Written by Da’Shaun Harrison
I was around 8 the first time.
I still have very clear mirages of what I felt in those moments, what each experience was like, and how I internalized every interaction. But because the abuse went on for so long, I lost track of the years that were attached to them.
My first assailant was a straight, self-identified “tough guy”. A teen on the verge of adulthood and a member of my family. I was a child who did not perform masculinity in the ways young Black boys were expected to. I know that neither of us knew much about sexuality, because our family never discussed it. He and I didn’t discuss much of anything, but I do know that we were both taught that any sexual or romantic interaction between two men/boys was forbidden.
After he forced himself inside of me, I couldn’t help but to think endlessly about the act of sex and sexuality. I hadn’t been taught that boys could be raped, but I had been taught about biblical abominations. Through these teachings—that I would later understand to be the result of the socialization process—I knew that what happened between the two of us had to remain a secret. So I didn’t tell. And I hated myself. Not because I had been raped, but because I had become the one thing important enough for my family and our bible to teach against: a faggot, a ‘homosexual’, a soul blackened by the impurities of male-male penetration. And though I was none of these things, because of what I was taught, it was the only way I was able to process it. I never processed it as rape. Instead, I processed it concluding that I was an abomination.
Before I could grapple with what transpired and what it meant in terms of my sexuality or his, I was experiencing it again for the second time. Two times turned into three, and three times turned into four. These encounters stopped being singular moments, but rather occurrences measured by years. And with each passing one, his assaults grew confidently against my body. He expected to touch me, as if he were entitled to my body, and took my confusion as consent. Then, once we were in public, he would interact with me as if he hadn’t violated me the night before. Eventually, I believed that this was normal. I convinced myself that I liked it—that, if I anticipated it, maybe it wouldn’t be as bad.
Then a family friend re-established a new “first time” for me. This time he was fully an adult and I just at the dawn of my teenage years. Moments that were supposed to be spent playing video games and having conversations turned into me, yet again, being violated by a man that I trusted. Except this time, he wasn’t a “tough guy”. He was a “nice guy”. A self-proclaimed gentleman, who cared deeply for people and never disrespected anyone. He also differed because he had a girlfriend that his entire family adored.
So, just like at the age of 8, I was left with only confusion. Never having the space to discuss sexuality with the men that forced sex into my world outside of the violence they enacted against my body. And after the many years of this abuse, I internalized the idea that pleasing men, irrespective of what gender their sexual/romantic partners identified with, was something that I should become accustomed to. These experiences led to me thinking of myself as broken, which I recently wrote about. This brokenness carried me into young adulthood.
It was not until my arrival to social justice spaces at Morehouse College that I found the language to better articulate what I had experienced as a child. This newfound language paired with a community of folks that created space for me helped me to, not only acknowledge aloud, but to myself, that I was a survivor of sexual assault. As a result, I was able to begin opening myself up to doing what was stolen from me as a child: exploring my sexuality. I knew I wasn’t gay, but it was also abundantly clear to me that I wasn’t straight either. As my life, passion, and exploration of self pushed me to better understand gender, sexuality, and sex as it pertained to me, I tried to, once more, open myself up to trust and build healthy relations with men. And like so many times in my youth, during my sophomore year, I was sexually assaulted again.
This time, though, it didn’t take me long to realize that it was assault that I’d experienced. And unlike the other men, my assailant wasn’t straight-identified. He was a DL (down low) man. While he was straight-assumed, he didn’t engage with women sexually or romantically. However, like each of my former assailants, he shared a commitment to toxic masculinity, an unhealthy relationship with sexuality, and the ever-so-famous “closet” that culturally presupposes non-heterosexual bodies’ position within sexuality prior to coming to terms with where they are situated in queerness.
When I began to understand rape as a product of capitalism, and capitalism as a system in which people enact violence to gain total control over a person/place/thing, I understood that sexual violence—specifically violence performed on queer bodies by DL/straight-assumed men—was a capitalistic act to engage their sexual desires while maintaining their position of power in a society that prioritizes cisgender, heterosexual men and hypersexualizes (thus, victimizing and blaming) queer people. As stated by Jeffrey McCune in Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing, “DL men practice discreet sexual acts while privileging spaces that are more heteronormative and that often protect or conceal their male-male sexual desires/practices.”
