Gay, black leaders speak about finding their place

Terri Lipsey Scott (standing) welcomed panelists Bob Devin Jones, Desmond Clark, Lillian Dunlap, Trevor Pettiford and Sheree Greer. Moderator Nadine Smith not pictured.
Terri Lipsey Scott (standing) welcomed panelists Bob Devin Jones, Desmond Clark, Lillian Dunlap, Trevor Pettiford and Sheree Greer. Moderator Nadine Smith not pictured.
Published June 26, 2017

When Lillian Dunlap moved to Florida at age 52 in 1999 she could finally breathe. The journalism professor from the University of Missouri and Indiana University hadn't been able live openly as a gay woman until then. She had considered coming out before but never did.

"Each time, I thought 'I can't really be out because I've got enough trouble. I'm black and a female, do I really want to add another one so I can actually really get the door slammed in my face?,' " the business consultant and affiliate faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies told a crowd at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum. She was part of a panel discussion titled "Not A Trend: The Truth."

"Gay was not a term that fit me because of the other stereotype, gay people are white they are not black. That is a prevailing understanding," Dunlap, 70, said. "The other struggle for me was, of course, my community and my church. It is difficult, very, very difficult to sit in church and hear these sermons that were so condemning."

Five other community leaders who are black and gay shared their stories, agreeing that being gay is only one part of their identity and that there are not enough visible gay, black mentors for others who are hiding that part of themselves.

Sheree Greer, 36, a writer and teacher at St. Petersburg College, recalled being in her first Pride Parade in Chicago several years ago and carrying an American flag that contained the colors of the African flag.

"Pride a lot of times is overwhelmingly white," she said, but there were small pockets of African Americans along the parade route and Greer saw faces light up when she passed with the flag. "From that point on I made it my business that I'm not going to hide the parts of who I am. I never know what person is looking at me that needs to see that we are out here."

For Bob Devin Jones, artistic director and co-founder of Studio @620, it was author James Baldwin who helped him embrace his sexuality. But years before that, an elementary school teacher came to the one-bedroom apartment his family of eight shared in California.

"I don't think he used the word 'gay' but he was telling my dad that I was a different kind of child. After the teacher left we didn't talk about it," he remembered. "What changed my life was when I went to drama school in London for a year at the Royal Academy and I discovered James Baldwin (and read) Giovanni's Room.

Jones, 62, married his partner several years ago as his parents celebrated their 50th anniversary. The same father who couldn't talk about his being "different" as a child proudly showed pictures of the wedding to everyone back home.

Nadine Smith, co-founder and CEO of Equality Florida, has also watched her family evolve.

"When I came out to my family — they found a letter— I was in my teens and it was the last day I lived under their roof. My father and I didn't speak for years after I came out," said the 51-year-old. But he walked her down the aisle in 2009 and even appeared in a commercial advocating gay marriage in 2016.

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The panelists, who also included Bay News 9 reporter Trevor Pettiford and Desmond Clark, chief business officer at the Palladium and founder of Side Door Jazz Series, have helped pave the way for others to come out but agreed it is still harder to be black and gay than white and gay.

That's why the Woodson museum has hosted several Pride events this month to accompany its exhibit "As Gay as they were Black" about Harlem Renaissance artists such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston.

"This is about African Americans who we've celebrated for years but who we didn't know were gay," said Terri Lipsey Scott, director of the museum. She also wanted to incorporate local gay and black members of the community. "A number of individuals who I phoned to be a part of this exhibit said: 'I can't because my family, I haven't had that conversation' or 'It may jeopardize my work status, or relationships or church."

Several gay members of the audience spoke up.

"I feel like I'm of a new age," said 26-year-old Mhariel Summers, a St. Petersburg native. "We're from a generation where everybody seems to be accepting."

That's not the case for 34-year-old Georgette Josephs who grew up in Jamaica, where "you can't be gay and alive" knowing she was different from around age 9. When she finally came out as an adult her family completely cut her off.

"My siblings abandoned me. I've been so hurt," she said. "But when you are being abandoned and ostracized are you going to keep them and lose who you are or are you going to lose them and find you? You have to go out there and find yourself and find your place."