Reporting and writing by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Black LGBTQ+ people living at the intersection of homophobia and racism are often forced to navigate systemic inequities from racism as well as discrimination based on their sexual orientation. 

For years, Black LGBTQ+ Akronites have said they aren’t fully included in LGBTQ+ spaces and have been fighting for greater equity. The murder of Brian Powers, a Black LGBTQ+ person whose body was found by the University of Akron on June 13, brought these frustrations to the surface again. 

Courtney Calhoun, founder of Akron AIDS Collaborative, feels that Black LGBTQ+ issues have long been swept under the rug and that the Akron community has yet to recognize “very stark differences” among members of its LGBTQ+ community. 

“For me, living in Akron as an African-American gay man has been a struggle,” Calhoun says. “The struggle is different because the dollars are different. The education is different. Healthcare is different. Housing is different. Our people have been dying and have been beat to death by the police for years. All of this has been part of our history. That impacts how we go out and deal and club.”

The Devil Strip talked to five Black LGBTQ+ people in Akron to learn more about these inequities, which existed long before Powers’ murder brought them bubbling to the surface. Many we spoke to highlighted a lack of safe places in Akron for Black LGBTQ+ people, a feeling of loneliness stemming from the need for a close-knit community, as well as a general feeling of being excluded from advocacy organizations. 

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Hertistine Price

How do you identify?

I’m Hertistine. I’m 63. I go by she/her/hers pronouns. I identify as a butch lesbian.

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in Medina and I was always attracted to women, but I didn’t have an understanding of those emotions and there wasn’t anyone that I could share those with. There wasn’t anyone in our family that I knew about who was gay. All my friends had boyfriends, and I did too…I started dating him in fourth grade and we got married at 17. I gave that relationship 30 years of my life, but I never stopped being attracted to women. When our relationship ended, I met this woman at this restaurant I was working at and she made me so comfortable. She was my first. It was freeing.

When I was younger, I played the role of a wife really well. But I felt actual freedom when I came out. 

Tell me about your experience as a Black LGBTQ+ person living in Akron. 

I haven’t had any backlash. But going to certain churches, it did make me very aware of their opinions about their interpretations of what they think God thinks of gay people. But I found a church home [at Emmanuel Fellowship Church] and the pastor is gay, and she helped me get through that. I think everyone who finds themselves different in the eyes of society questions [their spirituality], and she really opened up my eyes to the things that people have overlooked. 

What do you wish the community knew about you? 

I have a bachelor’s degree. I’m a veteran. I’m a business owner. I’m in recovery. And I’m another person trying to make a difference. I’m glad I went through what I went through because I truly appreciate life today. It has opened my eyes to the beauty of life. And, so, please don’t let my sexuality interfere with you looking at me as another citizen in the city of Akron and as a human being. 

What brings you joy? 

Having a home I enjoy going to. Having someone very special in my life. We laugh and have deep discussions and we cook. And just having a safe place to go to. And my family, of course, too. I am now a great-grandmother. I had my daughter when I was very young. I have great-grandchildren that are absolutely the lights of my life. I love watching them enjoy the little joys of life and watching them discover life in their eyes. 

And I love helping others without them even knowing I helped. That’s the spirit in me and I get that from my grandmother. There were so many times I’d get up on Saturday mornings and there would be a stranger at our breakfast table because she thought someone was hungry. 

Chantelle Burros 

How do you identify?

My name is Chantelle. I use she/her/hers pronouns. I’m from Akron. I’m 27. I’m transgender. I’m from the west side of Akron. I’ve done a lot and been around the LGBTQ+ scene for a while. I’ve bounced around, but Akron is home. It’s where I’ve always been rooted. 

Tell me about yourself:

Until I was 18, I was really rebellious because I couldn’t be who I wanted to be. I came out as gay at 14. In high school, we had a day where you could dress like a girl. It was everything. We could change roles. The boys were the girls and the girls were the boys. It was spirit week. It was a day where I could go in a dress and oh, baby, I went and got me a whole outfit. It was the first time I wore clothes that matched my insides. I would always do this in private, as a kid, but it was the first time doing it in public.

Every Halloween in high school I would dress like a girl. People knew I think. My family would say, “I hope you don’t want to be a girl.” And in my head I was like, “Oh shit, they can’t even take me being gay, so I’m going to keep this bullet to myself.” But when I hit 18, I really came out.

Tell me about your experience as a Black LGBTQ+ person living in Akron. 

