Black, Queer advocate to be honored at Queer Kentucky Awards in June

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Jaison Gardner continues to push our community to face the divides that exist, from race to socio-economic, and to spur public dialogue to support moving the LGBTQ+ community forward – both through social media, in person, and through the Strange Fruit podcast. He is part of the leadership for Sweet Evening Breeze, which is currently being developed as housing for homeless LGBTQ+ youth.

Jaison Gardner

What do you identify as? Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything?

The primary descriptor that I use for myself publically is a Black Queer Man. As for why: my race is Black, my sexual orientation is gay, although I am intentional about publically using the term queer rather than gay because Queerness represents not only a sexual orientation but expresses a radically inclusive and progressive political identity. And then, I’m a cisgender male who very much identifies with being a man – not in an obnoxious hyper-masculine patriarchial way, but rather, as a cis person, being a boy and then a man is very much an intricate part of my formed identity, as it’s has informed and influenced how I have navigated the world, how I have been seen, judge and treated by others and how that made me see, judge and treat myself in various ways at various times, much like with my race.

I am particularly fascinated by the ways that men of all kinds either subscribe to or disrupt traditional and rigid notions of masculinity and what makes a “real man.” And although my particular embodiment ad performance of manhood is masculine-leaning, I understand and appreciate that masculinity does not belong to or reside exclusive in men or male-identified folks. And that one doesn’t have to perform masculinity to be a man.      

What does the word Queer mean to you?

To be Queer is to be radically inclusive of all others who mean you no harm. It’s the Philly version of the rainbow gay pride flag with the black and brown stripes included, it’s the never-ending addition of letters and numbers to the alphabet soup of identity that has historically began with “LGBT.” It’s moving from the tokenizing “inclusive” of trans people to intentionally placing them in positions of paid leadership. It’s a local and national gay agenda that includes more than just the issues and interests of well-to-do gay cisgender white folks. It is a recognition that our community is diverse and intersectional and that any issue that affects a queer or trans person is a “gay issue,” including reproductive justice, immigration, racism and sexism, housing instability, access to health care.

Where are you from and explain what it was like growing up/living in Kentucky?

I was born and raised in Louisville. I attend Black Catholic schools for most of my grade school years, including a school called West End Catholic for elementary and All Saints Preparatory Academy for middle school, both of which are now defunct. I graduated 8th grade as Salutatorian before heading off to St. Xavier for my first two years of high school before my mother transferred me to Central for the last two years of school, partly because she thought the wealthy white kids at St. X were making me rebellious and disrespectful (she probably thought they were making me gay too) and partly because, while I was thriving socially, I simply wasn’t performing as well enough academically to justify the money it cost her to send me there, even with the financial aid.

I spent one lousy, horrible year in a public middle school for 7th grade before switching back, as my mom tried to save on tuition money. In a nutshell, it was one of the most trying and traumatic periods of my life, as I went from the safe, protecting environment of the small Black private school where all my peers knew me and accepted me just as I was (even the macho straight boys), to the treacherous, largely unsupervised circus that was Johnson Middle School in the early 90s. I didn’t really fit in, I didn’t enjoy any of the classes, and I was relentlessly bullied by one girl in particular we always referred to me pejoratively as “Sweet Thang,” after the Mary J. Blige remake of the Chaka Khan song that was popular at the time. Interestingly enough, this bully and I randomly reconnected a several years ago at a social event for a mutual friend and, although I never confronted her about how she tormented me, I’m glad to report that she seems to no longer be a mean girl.

Otherwise, there were some really awesome and exciting parts and some really difficult parts regarding coming of age as a black queer boy in the South during the 80s and 90s. It’s far more than there is space for in this column, but I frequently share many of my childhood experiences on my podcast Strange Fruit and as Facebook posts.

What would you say to anyone struggling to come into their own identity?

The road to self acceptance is a different journey for everybody and some of us arrive at acceptance more easily than others. I’ve known I was gay since I was six years old. Luckily for me, despite growing up in a homophobic and heteronormative culture,n I never ever felt that my being gay was wrong or sinful.

In fact, I realized very early on that it was the homophobes who were in the wrong, and those folks who policed or objected to my perceived queerness as a child were the ones who needed to be fixed. I didn’t grow up in a church or family that espoused homophobia or spewed anti-gay rhetoric, so that’s a struggles that I can’t necessarily relate to, but I can certainly empathize with and I have no doubt that I’d have run as far away from a homophobic or transphobic church, family or community as soon as I could if that was my reality. So, that’s my advice to anyone struggling under the weight of the condemnation or persecution of others – Run as soon as you can. Don’t feel pressure to come out unless it’s safe for you – financially (like not depending on parents for money) and physically. But if it is safe, run and find your tribe. Find some happy, thriving and free queer and trans folks who can model for you just how great life can be on your own terms. As author Toni Morrison wrote in Song of Solomon, ““If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

It doesn’t. I am a proud Black queer man from the South at all times. 

What issues do you see in the queer community?

Gay racism is very much still a thing, nationally and locally. Perhaps a better way to describe it would be white gay privilege – that is, a gay culture and community that prioritizes white cis gay men (and by extension, white lesbians and trans folks) above queer and trans folks of color, especially black LGBTQ people.

I wrote about it here in detail last Pride Month.

What do you think would solve those issues?

White gays who “get it” have to talk to other white folks about concepts like white privilege and gay racism and they have to speak out publicly against racist things that happen in our community, and white folks have to be willing to listen to and learn from queer People of Color when we talk about our experiences, rather that becoming defensive and dismissive.

Who influenced the life you live now?I’ve had some wonderful influences, both folks I know personally and folks I’ve never met.

Famous names like Bayard Rustin, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson and E. Lynn Harris were all out and proud queer Black queer folks who changed the world and inspired me to do the same.

Personally, my life is better because of the love and support I get from local queer and trans people like my best friends Dr. Kaila Story, Lisa Gunterman of the LGBTQ Center at UofL, my “auntie” Dawn Wilson, Chris Hartman of Fairness and my gay children – my chosen family.

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