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.
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
- 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.