Errol Nelson lined up bags of his clothes and belongings by the front door of his Sarasota home. He was 16 at the time and preparing an escape to his best friend’s house.
“Mom, I need to talk to you,” he said, sitting down on the living room couch. The lump that formed in his throat, he said, was a feeling he’d never forget.
As the words left his lips, his emotions flooded out through tears. He was gay.
Errol’s mother reacted with love and acceptance—he wouldn’t need to escape after all. But she also showed concern. Being openly gay in America is not easy, she told him, but being a gay Black man adds another layer of discrimination.
“She wasn’t hurt by the sense that I was gay. She was hurt by the way the world would perceive me—a young Black man who now also had this added human difference,” he said.
His mother, Kimberly, said she remembers the moment, too. She started to cry.
“I wasn’t crying because I was angry,” she said. “I was crying because I didn’t want his life to be any harder than it needed to be.”
His father wasn’t as quick to accept his sexual orientation as his mother, he said. In his father’s eyes, being a Black man meant being masculine and tough. Errol said these beliefs aren’t uncommon in the Black community.
“A lot of the African American male dichotomy has to do with masculinity and toughness, and that's part of the reason why my father is so shy about the fact that I'm queer,” he said.
Kimberly said she yelled, screamed and prayed for her son’s father to accept him.
“As a parent, you must love your child unconditionally,” she said. “I told him it doesn’t matter who he loves. You must love him.”
While his father was negative about his identity, his mother, stepfather, grandmother and aunt have filled the void he left with love and acceptance. This support group calls itself the “superfriends,” Kimberly said.
Errol is now 27 and a history and art history Spring 2020 UF graduate. He said he’s fully embraced his identity.
Despite his “Gator get-up-and-go” drive to be the best version of himself he can be, his journey hasn’t always been easy. Errol has wondered at times if his gay identity has made it easier for white society to accept him as a Black man.
“Oftentimes, I feel that people accept me because it's quite easy to be friends with a gay Black guy, but would you be as welcoming or as willing to approach if I presented more straight?” he said.
Errol has witnessed this reaction from his peers in his social life.
“People react to me when I walk in, and they get scared because I’m a bigger African American male,” he said. “They tense up and wonder what I’m doing there. And then, the ‘Hey girl’ rolls out of mouth, and you see that queerness makes the girls’ shoulders relax.”
However, he said when he’s around members of the Black community, his mannerisms and sexual orientation are met with puzzled faces and disappointed looks.
Sometimes his Black identity and his gay identity have a strange position in their respective communities, he said. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, at times, see him only as a Black man. He said he feels the Black community has labeled him as weak because of his sexual orientation.
“In the Black community, your queerness means that you're not tough enough,” Errol said. “You’re not man enough, you’re a little bit less than.”
Fortunately, he said he feels that the lines between the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights have been blurred for the better.
“The fight for Black trans lives is the same fight as Black Lives Matter,” Errol said. “It's all about intersectionality and realizing where we as a society have oppressed, suppressed and shoved aside certain sections of our population, and I absolutely want to remind people that we have the current liberation movement because of Black trans women and Black queer women.”
Despite his confidence in his identity, he said he’s felt like an outsider in his classes. In his graduating history class, he said he noticed no more than five peers were Black.
His interest in art history led him to an internship at the Harn Museum during the Spring. There, he dedicated his time to the Day Without Art Campaign, a movement to raise awareness for the AIDS crisis.
Day Without Art features pieces that highlight the effects that HIV/AIDS have had on the LGBTQ+ community, especially LGBTQ+ communities of color, Errol said. He did extensive research on these effects from the 1980s to now and believes HIV/AIDS is an issue that society should continue to discuss.
His love for museums stems from his passion for education. To Errol, no one should stop learning once they leave the classroom.
Kimberly said she wasn’t surprised by her son’s affinity for the museum industry because of his love for learning. She joked that when Errol was grounded as a child, she would take away his books instead of toys.
“I can't say that I'm surprised that he's been in a different mainstream or had a different level of success than most academic, young Black men would have,” she said. “It doesn't surprise me because he's always been so different and so unique.”
To her, his positive outlook in the face of adversity has allowed him to succeed.
“It always surprises me that Errol can pull himself up by the bootstraps at the last minute and say, ‘Woohoo! Look at where I am,’” she said.
Future: Truth and Reconciliation
Despite his adoration for museums, Errol feels the industry must diversify and address its own controversial roots.
“They are actually born off of a white supremacy paradigm,” he said. “The first museum collections were from wealthy white looters and colonists who would take artifacts without really understanding the cultural relevance to them.”
Errol believes that the industry must welcome and amplify diverse voices to encourage conversations about race and sexual orientation. He said he takes great pride in his ability to be one of these voices—one that may have been silenced in the past.
Next year, he will attend Virginia Commonwealth University to pursue a master’s degree in art history and museum studies. There, he hopes to continue to educate his peers and encourage important conversations about diversity and inclusion.
While there have been obstacles in his path to success, Errol said he believes that he’s not a victim to be pitied. However, he said members of the Black community have to put in more work than their counterparts to reach their goals.
“I feel like I’m being propped up as an example of what a Black academic is like supposed to be, and I think that culture is really crippling in academia,” he said. “Systemic racism has creeped in in all sorts of ways, especially in hiring practices or people having lowered expectations of you because you're Black.”
Lonnie G. Bunch III is the current Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution as well as the first African American to serve in this position. Errol hopes to one day follow in his footsteps.
“History has the great power not to erase the past but look to truth and reconciliation,” Errol said. “I think that's the move that most historians are looking for. And I think that art history also has a role to play in this: If we include voices that have been traditionally excluded from the museum field, we can start to interpret these statues and these legacies in different ways.”
While Errol has become a decorated scholar, becoming a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and receiving a full ride to VCU, perhaps his greatest achievement is educating others. His mother believes he has continuously expanded her worldview and has encouraged her to view others without judgement.
“In my business, I see people every day,” Kimberly said. “I'm not so quick to judge what's going on with them and try to look at all angles. I could see this person, and I'm not sure which pronoun I should use for them, so I ask. And I learned this from my very own son.”