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Why Can’t We Talk About Black Homophobia?

This commentary is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of other authors at Box Turtle Bulletin.

Gabriel Arana

January 14th, 2009

To contribute to the saturated discussion on here about homophobia in the black community:

It is understandable to question the CNN exit poll that found 70 percent of African-Americans supported Prop. 8 given the range of figures that have been reported. But there is a misguided hesitation to acknowledging the fact that — statistically and anecdotally — African-Americans tend to be more homophobic than their white counterparts. 

Citing the support for LGBT rights from black organizations such as The Black Caucus, Bishops Carlton Pearson and John Selders call black homophobia a myth and a ploy by “our enemies” to divide us. Many have also argued that church attendance/religiosity as opposed to African-American identity was responsible for the majority of blacks voting in favor of Prop. 8.

These arguments are intended to prevent scapegoating of the black community, shifting the burden of culpability from race to religion. However, turning a blind eye to broader cultural issues for the sake of comity is intellectually dishonest. 

Among scholars, it is a well-reported and established fact that homophobia is more prevalent in the African-American community than in the general public: see, inter alia, studies by Brandt (1999) (PDF), Carter (1994), Hudson and Ricketts (1980), Schneider and Lewis (1984) and Tiemeyer (1993). Research bears out that a number of social factors are correlated with homophobic attitudes among blacks, including:

  • church attendance/religiosity
  • education
  • age
  • urban residency (urban residents are less homophobic than rural residents)
  • sex (men are more homophobic than women)

However, according to a 2003 study by Gregory Lewis, a professor in the Department of Public Administration and Urban Studies at Georgia University, even if one controls for these demographic variables, blacks are still more likely to be homophobic than their white counterparts, though they are also more likely to support nondiscriminatory legislation (e.g. employment nondiscrimination).

Coretta Scott King acknowledged the problem of homophobia in the black community (comments from the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS): 

“Homophobia is still a great problem throughout America, but in the African-American community it is even more threatening. This is an enormous obstacle for ever yone involved in AIDS prevention, treatment and research. … We have to launch a national campaign against homophobia in the black community.”

Failing to recognize homophobic attitudes in the black community is not only dishonest, it fails to acknowledge the unique hardships that African-American LGBT individuals face: in many surveys, African-American gays and lesbians have reported greater pressure to hide their identity and homosexual behavior and identify as straight. It has further been speculated that the hostility toward homosexuality among blacks is partially responsible for the “down low” phenomenon in the black community and the increased prevalence of HIV among black LGBT individuals. Failing to acknowledge homophobia in the black community erases the experience of black LGBT individuals from the story of LGBT rights and ignores the numerous sociological and medical implications of these attitudes.

The question of why attitudes in the black community are more homophobic than in the general public is an interesting one — and too large to be settled in a blog post. But as Harvard professor Orlando Patterson, who is African-American, points out, it need not be the case that examining issues in the African-American community invariably turns into a blame game. If the goal is really to “educate” and “[reach] out to the African-American community,” we should understand the terms on which we do so.

Finally, I think part of the hesitation in acknowledging homophobia in the black community is about privilege: Who gets to talk about problems in the African-American community? For members outside of the African-American community (read: White people) to critique its social norms is to invoke White privilege and call to mind the historical power relationship between blacks and whites. I think it would be best for LGBT folk who are African-American to lead the discussion, no less so because they speak from a position of greater understanding.

Editor’s note: We are trying out Gabriel Arana as a possible new contributor to Box Turtle Bulletin. Gabriel is a graduate of linguistics from Cornell University, and he is now pursuing a career in journalism as a fact checkor for The Nation. Some of you may remember him as a former patient of ex-gay therapist Dr. Joseph Nicolosi. While he’s had a personal blog for some time, he’s new to the world of LGBT community blogging. He’s an Arizona native — specifically from Nogales on the U.S./Mexico border — but he now makes his home among the bright lights of New York City. Please welcome Gabriel to the pad. — Jim Burroway.

Comments

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Emily K
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

It is absolutely true that homophobia is more pervasive in Black culture than white culture. For years Blacks thought AIDS was a “white man’s disease” because Black people “aren’t gay.” Being a “man” means having kids with a wife. The “down-low” culture is extremely pervasive in the Black community.

These same characteristics apply to the Latino community.

I encourage people in difficult situations – conservative religious communities, typically homophobic minority communities, etc. – to come out. You don’t need to become an activist and face head-on the whole of homophobia within your community. But simply coming out and living honestly will do the most good that any gay person can do, IMHO.

Timothy Kincaid
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

Brilliantly written commentary. It’s great to have you on board.

Pender
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

Great post. The first step in treating a problem is diagnosing it, which is why denialism is so harmful when it comes to things like homophobia in the black community.

a. mcewen
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

The question is not talking about black homophobia. The question is when some folks talk about black homophobia, will as much attention be paid to racism in the lgbt community.

“Finally, I think part of the hesitation in acknowledging homophobia in the black community is about privilege”

Take out the words “homophobia in the black community” and put in the words “racism in the lgbt community” and you will get a better understanding of where I am coming from.