When you’re trans, you’re an object. You’re either looked at as a sexual being or a piece of property. But I’m a human being.

It’s not as shamed as it used to be. It’s more acceptable. I live by the understanding that you don’t have to like my lifestyle, agree with it, or anything like that, but as long as you respect me, that’s that. 

What do you wish the community knew about you? 

When you’re trans, that’s one point against you. I’m Black, that’s another point. I’m Black, I’m trans, I’m targeted. A lot of people stereotype you.

What brings you joy? 

I love to cook. I love to help people. I love to put a smile on people’s faces. When I cook, and someone is eating my food and they’re smiling and they’re happy, that brings me joy. People from every walk of life have to eat, and it bonds so many people. It’s a joy to see people sit down over a plate of food and talk. It’s pure. 

Jo’Von D. Cheatham

How do you identify?

I’m nonbinary. I identify as male and female. I tend to use both sides frequently. I can identify as a shim. I use him and her pronouns. I grew up in Akron.

Tell me about yourself:

I’m a rapper, a producer, a songwriter, and an entertainer. I also own my own nonprofit, which is called The Project MADE VII Foundation [Project Making a Difference Everyday 7 Foundation]. It’s for making a difference every day. We advocate for families, youth, and those who can’t advocate for themselves. We provide books, clothing and school supplies. 

We do children’s pageants. Non-beauty, non-makeup, just natural beauty pageants. One of our biggest pageants that we do is violence awareness, where we bring awareness to not only female domestic violence but male domestic violence as well, and family domestic violence and same-sex domestic violence.

Our annual Praise Back the Block event that we do is our school supply giveaway where we give away free school supplies. We do a three-on-three basketball tournament, have entertainment, fun and games. 

Tell me about your experience as a Black LGBTQ+ person living in Akron. 

I’d like to see a community of like-minded individuals who are not afraid to be themselves. We’re having the same issues and fighting for the same cause. This isn’t a trend, this isn’t a fad, this isn’t a sickness or mental illness. This is in fact who we are. 

We have a couple of places that are cool. We have the Interbelt [Night Club] that’s been a phenomenal place for people to be themselves and be open. We have Highland Square. Highland Square has become like the new LGBTQ+ community, but it’s not for us, it’s not for people of color. It’s for the white LGBTQ+ community and for college students. 

I guess I’m saying it’s hard to be who you are in a community that doesn’t really represent or understand the challenges we face. Being gay in this city is quite difficult because you don’t have a community. We don’t have a close-knit LGBTQ+ community like I’d like to have. 

What do you wish people knew? 

I wish people knew about the resources that are available. Like Equitas [Health]. I want people to know there are organizations out here fighting for the same cause and the same purpose, for our voices to be heard, for us to have safe places in the community. 

I want people to know they’re not alone. They’re not alone. We may feel alone, we may feel like we don’t have a community, but we still have people that have the same emotions as us, even if we’re missing the foundations and the structure. 

We see as they say the Hardesty Park Pride, which they say is the “white Pride,” and then you have [Akron AIDS Collaborative Family] Black Pride. But the Black Pride is nowhere near what white Pride is, and that’s because of a lack of supporters and people that stand behind it. 

What brings you joy? 

Being me. That’s my joy. Being me. 

Melvin Lightner

How do you identify?

My name is Melvin Lightner. I use he/him/his pronouns. I’m gay. I’ll be 30 this year.

Tell me about yourself.

I work for Equitas Health. I’m a prevention specialist. My job is to do community outreach, engagement, HIV testing, and sex and HIV education, which are very, very different topics I’m still not used to talking about when people ask. I’m learning something new every day about myself. I’m constantly evolving and learning.

With me getting older, the things I know now, I sure do wish I knew them when I was coming out at 17, 18. The things I know and the choices I made make me a much wiser person today. 

Tell me about your experience as a Black LGBTQ+ person living in Akron. 

There’s a disparity within the gay Black community and such a stigma towards us. In the white gay community, some don’t understand what Black Lives Matters means until they’re in our shoes. 

As I was sitting at one of the protests [in June], a lot of people, mostly white men, would drive by with their confederate flags, and stick their middle fingers up. Our allies didn’t notice this, but I did. When you’re in Black skin, you notice things that others don’t. It’s the experience. You don’t know what it’s like to be in our skin and why it’s important. You see and notice things differently that other people don’t notice. It’s deep. 

What do you wish the community knew about you? 

