J. Christopher Neal is an artist, educator, youth leadership professional, and community organizer. He’s the founder of FluidBiDesign, a New York-based organization serving the needs of sexually fluid people of African descent through MenKind, a support and discussion group for men, online community, and cultural programming. His brilliant artwork can be seen in the historic anthology, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men (Bisexual Resource Center), which I co-edited with Robyn Ochs. In 2015, Heritage of Pride, which produces the annual New York City LGBT Pride Festival, selected him as one of four grand marshals. It was the first time in the history of the world’s oldest LGBT pride festivals that a bisexual grand marshal was chosen. A surprising milestone considering Brenda Howard, a bisexual woman, was one of the principal organizers of the first LGBT pride march to commemorate the riots at the Stonewall Bar, riots that sparked the modern LGBT movement.
In this powerful interview recorded over the weekend, Chris Neal reflects upon his experience as a grand marshal, LGBT movement politics, and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. I’ve known Chris for a couple of years now and had no doubt that he would bring his honesty, critical thinking, humility, and passion. He says things in this interview that will undoubtedly make more than a few people uncomfortable. His disruptive ideas are important to present during a time when liberals use political correctness and fear of a Trump presidency to silence dissenting progressive voices.
For people who thought that Azealia Banks was the only bad ass Black bisexual out here willing to challenge, provoke, and resist, it is probably time to recognize there’s more going on here than they’ve realized.
You were the first publicly identified bisexual to serve as grand marshal in the history of the Heritage of Pride. What was it like being Black, male, and sexually fluid and making history in that why?
I felt honored because I was aware of the challenges of bi invisibility and the challenges of the bi and fluid community to be recognized as an equal part under the LGBT tent and I was also aware of the local and national struggle to get Heritage of Pride to recognize bi folks in their events. So I understood the importance of that moment. I was also aware of the marginalized needs and agenda of people of color. The LGBT community exists in the same paradigm as the rest of the society and so there’s the same marginalization of the needs of people of color in health, welfare, violence etc. We have disparities when measured against other LGBT people.
That sounds like a lot to have on your shoulders. What did you feel holding all of that?
I felt a degree of accountability but it wasn’t necessarily difficult for me because as an African-American male who has taken on leadership in my community I’m used to being accountable for the outcomes of an endeavor that is supposed to bring about some change or impact my community. So I didn’t mind that piece. I did feel some pressure because it felt like a fluke. I hadn’t been actively a part of the LGBT community at all, even starting my organization, FluidBiDesign, which I didn’t consider a part of the LGBT community.
So to be asked to be the grand marshal was a complete surprise when there were many other leaders in the bi community who had been various kinds of work for longer periods of time that I felt would have been a better representation of the community. I think the fact that I was new to the community and had less political baggage than some other people contributed to the decision to choose me.
I took it as an opportunity, however. I decided whenever I had a microphone that weekend I was going to use it to broaden the conversation around identity, to bring up fluidity and the disparities of bi-identified people compared to other people under the LGBT tent. I was going to talk about white supremacy. Talk about race, culture, and the history of the march, which begins with the actions of a trans Latina and trans Black person at Stonewall even though the pride parade and festival can appear on the surface to be very much about a celebration of gay white folks.
You mentioned that your organization, FluidBiDesign, is not for you a part of the LGBT community. Talk more about what the organization is and why you don’t see it as a part of the LGBT community.
The best way to talk about that is to reflect back on what you said earlier about it being a year since I was grand marshal. I’ve received a number of calls from people asking me what are FluidBiDesign and I doing for Pride.
The bottom line is that the men who seek out FluidBiDesign and in particular its main project, MenKind, are men who don’t necessarily identify with being gay or LGBT, or even bi. Some of them are at various places along their journey. MenKind is intentionally designed to be an inclusive space for them. We don’t meet in an LGBT space. MenKind invites Black men to share their experiences wherever they are along the sexual continuum or bisexual spectrum.
Marching as a group is not happening this year because the group consists of men who identify as straight, gay, bisexual, as well as men who don’t identify with any label at all. FluidBiDesign/MenKind is a support and advocacy community for sexually fluid men of African descent and that is definitely a shout-out to the bi community and sexual fluidity. But the focus of the group is to empower Black men through engaging in conversations about masculinity, manhood, and myths. We talk about culture, politics, social structures, how those things intersect, and how we, Black men, show up in our communities as leaders and as men. So we don’t focus on the sexuality but instead use the concept of fluidity to broaden our understanding of humanity and the possibilities that it creates.
We use sexual fluidity as a point of access, not as a central focus of what we do and why we do it. I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart from a lot of other organizations with which I began to become familiar when I was grand marshal. I met a lot of people whose entire identity is their sexuality and they lead with that identity front and center in their interactions with others. For me, I don’t lead with my sexuality as my identity. I lead with being Black, male, and my humanity and then my sexuality. And that’s how MenKind is structured as well. We deal with our Blackness, maleness, humanity, and our sexual fluidity in that order.
Do you believe that approach identity common in Black community or something that is unique to Black men who are sexually fluid?
I would venture to say it’s common in the Black community. Most people of African descent, most Black folks are very clear about their Blackness, very clear about their gender, very clear about their humanity and then their sexuality comes after that. Part of the reason why I structured our approach to identity in the way that I have is to create an alignment with Black community. We weren’t interested in creating something that would set sexually fluid people apart from other members of the Black community but instead to say we are a part of this community, we have something to offer, and we are leading with a sense of what we need to do as a people, as a Black community, to encourage our better humanity. And toward that mission it doesn’t matter nearly as much as who any of us decides to sleep with.