Both problem should be equally addressed because if not, you will be creating a stigma.

Priya Lynn
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

The only black person I know is an outspoken supporter of equality for LGBTs.

Pender
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

A. McEwan, is there any rigorous evidence to suggest an actual problem with racism in the LGBT community? If so, I’d like to see it, because while I’ve heard the accusation used an awful lot to change the topic away from black homophobia, I’ve never seen any evidence to back it up.

GG
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

I understand that black homophobia is something that needs to be addressed, and I hope that we can all work together to address it constructively and in a spirit of cooperation. But there is, unfortunately, racism in the LGBT community too. We need to remember to be careful about pointing out the flaws of other groups while ignoring our own.

However, I would like to state that, in my own experience, all of the black people that I’ve known throughout my life have been pro-gay or at least neutral about it. This is especially true of young blacks in the Millenial generation (i.e. blacks in their 20s). I think that homophobia is declining across America as the younger generations become more tolerant. Be patient. Things will get better.

Kristian
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

I don’t think racism in the LGBT is just used to change the topic away from black homophobia, I think it definitely goes both ways. People of color are underrepresented in the queer community. Not blaming anyone, but as a white LGBT person, I’ve definitely noticed my own biases and I think GLBT activism doesn’t always consider the needs of those who are both sexual and race minorities. Also people (regardless of orientation) tend to assume that the face of the queer community is “white” which would make me feel pretty alienated (and make it hard for me to come out and come forward) if I wasn’t white. I agree with the author for saying that we need to hear more from people who represent both groups.

Adam
January 14th, 2009 | LINK

I’ve seen this first hand! Now, how do we rid ourselves of this destructive behavior? How do my people move from slavery to Black empowerment to the ideology equality for ALL! With so much homophobia coming out of the pulpit, it only reinforces the negative connotation that being Gay is to be weak, or to be passive. It seemed no amount of knowledge could change my co-worker minds on that thought, even with a strong positive image right in front of them.

Withers: How not to begin a conversation about black homophobia | Gay News Blog | 365gay.com
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

[…] Gabriel Arana wants to talk about black homophobia but he trips over the topic before he even gets out of the […]

Pender
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

Kristian, you said “People of color are underrepresented in the queer community.”

That’s not because of racism in the queer community, that’s because of homophobia in the black community. Black gays would be less underrepresented if they would come out of the closet; the reason that they disproportionately stay in the closet is homophobia.

Again, for everyone accusing the LGBT community of racism (A. McEwan, Kristian, GG), please provide evidence that in fact the LGBT community has a problem with racism. We’ve seen the surveys showing that blacks are disproportionately homophobic. Where are the surveys showing that the LGBT community is disproportionately racist? No offense, but it’s time to put up or shut up.

Jim Burroway
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

Pender,

You have put up a strawman argument. Nobody — not A. McEwan, Kristian, GG, nor myself have said that the LGBT is disproportionately racist. You need to climb down from that.

Speaking for myself, I think the LGBT community is about as racist as society as a whole. No better and no worse — although that the recent reflex we’ve seen in scapegoaing African-Americans for Prop 8’s passage suggests that the LGBT is not at all innocent.

Do you have any evidence to suggest the LGBT community’s racial values are any different from society’s? If that’s your position, then I think that extraordinary would need some proof. If that’s not your position, then my apologies, but that’s the impression you’re starting to leave.

Priya Lynn
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

My guess is that the LGBT community is less racist than society as a whole because having been discriminated against we are sympathetic to the black community.

SuzyQ
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

One thing that gets over looked is that there really isn’t an LGBT/T community. There are a vast number of individual communities even within the categories represented by those initials. How many events out side of Pride day actually gather all these different subsets together?

Part of the separatism goes back to the mid 1960s when SNCC basically ordered white civil rights workers to go organize their own communities. Cultural sensitivity meant that white LGBT/T organizers left the organizing of LGBT/T people of color to those people of color to avoid white supremacist accusations.

LGBT/T people of color face multiple oppressions and divided loyalties. It becomes a matter which group receives priority.

(Lesbians faced this too, to a lesser extent and resolved it with lesbian feminism). At every Pride event we see religious groups that have formed their own denominations.

Class and the financial ability to fund organizations have often hindered LGBT/T people of color in the formation of their own organizations.

That is especially true for transsexual and transgender groups.

Brian
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

@Gabriel Arana:

Gabriel, I think you are right in that black queer people are suspicious of conversations about “black homophobia” from white people because of the timing and tone of these conversations, which reminds us of colonializing and demonizing rhetoric we often get from society at large. Gender and sexuality have long been used to dehumanize the “other,” the “oriental,” the “savage,” etc.

So I appreciate your call for having the conversation be led by black queer people.

But in my analysis, racism and “black homophobia” are inseparable and reinforce one another. And I have a problem when people claim to want to have an “honest” talk about homophobia when they are unwilling to talk about racism (inside and outside the LGBT community). It is this widespread unwillingness to talk about racism that makes this black queer man react negatively to diatribes about “black homophobia.”

