Please allow me to introduce myself at the beginning of this hundred-day undertaking: my name is Jon Carl Lewis, and I identify as a queer/gay, Black, Christian, intellectual writer. I am cisgender and my pronouns are he/him/his. At the time of this writing I am approaching my mid-fifties and sort of smugly glad I haven’t reached the exact midpoint of that decade (I tell myself I have things I need to accomplish before then). I am transitioning spiritually from the first half of life to the second half of life, and I hope I’m doing it gracefully (see Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life).
Why is this all important?
Perhaps it’s not, in the greater scheme of things. Identity is all about personality, and personality is the face we present to the world, the mask behind which or deeper essence lies hidden (or, at least, that is what I believe). Nevertheless, as a human being seeking to understand God, the cosmos, humanity and myself, I must realize that I look at the world through lenses. Those lenses are colored by two things: (1) accidents of birth (or, alternatively understood, the way God made me), and (2) the experiences I have had as a result of those accidents of birth (or, alternatively understood, God’s providence and grace for me through life).
Although I believe all experience is subjective, I hope to come to as clear an understanding as I can of myself and the world beyond myself. Therefore, I hope to understand the colors of my lenses so I can “correct” for my subjective perception of what it is I am looking at.
This requires, first, taking stock of my location.
It also requires defining my terms. What one person may think of when confronted with my string of adjectives rests on their understanding of what the components of that string of adjectives mean. The burden is on me, therefore, to explain my understanding of those terms so that others can get a better sense of where I’m coming from. One can never assume that the pictures evoked by one’s self-identification are the same pictures others envision.
A story to illustrate how even accurate descriptions can cause confusion.
I came of age in the era of personal ads. When one wanted to find someone to date without going to places where people were, one took out an ad in the newspaper. Then one waited for a response to come in to the paper, and waited, again, for the paper to relay that response. As time went on, this system found ways of automation, but it still remained a relatively primitive and clunky system compared to the apps of today. Since space cost money, people who placed personal ads developed a convention of initials to identify what they looked like, how they identified and what they were looking for. The default setting was GWM seeks GWM, i.e. “gay, white man seeks gay, white man.” However generic this seems, it actually worked well for gay, white men who then assumed, in the absence of other identifying characteristics, that they had to at some point describe what kind of gay, white man they were and what type of gay, white man they were looking for.
This didn’t work for GBMs, i.e. “gay, Black men.” In my experience, people reading GBM seemed to assume they knew exactly what the “B” was supposed to mean. This didn’t work for me. Even though I was definitely gay and black, I had to wade through the assumptions of what kind of Black person I was. For one thing, I was socialized in a culture that was majority white. I did not have the luxury of belonging to what might have looked like a homogenous, Black culture, and so I didn’t fit the stereotypes or fantasies of Black men that others (black, white or other) were expecting. Men either responded to my ads talking about their love of jazz and basketball (neither of which I could be said to love or even understand) or, looking for someone more culturally or racially similar, didn’t even bother to consider that my acculturation might have been more similar to theirs than they expected. That’s when I hit on the phrase “gay, white man… of color.” At best this would telegraph to other men that I was culturally indistinct from most gay, white men, but that my skin tone and hair suggested a different aesthetic reality. Another good outcome would be raising enough questions in the mind of the personal ad reader that they would contact me just to see what, exactly, I was trying to describe.
And that is what I am doing here, and now.
I’ve strung together a list of adjectives that I believe accurately describe the reality of me, mindful that—despite my accuracy—many people may actually get the wrong idea of what I’m about and what my life is like. Therefore, in subsequent reflections I will unpack how I understand the various facets of my identity and try to understand how they color not only how I see the world, but how the world sees me.
I invite you along on this journey.
I promise that I will have stories to tell!