By Mary Niederberger
“People made me believe I was born wrong.”
Pittsburgh author Brian Broome has become famous for his memoir about the difficulties of growing up as a queer Black boy in small town Ohio and living in a family that demanded from him the masculinity he never felt.
The memoir, Punch Me Up to the Gods, has received glowing reviews from national publications such as the New York Times and was awarded the prestigious Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction in October.
But on Wednesday, Broome took time to share his story with perhaps a more important audience – young people who may be living similar versions of his life – high school students from Gender Sexuality Alliances (GSA) and Black Student Unions across the Pittsburgh Public Schools. About 150 students attended the event at Brashear High School, where it was sponsored by the Brashear GSA.
He spoke of the “dual pressures of being Black and queer” of experiencing racism and homophobia at the same time. He also said Black men are pressured to appear unfailingly masculine and never show emotion.
He described how his father beat him for not being masculine enough and read a difficult passage from his book about the beatings.
“The book is about shame and shame is the way people control you,” Broome told the students.
The trauma eventually made him suicidal.
“I’ve been in more psych wards than you can count. I had suicidal ideation. I did drugs and alcohol. It sounds weird to say I’m so glad I didn’t kill myself because I wouldn’t be around to experience all of the good things I have going on now,” said the 51 year old.
In addition to the publication of his book and the Kirkus Prize, which provided a $50,000 cash award, Broome said there are discussions about turning his book into a movie and he said he’s had meetings with television executives, including actress Tessa Thompson. “I think the next project will be a film or television project,” he said.
Broome advised the students to remove from their life the people who do not accept them. “I wish a lot of people in my life had just let me be the hell alone,” he said.
“People made me believe I was born wrong. If you are gay and someone makes you feel uncomfortable in your own body, they win. Don’t let them win.”
At the conclusion of Broome’s talk, moderator Tavius Laney asked students if the pressure to be masculine still existed for young Black men. Heads in the audience nodded in the affirmative.
The floor was then opened for student questions.
When a student asked Broome to describe his “all-time high and all-time low,” the author told the story of the morning he woke up after a night of drinking in a dog house next to its occupant. He staggered into a Shadyside backyard after leaving the bars.
“I went out and got completely wrecked…I woke up and there was a dog growling in my ear.”
That was his all-time low and an event that prompted a good friend to pull away from him. He said the friend told him:“You’re gonna die and I don’t want to be there to watch it.”
Boome’s all-time high was winning the Kirkus Prize. “It offset waking up in the doghouse for me.”
A student asked Broome how he dealt with racism in the LGBTQ community. Broome said he quickly realized that racist people exist in all groups. “I tell any racist person, ‘Kiss my a..”
Another student asked Broome how he was able to “cut people out of your life.”
Broome said it was more difficult to cut ties with family members but he eventually did. He advised students to “be very clear with people” about why they are being cut out.
Broome was asked by another student about the difficulty of not being able to tell his straight friends that he was attracted to other boys.
In his answer, he described the traditional trajectory for straight students: They start school, eventually learn to flirt with the opposite gender then start to date in high school.
“For gay people it doesn’t happen that way. You have to suppress a lot of your thinking or lie. So yeah it was very hard to not be able to express myself in any way shape or form. That’s how I learned to lie about myself all the time. So yeah, it was pretty stressful.”
The last, and most poignant question, came from a student who described himself as a trans man who faces rejection at home.
“I’ve experienced a lot of stuff growing up with not being in the right body. It’s just been hard. I’ve had to deal with my step dad saying I’m not man enough. Do you have any advice for dealing with toxic parents?”
Broome had no suggestions for dealing with the parents.
But he offered this advice: “The only thing I can say is to endure until you can get out. And it’s so easy for me to sit up here at this stage and say that. I hate to use that cliche ‘It gets better’ but it really can. I am living proof.
“This is someone who is a cocaine addict and a drunk…with an abusive background and it got better. I just had to ride it out.”