On tokenism, visibility, and those gay black dads who went viral

6ae36ee2e383f6c75e2031660e559f34Over the weekend, Kordale and Kaleb’s morning routine with their family went viral. Their Instagram account was shared, and then shared again, and again (and again) and then all of the sudden BuzzFeed had an article up: “These Black Dads and Their Three Kids have the Cutest Instagram Ever…Much cuteness. Such adorable.”

Now, I happen to spend a lot of my time chasing down same-sex couples, asking to take their photos as part of a street-photography initiative, Queer in Public, which strives to make queerness visible — especially daily queerness. So there really shouldn’t be anyone more excited than me to see so many people loving Kordale and Kaleb’s family photos. They’re an adorable family that’s helping to change the narrative on what queer families can look like in 2014.

And yet — when I look at the reaction to the photos, it just doesn’t sit right. There’s something about the virality of these photos, including that they were stripped from an Instagram account, that yells: “OMG black men can be gay and they can be gay-dads and isn’t it the cutest thing you have ever seen?!” It sounds like they’re talking about goddamn puppies. 

—> These Black Dads and Their Three Kids Golden Retrievers and Their Puppies have the Cutest Instagram Ever…Much cuteness. Such adorable.”  

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 1.32.59 PMWhat’s happening here feels like, to me, a dangerous tokenization of these very daily, “normal” black and queer lives. It reduces and co-opts their normalcy into something that can be put on Huffington Post, and Policy Mic, and BuzzFeed and shared on social media. And so I’m frustrated and conflicted – we do need visibility around the “normalcy” of our queer lives.

But while Queer in Public is intentional, maybe Kaleb and Kordale were just trying to document their lives like everyone else on Instagram. According to a statement to HuffPo, the pair seem to be accepting the attention — the positive and negative — as a fair consequence of putting the photos out on social media. But maybe Kaleb and Kordale were just trying to document their lives like everyone else on Instagram. Maybe they didn’t want to be the fluff equality story of the week, or barraged with hate over Twitter. In the statement to HuffPo, they write:

“[P]eople fail to realize that we are people too, with kids who love us. We do what is necessary for them to succeed in this ever-changing world but it’s sad that we’re discriminated against because of our sexuality and/or what we do behind closed doors — which is no one’s business. In the same breath, we take all of what’s been said in stride.”

Then there’s a fact that virality of the photos is clearly driven by Kaleb and Kordale’s race and gender. Beyond Steven took note of Black Twitter’s reaction, where he found two major reasons for general overreaction: “1. The fact that this was a black gay couple. 2. That it was nice to see black men taking care of children.” As Steven notes, even in the positive reactions, the age-old stereotypes resurfaced: that black men aren’t engaged fathers/are generally absent, and that the black community is more homophobic than any other race. And yet, in research and studies, like this one released last month finding that black fathers are just as involved in parenting as other races, we continually see that these assumptions are bullshit. I worry that overreactions, like the ones around Kaleb and Kordale, work to solidify these myths as truth, by making it hooplah-worthy because someone supposedly “broke the mold.”

On the other hand, the attention these photos sparked clearly speaks to a real lack of representation of black, gay men. Edward Williams, a fan of the photos over at PolicyMic, helped make these conversations more nuanced, adding, ”[I]n the society and cultural community in which Kordale and Kaleb, and other black gay parents, generally exist, the struggle for a sense of normalcy is even greater than for gay parents of a different race.” Sigh,” Steven wrote. “Are we that sheltered from black gay couples that the general public doesn’t think they exist?…Overall, the point is that Kaleb and Kordale are not unicorns. They are one of many.”

The line between progress and tokenization is a thin one. And this is why the virality of these photos frustrates me most. Because the struggle for a sense of normalcy is great for queer people (especially QPOC) and when we tokenize families like the one Kaleb and Kordale are creating, it doesn’t feel like progress. Ultimately, this story illustrates how far we have to go in accepting queer parents — of all races — as normal. I can’t wait for the day when BuzzFeed would name that article “This Family has the Cutest Instagram Ever.” But, of course, I doubt that story would blow up because pouring orange juice and braiding your kid’s hair isn’t kindling for the internet fire. For for most loving families, that’s pretty much just another Monday.

court smiling Courtney Baxter loves public queerness, she just wants some nuance.

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