When Coretta Scott King or Al Sharpton say something about homophobia, that is one thing because we know, contextually, where they are coming from and why they are saying it. We know that their statements are being made in the interests of black liberation and black people. When someone in the LGBT community who has never been concerned with racism or racial issues says it, well, we are suspicious. Should we not be?

@ Jim:

Thank you for your response to Pender. Yes, it is an extraordinary claim to say that the LGBT community is less racist than society as a whole. And American society is still unacceptably racist, as we can see in all measurements of housing, income and education.

@Pender:

To blame the lack of representation of LGBT black people on not coming out is a huge copout. There are enough black queer people out to have far more representation than we do have.

One study showed that black queer people are more likely to have families and children than white queer people. Why is it that there are STILL few blacks represented in marriage equality ads and campaigns?

Priya Lynn
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

Brian said “@ Jim: Thank you for your response to Pender. Yes, it is an extraordinary claim to say that the LGBT community is less racist than society as a whole.”.

I don’t think Pender made that claim. What he said was that the LGBT community isn’t disproportionately racist. Unlike with the black communities voting record on anti-gay propositions with the LGBT community we don’t have anything that would indicate the level of racism within it. So any claims that the racism within the LGBT community is the same as within society as a whole have no support either.

Timothy (TRiG)
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

The about.com section on gaylife is managed by a black gay guy. So there are some of them out there!

TRiG,
Ireland.

Brian
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

@ Priya:

1. The fact that there are few demographic measures of racial attitudes and racial discrimination in the LGBT community itself indicates bias and lack of self-reflection. The fact that some people demand evidence, but haven’t bothered to do at least precursory research themselves (yes, it’s out there) is a problem and betrays a lack of concern for racial justice.

2. If racism in the LGBT community is “just as bad” as racism in larger society we still have a serious problem because racism in larger society is totally unacceptable. This demand for the same kind of studies is a form of the “let’s compare my oppression to yours” game. But LGBTs tend to lose that game, and I personally hate it.

3. Of what few studies there are, yes, they have shown the pervasiveness of discrimination, especially in the following areas: Allocation of funds, representations of queer people of color in media, lack of positions of power for queer people of color. Start here: http://www.youth-suicide.com/gay-bisexual/racism-gay-lesbian/ Look at footnotes, check out books, do the work.

4. The ideology of LGBT politics can distort reality. It is in our interests to talk a good game about diversity, but if it is not put into practice, it is a smokescreen that hides real discrimination on the ground.

Priya Lynn
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

Brian siad “The fact that there are few demographic measures of racial attitudes and racial discrimination in the LGBT community itself indicates bias and lack of self-reflection.”.

I’m not convinced. Where are the demographic measures of attitudes towards sexual orientation and LGBT discrimination in the the black community? I don’t see that that indicates bias or a lack of self-reflection in the black community

Brain said ” Of what few studies there are, yes, they have shown the pervasiveness of discrimination, especially in the following areas: Allocation of funds, representations of queer people of color in media, lack of positions of power for queer people of color. Start here: http://www.youth-suicide.com/gay-bisexual/racism-gay-lesbian/ Look at footnotes, check out books, do the work.”.

I don’t see anything in the link you posted that indicates the overall level of racism in the LGBT community vis a vis society as a whole although I didn’t look at it in depth. It appears sample sizes were very small and to be largely annecdotal evidence, such as the study on racism asians face in the gay community. The anecdotes in that study contradict the anecdotes I’ve heard. While that study claims that asians are rejected by caucasions as unattractive the only Asian I’m familiar with had the exact opposite experience – whites would frequently fawn over him, shower him with gifts and offer to do anything for him. He frequently went out to gay bars to seek out this sort of caucasion fan.

Is there something in the studies you posted the link to that would summarize the attitudes of whites towards blacks and other minorities in the way that the exit polls on prop 8 did? Those polls provided a convenient summary that allowed one to compare the level of animosity towards the LGBT community between blacks and whites.

Priya Lynn
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

I should point out that I have no doubt that racism exists within the LGBT community, the question is at what level. I think it is probably at a lower level than it is in society as a whole and I didn’t see anything in your link or post that would convince me otherwise.

V
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

Terrific commentary – this is the most intellectually honest piece on race and Prop. 8 I’ve read.

I hope you write more for BTB!!

Trey
January 15th, 2009 | LINK

It seems the gay community does a lot of talking about black homophobia. This is the umpteenth article that i’ve read on the subject. When black lgbts are done solving the black problem, maybe the larger gay community will concentrate on the other problems faced by the community.

I’m sure the black community can deal with one more stereotype being added to the growing list. We’re used to it. Honestly, I stopped wondering which prejudice was being projected onto me (thug, theif, DL, homophobe, ignorant, poor) a long time ago.

Why are black people so homophobic? - Great Debates - City-Data Forum
September 25th, 2009 | LINK

[…] […]

Why are black people so homophobic? - Politics and Other Controversies - Page 4 - City-Data Forum
September 26th, 2009 | LINK

[…] […]

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