UofL’s Black, Greek life celebrated historical queer voices

by Sophia Lee

“The reality is you’re going to interact with somebody from all walks of life if you live long enough. A lot of people are under the impression that I will never, because I won’t befriend a queer person. I’ll never have to respect one but you will. They’re gonna be your manager, your taxpayer, your accountant, etc. There’s gonna be some part of your life where you’re going to encounter somebody from this community. And trying to erase them is gonna hurt you as well…It’s like racism. You can hate blacks all day, we’re not going anywhere. You’re gonna be mad when you have to talk to us, and you have to interact with us. Likewise, with queer spaces, you’re gonna have to talk to us. So trying to erase us is gonna hurt everybody,” stated Obio Jones as he spotlighted the topic of the night, erasure

On Feb 23, 2023, the University of Louisville’s LGBT Center hosted a talk with LGBTQ+ advocate, speaker, and content creator, Obio Jones. To help honor Black History Month, Byron Terry, Assistant Director of the LGBT Center, put the event together to highlight black queer figures within Greek life culture. 

Jones has been a life coach and influencer, blowing up across several platforms, including TikTok and Youtube, for his bold conversations about being black and gay. He is known for provoking tough discussions around topics such as sex, ageism, representation, privilege, pain, and pleasure. His mission has been clear from the beginning: “to create space for LGBTQ+ voices. period.”

The event title itself represented the identity of those documented in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, which centered around three Alpha Kappa Alpha members who worked for NASA and their operation to redefine our understanding of space as we knew it. 

Terry opened the event by discussing the importance of why these individuals were “hidden” as well as the erasure of identities and radical celebration. In conversation with Terry and the participants at the Hidden Figures event, connections were drawn between the long lineage of black queer figures present in the National Pan-Hellenic Council throughout time and the gender, race, and sexuality politics at play within this dynamic. Terry listed several historical figures who identified as both black and queer within Greek life, including the following individuals:

Countee Cullen, Alpha Phi Alpha

Lucy Diggs Slowe, Alpha Kappa Alpha

Antonio Davon Brown, Kappa Alpha Psi

Langston Hughes, Omega Psi Phi

Pauli Murray, Delta Sigma Theta

Alain LeRoy Locke, Phi Beta Sigma

Zora Neale Hurston, Zeta Phi Beta

Hattie McDaniel, Sigma Gamma Rho

Blake Martin, Iota Phi Theta

“We listed some really amazing historical people, especially black history, American history, and also LGBTQ plus history. Who they are in terms of being a part of the LGBTQ+ community. That part of them gets erased. People take their historical gains and love to say that this person was a great actor, poet, writer, etc. But they also love to leave out that they were a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Terry stated after listing these figures.

Terry’s statement sparked the first question about erasure, to which Jones responded by discussing his own coming out journey where many of his “homies” would feel the need to defend him when people would inquire about his sexuality. Stating things like “Obio? No, he’s cool” or “Girls like him.” He highlighted that people tend to shy away from the things that they don’t understand because of the fear they associate with the unfamiliar. 

“It’s almost like locking somebody up and then getting mad when they start scratching. We see people in the community who are vying to be seen, and maybe acting out or doing the most, as people may say, but you’re trying to erase me, right? What would you do? Imagine someone decharting your organization, you’re gonna do the most to get to keep to stay where it is. And I think likewise, the people trying to get me out of here or suppress me, I’m gonna do what I need to do to stay relevant,” Jones stated.

The two highlighted that preventing people who have an interest in or talents and uniquities is vital to creating a healthy environment in Greek life, and all spaces, in general. Jones differentiated sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identity in terms of how we interact with one another in social spaces as well as how we perceive ourselves to be. He considered the issues behind all three such as privacy, social agreements, and self-consciousness.

“You can ask me any question. A lot of friends that I have learned a lot from me because you might not know pronouns, you might not know what a trans person looks like, acts like, or what trans even means, right? But it’s not viewed as shunned if you ask questions, respectfully. Some people might say, I don’t want to answer the question, which is their right. But again, there’s somebody like me, who you can ask questions, so you can learn things and figure out how to respect all people. We’re not gonna attack you. We’re gonna love you,” Jones discussed as he and Terry dove deeper into the discussion.

Jones explained that when there is no representation of black gay culture in history, it shows that there is no room for black gay people. This is a recurring phenomenon in Greek life culture as there is little black and almost no gay/queer representation even still today. However, both Terry and Jones represent black gay living Greek members, history in the making, establishing that room for generations to come. 

“It’s a journey. When you’re young, you don’t have the language, even for us people in the community. I didn’t have the language. I didn’t know how to identify “right.” I didn’t know who I was. When you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community, people tend to police you to know who you are. But when you’re queer it’s like “I need you to know who you are right this moment because there is no room for you to navigate or be confused.” And a lot of people just are.”

People have naturally thrust Jones into straightness because he is a part of Greek life and sports and all the standard things that are considered to be heteronormative. When first joining Greek life, Jones described that he did many things to perform straightness that ended up being more embarrassing than helpful for him in the end. He expressed that people don’t need to be worried about if their femininity/masculinity would be questioned or if they will be considered to be too much of one or the other. Rather, people need to create and seek out the right community and spaces that will tell them that everything is okay and that they are safe, valid, and worthy of affirming love. 

“Back in the day for me, when I had my little boyfriend, if I was to die, nobody would have called him because no one knew he existed. Imagine somebody who you’re in a relationship with, and you’re no longer here, but no one ever told you because no one knew you existed, or I’ll be in rooms like this and my boyfriend can be sitting in the back and you wouldn’t even know I knew him. Or we’re in pictures together. He’s on this side. I’m on that side. The ways in which we have to interact with ourselves to hide. Now a lot of us are hiding in plain sight. And a lot of us are getting really good at hiding in plain sight so you end up hiding forever. There are guys in their 70s who are still closeted, there are fathers who are closeted, there are pastors, etc. So many people are still navigating what it means to be in this closet. We judge them because it’s not right, it’s manipulative, I get it. But look at the system they’re in. Who gave them any room to be themselves? So, being radical about your elevation is so important, because people deserve to be liberated. People deserve to be free. People deserve to be heard. People deserve to live and love. And it is what it is,” Jones finished.

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