What It's Like Being a Black, Gay Woman In America
Krystian Mitryk shares her experience juggling different identities and finally being able to reach a place of self-love and acceptance.
As a Black, gay woman, I am reminded of how different I am every single day. Growing up, I struggled to appreciate who was and thought I would never belong or fit in. From going to an all-white school as a child to being outed by someone I trusted in college, I had to overcome innumerable obstacles to get to a place of self-love and acceptance. It's not easy having the cards stacked against you, but if there's anything I've learned, it's that the life you really want and deserve is out there—you just have to fight with everything you've got to get it.
Growing Up "Different"
From the time I was 2-years-old until I was 13, I went to a Catholic school where the only Black people I knew were my family. We stuck out like sore thumbs, and my classmates and teachers had no problem reminding us of that. I felt like my entire existence—from my heritage and socioeconomic status to my participation in class—was made fun of by my classmates. But nothing was the brunt of more jokes than my appearance. I was told that my braids were weird because "it looked like I had a bunch of ropes on my head." I was asked if I put cooking oil in my hair and told that my head would probably fry if I went outside in the sun. And these are just a few of the many comments about my hair, nevermind the rest of my body, especially the color of my skin.
As an impressionable young girl, I became extremely aware of aesthetics and, in turn, resolved to do everything I could to fit in. So, I began copying the girls in my class. (Related: Body Image Issues Start Way Younger Than We Thought)
I noticed that many of them rolled up their uniform skirts to make them shorter. I started doing the same. But while teachers turned a blind eye to their fashion choice, I got sent to detention for it. When all the other girls started experimenting with makeup, I, too began playing around with eye shadows and lipgloss. And once again, I—alone and unlike my other makeup-wearing white schoolmates—got in trouble. I remember sitting in class when my teacher came over and handed me a baby wipe, telling me (and the entire audience-worth of classmates) that I needed to take the makeup off. Singled out and sans-another option, I accepted the wipe and asked to go to the bathroom to wash my face properly. And as I walked away, I could feel my classmates' eyes staring and hear their whispers and giggles. It was deafening.
As if being Black didn't present enough challenges, I was also known as the kid who lived "on the other side of town." Sure, I knew that my friends had nice cars, wore fancy clothes, and were members of the local country club. But I didn't know what these lifestyle differences really meant—that was, however, until something happened when I was about 10-years-old.
I was sitting on the school bus waiting to disembark for the fourth-grade field trip when the principal (yes, principal) marched on board and demanded I get off the bus. Confused, I did as I was told and followed him off the bus, only to learn that if I couldn't pay for the trip, I couldn't go. As I stood there with my chin down, for the first time, I became aware of the fact that I was poor. Not just that, but now, everyone else also knew that I was poor. It was yet another thing that made me different, making me feel even worse about myself. The thing that still gets to me is that the issue could have been handled with sensitivity, but instead, the principal chose to make a mockery out of me in front of everyone. (Related: How Racism Can Affect Your Mental Health)
By the time I was in fourth grade, I was consumed with shame—shame for being Black, shame for being poor, shame for being me. Every day I got bullied or called out in class for such insignificant things. As a result, my self-worth dwindled. Every day was a bad day and soon, I stopped seeing the good in myself. So much so that I soon packed my bags and left a note for my dad, expressing (as best as a 10-year-old could) that I felt like I was at the bottom of the bottom, that I was tired of being "different," and that I just couldn't take it anymore. And with that, I left the house with the intention of killing myself. (Related: Accessible and Supportive Mental Health Resources for Black Woman)
Being that I was just a little kid, my dad was able to find me pretty quickly and talk some sense into me, reminding me that it was—it is—okay to be different. He told me that life always has its ups and downs and that I will not always feel this way. And he also kept it real, explaining that things in my life were never going to be easy. Why? Because I'm Black, because I'm a female, and because society will be cruel and unjust to both of these identities. At the time, he didn't know I was gay (I did, but more on that soon), so my sexuality was left out of the conversation and would be a battle I faced in the years to come
The one thing that did make me feel confident, however, was sports. While I was often a star player on every team, basketball was where I truly shined. At games during middle and high school, everyone cheered me on—parents, teachers, and classmates included. Parents let me spend the night with other teammates before a game (remember: I lived on the other side of town) and even drove me to practice so that I could be with the team. The support made me feel like a part of the school community, but all of that ended once the four-month basketball season was over. Every year as the season came to an end, my teammates would tell me that I could no longer come over for sleepovers because their parents wouldn't allow it. Some would stop hanging out with me at lunch and others would avoid me altogether in the hallways.