Tell me how your day started the morning of the Pride march.
The day started with getting the FluidBiDesign strategy team together. We went down to the parade route for the early press stuff. There were four grand marshals there. Various media people interviewed us about our points of view and what it means to be a grand marshal. I think I was interviewed by CNN. The media interviewed the young woman from Southern Africa who was also a grand marshal and me the least because the other grand marshals were two famous British actors. So of course, a lot of the media attention as on them but I really appreciated having the opportunity to talk about what it felt like to be the first publicly identify bisexual to be a grand marshal. I could talk about visibility and marginalization within the LGBT tent as the B is silenced. I would still say a year later the B is still silenced.
The parade organizers assigned us a car and handler who made sure we had water and food. They told us where we were supposed to be. Then you go sit on the top of the car.
How did you end the night?
As a grand marshal, you have entry into all the clubs so later on in the evening I went to a few nightclubs wearing the bi flag like a cape. Engaged in the festivities. But it’s my belief that most sexually fluid people operate invisibly in the LGBT community and straight community. We’re usually doing our thing onto ourselves. I had never been one to go to the gay clubs. I had only been to one Pride parade before being grand marshal. Had never seen that as being representative of me or about me.
There is such a thing as gay culture. I went to three clubs. One was an Indian gay club, one was a Russian/Croatian club. They were exactly the same as any other gay club, they just had different color people in their videos. But the cultural thing was all the same. There’s a proliferation of a certain kind of idea of what it means to be other than straight that everybody seems to have embraced. And if you’re not that people look at you with a side-eye, because if you’re not that then what are you.
I think there are many people who are sexually fluid who may identify with queerness but don’t identify with gay culture or straight culture. They identify with fluidity as something very personal and unique. That’s why I created FluidBiDesign, for those folks who needed a cultural home.
Is there a bisexual or sexually fluid culture? If so, what does that look like?
I think that the beauty and curse of sexual fluidity. No there isn’t a particular kind of bisexual culture. Sexual fluidity is about a broadened view of humanity. It’s a belief that there are many ways to do this human being thing and many ways to do connection, relationship, affection, attractive, and love. There are different ways to show up in the world. So, for me, at the core of fluidity is the broadening of our idea of what humanity means. Fluidity is the breaking down and deconstructing all of these categories and saying no of this stuff holds to anybody’s experience. It just holds together niches for people to fit themselves into, often awkwardly.
Bisexuals should not be taking a page from the gay and lesbian playbook. We should be bringing to the table a conversation that says these various fragments of sexual identity are parts of a larger spectrum of humanity and way of being.
What does that look like in the context of LGBT movement politics?
It looks like disruption. It looks like being the disruptive force in the room that says, “why are we just thinking about it that way?” It looks like being strategically disruptive. Sexually fluid people should be the people in the room that when the conversation moves to one particular kind of dynamic or experience saying, “But there are multiple perspectives to be consider.”
It’s a year since your ride down 5th Avenue. Looking back at that experience and the 12 months since it happened, what do you think about the concept of LGBT Pride?
I think that strategically the primarily white gay and lesbian community understands that there’s strength in numbers. So I think the LGBTQ tent is just a way of coalescing all the people who are not straight and making sure they all get recognized for not being straight. But I found being the grand marshal to be slightly tokenist in the way they chose a bisexual grand marshal. They were very gracious for the moment and I don’t believe that now you’ll see significant numbers of bi folks being in the leadership of the LGBT community.
The massacre in the Orlando nightclub happened during LGBT Pride Month. What thoughts or feelings have you been having as things have unfolded?
The loss of 49 lives is tragic. Let me preface by saying that what I’m about to say may be slightly controversial. The thing I was listening to very closely was how the white LGBT community shaped the narrative. Pulse was a nightclub. They also had support groups that met there during the day. Everyone was talking about what a welcoming and loving community it was with joy and happiness, flowers and butterflies. My experiences of being in gay clubs isn’t that narrative. They are not that. I’ve experienced them as being very cliquey. There’s a lot that goes on in gay clubs that’s very marginalizing and soul murdering. If you’re not the right look or the right this or that, you get shaded, marginalized, treated like shit, and talked about. The same things you experience in the rest of the world, you experience in the gay club if you are different.
If it is the case that these spaces are not as safe as purported for reasons other than gun violence but because of social violence that happens in those spaces, then how do we transform them and should we transform them to be safer?
I think we have to transform these spaces because those are the spaces that most folks have. There’s always going to be a need for them. But we also need alternatives to the club. People are looking to do more than party, do drugs and have sex. They are looking to connect and those spaces don’t often provide that opportunity to connect at a level other than surface.
The clubs perpetuate an illusion of sameness. You see the half-naked body boys on all the flyers. Not even the marketing is really inclusive. When’s the last time you say an everyday brother with a little chubby stomach, a little hair on his chest on a gay poster? You don’t. When’s the last time you saw a full-figured woman on a gay poster for a club? You don’t. You see these very idealized, highly sexualized ideas of youthful gayness, which isn’t inclusive of a spectrum of people or representation.
A great deal of the LGBT community is still very marginalized, particularly LGBT people of color, and just like all marginalized people we’re nipping and biting at the margins and treating each other like crap. And no one is dealing with the system and the structure that keeps us fighting with each other. So transformation starts with having conversations about who the real enemy is.