As part of our partnership with A Vibe Called Tech—a creative agency operating at the intersection of Black creativity, culture, and innovation—we are collaborating with the magazine and digital platform Boy.Brother.Friend. In these three short stories, which will run in the magazine’s next issue, Jamaican-British author Paul Mendez looks at the how queerness and masculinity are embodied and perceived within the Black community.
Artwork by Alex Mein.
“It’s a simple question,’ says this guy on the table, the sort whose only Black acquaintances are security personnel and his local barista.”
It’s a busy Friday night shift and Boy’s gliding round the restaurant floor on rollerskates, pretending he’s Beyoncé in the “Blow” video. A lady with lank Chrissie Hynde-y hair stops him by the wrist as he passes her table.
“Is the mackerel fishy?”
It’s the way she says it so flirtatiously, like Mae West or something. Boy, in contrapposto, looks down at her quizzically. Her fringe laps at her eyelashes, her eyes rimmed in kohl.
“Are you questioning my gender?”
Hers is a table of six, all looking up at Boy with varying degrees of incredulity.
“No,” she says, in a measured tone.
“I mean, because drag queens use the term fishy to describe a queen who looks very womanlike.”
“I know. I have friends in New York who are drag queens.”
“So, I don’t get why you’re asking me if the mackerel’s fishy, as if you’re making a joke at my expense.”
“It’s a simple question,” says this guy on the table, the sort whose only Black acquaintances are security personnel and his local barista.
“It’s a fish, so, yes, it’s fishy. Are you ready to order?”
“But is it fishy-fishy?”
Boy crouches, buries his head in his hands and starts groaning. It’s 9:30pm and he’s been on shift for 10 hours, sustained by cigarettes, coffee and cocaine.
“Girl, please,” says the lady.
“So you are deliberately misgendering me!” Boy springs back to his feet. The expressions round the table now range from apologetic to slightly petrified. “I was assigned female at birth. My parents tried to put me through conversion therapy but gave up because I’m 100% that butch. They gave me the money for top surgery instead, and now I’m…happy.”
Boy spins away, nose in the air, and bumps right into the runner and her tray of glasses.
“At least she was interesting, unlike White Aunty, a HR manager. The manager who speaks to the manager.”
Brother eats his ackee and saltfish and hard dough bread in the front room, watching music videos. The same curry goat, rice and peas as a usual Sunday will be on offer later, just with extra heart and soul stirred in, and sides of fried chicken, red snapper and macaroni cheese. The cost of living crisis means no turkey, which only ever ends up being sandwiches for a week anyway.
An Astra coupé pulls up outside. A dark-skinned man in a bobbly-looking jardigan gets out, as does a blonde woman—Uncle and his wife, White Aunty. Nan’s been going on all morning about how Uncle’s worked himself up to store manager at a B&Q. They let themselves in and go straight into the kitchen to greet her. Two minutes later they come into the front room. Uncle is surprised to see Brother and barely shakes his hand.
“You remember White Aunty?” says Uncle, lowering himself into the armchair his father used to sit in, picking up the remote and switching over in the middle of “8 Days of Christmas,” right before Beyoncé performs her little hair flick.
“We’ve met once I think.” White Aunty occupies both hands settling her Karen Millen shades in her hair.
“We’ve been together for 18 years, now,” says Uncle, settling on a Premier League rerun.
“Oh, so there was some overlap?”
Brother still misses his uncle’s first wife, Goth. At least she was interesting, unlike White Aunty, a HR manager. The manager who speaks to the manager.
A British Red Cross appeal pops up on screen and both Uncle and White Aunty immediately text to donate. Brother imagines them waiting at the Polish border trying to escape Ukraine, White Aunty being accepted and Uncle being left behind because he’s Black.
“Do you donate when it’s Yemen or Afghanistan or Ethiopia?” says Brother, a monthly donor to Unicef.
“Those shitholes? No way,” says White Aunty.
“So, I hear you’re gay,” says Uncle, pushing his phone back in his pocket.
“Yeah?” says Brother.
“I interviewed a guy recently who was gay, which I’m okay with, you know, but then I asked him his thoughts on same-sex marriage and he wouldn’t reply, so I didn’t give him the job.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
“Gay marriage is legal,” says Uncle.
“You should know that,” says White Aunty.
“It’s illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their sexual orientation,” says Brother.
“If I’m going to give someone the keys to my business I at least need to trust them,” says Uncle.
“Your business? A branch of B&Q?”
“What would you have said then, smart arse?” White Aunty asks.
“That it was none of your business.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have got the job either,” says Uncle. “You’re behind the times, Brother. People don’t care if you’re gay anymore. Oh, thanks, mum.”
Nan gives Uncle and White Aunty their cups of tea off a tray.
“What is this I hear?” says Nan.
“Oh nothing, mum. I’m just explaining to Brother that he shouldn’t worry about being gay. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Nan spins to face Brother like a 10-year-old just learning attitude. She says, “Brother, are you gay? What about the girlfriend you had?” referring to the girl friend he brought round once.
“She was—is—my friend. And yes, I’m gay.”
She takes her tray and storms out of the room.
“You know there’s no such thing as racism,” says Uncle.
“You need to learn to respect your elders,” White Aunty tells Brother.
“The buzz of several sets of clippers runs like a blunt chainsaw through the Capital Xtra playlist.”
On a sunny Saturday afternoon at the barbershop, Friend is called to the chair. The buzz of several sets of clippers runs like a blunt chainsaw through the Capital Xtra playlist. Customers waiting around the sides mess around on their phones or eat pepper steak and rice from foam cartons as King Bitty, the shop owner, sweeps loose hair up. Lil Nas X’s “Rodeo (feat. Nas)” comes on.
“Battiman fi ded, man,” says a man in cap and shades, to no one in particular. The music stops. Friend, long fearful of homophobic attacks in barbershops, freezes. The place falls silent and dark, and a spotlight falls on the man in Chair 1.
Chair 1: When I read Frank Ocean’s Tumblr post, I realised it was time to start living my authentic life.
Chair 2: I paid my way through law school doing gay porn. No regrets.
Chair 3: If Nas is on a track with a gay rapper, I’m down.
Cap and Shades collapses to his knees. He writhes and jerks on the floor, foaming at the mouth.King Bitty, suddenly dressed in red velvet robes, strides into the middle of the room and starts beating Cap and Shades with a broom of palm branches.
“The devil is strong in you. Get out, I command you!”
The roadman’s body falls still. Everyone is looking at him with pity.
“As Black men, we preach tolerance,” says King Bitty to Cap and Shades as he stirs. “If you see something that’s none of your rahtid business, you smile, you wish that person a good day, and you show that person love, because that is a measure of your manliness, that you are able to rise above prejudice and show LOVE! EVERYBODY SAY LOVE!”
Cap and Shades gets up off his back and shakes himself down. The music and clipper buzzing starts again as if nothing happened. King Bitty is back in his overalls with his matted old brush. Tears spring to Friend’s eyes. “Girl” by Destiny’s Child comes on, and before long everyone is singing along in their flat baritones and wild tenors, even Cap and Shades: I’m your girl, you’re my girl, we’re your girls, don’t you know that we love ya!