My granny and mama would’ve said it didn’t make sense, but it made all the sense to me. It felt so right. So natural to observe Jules’s embodiment of Audre Lorde’s theory.
That night my brother showed up in a dream. I was sitting on my bedroom floor crying, and he walked in my room to help me to my feet. When he pulled me into him, I wrapped my arms tight around his waist and didn’t feel bad about staining his shirt. Then he wrapped his arms around me and said, “Calm down, Brit. Breathe. You a’ight. Just keep going. Breathe.” It felt like he gave me permission to breathe life into this new version of myself. Like he knew I needed reassurance, his reassurance especially.
It was so different from the advice my granny would tell me: “You got to pray for God to get that evil spirit out of you. You can’t let the devil win.”
One weekend, I decided to shave my head. I was sick of how itchy my scalp got from wearing weave and I didn’t have the patience to care for my natural hair. I left my dorm with my jaw clenched, anxious for the anticipated staring. But when I walked into English 3674, the girls burst with praise.
“OMG, Brittany! You look so good!”
“Come thru, poet!”
I walked across the room and did a turn, then cockily cocked my head to the side. I felt so airy twirling in front of them. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t sitting in the corner enviously observing someone else’s joy. I was the joy. I was finally getting more than secret smirks and playful teasing. I had more than my brother; I had an audience—no, I had a support system, and they were here for me. For my queerness. For my new hair, or lack thereof. They were here for me and with me.
At the end of class, my professor offered an opportunity for two peers to lead class in her absence. We’d be discussing Beyoncé’s Lemonade and bell hooks’s critical essay about it. One queer Black boy who I’d become friendly with raised his hand. “Y’all know Beyoncé is my girl!”
My brother’s dream words rang in my head: “Calm down, Brit. Breathe. You a’ight. Just keep going.” I thought about how comfortable the words made me last time. I thought about the new version of myself. I raised my hand. Jonathan and I looked at each other and broke into wide grins. “Sis, this is about to be poppin! Let’s email each other with our plan,” he exclaimed.
The day of discussion was beautiful: In true Louisiana fashion, the sun was out and scorching. Jonathan and I wore yellow in solidarity with the album. We held class outside under a huge oak tree, and some people brought blankets to sit on. Jonathan and I both had clipboards like the dedicated and prepared teachers we were. I felt so smart and capable. This was a new level of intelligence. My high school trophies and awards paled in comparison to this.
My nights of practicing my teacher talk at the dorm vanity and my google search of “how to have a discussion” had paid off. I remembered to nod my head at people when they spoke. When responses got long-winded, I segued back to the prepared questions. I was confident. I was in the moment—something I hadn’t been in a long time.
One of our classmates insisted we take a picture to commemorate the moment. I eased next to Jonathan and wrapped my free arm around his waist. My yellow bag with Audre Lorde’s face was on full display. The sun planted its warmth on my cheeks and spread throughout my body. I felt feverish with bliss. I stretched my lips wide into my own smirk. If only my brother could see me now. Reading my lil books and shit—sassy and confident, just like the line-drawn woman on the cover of Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider.
Brittany Marshall is a queer Black woman poet and educator. She was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and loves its sweltering heat. She enjoys going to therapy, buying books, and bullet journaling.