BY Eric Gonzaba ON February 23, 2015
I remember being in college when, at 11pm on November 4, 2008, news networks announced the election of the first Black American president. The new president-elect even gave the LGBT community a shout-out in his acceptance speech that night, which was fitting since 70% of the gay community had supported him in that election.
Not too long after that, however, those same news outlets reported that Proposition 8 passed in California, barring same-sex marriage in the nation’s most populous state. It was stunning to many LGBT activists, since polls looked good going into Election Day. What went wrong? Pundits pointed to the immense turnout of black voters in California. 70% of African Americans helped land the first black president into the Oval Office and simultaneously voted to keep gay people away from the wedding chapels. See, the blacks are to blame! Sigh…the downfalls of supporting a coalition party.
It didn’t take long for more reasoned minds to explain that African Americans weren’t solely to blame for Proposition 8’s passage. As statistician Holy One Nate Silver pointed out, “ Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one.” Ta-Nehisi Coates was rightly more angered, lambasting political pundits and news outlets for citing overblown statistics; the 70% of African Americans number was probably closer to 58%.
I use this Prop 8 story because I think it suggests that liberal Americans are often too ready to attack black communities as anti-gay. We need to be much more conscious about how diverse communities confront LGBT experiences before we so-readily judge the gay-friendliness of certain groups. Our biases toward/against black culture can often shield us from understanding how diverse queer culture is in the African American community.
We’re told that black gay men, for instance, stay on the down low, afraid to embrace the rapidly changing, queer accepting, modern culture. Recently, however, excellent works have been produced that show that this stereotypical portrait of an exclusively heterosexual-affirming black culture is a fantasy at best. Take Terrance Dean’s 2008 memoir Hiding in Hip Hop: On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry. The book’s cover photo depicts an African American artist holding his finger to his lips, insinuating the man is trying to keep something quiet. But Dean doesn’t suggest black American communities are terrifying places for LGBT people. In a discussion of his book with TIME magazine, Dean talked about down low culture for black men where there exist three identifications: down-low, down-low gay, and gay.
“What I consider to be in the closet is someone who I would call a down-low gay man. A down-low man is a man who considers himself a bisexual. He has relationships with both men and women but he would never identify his sexuality as that of a gay man because he doesn’t see the act of what he’s doing as that of being gay. Most times he is the penetrator or he’s the receiver in oral sex. So he doesn’t see himself as being gay. If you ask him, he would never admit to being gay.”
Of course, this is Dean’s assessment of his gay world, but the diversity of the identities he describes is a far cry from how many Americans think of sexual orientations, where we all fit neatly into predefined categories of gay or straight. Bisexuals, we hear all the time, just need to pick a team. (Tell this to Oregon’s new governor).
Dean’s discussion reminds me of historian George Chauncey’s work on early 20th century gay male culture. Chauncey argued that working class men in the early 20th century could engage in diverse sexual practices, including with other men, without necessarily being considered queer. Men who assumed the traditional sex role for men, even if their partner was another man, were not necessarily considered homosexuals by the wider society. In fact, such an act might enhance a man’s masculinity. “Sexual penetration,” Chauncey wrote, “symbolized one man’s power over another.”
Dean’s take on black sexual identities brings Chauncey’s discoveries into the 21st century and complicates our collective understanding of the homosexual/heterosexual binary. To be sure, the down low culture can breed social stigma of queer people in the black community and be cause for deep anxiety for LGBT black people. There’s no denying that homophobia exists in the African American community, but it’s not simply a problem that is inherently tied to black identity; homophobia is systemic, reaching beyond class, race, gender, and national boundaries.
So tying blackness to homophobia is too reductive, but we also need to stop thinking of LGBT life as uniform among diverse communities. Historians have shed light on how gay identity hasn’t always been a central feature of African American lives. Take the American South, a place I’m sure many Americans would be surprised to know does actually have an LGBT history (and quite a rich one at that.) Historian John Howard, for instance, argued that black men in the south often viewed 20th century LGBT activism with suspicion, part of yet another “white-controlled, white dominated institution.” Terms like gay don’t always sum up the diverse experiences of Southern queer people. Read any of the incredible oral histories in E. Patrick Johnson’s Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South and you’ll discover that black queer life has flourished even in what we sometimes target as the most hostile of places to LGBT African Americans—the black church. To the contrary, the church sometimes has served as a site of negotiation for African Americans, a place where spirituality and sexual desire can be explored and where black gay men can search for affirmation.
All this is to say, I think it’s imperative for us not to simply jump on the bandwagon of saying African American culture is homophobic by nature. Instead, we ought to be understanding of the diverse ways queerness is expressed in the black community and acknowledge that perhaps these practices can’t be readily understood through societal lenses that, more often than not, are heteronormative and white. The queer culture of people of color may not look like what’s shown in HRC commercials or on mainstream television sitcoms, but it’s a more dynamic culture that it is given credit for.