Patrisse always knew she wasn’t straight; though she acted boy-crazy as a kid, she never felt it in her soul. She grew up in the repressive sexual environment of Jehovah’s Witness and was taught not to engage in “sinful” behavior such as masturbating. Cleveland High saves her life by creating space for queer students to come out. There is no Gay Straight Alliance, but there is a student group for people with depression called Impact that a lot of queer kids flock to, given the way that homophobia and shame often lead to depression.
Here, Patrisse shifts her focus from race to sexuality. In addition to being Black, she is also queer, which means that she must navigate racism and homophobia simultaneously. Though homophobia is clearly impacting her queer community at school—that they flock to a group for people with depression is telling—they are also coming together to heal and take care of one another, something Patrisse is committed to in all aspects of her life.
Many of Patrisse’s cousins attend Cleveland because they live in the neighborhood, including Naomi. Naomi’s father, James, is Gabriel’s cousin and best friend—they both moved to LA from Louisiana as kids—and Patrisse’s relationship with Naomi is just as close. Naomi is outgoing, beautiful, and beloved by her peers, across race and status. She is also a “stud” and comes out as queer (something Patrisse wishes she had the courage to do) and starts dating an older girl. Though their family generally accepts queer people (including a couple of gay aunts), Naomi’s mother, Marsha, is deeply homophobic and starts to abuse Naomi after she comes out.
Patrisse refers to Naomi as a “stud,” a term usually used to refer to non-heterosexual women whose gender presentation is masculine of center. In sharing Naomi’s story, Patrisse highlights that homophobia is another form of prejudice that Black people experience alongside racism.
One day, when Naomi is at track practice, Marsha shows up and beats her in front of her team. She accuses the coach of making Naomi gay by abusing her and threatens to make Naomi transfer schools. When Patrisse hears about it, she looks for Naomi and finds her crying—she doesn’t want to leave her peers at Cleveland, whom she considers family. Patrisse says they won’t let her go, and they vow to stay together—but when fall rolls around, Marsha has enrolled her elsewhere. Watching Naomi lose the community she had since she was 10 years old, Patrisse realizes that to be young and queer means you can have your whole life taken from you just for being who you are. Twenty girls of color come out while Patrisse is at Cleveland, including herself.
Here, Patrisse is again making the case that queer Black people like herself and Naomi exist at the intersections of homophobia and racism, and that homophobia can be just as much of a threat to their well-being as racism is. Just as Monte faces discrimination simply due to his mental illness and loses many years of his life in prison, Naomi faces mistreatment due to her sexual orientation and has her life ripped away from her. Racism is not the only form of discrimination that has material consequences, Patrisse argues, and for the slogan “Black lives to matter” to be true, all Black lives have to matter.
Cleveland feels welcoming partially because it doesn’t have metal detectors or police presence—the Columbine shooting hasn’t happened yet, and kids of color haven’t yet been unjustly punished in its wake. When Patrisse works for the Strategy Center (a nonprofit) as an adult, she will work to end the school-to-prison pipeline that criminalizes children (usually poor people of color) in the effort to create “safe” schools. This will involve metal detectors, surveillance cameras, drug-sniffing dogs, and school suspensions leading to incarceration. The LA school district will have its own $52 million police budget.
The Columbine shooting took place at a high school in Colorado in 1999, when two teenagers killed 13 of their peers and themselves. A lot of schools in the U.S. increased security measures after that, which Patrisse believes led to the targeting of students of color. Patrisse doesn’t believe that police presence in schools leads to students being safer—instead, it leads to criminalizing young people of color.
One day in 10th grade, Patrisse tells Naomi that she is bisexual. Naomi is shocked, telling Patrisse they can’t both be queer. Patrisse can tell this is about Naomi’s fear for her—society already harms Black people every day, and she doesn’t want Patrisse to be abandoned by her family, too. They are awkward and quiet, and then Patrisse starts telling Naomi about Cheyenne (the basketball player she is dating) and how they talk about spirituality, read books about race and gender, and share poetry—they are each other’s world. Naomi starts to understand, and Patrisse leaves feeling strong.
Here, Patrisse is again pointing to how queer Black people face discrimination from multiple angles. Naomi doesn’t want Patrisse to come out as queer because she knows firsthand how hard it is to face harassment for both her race and her sexuality.
Patrisse starts to bring Cheyenne back to her home, which is challenging because Patrisse and her family have moved into Bernard’s mother’s one-bedroom apartment after being evicted with little notice. Bernard’s mother sleeps in the bedroom, and Patrisse, Jasmine, Cherice, and Bernard sleep in sleeping bags on the living room floor (Paul has moved out, and Monte is in prison). Patrisse wants a normal life, so she invites Cheyenne over and they act oblivious to the awkwardness—they love each other so much.
That Patrisse’s family is forced—by nature of being evicted with little notice—to fit five people into a one-bedroom apartment is yet another example of how Black people are affected by multiple forms of oppression (in this case systemic poverty), not just racism. Patrisse leans on Cheyenne at this time—yet another way that she tries to heal in a world that makes it difficult for Black people (and particularly queer Black people) to do so.
Patrisse and Cheyenne feel protected in the classroom where queer kids hang out at Cleveland, but in the outside world, they face homophobia. Still, they stay together, even when Cheyenne drops out of school. She is poor and doesn’t have support getting to school, eating meals, or doing her homework. As for Naomi, she eventually moves in with her father, which helps with her depression. (Queer people whose families reject them are at a high risk of committing suicide.)
Again, Patrisse is highlighting how she and Cheyenne struggle to navigate various types of oppression as two queer Black women growing up in poverty. Patrisse shares the fact that queer people whose families reject them are much more likely to commit suicide to show that, like racism and poverty, homophobia can have fatal consequences.
Carla is kicked out of her home during their junior year, and Patrisse is sick of sharing a one-bedroom apartment with four people. So, they start staying at the homes of their different friends or else sleeping in Carla’s car. When they graduate, their teacher Donna Hill invites them to live with her temporarily, but they stay for years. Though they both work (Patrisse at Rite Aid and as a dance teacher), Donna doesn’t ask them to pay for rent or food. She teaches them meditation and what it means to live in intentional community, and she becomes Patrisse’s first spirit guide. She doesn’t want to change them or their queerness, just offer support. (Though Patrisse and Donna lost touch with Cheyenne, they remain close to this day.)
Unlike other adults in Patrisse’s life, Donna fully accepts Patrisse for the queer young woman that she is, showing her that it’s possible to build loving and healing community even in the face of racism and police violence. In addition to building a queer community at Cleveland, Patrisse is now building chosen family with Donna as a guide, showing her what it can look like to heal in community.
One other important person joins Patrisse’s community in high school: Mark Anthony, the man who will become her first husband. Patrisse has never been attracted to a cisgender heterosexual man before. Yet, when she meets him as the 12th-grade TA for his 11th-grade class, she can’t help but notice his beauty: he’s tall and light-skinned, and he has green eyes. They take the bus after school one day and talk about literature and music, and how they both enjoy journaling. Everyone in their presence can feel the energy between them, but for many years, they channel it into friendship. One day in high school, Patrisse helps him with a photography project about masculinity, and Carla takes a photo of them together, fists raised and hands held, looking out toward their shared destiny.
Patrisse will go on to describe the ups and downs of her relationship with Mark Anthony in later chapters, but here she establishes that he will play an important role in her life. That they connect while Mark Anthony works on a piece about masculinity shows that he is also interested in looking at the intersections of identities—in his case, what it means to be both male and Black.