The Black Church
(John Amis-Pool/Getty Images)
Once we have arrived at this consensus, that ‘the closet’ that DL men are placed in only exists for them to maintain their privilege and power, only then can we understand the role that both the [Black] Church and the carceral system play in sustaining the illusion of ‘the closet’, how dangerously binding it is, and how much it aids in the perpetuation of sexual violence on queer bodies. The power that one is given through being a rapist while existing especially as a cisgender, heterosexual Christian man is part of the reason Bishop Eddie Long continued to identify as heterosexual even after it was reported that he had molested Jamal Parris, Spencer LaGrande, Maurice Robinson, and Anthony Flagg.
I posit that the Black Church’s stigmatizing views on sexuality, especially ‘homosexuality’, and our societal understanding of ‘the closet’, is part of what led to Long’s heinous acts. I argue that due to its incessant need to deem all things sexual as immoral, or sinful, that the Black Church’s teachings on sexuality has been the cause for the long history of sexual abuse within that institution. It was these vilifying teachings that kept my first assailant from identifying as queer, but gave him room to feel comfortable with forcing sex onto me. To him, through what he learned in the Church, it was not the act of ignoring my inability to consent that was sinful, but rather the act of willingly engaging in male-male sex. These indoctrinating teachings led to him forcing sex into my life and forced me to loathe who I was. Because I internalized that, if nothing else, I was the one thing God hated. I later came to the realization that the Black Church had been teaching me to blame myself for my rape before I had even experienced it.
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
I was forced into an enclosed place; unable to escape my thoughts and feelings, but not wanting to confront my reality. I believe that this was true for each of my assailants as well. Each of them—married to their toxic masculinity and consumed by the belief that the privilege they existed with as DL/straight-assumed men was too important to abandon—were allegorically ‘trapped in the closet.’ This is true for men in the carceral system, too. Even after the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) passed in 2003, over 80,000 men and women are sexually abused in US correctional facilities a year. Far too many men who experience rape in prison are at the behest, or the will, of DL men. With this, one must ask, if in this literal imprisoning paradigm men cannot escape sexual abuse, why would we place non-heterosexual men in a binding, illusive idea such as a closet?
In the literal sense, mass incarceration has enslaved Black people and destroyed Black families for decades. Similarly, ‘the closet’ has imprisoned many people, forcing people to engage their sexuality privately—away from society’s equivalent to prison guards: bigoted Christians and other judgemental entities—thus leading to an epidemic of ‘closeted’, whereby I really mean incarcerated, DL men taking sex from unwilling participants because they cannot imagine existing freely and openly as queer. McCune offers a racialized analysis on the carcerality of the closet where he states, “such incarcerating paradigms foreclose our recognition of sexual autonomy and moments where agency abounds and complex personhood is managed, even within discrete communities.” More briefly put, ‘the closet’ takes away the autonomy of the person to engage in sex as they please and also ignores the grayness, or complexities, of sexuality and existing as queer.
Part of graying our analysis on ‘the closet’ means examining how it ignores that sexuality does not exist as a binary. Who one performs sex with, or who they find attraction to, is much more complicated than the heterosexual/homosexual binary. In both Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, they discuss the origin of the word ‘homosexual’ and the binary its popularization led to. Sedgwick states:
“The word “homosexual” entered Euro-American discourse during the . last third of the nineteenth century—its popularization preceding, as it happens, even that of the word “heterosexual.” It seems clear that the sexual behaviors, and even for some people the conscious identities, denoted by the new term “homosexual” and its contemporary variants already had a long, rich history. So, indeed, did a wide range of other sexual behaviors and behavioral clusters. What was new from the turn of the century was the world-mapping by which every given person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or a female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality, a binarized identity that was full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. It was this new development that left no space in the culture exempt from the potent incoherences of homo/heterosexual definition.”
‘The closet’ forces people into a binary and ignores the complexities of sexuality. It ignores that, before there was colonized language to name the act of sex between two people of the same sex, Black people, specifically, explored sexuality freely. Epistemology of the Closet argues that binaries within sexuality limits freedom; that, limiting the act of sex and attraction to homo/heterosexual is an oversimplified understanding of sexuality.
The intent here is not to absolve my assailants, or any DL man who has committed sexual violence within the queer community, of their evil-doings. The intent is to re-work/reimagine our understanding of justice. To locate a way to ensure that more queer men do not have to be at the crux of domination performed by DL or straight-assumed men through capitalism, rape culture, the Black Church, and the carcerality of ‘the closet.’ Imprisonment has proven to be unsuccessful at rehabilitating people and preparing them to re-enter society. In this same way, ‘the closet’ has proven to be unsuccessful at reconditioning the mind to believe, or to trust that queerness is godly/acceptable/liberating. So to rid the [Black] queer community of sexual violence at the hands of DL men, we must first decolonize our minds and move toward a more fluid, less structured understanding of sexuality.