Journalist, author and filmmaker Clay Cane explores the trials and tribulations that many LGBTQ people of color endure—especially after jumping life hurdles like race, sexuality and religion—in his new essay-style memoir, Live Through This: Surviving The Intersections Of Sexuality, God, And Race.
The book is compiled of 27 separate essays dealing with Clay’s experience coming into his own as a young gay man of color growing up with limited resources in Washington state and Philadelphia. In efforts to highlight some of his most life altering vignettes, he divides the book up into one-word sections—Sexuality, Love, Race, God, Intersections—that target different facets of his existence and form part of his story.
But this isn’t just a story about Cane. Within the collection of stories, he interpolates all types of issues that affect the LGBT community and marginalized communities as a whole. For instance, there is an essay called “Plantation Life,” which targets undocumented immigrants. “THE END OF THE MONTH IS A SIGNAL OF THE APOCALYPSE when you are living below the poverty line,” he writes. “While my mother did what she needed to do put food on the table, she also grabbed extra work wherever she could find it, no matter how difficult. My mother’s best friend Karla, who was a young Mexican woman with two kids, told her about picking fruit berry plantations deep in Washington State. “The work is hell, but it’s quick money, and it’s under the table. Girl, you’re white: I don’t think you can handle it!” Karla half-joked.”
Through a mixture of words crafting beautiful imagery, he targets the topical issue of immigrants and hard labor. As a biracial kid who grew up in poverty with his white mother, he vividly tells the stories of those he saw around him. Amid the real hard-knock-life tales, he manages to intertwine humor, nostalgia and sprinkles of pop culture. These diverse sets of stories with a handpicked selection of characters culminate from the time he was a child listening to Prince and Madonna to when he became a professional entertainment journalist and was spending face time with artists like Chaka Khan.
In his essay titled, “Divas Live: Beyonce, Mary And Patti,” he remembers in 2007 when Khan told him during an interview, “I want to thank all my gay following, all my people, for staying with me and supporting me all these years. You all have been my most solid fan base and that’s the truth.” And while visibility for the LGBTQ people of color has heightened through out the years, struggle still persists. In 2015, Clay released Holler If You Hear Me: Black and Gay in the Church, a documentary that explores the plight between the black church and its long history with ingrained homophobia. If the documentary was a conversation starter, this new book is it’s colorful continuation. VIBE recently spoke with Cane about his new book, and the conversations it deliciously stirs even if the taste may not always be as sweet.
VIBE: Why did you decide to write the book separated by essays instead of a full memoir?
Clay Cane: I didn’t want to do the straight cradle to the grave memoir, but in a way it is a memoir because I’m talking about my life. It’s more so about these warriors I met in my life who inspired me, and warriors don’t always live forever. Warriors are not super heroes; a lot of them have passed away, but they’ve had this impact on me and that’s what I really wanted to highlight. I felt like each essay had a take away of equality or social justice. Some are really uncomfortable and really terrifying, and some are really funny and over the top. But me as somebody who is black with a white mother, who is from Philly also Washington State, who grew up poor as hell, who also had a crazy religious experience, I have all these identities and intersections.
I feel like in many ways we all have that. So that’s why I broke it up that way, it made sense. It felt right, I also liked the idea of folks not having to read something straight through. You can read on the train, you can read it as you’re waiting for a meeting. It’s acceptable in that way, and my intention at heart was that these are the issues that I care about. I wanted to use the experiences of my life to talk about it.
What do you do to fight back that noise of shame and guilt that can creep in because of society’s stigma towards homosexuality?
The noise is never really gone. It’s there, but for me the noise is in different ways. When I was writing this book it was through our last insane presidential election, so as I’m writing it and I’m writing about undocumented workers for example on the essay “Plantation Life,” I’m hearing our current president talk about immigrants, undocumented workers and Mexicans. The noise was right there.
The folks in my book, we think about them in stats, numbers and voting blocks. I want to dehumanize those stats, numbers and voting blocks. So that’s the way of fighting back the noise, in acts of resistance. It’s fighting back in this current climate that were in, which is really scary. I think it’s always there, but you have to live through it. You have to go in the battlefield everyday, and that’s kind of what I did.
There’s one essay in there called “The Hip-Hop Closet” where I was going to a gay club in The Bronx at the warehouse, and they would not let trans-women in because they wanted the club to be more masculine. So I’m a young guy experiencing all these things, and I’m just in shock. What I’m seeing is that hurt people hurt other people. It’s not to say that it’s all their fault. But even if you find your people, you also grow up in these structural undertones of sexism, homophobia and the pressures of manhood and masculinity. For me the book is a wake up call, even to folks within my community. I’m not just calling out white people or straight people at all—it’s a wake up call to us as well.
You’ve been very vocal about the black church and the stigma it perpetuates against homosexuality and the LGBT community. What do you think the LGBT community can do fight back against this?
What we should do as a whole is that we have to say “no more.” For the black church specifically… black LGBT folks in the church have this joke where it’s like, “Want to meet a whole bunch of gay folks? Just go to the black church.” We have to say no more. No I’m not going to sit here in oppression and not say anything.We have to be vocal about that.
