WP1: Isolation and Black Queer Identity
For all my life I have known and reveled in the unwavering strength of a loving community. I have experienced community in multiple forms: that of my birth family, that formed by the mothers (including my own) in the neighborhood I was raised in who banded together to care for their children, and my small, but close group of friends. These groups have influenced my growth and development in only positive ways, and they’ve taught me all the important lessons I’ve needed to learn. In its most basic form, a community is a group that consists of people with something, or several somethings, in common. The thing in common could be an interest, identity, a shared lived experience, an ideology, really any number of things could connect more than two people enough for them to form a community. In its more complex iterations, community is more about the interactions between the people in the group than their shared characteristic, though that never loses its importance. Community is about the mutuality of care and respect. I believe care is the most important component of community because how can you share space with people you don’t care for. Isolation is the feeling that occurs when people have no meaningful connection to a community. Isolation is more a mental and emotional experience than a physical one. When isolation is only viewed negatively, it can have harmful effects on people.
Black queer people have a unique experience with isolation. Being Black or queer is isolating enough as is, but when someone is both Black and queer they inherit the issues of each group and an entire set unique to them. This is an example of “intersectionality,” as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, which refers to the interconnected nature of different social categories and the way in which they affect a person’s lived experience. Black queer people exist at the margins of society and must work overtime to find a community that is accepting and understanding of their plights. Feelings of isolation are also made worse by a culture that places Black and queer issues in opposition to one another rather than seeing that they are interconnected. In a society that lacks an understanding of intersectionality people can feel alone in communities where they would expect to be supported.
Community is central to Black and queer identity, separately and together. Consequently, Black queer people rely heavily on the communities they create with each other and other queer people of color for the types of social support they have been denied. For most people, community helps us to form our identities and find our place in the world; it provides us with the safety, protection, and care we would not receive elsewhere. But community is not always available and accessible, and as a result, people come to know isolation.
Even so, Black queer spaces are not a cure-all for feelings of isolation as they can easily recreate the hierarchies and biases that exist in the broader society. Savannah Shrange discusses how she, as a Black lesbian, internalized the social bias that prioritizes the well-being and comfort of Black masculine individuals over feminine individuals and acted on it in her interactions with her LGBTQ+ female students, “I failed in the femme4- femme imperative to destabilize heteropatriarchy by elevating the feminine-of-center…as non-masc Black people, we are called upon to self-regulate and take up less space, use less resources, to make room for the crises of Black masculinity” (2019). A community can create isolation just as easily as physical and emotional distance can, especially when its members are not working to abandon the thinking that causes hierarchies to persist. The feeling of being disconnected will always find a way to exist.
Even in its most loving forms, Black queer kinship exists in extremely limiting and inaccessible forms, exacerbating the disconnection of those who cannot participate. Finding kinship with other Black queer people is often “limited to nightlife in nightclubs because so much of our experiences must be hidden or repressed during the day” (Day Dream). This leaves Black queer youth and disabled with few chances to interact with other Black queer people. Some of the most vulnerable Black queer people are left to navigate life almost completely without support. There are levels of isolation and it is created in different ways for different people.
Isolation involves feeling like you have no one around that reflects you and your experiences. The issues that result from this are compounded by the fact that positive representation of Black queer people is severely lacking. The basis of our self-perception is often in how others view and treat us, and it can be difficult to form a positive view of the self in spite of negativity from the outside world. If we feel like we are never able to be ourselves fully, the person we perceive ourselves to be will not reflect who we truly are. If people dehumanize us because of some aspect of our identity, we will not be able to see the value in that part of our identity. Isolation can have damaging effects on how Black queer people see themselves, as well as how they see other Black queer people, because we often base our self-worth in the communities that surround us.
I haven’t been completely separated from community, but I still feel like I know isolation. I have community with Black people, but none of them are queer. I have community with queer people, but none of them are Black. I love all of these people, so it’s not something I am sad about. Not having a community of Black queer people to turn to has allowed me to know myself outside of the influence of others. Community impacts the formation of our identities. For many people, we have to form our identities without that influence. This can make it difficult to connect with others and it can sometimes make the effects of isolation feel worse.
Isolation is not inherently damaging. It’s true that human beings are social creatures who desire the company of others, but being alone should never feel painful. The harm of isolation is not natural, it is a direct result of society telling us that isolation is wholly bad. If people strive to view solitude as just another life experience rather than a punishment, isolation gradually becomes less harmful. If you only think negative of something, it’s difficult to gain anything positive from the experience. It may be helpful to people to view isolation as a part of life that they can strive to overcome using different strategies.
There is strength in all communities, but there is something special about navigating the world without the support of a conventional community. Isolation provides a unique opportunity to create community with yourself. It’s not easy to be alone, and it’s not easy to teach yourself to be okay with that. A community of self goes completely against the definition I outlined for community at the beginning of this piece, but it is still possible. The most crucial aspect of community is care. In creating community with yourself, you are investing time and making a commitment to provide yourself with the nourishment and love and care that you would find in a community with other people.
Isolation teaches you how to love and care for yourself without the input of others. Isolation teaches you how to be your biggest advocate and your own best friend. There is no better time to learn self-love than when you have no one else to turn to. That is the only option you have if you want to thrive but you have no community. In her 1985 hit “Greatest Love of All”, Whitney Houston sings, “People need someone to look up to/I never found anyone who fulfilled my needs/A lonely place to be/And so I learned to depend on me” and finishes the chorus with “Learning to love yourself/It is the greatest love of all.” This song perfectly encapsulates how isolation can be productive. Love from a community of others is important and can be an amazing thing, but one should never rely solely on others for love. Love of self is the greatest love of all. When one communes with the self, they are able to unlock the greatest love of all. I believe that if you have your mind, you’ll never be alone. The biggest mistake you can make is to isolate yourself from yourself.
Finding community within yourself makes communing with others easier and more fruitful. When you are able to find the good in yourself with little reinforcement, you are able to find the good in others like you. It takes a dedication to self-reflection to commune with the self. A strong sense and understanding of self make it easier to meet people where they are in life and to love them despite their faults. No matter how strong a community there will always be instances of doubt and uncertainty, but having a strong connection to the self allows you to help heal the community rather than contribute to its demise. You cannot love and care for others if you do not do the same for yourself. When you find community with the self in isolation, the communities you’ll form with others will always be stronger. When Black queer people are able to find love within themselves, they are able to nurture those they commune with.
Shange, Savannah. “Play Aunties and Dyke Bitches: Gender, Generation, and the Ethics of Black Queer Kinship.” The Black Scholar, vol. 49, no. 1, 2019, pp. 40–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/00064246.2019.1548058.
Whitney Houston. “Greatest Love of All.” Whitney Houston, Arista, 1985.
Day Dream. Directed by Stephen Isaac-Wilson, 2017. https://vimeo.com/210913651.