The Second Adolescence

Black queer youth should not have to wait years to be who they are

by George M. Johnson

At the age of thirty-two I’m now only starting to feel like I am making the best decisions of my life as an adult. I’ve made some poor choices in the past and that is something I can’t just deny. I made bad choices with my finances, with my sex life, with my spirituality—but not without reason. I was always seemingly chasing something that I never had—the freedom to be myself. I suppressed most of who I was up until about twenty-one when I first started exploring. Unfortunately, much of what I missed during my adolescent years I was playing out up into my thirties, a struggle many black queer people share with me.

My adolescent years were pretty much lived in my head. My head was the only place that I could be myself, or for that matter imagine the person I wanted to be. I was too afraid to fully embrace who I was and live in that truth publicly. I felt that there weren’t other people like me in school, and even if there were, they weren’t ready to be out either. So, I faked it until I made it, pretty poorly in hindsight, but I did the best I could. For me it was about safety and just making it to a place where I could be myself freely. I thought it would come when I first got to college and away from home for the first time, but it didn’t.

I transitioned from a Catholic school to an HBCU. At the HBCU, there were a few people who were out, but it still didn’t feel like a space where I could exist as I knew myself to be. So, I suppressed and even doubled-down by joining a fraternity. I’ve always struggled to make genuine friendships because I wasn’t being my full self. But I did make friends and that worked until it didn’t. Looking for a brotherhood and some type of way to “heighten my masculinity” I became a member of a Black Greek Letter organization. Funny enough the opposite happened and I actually for the first time found people like myself. I started to grow into who I truly was.

I went to my first gay club when I was twenty. That was my first taste of the life I always wanted. And I went all in. I danced, I drank, I flirted, I got phone numbers, and I finally felt free for the first time. However, I was still not “out” so I did all this in secrecy. Only hanging out with a certain group of gay guys so that none of our secrets would get out. This led to me moving in a way that wasn’t safe though. I put myself in some pretty interesting situations that I know wouldn’t have happened had I been more confident in who I was, and willing to live my life as I was.

I was involved in high-risk sex with little education on my community and my risks. It took me years to be accountable for the fact that my HIV diagnosis was on me. I didn’t ask questions before engaging in hook-ups and after the club meet-ups. I didn’t know the statistics; I really didn’t know what it meant to have HIV and why I should be concerned about it. I drank a lot and got behind the wheel. Folks thought I was a pro at it, I had gotten so good. It was not smart. I made some very poor financial decisions because everything I did was based on impulse. I was in the mindset of living fast and dying young because I was operating like a sixteen-year-old in a twenty-five-year-old body.

It happened because I lost so many years. So many years of not having sex, not having friends, not dating, basically not doing much of anything but just trying to fit in as best I could. So, when I got the opportunity, I relived all the years that I felt I had missed. I was responsible, yes, and I paid my bills as best I could and went to college and did all the right things, but I was still operating from the space of a child. A child that so longed to be who he wanted to be but didn’t have the courage to do so.

Black queer folks miss out on a lot of years being unable to live as queer people when we know that we are. I knew since I was young that I was different. I also knew that it would not be accepted. This is something that must change in our society if we hope to stop repeating the cycles of trauma many of us experience from suppression of identity. The loss of adolescent years means we lose out on dating. We lose out on experiencing how to grow friendships and relationships and build bonds with family. We lose out on proper integration into society and fall into many of the statistics that continue to hurt our people.

At thirty-two, I’ve for the first time in my life started to make some really adult decisions and my life is better for it. It is my hope that in the future we don’t have any more children like me. Children who are unable to be themselves, stifling their growth until much later in life. Queer people have adolescent years, too. We should be able to live them during that time.

George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.