last week, i was in my hometown of Houston, TX for the 49th annual ABPsi convention. ABPsi is the Association of Black Psychologists, an organization that was founded in 1968 with intentions of operating under an African-centered approach to psychology, not a Eurocentric approach. this perspective reframes the Black experience from being seen as an experience rife with pathology to a historically-informed, strengths-based view. this organization had been instrumental in my own development as a Black psychologist who is rooted in continuously unlearning anti-oppressive ways in regards to psychological services given to, teaching about, and research concerning Black populations.
witnessing people dressed in traditional attire with natural hair giving presentations about Black people for Black people was an important defining moment for me in my education when i attended my first ABPsi convention. i’ve grown over the past 5 years while being a member this organization, graduating from my undergraduate institution with dual degrees in psychology and African & African diaspora studies. ABPsi inspired me to begin my graduate career, to begin the process of becoming a fellow Black psychologist, and to eventually take up leadership roles within the org. i began to recognize my motivation for attending ABPsi was to reconnect with peers and mentors in order to rejuvenate and refresh myself with a community of people that seemed to have the same overall goal: psychological liberation of people of African descent.
in these past 5 years, i have also made space to become more familiar with other facets of my identity. i moved across the country to Akron, Ohio; a small town where i started to learn the delicate dance of figuring out how to move in academic spaces as my most authentic self. it has been in my counseling psychology program that i’ve been forced to recognize other identities within myself that are also marginalized and oppressed, though in fundamentally different ways. it has been in these past 2 years that i grew into understanding my gender identity, gender presentation, and attractions (because just saying ‘sexual orientation’ isn’t nuanced enough) more solidly. overall, i realized that i don’t identify as a cishet person, and that this means something.
these revelations were not only liberatory for me, they were scary as hell. my coming out process was (and continues to be) one that invokes high levels of anxiety that i never experienced before, in addition to waves of depression (that i’ve been struggling with since adolescence) becoming worse. in this time of rediscovery, i can identify that i need support and affirmation in these new identities as i unlearn harmful schema regarding my other marginalized identities. i expected this support and affirmation would also come from this community that has meant so much to me.
5 years have passed since i first joined, and the way i felt walking into this year’s conference was in great conflict with my first year’s experience. having had the bright enthusiasm of pursuing this degree thoroughly snatched from my sight by the first semester of my program, i looked to ABPsi to once again be my solace, like it had been for these past 5 years. i expected the same amount of consideration to be given to my other identities given that i am a member of the African diaspora, and by definition am included in modalities, conceptualizations, and considerations from an Afrocentric worldview. most of all, my expectation was that my queerness would not be conceptualized as pathology, as we know APA has done before. me having this expectation allowed me to see the organization’s treatment of the queer and trans community throughout its history, which has been in no way inclusive, affirming, or non-stigmatizing. unfortunately, ABPsi is choosing to repeat and engage with these oppressive ideals about these communities and not learn from the harm that they too cause, despite their best intentions for African people.
i was not granted the same feelings of belongingness at this year’s convention; this being my first convention while out, i was interested to see where the organization would be on being queer-affirmative, given that a speaker at last year’s convention was umar johnson. i didn’t want to confirm the assumption that the positive affirmation of queer and trans folk would be negligible, but unfortunately, that’s what my experience was.
this year was also a year in which the leadership ‘attempted’ to give LGBTQ people and concerns a spotlight. this was partially done by having a LGBTQ healing circle at same time as the men’s and women’s healing circle. it’s worth noting that this is not only divisive (ex: what if someone identifies as both a man and as gay?), but it is inherently transphobic. the ‘us vs. them’ separation that tends to exist in discourse regarding if queer Black folks exist touts the notion that trans folks are ‘others’ and aren’t ‘real’ men and women, let alone real Black men and women. it also reinforces the false dichotomy of the gender binary.
the last night (friday) that i was in attendance, i attended the Mbongi session where community issues were brought to the table so they could be discussed and solutions could begin to be created. i was informed upon attending this session that the conversation surrounding the inclusion of LGBTQ+ folks within the org was approximately “27 years old,” according to one member’s experience. an elder shared with me that this has been a conversation that has existed since before then, dating back to when the organization was first founded in the late 60s.
i sat there, wondering how hard it must be to exist for almost 50 years as an organization that had yet to acknowledge or respect this important, valuable part of the community that we were trying to continue to build and edify. i personally don’t think it’s been that hard, given that cisnormativity and heteronormativity are aspects of the overall white supremacist, patriarchal status quo that we exist within.
