More Black Celebs Are Coming Out and Showing Us How To Support the Queer Folks in Our Families

As a Black nonbinary person, seeing Janelle Monae come out on Red Table Talk and seeing their mother express unconditional love was validating. Here's how other Black families can also support their queer loved ones.

Janelle Monáe attends STX Films World Premiere of "UglyDolls" at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live on April 27, 2019 in Los Angeles, California
Photo: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

It isn't every day that one of the most talented artists comes out.

Actress, singer, and songwriter Janelle Monae recently came out as nonbinary on Red Table Talk. Monae sat down with Willow Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Adrienne Banfield-Norris to discuss their sexuality, relationships, and upcoming sci-fi novel, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. And though I have a lot of feelings about it, overall, I couldn't be more proud.

Monae has always been unapologetic with their self-expression, especially after boldly coming out as pansexual in 2018. They were born and raised in a small Kansas town by working-class parents. They often wore tuxedos as a uniform at the beginning of their career to pay homage to their parents' blue-collar jobs. But they have a large Baptist family, which initially made coming out tricky for them.

They spoke about the journey of self-acceptance that made it possible for them to come out on the show. "I know who I am. I've been playing a version of some parts of me. But now I'm owning all of me. [I] had to own all of me to be able to talk about it publicly," they say. "Why am I scared to step out and say I'm a woman who likes other women? Why is it so difficult for me to just come out and say that?"

Joyce Miles Jacquote, a licensed marriage and family therapist who is also queer, says examples like Monae's can teach us how family and allies can better support their queer loved ones.

Accept That Black Queer People Have Always Been Here

Like me, Monae was raised in a conservative Christian background. They said most of their family members accepted and supported them. Of course, some didn't.

Black families can be resistant to queerness because of the belief that it is disrupting the Black family, says Jacquote. "I think one of the main ways religious and societal factors affect Black queers is the concern that the Black family is under attack," she says. "Unfortunately, there are those who champion for the Black family [by] targetting Black queers for not conforming to traditional family values. This is because religious and societal beliefs have not fully grown to be accepting of Black queer families and their legitimacy within the community."

Monae's coming out as nonbinary and pansexual and saying they'd had polyamorous relationships is so validating. I've been told multiple times that queerness was a "white people thing." This dismisses Black queers today, and it erases Black queers across history. We have been here, and we have been queer since time immemorial. From William Dorsey Swann naming herself the 'first drag queen' in the late 1800s to Monae's beautiful definition of being nonbinary, Blackness and queerness have always gone together.

Don't Force Queer Loved Ones To Choose Between Authenticity and Housing

Of the family members who weren't supportive, Monae quipped that those relatives shouldn't call and ask for money. "If they don't love me, don't call me and ask me for no money. You will not get my LGBTQIA money!"

It's also where Monae lost me. As much as I could relate to their coming-out journey, it was a stark reminder of our class differences.

Nishi Gouldbourne, a Black, queer, nonbinary fan of Monae, has known they were bisexual since eight years old. But they suppressed this because their family didn't talk about queerness openly. "I cannot see myself in the same position as Monae and not being afraid of losing the connection to my family," they say. "I've always been low income. So, even just leaving unsafe environments before was really difficult. I prioritized housing over living a safe and authentic life."

Jacquote explains that Black queers don't have the same financial flexibility as Monae. Like Gouldbourne, they may stay in difficult situations because of financial insecurity. "Financial insecurity can impact Black queer people's access to resources to move out," she says. "This often forces Black queer people to keep their identity hidden in order to not be targeted."

Gouldbourne says they suppressed a lot of themself around their immediate family because the culture of their family is to not talk about queerness. "I didn't feel affirmed in who I was there," they say. "They are all neutral about my sexuality and gender. From their perspective, nothing about me has changed, which actually hurt."

Being neutral when someone comes out can actually do more harm than good. It inadvertently dismisses an otherwise big moment for a queer person. Instead, express joy in being a safe person for them to come out to. Share with them that their feelings are important to you.

Celebrate With and Advocate for Your Loved Ones

Jacquote says that loving queer relatives unconditionally is the bare minimum. One of the easiest things a loved one can do, she says, is say "I will love you no matter what."

For Monae, they are lucky enough to have a mother who does just that. On the Red Table Talk, Monae's mother, Janet, says, "I love her unconditionally. Nobody will take that away from me. "I get a lot of backlash about Monae. I tell them back home, 'Who are you to judge?'"

When Black family members advocate for their queer loved ones, its more likely to move others in Black communities to be open to health change, says Jacquote. It's easier to ignore "outsiders,' but when those within the community speak up and advocate for their Black queer loved ones, it becomes something that can no longer be easily ignored. And, what cannot be ignored is more likely to be changed."

I have experienced judgemental comments about my "lifestyle" going against what God wants, having come from a conservative Christian background. Many of the family members I have come out to have expressed their concern that I would be going to hell because my being queer is 'immoral.'

Jacquote says Black community members can look at what the church is teaching and how phrases like "love the sinner, hate the sin" aren't really accepting. Instead, they communicate, "there's a part of you that we think is sinful and is wrong.' That leads to internalized guilt and shame," she says.

Leave Space for Self-Exploration

In the episode, Monae describes how they experience their energy. "I don't see myself as a woman solely," they say. "I will always stand with Black women, but I just see everything that I am beyond the binary."

Jacquote says it takes time and exploration to really come to know who you are. Being a good ally, regardless of whether someone in your family is queer, is a key piece in supporting your family members, she says. To do so starts simply with respect.

"You can start by respecting and asking other people's pronouns, speaking positively about the queer people in your life, and showing a genuine interest in the lives of those you love," she says. "All these things help queer people love and accept themselves."

Gouldbourne agrees, saying, "The more I came into myself, the more of my people I found. I was able to feel comfortable leaving my mom's home and finding a space of my own."

Though Gouldbourne, Monae, and I all have different stories, we can all pinpoint self-acceptance as the first step to coming out. "You're welcome to experience me as my whole self, as I have come to know myself," Monae said on Red Table Talk.

Hearing Monae describe their nonbinary identity that way made my heart sing.

Like Monae, Black women will always have a place in my heart. I wouldn't be who I am without the love, care, and wisdom of my own Black mother, aunties, and grandmothers who raised me. But at the same time, I am more than the limitations of the binary.

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