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The historic roots of homophobia in black America

President Obama's recent endorsement of same-sex marriage -- supported by a host of black celebrities, public figures, religious leaders and notables -- is presented as evidence of progress in the black community regarding gay rights. Nationally, the politics of gay rights is rapidly changing. Yet, as some black clergy have expressed their opposition to the president's "evolution" on the issue, the media have focused on the recurring theme of black homophobia.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

22nd May 2012 13:21

Alessia Valenza | ILGA North America

While the African-Americans and LGBT communities have each experienced a legacy of oppression and a struggle for equality that shares some similarities, resentment has existed between the two groups. Some elements of the black community have resisted, even resented the comparison between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, viewing homosexuality as a lifestyle choice if not a sin. Meanwhile, voices from the white-dominated gay community have singled out black homophobia as a problem in American life.

That rift was once again brought to light when it was reported that black voters in North Carolina voted for Amendment 1 — which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman — by a 2-to-1 margin. Ultimately, the measure won with 61 percent of the vote, prompting Gov. Bev Perdue to say she was embarrassed, and that the vote made the state "look like Mississippi."

Similarly, in 2008, when California passed the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, 70 percent of blacks voted in favor according to one poll, compared to 53 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of whites and 49 percent of Asians.

A recent Pew poll found that 49 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage in 2012, while 67 percent disapproved in 2008. Today, according to the survey, 43 percent of whites and 43 percent of all Americans oppose such marriages.

CNN anchor Don Lemon believes that the black community is not accepting of gays. "It’s quite different for an African-American male," he told the New York Times last year, "It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture."

Although part of the rift between blacks and gays is attributed to religion, religion is only part of the story. Even as some black clergy have engaged in gay-bashing from the pulpit, LGBT people — whether open or in the closet — are no strangers to the black church, whether as parishioners, choir directors or members, organists or pastors. Not unlike the Catholic Church, the black church has been no stranger to sexual repression, homophobia, sexphobia and sexual abuse.

The sexual scandal involving Atlanta mega church pastor Bishop Eddie Long and several of his young male parishioners was a teachable moment that exposed hypocrisy in the black church. Moreover, the church’s failure to grapple with sexuality and the rise of HIV infection and AIDS among young, black gay and bisexual men has not helped promote a constructive dialogue.

Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.

"Without an understanding of the deep hurt that black men have around issues of masculinity and their role as a man, you can’t hope to eliminate anti-homosexual sentiment in black men," says Cleo Manago, founder of the Black Men’s Xchange, a community-based movement of gay and bisexual black men. Manago says there should be a national project to address the psychic damage that white supremacy has done to black men, but that whites are tired of discussions about racism.

"Black men, from the very first moment they were brought to this country, were criminalized and stigmatized. Black virility was prized because it could ensure that there would be more slaves, but it was also something to be feared. Black men watched their fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and friends castrated, whipped, raped and beaten, and ‘drawn and quartered,’ often to ‘break’ black men and bend them to the will of White people," he added.

Manago rejects the claims from predominantly white gay organizations such as GLAAD that black people are more homophobic than others, noting the media attention paid to anti-gay remarks made by black celebrities, as white personalities are given a pass for making similar remarks. His comments counter those of white gay journalist Dan Savage, who placed blame for the success of California’s Proposition 8 with African-Americans.

"I’m done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there–and they’re out there, and I think they’re scum–are a bigger problem for African-Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African-Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color," Savage said.

Others have deflected the blame placed on black voters. For example, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight said Prop 8 reflected more of a generational split than a racial matter, with support from older voters making the difference. In addition, failure of the LGBT community to reach out to churchgoers and communities of color has been cited as a reason for failure at the ballot box.

In a story in Racialicious, Monica Roberts noted that the poll measuring black support for the California ballot measure was flawed and its numbers inflated, a position confirmed by the San Francisco Chronicle. Further, blacks, who are outnumbered, and a small percentage of the state population, cannot be blamed for the success of the initiative, which was also bankrolled by the Mormon Church.

"Every time I’m watching TV I see predominately white ministers such as James Dobson, other white fundamentalists, white dominated anti equality [organizations] and peeps like Tony Perkins leading the anti gay charge," Roberts said.

Similarly, in North Carolina — where the same sex marriage ban was recently approved — blacks are only 21.5 percent of the population and whites are nearly 70 percent. One poll said blacks supported the Amendment by 51 percent, lower than the two-to-one margin originally reported, and significantly below overall statewide support of the measure. The vote took place during the Republican presidential primary, where older, more conservative voters participated.

Another reason for the rift between blacks and the LGBT community has been the historic lack of synergy and inclusion regarding blacks and the gay rights movement. Bayard Rustin, an openly gay black man who organized the 1963 March on Washington was a pivotal figure and master strategist in the civil rights movement. Yet, he met resistance from black leaders, and did not receive his just due because of his sexual orientation.

Outside groups have created a rift as well. For example, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI persecuted homosexuals and suspected gays, just as COINTELPRO divided and destroyed civil rights organizations and their leaders. Today, the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) — designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — has conducted a national anti-gay marriage campaign to exploit communities of color, as SPLC reports.

"The strategic goal of this project," NOM said, "is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies. We aim to find, equip, energize and connect African-American spokespeople for marriage; to develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; and to provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots."
Further, their strategy to make inroads in the Latino community is to "gather and connect a community of artists, athletes, writers, beauty queens and other glamorous non-cognitive elites."

Organizations such as the NAACP, and leaders such as Ben Jealous, Julian Bond, Rep. John Lewis and the late civil rights icon Coretta Scott King have been champions of LGBT rights. Further, groups such as the National Black Justice Coalition focus on civil rights for black LGBT people. And despite their defeat, a broad coalition of civil rights groups and clergy opposed North Carolina’s Amendment 1.

"I firmly believe that the ‘tension’ between the black community and the LGBT community is primarily a sensationalistic media creation," says Michael P. Williams, a Philadelphia-based attorney and LGBT advocate.

"While the media seems enthralled when it broadcasts sound bites from some black community members who oppose LGBT rights (which are, by the way, rights guaranteed to all Americans), the simple (albeit horrendous) truth is that each and every American ‘community’ contains bigots — including the LGBT community," Williams said.

Williams told theGrio that he is focusing on voter empowerment work for his local Philadelphia NAACP branch. "In all my years as a NAACP member, have never encountered homophobia…never," he added. Elsewhere, Williams said that when he is confronted with homophobia he faces it head-on, upfront and unapologetically.

"I was called a "ni**er’ more than a decade before I was called a ‘fa**ot.’ I was aware of my being black well before I was aware that I had sexual feelings for males rather than females," he said.
"When I walk into a room, people react to my being black first…always. That is my primary reality."

Meanwhile, a GLAAD study seems to validate Williams’ feelings that reports of black homophobia are exaggerated. Nearly 60 percent of black respondents believed that access to benefits for unmarried gay and lesbian couples is an important issue, and over 70 percent said hate crimes are a problem for gays and lesbians.

When asked to describe the struggle facing gays and lesbians, 55 percent said equal rights, 18 percent said human rights, and 7 percent said civil rights. And while a solid majority of black respondents rejected the labeling of the LGBT struggle for equality as civil rights, the survey found that this was not evidence of black homophobia. The term "civil rights" simply has a different meaning for black people, rooted in the right to vote, access to public accommodations and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.