i came out to the small group that i was in while trying to appeal to their affirmation of queer folks in their views of Afrocentricity; i was then told by two different members that 1) everyone’s understanding of an Afrocentric worldview is different (which sounds like a cop-out, to be honest) and 2) that she doesn’t have to agree with the existence of queer Black folk, nor recognize Black queer folks’s existence within the concept of an Afrocentric worldview (even though i was literally existing in front of her as a queer Black person). the best that other allies and/or out folks could do in that small group was commend us for having such ‘hard conversations’ and it being a safe space for everyone to be able to have their views expressed without scrutiny or, as that one person put it, without being ‘attacked for her opinions.’ this is a prime example of harmful and violent ideals being normalized under the guise of free speech. we often fail to understand how beliefs and thoughts do not exist in vacuums and how they have real implications.
both of these comments came from members of “generation x” – they were in their late 40s to early-mid 50s and they were both cis Black women. this experience reminded me of my experience with my previous mental health care provider (also a member of this org), who showed incompetency in being able to meet my needs as i was seeking therapy for a number of reasons. one of these reasons had been my engagement in a new, queer relationship with a woman that also happened to be my first serious relationship. instead of engaging with my presenting concerns using her expertise in doing therapy, she advised (in so many words) that i compartmentalize these issues surrounding my then-partner and focus on the issues that were keeping me from performing as well as i could in school. i felt completely unheard and that my queer identity was disregarded in this moment. had she actually been more attentive to my needs, she would have clearly seen the stress that my newly-budding relationship was having on me regarding the transitions into non-heteronormativity that i was going into. later on, i realized that i was also disappointed that i had received treatment that i expected from less capable and competent clinicians who weren’t skilled in treating populations that may be different from their own, especially given that she was also a member of ABPsi. nevertheless, i had to stop seeing her for therapy, as that one session made me feel unsafe to speak to her about any issues regarding my queerness, which is inherently tied to my overall life experience.
in addition to everything else, one of the most hurtful offenses was me accidentally finding out about an outing involving other students in my program, my own advisor, and members of a local mental health care agency that many local members of ABPsi are connected to. i couldn’t help but to note that i was the only out queer person in this situation; the group was going out for lunch, and from my viewpoint, almost everyone who would have been connected in our local NE ohio ABPsi chapter was going to share a meal except for me. in my 5 years in ABPsi, it is very normal and customary to share meals with mentors and advisors, as we are all supposed to be ‘like family’ with one another. i was hurt at this indirect communication; it felt like i was only worth an afterthought by way of text after the initial planning was done.
lastly, my partner, who came to meet me at the hotel for a date in my city, was approached and body shamed by an elder of the organization. i took issue with the elder preaching respectability and shame at my partner. this elder made sure to remind my partner that “this is a professional environment” and that the next time she decide to share this space, that she “bring something to cover her [body] next time.” we (politely) informed the elder that my partner simply had come inside to pick me up, as we were on our way out that night. my partner was simply in the room and in the conference to act as support for me. the body shaming (my partner does identify as a fat Black femme) and overall unnecessary & overwhelming commentary was a nail into the coffin that made the misalignment of ABPsi painfully clear. this adherence to respectability (whether through force or through choice) is also harmful; in reality, we as Black folks are expected to perform the white standard of what’s seen as ‘acceptable’ and what’s not, which means adhering to white body size norms, white clothing choice norms, with “room” to wear daishikis and/or traditional wear. had the elder inquired more about my partner’s work, she would know that the focus on her brilliance rather than her clothes (shorts, a crop top, and sandals) in conference spaces should overshadow and has been more important any concern about her appearance.
it have been instances like these that have made me realize that queer and trans people within this organization have not been a priority and may only become one due to wider discourse and representation that is initiated by Black queer people themselves, not the institutions that they are a part of. unfortunately, my threshold for holding microaggressions, homophobia, transphobia, body shaming, respectability, and disingenuous regard for LGBTQ+ individuals within ABPsi has been breached and i do not plan on continuing to be a member of the organization. i love and respect myself too much to settle for a group that is not willing to see all Africans in the diaspora as African, regardless of their other identities. in my view, that goes against what our whole organization stands for and disrespects the multitudes of ancestors that created us, as queer and trans African people existed before the Maafa and before the colonization of indigenous and Black populations. a denial of such is historically inaccurate and is teeming with whitewashed narratives of our history. we owe it to our Black Queer and Trans children, teenagers, and adults to do better. we need to not only envision our existence in Black liberation, but to engage in concrete actions that make these visions our reality.