Coming out isn’t the same as coming to America

except for the welcome parade

put on by ghosts like your granduncle Roy

who came to New York from Panamá in the 50s

and was never heard of again

and by the beautiful gays who died of AIDS in the 80s

whose cases your mother studied

in nursing school. She sent you to the US to become

an “American” and you worry

she’ll blame this country

for making you a “marica,”

a “Mary,” like it might have made your uncle Roy.

The words “America” and “marica” are so similar!

Exchange a few vowels

and turn anyone born in this country

queer. I used to watch Queer as Folk as a kid

and dream of sashaying away

the names bullies called me in high school

for being Black but not black enough, or the kind of black they saw on TV:

black-ish, negro claro, cueco.

It was a predominately white school,

the kind of white the Spanish brought to this continent

when they cozened my ancestors from Africa.

There was no welcome parade for my ancestors back then

so, they made their own procession, called it “carnaval”

and fully loaded the streets with egungun costumes,

holy batá drum rhythms, shouting and screaming in tongues,

and booty dancing in the spirit.

I don’t want to disappear in New York City,

lost in a drag of straightness.

So instead, I proceed

to introduce my mother to my first boyfriend

after I’ve moved her to Texas

and helped make her a citizen.

Living is trafficking through ghosts in a constant march

toward a better life, welcoming the next in line.

Thriving is wining the perreo to soca on the

Noah’s Arc pride parade float, like you’re

the femme bottom in an early aughts gay TV show.

Surviving is (cross-)dressing as an American marica,

until you’re a ‘merica or a ‘murica

and your ancestors see

you’re the king-queen of Mardi Gras,

purple scepter, crown, and krewe.

Related Poems

Born Frees

I used to write about Assotto Saint

Slamming his hand down on the pulpit at Donald Wood’s funeral

when it was common to hide the cause of death of

young men who’d died from AIDS if they were buried at all

and weren’t abandoned

Someone told me about a thin boy

Thin with fear and death

played piano for the choir

no one touched him or talked about it

I know in my mother’s family

her mother’s sister said a parasite had killed

her son when he died suddenly

But I remember once him coming out of a Gay bar in Boston

all the white boys said, “How do you know her?”

I don’t know if he or I said cousin

I’m his cousin

He made me promise not to tell anyone in the family

I’d seen him there

So when they said parasite I knew something didn’t ring true

His mother a seemingly healthy woman died shortly after that

but I always felt their deaths were related

His mother either from the lies or repression

or a broken heart

having lost her young son

 

And I know everyone blames Jussie Smollett for his lies and staged attacked

but it makes me think there was something very toxic going on

that he didn’t feel he could talk to someone

Either that he was covering up an addiction or a hookup.

Watching Assotto stand up at Donald’s funeral and tell the truth

goes down in history as one of the bravest moments I’d ever witnessed

Either that or Audre Lorde spreading open the arms of her dashiki

the bravest woman we’d all witnessed

telling a crowded room of followers

I began on this journey as a coward

That or seeing a friend at the height of the AIDS era

at a bar his face covered in purple welts

refusing to hide

going out in public

That or Donald Woods being feeble

barely able to walk

accepting an award as a director of AIDS films

Or an ex-lover on a beach taking off her top and refusing

to hide her mastectomy scar

Or when Danitra Vance performed at The Public Theater

and danced naked revealing her mastectomy scars

and Audre refusing to wear a prosthesis

Or when Zakes Mokae in Master Harold and the Boys in the first Broadway play

that a cousin took me too

said to his white master, “Have you ever seen a Black man’s ass?”

and pulled down his pants and revealed himself to the audience

I was sixteen years old

Or seeing my mother beaten religiously

and still go out to work as if it hadn’t happened at all

Or even me surviving so many incredible tests

Once when I was talking to a doctor, I doubted my strength

He looked at me incredulously and said, “You are strong.”

Another doctor looked at me

my suffering

And asked isn’t anyone there for you?