I wish the community knew more about their rights and… HIV and AIDS. Where we are today is different from where we were before. It’s not the stigma it was before, but it’s still punishable. Once people get HIV, they run. They hide. And they don’t share it. And it becomes a pressure on their life. And that’s scary. Whether you’re undetectable or you’re told you have AIDS, it’s still scary, even if you’re negative, because of STDs. It’s important to keep ourselves safe and to self-care and to self-heal because if you get HIV, it’s life-changing, but not a negative thing. 

I wish people accepted me for who I am. And for them to love me, not just my gay life, but loving Melvin first. When you see me, that’s not the first thing I want you to see. I want you to see Melvin and who I am as a person. Me being gay is a part of it, but that’s not my whole personality. I have my gay ways, but that’s not the whole story. I’m outgoing, I’m fun, I’m passionate for people. And I enjoy life. 

What brings you joy? 

My partner brings me joy, especially when he brings me flowers. I love lilies. We have some lilies at home. They’re really strong scented. I love orange flowers and yellow flowers. They’re colorful. I’m into plants. There’s something peaceful about them — for a plant to grow, you have to take care of it and love it.

Tree Hugger Mariah Carey Reincarnated Eternally 12 Full Lane Cyclist +

How do you identify?

I’m Tree Hugger Mariah Carey Reincarnated Eternally 12 Full Lane Cyclist +. I’m Black, indigenous, polyamorous and gay. I’m a radical faerie and a part of the #BuildHammerCity movement, a rent-free city free of police. I’m legally 30 years old but I’m Reincarnated Eternally 12. 

(Photo: H.L. Comeriato)

Tell me about yourself.

I grew up in Auburn Township. It’s a small township in Ohio of maybe 1,000 people. My family, we were the only Black family on our street. Growing up in Auburn Township, I experienced a lot of police brutality. And we didn’t even have a police department, they had to come from a different township. And if they saw a Black man walking in the street, they’d say, “oh, you don’t live here,” even though we’re almost neighbors. So, I lived a huge part of my life having neighbors who believed I didn’t belong, and the police would enforce this. 

Tell me about your experience as a Black LGBTQ+ person living in Akron. 

I see trees as a primary relationship, not only with myself but with my community. The relationship between land and colonialism in the United States is there is an unequal distribution of land here. You can’t own trees. So it’s a way of saying, “OK, colonizer, this tree, you can’t own it.” Me hugging a tree is a protest against colonialism and capitalism because this conversation I’m having with the tree right now cannot be purchased [and] it cannot be owned. And I can be looking like a rough Black male with a big ass mustache and hairy legs and short hair and still be womanly and gentle and feminine and have this experience that is nontraditional.

What do you wish the community knew about you? 

I am inspired by the power and rebelliousness of nature to resist being colonized. And I find strength in the natural resistance nature often has. 

I am nonconforming. It would be nice if people who are not allies, people who are not connected to the queer community in general, would stop viewing us as pedophiles or sexual predators. It’s very disempowering when people see me and are disgusted and cover up their children’s eyes like I’m some type of thing that’s not to be seen. 

And for people to stop believing this myth that those of us who are queer just suddenly become queer at 18. You know when you have mad love for a boy or a girl. When I was on the playground, even in preschool, I knew I liked boys. When I was in first grade, I wanted a boyfriend, but I didn’t have words for it.

I want to decolonize relationships. To be out and proud as a polyamorous gay person is an act of love and resistance and a form of activism. And when you come out, especially as a Black person, you’re risking your safety. 

What brings you joy? 

I love to dance. I love WAP by Cardi B. I also love being out in nature, to hug trees, have conversations with nature, the water, the air. And to be freely bicycling, hands-free, helmet-free on the road. Sometimes by myself, sometimes with other cyclists. To dance in public. And also to have community. 

Equitas Health Akron

3094 W Market St Suite 203, Akron, OH 44333

330-794-5289

Equitas Health offers two support groups for Black LGBTQ+ individuals, including BroCode (for same-gender-loving men of color) and TRANSlation, a group for transgender, gender non-conforming and gender-fluid indivuals. Email melvinlightner@equitashealth.com for future dates and times for meetings. 

Akron Aids Collaborative

facebook.com/akronaidscollaborative

330-431-0677, stan1727@gmail.com

The Project MADE VII Foundation

projectmadevii.jcheatham@outlook.com

Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s equity and inclusion reporter. Email her at noor@thedevilstrip.com

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