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Conflicting identities: Being black and gay in Philadelphia

Black Americans are less likely to support same-sex marriage and those who identify as LGBT.

Terrell Green at the Public Health Management Corp., where he teaches youth about sexual health.
Terrell Green at the Public Health Management Corp., where he teaches youth about sexual health.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Terrell Green is gay, but most people see him first as black.

Women clutch their purses when standing next to him in elevators and on the street. Casual greetings usually come as a, "Wassup, brotha," and others tell the 27-year-old he speaks "so well," as though it's a surprise.

Still, he claims these two identities equally, a seemingly paradoxical existence in a country where being gay can sometimes clash with expectations of being black.

"Being a black gay man," Terrell said, "it became you cannot be a sissy. … You have to be strong."

Black Americans' approval of same-sex marriage has grown more slowly than that of any other racial group. In fact, last year was the first time more black Americans supported than opposed same-sex marriage — 48 percent for, 41 against, and 11 didn't know — in polling done by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute. The number of black Americans who identify as LGBT also grew at a slower rate than Asians, Hispanics, and whites between 2012 and 2016, according to Gallup.

Terrell's mother, Denise, calls his race Strike One against him — something people will immediately use to stereotype him. Strike Two is being male, a black male.

Strike Three, she tells him, is being gay.

‘What did I do wrong?’

Denise still remembers how angry she felt when Terrell came out to her 11 years ago — not at him, but at herself.

Questions swirled through her head. Had she and her husband, Melvin, raised Terrell wrong? Had a man touched Terrell inappropriately and made him gay? Had someone failed to protect him?

"I kept wondering, 'Why? What did I do wrong?' " said Denise, 54, who raised Terrell and his two older sisters in South Philadelphia. "I blamed myself for a very long time."

Terrell assured her she was not at fault. He had realized he was gay in first grade, when he ogled the light brown eyes of the boy sitting next to him in class.

Still, he had kept the feelings to himself.

Terrell's mother, a hospital supervisor, and father, who works for the city, taught him to be what they thought a young black man should be: Protector of the house. Tough. Able to walk the streets without worry.

"I was expected to be strong, and that meant not crying, not sharing emotions," said Terrell, who now lives in North Philadelphia.

His parents were proud to be black and taught him about black history and pioneers. They were regulars at a Pentecostal church. Being gay, Terrell recalls learning there, was bad. His mother remembers thinking that it was a sin but that she could dislike the sin and still love the person.

Mostly, though, his parents never thought about someone being gay — let alone their son.

"In the black community growing up," Denise said,  "you didn't see gay."

‘I just started to accept him for who he was’

When Terrell turned 12, Denise began to realize he wasn't tough. He was gentle, quiet, creative. She  made sure he had a ride to school, not wanting kids to taunt him on the bus.

Terrell started talking to boys on the phone. His mother considered the possibility he was gay but refused to accept it: "I didn't know anything about it," she said.

The truth emerged on a car ride to the supermarket. Terrell, then 16, was on his cellphone trying to explain to a boy why they hadn't met up. Denise, who was driving, could hear the boy saying Terrell had let him down.

She told Terrell to end the conversation. She had something to ask him — even though she already knew the answer.

"Are you gay?" she said.

Yes, he told her.

His mother didn't know what to think. His father thought it might just be a phase. Both were worried about Terrell's safety.

"They were so fearful of what would happen to me out in the world," Terrell said. "That it was just like, 'People are out there not only killing black guys, black men, but they're killing gay men. Because they hate you.' "

Their concerns are legitimate. People of color are more likely to be victims of violence in the LGBT community, according to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. In a study last year — even after removing the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla.,  that killed 49 people — the coalition found that 22 of 28, or more than three-fourths, of LGBT victims of hate-related killings were black or Latino. (The year before, the number of black and Latino victims was 15.)

But it wasn't just safety that Denise had to think about after her son came out. She worried about saying the wrong things to him. They argued when she told him not to go out with friends. He thought it was just because he was gay.

Terrell graduated from Central High School in 2008 and attended Marymount Manhattan College in New York. His mother said he was reluctant to come home on holidays. He stopped going to church.

Fearing she would lose her son, Denise had to change her mind-set.

"One day, I just realized his sexuality doesn't dictate our relationship," she said. "I really love him, because he's my son. He's a great person. And I just started to accept him for who he was."

She still wrestles with questions about his identity. Was Terrell born gay, or did something make him that way? She's not sure.

The family said Melvin supports and loves Terrell, but prefers to deal with his son's identity privately.

"He is still figuring this out on his own," Terrell said.

Taking responsibility

Although Terrell knows his experience doesn't reflect that of every black and gay man in America, he considers representing those identities a responsibility. He spoke in front of more than 100 people at a public hearing last year about racism in the city's Gayborhood, recalling how a waiter there once told him when he ordered a medium-rare burger, "I thought you people liked your meat well done."

Terrell works at the Public Health Management Corp. in Center City to teach sexual health to youth. He also performs in his own play, Must Go On: A Rite of Passage, which addresses black, gay, and other identities.

He never forgets the "Three Strikes" lesson from his mother.

If people assume you're lazy, work twice as hard. If they think you're dangerous, be respectful. If they believe you can't succeed as a black, gay man, prove them wrong.

"It's always rewarding to know that I alone can change someone's opinion," Terrell said.