And another said you deserve to be taken care of

Today once more I am nursing my broken heart

Caused by someone who betrayed

was not honest

That and attending an event and asking white people to give up

their seats to Black people who couldn’t sit down

And seeing social justice in action

Yes I often think of Assotto for the important place

he resides in my history

But today I am examining his tactics

pulling the tools off the shelf

dusting off the weaponry

in an exhibit

because today I need to use what he taught me.

 

Today I feel that puff of rage

That continuous assault

And I want to stand up and testify

though I too haven’t been asked

I want to interrupt all the proceedings

all the places Black lesbians have been erased

and silenced

Like looking down at a manuscript

seeing that they asked a young white woman to write about

Black queer history

when it’s been my area of expertise

forever

Or only attributing ’80s and ’90s AIDS activism

To ACT UP

I want the point of outrage now to not only the historicizing of AIDS

But the fact that women and Black lesbians

have been erased from the dialogue

When there were so many organizations like GMAD

Other countries ADODI

Men of All Colors Together

Salsa Soul/Arican American lesbians united for Societal Change

Las Buenas Amigas

and more

Or asking where are all the Black lesbians on Pose

because certainly they were on the piers and part of that history

And why are white men constantly at the helm

to tell our stories

And why don’t white queers recognize this

That and seeing panel after panel being organized on history and art

all things important to the world and no one thinking or noticing

it might be important to have a Black lesbian present

Just like they kicked Stormé out of

the Stonewall narrative.

And what about the people who weren’t on the streets

but in jobs

fighting the system

The dykes and queers

meeting each other forming community

and connections and families

and love

Just like in South Africa where they prevented intermingling

but ways were found

And each time we touched or loved

found each other in darkness and light

It was resistance

Each time we told each other You’re beautiful

You’re not wrong

It was resistance

When we stood up to the parents and families

and courts and those that shunned us

It was resistance

Wore what we really wanted

It was resistance

Yelled at doctors and drug professionals

It was resistance

Every time we wrote and read poems

It was resistance

Every time some queer kid

stays alive because they saw us

read us

discovered the archive

We’ve won

 

Every war is fought on our bodies

And one day after the gender racial

sexual orientation wars are over

in America

there will be a new generation

just like in South Africa called

the Born Frees.

 

—2019


Watch Pamela Sneed read a version of this poem at the 2019 Stonewall 50 reading.

Maps

for Marcelo

Some maps have blue borders
like the blue of your name
or the tributary lacing of
veins running through your
father’s hands. & how the last
time I saw you, you held
me for so long I saw whole
lifetimes flooding by me
small tentacles reaching
for both our faces. I wish
maps would be without
borders & that we belonged
to no one & to everyone
at once, what a world that
would be. Or not a world
maybe we would call it
something more intrinsic
like forgiving or something
simplistic like river or dirt.
& if I were to see you
tomorrow & everyone you
came from had disappeared
I would weep with you & drown
out any black lines that this
earth allowed us to give it—
because what is a map but
a useless prison? We are all
so lost & no naming of blank
spaces can save us. & what
is a map but the delusion of
safety? The line drawn is always
in the sand & folds on itself
before we’re done making it.
& that line, there, south of
el rio, how it dares to cover
up the bodies, as though we
would forget who died there
& for what? As if we could
forget that if you spin a globe
& stop it with your finger
you’ll land it on top of someone
living, someone who was not
expecting to be crushed by thirst—

Border Patrol Agent Will Not Complete His Shift

March 2014

After the three women turn themselves in, the man drives them
from his river of fasting to a hungering brush-brimmed spot.
On the mother’s wrists, he engraves his ennui, though her pulse
will not submit. Like caravels, mother and daughter break free
from his grip.Through horrid hosanna he tries to split
frontiers with his buckle. Begs the girl to forgive his feet.
In the back of the truck, blood & duct tape. It takes a toll
to corral the nervous hooting, the lamb’s inefficient hands.
A throng of crows splashes on her thin shoulders, on soccer
net poles that struggle to deflect the man’s frantic entrances,
his tenacious fiddle of lust. Rosaries drape on deserts
clotting inexperience. Gunshot after midnight. Maybe asylum.
How will they entomb that absence in his mouth after the verse
of his head has unlatched to fill tulip gardens the length of stars?