Let's rewind a bit: I was 5-years-old when I first kissed a girl. Although we didn't explicitly say we had a crush on one another (we were in kindergarten, after all), it was (or at least felt like it was) implied. One day we made a plan to meet up at nap time. We met in the bathroom stall, kissed, exchanged underwear, and went back to our classrooms. The innocent act of swapping undies was an acknowledgment that we were both on the same page since we had never really shared our feelings with each other.
From then on, in each grade, I found myself crushing on different girls but kept this information to myself—I didn't want anyone to be made fun of because of my feelings. It wasn't until I switched schools and started high school that I felt comfortable opening up about that part of my life.
This school was definitely more diverse and had students from all different ethnicities. But I still felt like I had no place. I wasn't Black enough for the Black people, and I surely wasn't white for the white people. This was mostly because the white kids had their unpenetrable cliques and the majority of the Black kids went to elementary and middle school together. So everyone knew each other, and I was the outsider—again.
Then there was the fact that I was gay. It took me a while to fully accept my sexuality. You see, I grew up in a staunch Catholic household. Since I was a child, I was taught that being gay was a sin and the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint my parents. In an attempt to change who I was, I even dated one of my best guy friends. I tried to feel attracted to him in that way, but every time things got physical, I recoiled.
I realized that by dating this guy, I wasn't just being unfair to myself, but also to him. So I ended the relationship and told him that I just wasn't attracted to men. Soon, I started dating a girl and told many of my friends that I was gay. None of them thought it was a big deal, but I still hadn't mustered the courage to tell my parents. I knew it would be a hard pill for them to swallow. In my heart, I knew my dad would understand, but my mom was going to be a whole different story. So I kept waiting for the right time to tell them, but I ended up being outed by someone I trusted. (Related: Ellen Page On Coming Out at 27 and Fighting for LGBTQ Rights)
It happened during my sophomore year of college at a conservative religious school. My roommate and I would often break the rules and sneak out of our dorm to spend the night elsewhere—she at her boyfriend's house and me, well, I didn't share that information. One night, however, she asked me where I went all the time, and I told her I had been sleeping over at my girlfriend's place. She seemed fine with it, but the next day, the dean of students pulled me out of class and reprimanded me for going off-campus and for "engaging in immoral activities," which was code for sleeping with a girl. During a very uncomfortable meeting with him, I was told that I was kicked off the school's basketball team, suspended for two weeks, and would need to attend therapy if I wanted to remain a student there.
I've always considered myself an unlucky person, but this was almost too much to bear. I was left with three choices. I could sit there, take the punishment, and inadvertently admit that there's something wrong with me. I could lie and deny the claims. Or, I could stand up for myself and be forced to come out to my parents in the process. After a few moments of contemplation, I decided that I was tired of sneaking around. I didn't deny a single thing and decided to withdraw from the school. I knew I could no longer stay at a college that would reprimand me for being my true and authentic self. (Related: How 'Coming Out' Improved My Health and Happiness)
After making my decision, I had to act fast. I didn't want the suspension to show up on my school record because I didn't want it to jeopardize my prospects of getting into another college. Once I withdrew, the college refused to release my transcripts. It took me a year to get them released, and I had to work with a lawyer to make it happen. It goes without saying that I had to tell my parents what was going on.
My parents were divorced at this point, so first, I told my dad. He was super accepting and said that this didn't change his love for me. Telling my mom, though, was rough. She was convinced that what I was going through was a phase and that it wasn't truly representative of who I was or am. While her reaction made me feel guilty, I was so relieved to no longer hide or live a lie.
I often look back and think if things would have been different if I had had the chance to come out to her on my own terms. Because of the circumstances under which it happened, she has struggled to trust me. Even now I feel like she treats me as though I always have something to hide.
