I understand black homophobia on a deeply personal level. In seventh grade, I was called a faggot by someone named Chris on the school bus. I try to never let people see me sweat, but Chris took it one step further: he said my mama was probably gay, too. You can’t talk about my mama; Chris ended up with a black eye by the time we were dropped off to school. The last time I was called a faggot was a year ago, in Harlem; three dudes were driving by and proceeded to hurl that insult and french fries. I wanted to throw a bottle at the car, but I was outnumbered and keenly aware of the multiple deaths members of the LGBT community suffered the year beforehand.
Much of my 2014 was spent wondering if I will be able to maintain a relationship with my mother because my sexuality—well, my choice to both act on my natural attractions and write freely about my orientation—remains a major point of contention. My father once asked me if I was “funny” while shaking his hand; he was not longing to hear his son say, “Yeah, pops. I’m hilarious when I’m screwing a man.”
Most of the people who have given me grief about my sexuality have been black like me, though I’ve been around mostly black people my entire life. It’s more about geographic and socioeconomic status, not inherent biases. To that end, my individual experiences do not speak for the collective. It’s dangerous to use anecdotes to diagnosis a community of its purported ills. Never forget that there is a world beyond yours.
Lee Daniels has forgotten this lesson. Two weeks ago, he explained that he wants to “blow the lid off homophobia” in the black community with his new show, Empire, using the rift between Jamal, a gay aspiring singer, and his deeply homophobic father Lucious Lyon, a record executive. Daniels might as well have added that he also hopes his hip-hop inspired soap opera would also hip music consumers to the power of the MP3. Black homophobia has been a subject of national conversation for several years now, but at this point, the conversation has long grown stale given that it’s largely a merry go-round of myth-pushing.
Daniels has every right to inject his own experiences into his art. The famed director has been candid about the homophobia he experienced as a child. His life experiences are his, but those experiences should not be exploited to make a broad criticism of the black community that is not rooted in reality and far more complicated than his soap opera suggests.
I would rather not politicize Lee Daniels’ vision, but he has elected to do so and no one who knows better can let him help continue a lie.
Daniels gets some things right, namely the hypermasculinity within hip-hop, and by extension, the black community. But a mostly a white consumer base of rap music only further highlights how we are all collectively guilty of homophobia, which is largely based in misogyny.
Therein lies the problem when I hear lines like, "He’d never pick me. Too much homophobia in the black community” on Empire.
As opposed to other communities where tolerance for the LGBT community is remarkably higher? Blacks are not the X-Men of anti-gay bigotry. We don't have some superior level of homophobia compared to other groups.
Daniels is not the only one to make this claim, though. In 2008, author and gay activist Dan Savage helped fuel this media narrative when he cited a statistic claiming that over 70% of blacks voted in support of Proposition 8, California's gay marriage ban. Savage said he had grown tired of “pretending the handful of racist gay white men out there” 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.”
That was later proven to be a gross exaggeration; it was more like 58 percent of blacks compared to 53 percent of Latino voters, 49 percent of white voters, and 49 percent of Asian voters. Moreover, these claims also put the onus on the black community despite opponents of Prop 8 doing a piss poor job of directly campaigning for black support at the time. Four years later, black voters played a pivotal role in the passage of gay marriage initiatives in states like Maryland.
In related exaggerations, in 2009 the CDC released findings that debunked the myth of black men “living on the down low” as the main culprit behind rising HIV/AIDS infection rates amongst black women—five years after author J.L. King helped fuel hysteria about the dangers of closeted gay black men on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Part of the reason why so many poor black and Latino men have become the face of HIV/AIDS is a failure on the part of federal and state health care officials to directly target these groups of men.
Yet black people are painted as the boogeymen of homophobia. This, despite the fact that institutional homophobia in this country dates back to a time when black people were systematically disenfranchised. Anti-sodomy laws in the United States date back to the 19th Century; as recently as 1960, there were anti-sodomy laws in all 50 states (needless to say, these were not eras where black people were in positions of power in state legislatures). A decade after the Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 that it is unconstitutional to bar consensual sex between adults, there remain anti-sodomy laws in a dozen states: Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. Not one of those states has a black majority (in a few of them, black voting power is under attack).
Is the black church responsible for the homophobia that exists within the Black community? Surely, but what about those white evangelicals who export homophobia to countries in Africa like Uganda? Last year, Roger Ross Williams, the director of God Loves Uganda, a documentary about the influence of conservative American Christians in the country, told The Independent, “The anti-homosexuality bill would never have come about without the involvement of American fundamentalist evangelicals.”
And need I remind people that black people in America did not originally enter this country on cruise ships clutching their Bibles and reciting curious theological arguments about God’s stance on homosexuality? Many people born into religious families struggle with reconciling what they were taught to believe versus who they, or someone they love, are (look at TLC’s My Husband’s Not Gay, chronicling Mormon men attracted to men who opted to marry women). Even so, there are members of the black clergy at the forefront of LGBT equality, although I’ve read about it mainly via Black media.
I’m open to talking about homophobia within the black community, but the conversation will go no where if it is prefaced with the notion that black folks are more homophobic than everyone else. Yoruba Richen’s documentary The New Black tackled the topic, but in a way that was specific and thoughtful, featuring black faces both for and against marriage equality, as well as black LGBT voices. Imagine that.
I am sick of having to defend black people against this black homophobia trope. It needs to die already.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.