With the black church, for us it is very specific because for our churches we have the roots of Jim Crow, slavery and the civil rights movement. Our churches really have a historical freedom concept, so for a lot of us we don’t want to walk away from the church. We have to speak up, but we have hypocrites at the church, like the late Eddie Long who says terrible things, and administers anti-gay marches, but allegedly slept with men.
That’s disgusting, and we, as the gay folks in the church, build the church and support the church. The church couldn’t survive without LGBT folks. And white churches are crazy too, but I think for the people in our community our churches are vulnerable spaces too, because people are looking for salvation. They are looking for healing. To look for a place of healing and be shamed can really ruin somebody’s life. So that’s been a fight of mine for years.
What do you think that shame has done to the black gay community?
This is a theory of mine, but I think that part of the reason why the HIV/AIDS rates are so high among black gay men—because if you’re told the supreme being does not love you, where does your soul go from there? Why would you use a condom if you believe your life is invaluable? Why would you go on PrEp if you’re taught that you’re going to burn?
Self-hate is part of the reason why the HIV rate is so high, especially in the South where church culture is even bigger. So I say to people who are co-signing homophobia in the church, whether you’re straight or gay, there is blood on your hands as well. It’s on you as well. There are people that are being hurt, and they are dying. It really is a crisis; it’s heartbreaking to me. I should say folks are doing something, but as far as the church aspect there is more that can be done.
In the book you talked about how hip-hop influenced you as a young black man, but then when it came to your gay identity you felt shunned because of the homophobia and misogyny in the music. Do you feel more welcomed by hip-hop now?
That’s a good question. I think it’s complicated. Hip-hop artists know now that it’s not really profitable to be homophobic. Once upon a time it was profitable to be homophobic. That goes back to the church as well, the reason why churches are so homophobic is because it’s profitable, and now they are learning like Kim Burrell that this may not be bringing us what we want.
When it comes to hip-hop artists, people don’t play now. If you say something really homophobic and disgusting, that can really damage your career. So I don’t know if it’s sincere. I don’t know if it’s sincere, them staying quiet. But as far as feeling more welcome, there are some good folks there like Young M.A. and of course Frank Ocean, Taylor Bennett and iLoveMakonnen.
There is still work that needs to be done. I want to see a successful hip-hop artist be like an Ellen Degenres or like an Elton John in their career, and get love from hip-hop, but I think it’s complicated. Also, a lot of these guys are really young, and they need space to learn, evolve and grow. I love hip-hop, I really, really do; it’s just part of my roots. Black women have to deal with that, too. They love hip-hop but it’s deeply misogynist. It’s complicated, but someone like Common used to have homophobic lyrics; he turned around. You have to give some people time to evolve, and space to grow. But the irony of it is that for some people, being a homophobe makes you more masculine. Masculinity is very important in hip-hop. It’s a deep conversation about what’s profitable in hip-hop.
You also mentioned in your book the positive impact music has had on you as a gay man with artists like Prince and Madonna. Who do you think are those type of icons for this new generation?
Some artists have always acknowledged the importance of an LGBT following in their career. When you can’t hit the same notes; when you can’t get radio airplay, the LGBT community especially gay men— for women and women of color—they are there. So that’s really crucial and important. I think now when it comes to women artists, I think that every artist is performing at an LGBT pride event. I think with Beyonce you see that in “Formation,” she was really showing this kind of alternative vision of blackness with having Messy Mya in there and having Big Freedia.
If I would’ve had Beyoncé doing that, if she had been out when I was kid, that would have had a huge impact on me in the same way Prince, Madonna and Janet Jackson had an impact on me. These artists are out there, and they are being visible. And for a lot of them, they are being sincere. Lady Gaga is really sincere about it, you know she knows what she’s talking about. Even on Rupaul’s Drag Race, which is wild that she is on there giving tips to these drag artists. There are a lot of folks everyone from Marsha Ambrosius to Beyonce to Fantasia—although she’s gotten in some heat for some things here and there—she has a big following. Also, there’s Jennifer Hudson. I believe it’s sincere because they have LGBT people in their crews. But what Beyonce did with “Formation” was really cool, that she had this gender non-conforming context in there. That was really cool and powerful. She also had LGBT inspiration in Lemonade.
Lastly, you also write about the support your mother gave you as a child. What advice would you give young gay men whose mothers aren’t as supportive as your mother was to you when you were growing up?
That essay is called “The First Time I Was Called A Faggot,” and because of my mother kicking her boyfriend out of the house, saying ‘that’s my son.’ It really honored me for life. That was a crucial part in just my upbringing. It armored me for life. My mother has nothing more than an eighth grade education and she gave me some serious affirmation. So for young people especially young men who are going through these pressures of masculinity I would say that you have to live through it, you have to stay in it, and you have to look for your escapism. Like I did with music and with culture. You have to find ways to free yourself when you can, but you have to make it out on the other side.
And then ultimately you have to find your tribe, and that may take a long time. But you have to be in it, there is no other option, because when you’re young you don’t have much agency. When you’re young and a child you don’t have much of a voice. I hope any young person that reads through this, I hope it makes them feel a little more comfortable, and laugh a little bit more. You have to seek out little ways to find your tribe. But it’s difficult and it was hard, because when I was in it, no advice would have really helped me. Fortunately, now there are more outlets of social media, and stuff like that. But seriously, I’m putting out all the good energy out there to those going through it like I did.