But even though the situation was the furthest thing from ideal, I grew to look at it as a blessing. I was finally free to be me.
Embracing My Different Identities
Today, at 32-years-old, I'm still learning self-acceptance. It's taken me years not to put so much weight on trying to impress others, including my mom. Through the support of my wife, my friends, and people within the LGBTQ+ community, I've learned that regardless of my gender, sexual orientation, and color of my skin, I deserve to be happy. (Related: This Woman's Epiphany Will Inspire You to Accept Yourself Just As You Are)
I am also accepting that to keep moving forward, I have to be strong—especially now that I have a son. I cannot raise my child to be proud and love his authentic self if I can't do that myself. Though I wish the world were different, I know that for me, life isn't going to look like exactly how I want it to. There will always be days when everything feels like a battle.
One or more of my identities are targetted on a near-daily basis. There are still times when I go to the grocery store and people in the checkout lane behind me will point out the button for food stamps, insinuating that because I'm Black, I somehow need them, don't have a job, or can't support myself. Just recently, I went to the doctor's office and was told that they accept Medicaid as if I don't have a job or insurance. (See also: Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias—Plus, What That Actually Means)
Being a Black woman in the LGBTQ+ community hasn't been easy either. On top of being told that I'm too gay or not gay enough, on many occasions, I've been called out for marrying a white woman. Black people I know claim that I've disrespected my Black heritage by marrying someone white. They've told me that it's people like me who make it harder for Black people in general because I didn't stay within my community.
I often feel that because I'm gay, Black, and a woman, I don't have room to make any mistakes. If anything goes wrong, it's as if people expect it. It's assumed that because of who I am, failure is inevitable. (Related: White Celebrities Are Handing Over Their Instagram Accounts to Black Woman for the #ShareTheMicNow Campaign)
It's not easy living your life constantly walking on eggshells and preparing for the next thing that could go wrong. I've spent my life knowing that I can be hated for being Black, hated for being gay, and discriminated against for being a woman. Every day is a battle to feel like I belong.
To feel less alone, I started sharing my experiences on Instagram earlier this year—and the support I received shocked me. So many people had been through the same sh*t that I had. By choosing to be vulnerable, I was also able to inspire young girls to open up about what they were going through and give them the help they needed. I inadvertently created a platform where I could be there for young people within the LGBTQ+ community and give them space to confide in each other.
My Hopes for the Future
The world has come a long way since I was in grade school, but there is still so much narrow-mindedness that we need to break through.
I truly believe that I wouldn't have struggled as much as I did if my mother had just accepted me for who I was. She still doesn't. She wasn't there at my wedding and doesn't consider my marriage real. Her disapproval and disappointment constantly made me feel like I was living the wrong life. I lost myself in the process of trying to get her to just accept me for who I am.
It's such a simple thing, but it's so important for parents to support their children. It's their job to build them up instead of tearing them down. I'm so grateful that I had my dad during the trying times in my life, but my heart breaks for the kids who've lost both parents for simply being themselves. (See also: 10 Secrets from Successful Modern Families)
While every family needs to make their own decisions as to what feels best for their children, I would personally never recommend a Black kid going to go to an all-white school. Every time I was attacked because of my culture or for just being Black, I became more and more confused. I was stuck in a dichotomy, always thinking 'Should I love where I come from? Or hate it?'
I should have never been put in that position, nor should any other child. That's why schools need to be more diverse. Children need to be exposed to different cultures and different people from a very young age. Given my personal experience, it is so important for my wife and me to find a school where our son doesn't feel excluded. Our top priority is diversity, which includes the staff, student population, and socioeconomic class. We want to shape his mind early to accept those who are different because remolding minds and challenging ingrained beliefs as an adult is a much harder battle. (Related: "Talking About Race" Is a New Online Tool from the National Museum of African American History—Here's How to Use It)
My hope is that as more people like me have children, the world will be a different place a few generations from now. Until then, my advice is to just keep being who you are. The moment you try to adapt and change to appease other people, you let them win. What makes you different, makes you powerful. No matter how difficult the journey, living, breathing, and enjoying life, as your true self, is always worth it.