“Iola:” A Conversation With Zaylan Washington on Intersectionality

This week, I want to talk about intersectionality. More specifically, the intersectionality of black, queer people and how we have to balance our intersectionality on a daily basis. In any space that black, queer people navigate, there is a hyper-awareness that most of us automatically assume in regards to how we are being perceived. 

Growing up, my parents would always tell me to watch how I act, fearful that if my blackness occupied too much space, the repercussions would break my spirit forever. And, as for my queerness, through many traumatic events, I learned to do the same. You get the memo. Not every space is accepting, and I had to adapt. 

When thinking about this “tight rope” that black, queer people walk every day, it allows me and my peers to reflect on what we are doing that puts us in this complicated position. By talking about this topic, I hope to reveal the behaviors and actions that need to be stopped in order for everyone to be able to traverse any space freely. 

“Iola” was a newspaper column created by the iconic Ida B. Wells. This trailblazer dedicated her life to fighting for the equality of her people, mainly through the power of words. I hope to honor Wells’ memory in continuing her fight for equality, continuing her unapologetic methods and continuing her newspaper article, “Iola.” 

Zaylan Washington is a first-year student from Atlanta, Georgia. 

Joseph Vann: What was your highschool experience like in regards to your race and queerness? 

Zaylan Washington: Being multicultural and being mixed, there’s always that connotation of never fitting in with the white kids or never fitting in with the black kids. For me, I never really had that experience. I was friends with mostly everyone, but I do know that my school had issues. When I was class president senior year, I had to deal with those issues and it was very apparent then how rampant the racism and homophobia was. It was very out in the open. We even had violent attacks due to said bigotry, so we had to set up programs to try to make sure they wouldn’t happen again (but you can’t stop everything). So, I never had an experience where bigotry was acted upon me, but in my position of power as class president, I could see it everywhere. 

Vann: Coming to Bates, have you experienced or seen the struggles that you saw in high school? 

Washington: At this school, I have not necessarily experienced anything myself. Well, I will say people have their prejudices here. And a lot of that, I think, comes from ignorance. They stereotype you and assume things so, for me, these have been the main issues that I have dealt with. People make back-handed comments and you’re just like, “ok… .” But then there’s Blind Tiger, and you see comments on there, and you’re quite scared and concerned for why you’re still at this school. So, once again, nothing has been committed against me, but I definitely know it happens. 

Vann: In the spaces you’ve occupied on campus so far, have you been able to embrace all the identities that make up your intersectionality? 

Washington: So far I’ve been able to experience my intersectionality to the fullest. In some spaces like, for example the Outfront group, I guess you could say in those moments I felt separated, but I wasn’t actively thinking about that. It was more like this was a space for me and others who are like me, so I’m going to be here. This is actually an interesting question because I brought this up in one of my classes when we were talking about whether the solution to being happy is separating your identities.

Vann: Switching gears into a broader scope, in the gay community there are a lot of problems concerning racism, have you even been at the receiving end of these problems? 

Washington: I’ve never really seen gay people having prejudices on black people, I would say a lot of times the gay community is guilty of imitating black culture. And, in that sense, I’ve seen that on social media, in day to day life, where you have white gay people twisting the societal structures that we have in place to try and feel oppressed. They take and imitate black culture in order to feel like they’re a part of black culture and a part of the oppression and the history that comes along with being black. So, in that sense, I have been noticing lately the imitation done by white gays. I’ve also seen a lot of white gay people, and even gay, non-black people of color, assume that black men cannot be gay. They assume that because black men aren’t a certain type of gay, there’s no chance that they could be gay. This is a big issue that really irks me because there is already a homophobia that is built into the black community. Trying to force black gay men into these boxes makes it even harder for younger black queer people, who don’t fit in those boxes, to come out versus young white queer people. 

Vann: You touched on this a bit in the last question, but there are a lot of problems with homophobia in the black community. Have you seen that in your own life being black and queer? 

Washington: I have met a lot of straight black males that are very homophobic, but in my family, the straight black males have been very accepting. I would paint my nails and they would ask me why, and after saying that I just like to do it, they supported me.