This post is part of our series #BlackInAstro. For our cornerstone post, see here. In this installment, we are publishing a guest post by KeShawn Ivory, who is a Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-PhD Bridge Scholar.
For me, it has been a busy couple of weeks. Last week I attended the American Astronomical Society summer meeting in Pasadena, CA. This week I’ve been running events for Black Space Week with my Events Co-Director Dakotah Tyler and the rest of the Black In Astro team. In addition to all of that, there is the constant underpinning of this being June, aka Pride Month. The rainbow-tinted specter that is Pride has been haunting me all month long, coloring my every move and interaction as I’m prompted to reflect upon what my sexuality means to me.
Seeing as though Black Space Week is happening in the middle of Pride, Black In Astro thought it was only right to have some of our programming be dedicated to the intersection of Blackness and queerness. This notion gave way to our plans for a #FluidFriday Twitter space, an audio-based Twitter feature that allows a host (or co-hosts) to moderate a discussion, determining which participants get the floor, often while participating actively in the discussion as well. The same concept of the intersection of Blackness and queerness also led to our planned screening of iconic documentary film Paris Is Burning. However, once AJ Link, BIA’s resident Space Lawyer, mentioned disability as another axis we could think about, we saw fit to expand the #FluidFriday discussion to any and all identities we hold on top of being Black in astronomy. The result was a wide open conversation that encompassed everything from Black liberation to sugar preferences for tea, and during the Twitter space I gave voice to some thoughts that have been bugging me ever since I got home from the conference.
After the conclusion of the AAS conference on Thursday, some of us went out to West Hollywood. The very next day I was on a flight back to Nashville to return to my quotidian grad student life. Experiencing a tiny bit of the vibrant and diverse gay scene in LA only to return to a Nashville gay scene that always felt, ostensibly to me at least, a bit homogenous and painfully white, was jarring to say the least. The diversity in the Nashville queer scene is definitely there, it’s simply less apparent, and I’ve been failing miserably at plugging myself into it. In fact, for the past few months, I had myself under the impression that not finding solace in the gay community was a me problem. There must be something I wasn’t doing correctly. I wasn’t going to the right places with the right people at the right times. But after LA, I was forced to consider that perhaps it wasn’t the way I move through the scenery, rather the scenery itself that was the issue. In a world of over 7 billion, of course it was unlikely that my grad school prospects lined up exactly with the community that would feel perfect for me. The fact that I even had time to consider this at all, though, was a gift. It meant that for the first time in perhaps my entire life, I wasn’t sprinting. I wasn’t running to some imaginary finish line, just trying to survive. I had the ability to stop and ask myself if I’m happy, and if not, how to get there. Gifted with ample time to think, I realized how this little side quest for queer belonging was something my straight friends didn’t have to contend with at all. In any given place, there is a higher likelihood that they’ll find “their people” because statistically there are just more people who can relate to the experience of being straight. But I was on the lookout for “my people” while queer, while Black, while chronically ill. Oh, and while getting a PhD in astrophysics. Almost forgot that one.
Despite what it may sound like, I do enjoy my life in Nashville, but I know it’s not a forever home. All the searching that I’m doing to find queer community that feels right is time spent building the infrastucture for my future joy. Time spent building the highway to happy. The problem is, the more time I spend building, the less time I spend actually driving on the highway. In the future, I know I need to find the place most aligned with my idea of what happiness is. The place that already has the infrastructure most conducive to my future joy. I don’t know exactly where that is, and the more identities one holds, the harder it is to find it as increasingly complex construction is required.
So reflecting upon this Pride/Black Space Week mashup, what I’ve come away with is a working definition for what I think it means to hold an identity. An identity is a list of things you worry about that others don’t. A list of questions you ask yourself that others don’t consider. This is hardly an original thought, but it hit me particularly hard as I asked myself how to build my highway to happy when sometimes it feels as though I’m the only driver looking to travel this particular route. And remember, this is all while being Black in America and having a qualifying exam coming up next spring. Equally important to naming my marginalized identities, I must add, is recognizing my privileges even in the midst of my struggle. Without my identity as a cisgender man, for example, I would feel even lonelier on my route.
I’m not the only person who feels the weight of their own list of questions and worries. As you assign work, grade work, hold meetings, or whatever other business-as-usual this summer and on into the fall, remember that being human is so much harder than most of us let on. Happy Pride, Happy Juneteenth (it was last week but I say we never stop remembering), and be safe if you’re taking to the streets in the wake of the most recent step in the systematic overturning of protections for the marginalized.