I Feel Safe On TikTok. As a Queer Black Man in Iowa, I Need That.

Growing up in Davenport, Iowa, Anania Williams (21) always felt like an outsider as a queer Black man. Moving to Boston changed everything: he could finally explore identity…and he discovered TikTok. Williams—who goes by anania00 on the social media app—now has 1.9 million followers, who flock to him for fun queer-friendly videos about drag, sex, and dating. He also uses his platform to advocate for social justice, including speaking out against the murders of Black transgender women. On TikTok, he’s unapologetically himself, no matter what he’s doing—a privilege he never had when living in Iowa.

I DON’T KNOW if there was a day where I was like, “Hmmm, I want to join TikTok.” My best friend Taryn was sending me so many TikToks. And eventually, I just had to get my own account. And then, there was a blackout on the app, a blackout being an app-wide protest to amplify Black voices on the app. This was around the time [of] George Floyd—honestly, I think about either a week before or week after that incident. I posted this video of me screaming, and it got some traction.

When I started [on] TikTok, it would be [only] information-based. I didn’t bring my comedy into what I was speaking about. But as soon as I did, I started liking it more. The only thing that truly helps me is the ability to laugh and to make other people laugh.

I’m so grateful for the gift of laughter building me a platform because I’m able to share with people things that are going on with my life and connect with people [over] what’s going on in theirs. [And] make something that I’m proud of. I’m proud that I’m able to talk about my intersection of being a queer and being Black but also relate to people for a 15-second [or] 60-second video.

I’ve only been doing drag for about six months [starting] in January. It’s such a fun journey. I love makeup, and the expression I get to do through it. I [don’t] think of drag as female impersonation, because that’s not necessarily what I’m doing. I think of it as: I get to represent some thoughts that I have in my head … of what I could look like and put it on my face. I started in Boston because I can never do drag back home.

GROWING UP IN Iowa, I was always scared to feel anything different than what the default is. To feel anything other than: “I am going to be with a woman. I am going to marry a woman. And that’s going to be my truth.” As I matured, I started realizing that more and more, I was feeling stuck being with women, and I wanted to explore more. As soon as I came to college, I was in a space that was welcoming enough for me to be whatever and whoever I want it to be. I was able to feel more comfortable in my queer identity.

I grew up with really religious parents. [They] don’t know that I am queer. It’s hard. Behind your childhood home door, you might have to code-switch a little bit. But as soon as you walk right back out, you get to breathe. To take a moment for myself to come back into who I want to be—to who I am. The hardest thing is I don’t want to lie. I’m not lying to my parents. I’m not lying to anyone around the town who might pass judgment upon me for being queer. It’s a matter of protection and feeling safe at any given moment when you walk out the door.

What helps me [being] comfortable [in my identity] is the fact that my parents and I were never close growing up. I’ve found family elsewhere, while being queer, and I’m happy to show my full authentic self to those who I know deserve that. It’s no secret that I’m queer; I could care less what my parents’ input might be.

The biggest thing I do for self-care [at home] is to self-soothe as much as possible. I would talk to myself and [wrestle] with the fact that if I don’t feel good: Why don’t I? It was because I was holding myself back from just expressing myself. So whenever I feel as though someone’s dampening my expression back home in Iowa, I remind myself to talk to myself and put myself back into who Anania really is. Everyone back home calls me AJ—that’s my nickname. I hate it, but it’s a good way to compartmentalize. When I’m back home, I’m AJ. But when I’m alive, when I’m breathing, I’m Anania.

When it comes to Iowa, I belong there for the simplicity of it. I think a lot of times people get scared of how vast [Midwestern states are] and how truly simple life gets there. There’s less semantics when it comes to living. It’s more about the big three: shelter, food, and water. I really do miss that, especially when I’m in the city. It gets a little too busy for me, and I like when it’s quiet … I can see the sunset, [that] kind of thing. In that respect, I belong in Iowa. But I know I can never settle down there or have a home there … there [are] too many people with closed mindsets.

I can’t force myself to educate people around me about the things that come as common sense to me. I shouldn’t have to teach people about the validity of Black people, of queer people, or anyone else in my intersection. And I can’t bring myself to force anyone in my immediate community to do that too.

WHEN IT COMES to being in queer [spaces], I struggle. It feels as though the queer community thinks they owe so much to white predecessors. They feel that white people have created the queer identity, white people have built up the queer name in a positive light when that’s simply not true. And while yes, there [have] been many contributions by white people—I’m not diminishing any of that—people forget where the roots come from; where creativity within the queer community comes from. That pisses me off a little bit. It makes me upset to know that a white gay man will take so much credit for a thing a Black femme woman, Black femme person, or a Black woman … has made or a person of color has made. It’s sickening to see how, in the queer community, if you are white, you are white first, and then you’re queer. People put too much credit on white people when it comes to queer liberation.

In the Black community, we struggle with accepting people different from being cis or being straight. Black people have a really close relationship to religion because of slavery and years of transgressions. We have built the church to be a safe space for us, and it’s passed through tradition. [But], now it almost makes being queer, a stigma that no one can get beyond.

There’s a theory going around that Black men and white women have the same amount of privilege. And I agree to [an] extent. At the end of the day, Black men flow on top of the hard work that Black women, Black nonbinary people, Black queer men put into the ether for us to be liberated. It’s hard seeing my people [and] my family so hateful towards people in the queer community.

I FEEL LIKE I’ve made an account where I can just post whatever I want, and people are gonna support me, and I’ll support them right back. A lot of my inspiration [is from]…my inner demons trying to have a sense of humor. But I [also] think it comes from a lot of Black comedians, too. Sometimes when I do feel lonely, I watch stand-up. I watch anything that will make me laugh because I feel I’m a part of whatever I’m watching. If I’m going through something, I’ll put on a Kevin Hart video and I’ll laugh along with the audience. [That] makes me feel a little bit better; I’m not alone. That’s [where] a lot of my humor comes from, but I also pride myself that my humor comes from place[s] of experience, irony, and satire. I like how most of my jokes have to make you think, but I also like how I can just be dumb for a second and rip out a laugh from someone I don’t know.

I’m so happy that this is the first pride that I’m out. [I’m] proud of myself for making it this far in my career. I trust myself to stay on the right track. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days where I struggle. And I think that’s something that helps people gravitate towards me is that they see that I’m not perfect, and I never want to be that way.

With pride this month … I want to make content that is celebratory; that … puts a smile on my face, and encourages other people to be happy about who they are. The best thing that I’ve been able to do so far is to give visibility to people who don’t necessarily want a label. I keep going between queer or bi or pan or whatever. [But], that’s what we’re allowed to do as queer people. We’re allowed to feel what we want to feel and love who we want to love and we shouldn’t have restrictions on that.

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