“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
That’s for Marion Barry, who seems to need the reminder.
I’m not a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist, like Pitts, but his willingness to not only challenge homophobia among African-Americans, but to put LGBT equality in the context of civil rights, started me thinking that maybe I could do the same. If Pitts, a heterosexual black male, could get away with it, could I as a black gay man do the same? And get away with it?
On the night of November 4, 2009, I sat in a room full of bloggers invited to cover election night at NPR and listened to an announcer who was talking about the historic nature of the election say that Americans had just elected a man whose parents’ marriage would have been illegal in most states, 40 years ago. Without thinking, I said aloud “And if either of my sons is elected president 40 years from now, they’ll say the same about them.
I quickly learned the acceptable parameters of the debate when, in private forums, I broached the subject of homophobia in some African-American communities, and found myself accused of giving license for people to engage in racist behavior. I’d violated the longstanding-but-not-often-spoken prohibition against “airing our dirty linen in public.”
I found myself attacked publicly, not just for my political views or for my views on marriage equality, but for my relationship – for being a black gay man married to a white gay man. (Thus my support for marriage equality, which is exclusively a “white gay issue.” Never mind the black gay and lesbian couples who were plaintiffs in the California, New Jersey, and Maryland court cases.) I’d lost another round of that favorite political game, “blacker than thou.”
The only way not to lose that game (and everyone loses, eventually) is not to play.
And having learned the accepted parameters of discussion post-Proposition 8, I chose silence. White racism was up for discussion. White gay racism was up for discussion. White homophobia was up for discussion. And homophobia among religious whites was up for discussion. But the subject of homophobia among African-Americans was off the table, except for the requisite assertion that black people are no more homophobic than any other group, but saying much else was risky. Anything else is not for mixed company. Our dirty linens should be washed behind closed doors. By us.
As an activist, how do I fight what I cannot name? How do I effectively oppose what I cannot publicly address? So, I chose silence.
If I don’t say anything, there’s no chance of airing that dirty linen in public. But every time I look, it seems those linens are still dirty.
African Americans, perhaps as with other minorities, have an unwritten rule against “washing the dirty linen in public,” or saying anything critical of African Americans (however true it is or isn’t) out of fear that it might be used to back up racist beliefs that are already out there, or as an excuse for racist behavior or actions, but also because of a fear that it might “prove” the worst centuries-old racist beliefs that we’ve all been — consciously or not — trying to disprove in just about every aspect of our lives. Thus, it’s taboo. The common response is “This is something we need to deal with among ourselves, not in public, in front of other (white) people.”
They’re apparently not getting washed behind closed doors. How do I know, because I see people proudly wearing those soiled garments in public. The spectacle after the D.C. city council vote was just the latest.
Then Leonard Pitts, who apparently has enough cred not to need all the otherwise required qualifiers, spoke up.
There’s something to be said for representing one’s constituents. But there is more to be said for leading them. Barry’s failure to understand the difference is galling in light of the fact that he was once a leader in the civil-rights movement.
One wonders how differently that movement might have turned out had white people such as Clifford Durr, Viola Liuzzo, Ralph McGill, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and Lyndon Johnson allowed themselves to be cowed by the angry voices of white men and women saying, “All hell is going to break loose.” For that matter, how much longer might the long night of slavery have lasted had white people like Elijah Lovejoy, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lucretia Mott and Thaddeus Stevens bowed to the fact that the white community was “just adamant” against freedom.
One wonders, too, whether those black ministers in the hall see their mirror image in generations of white ministers who have used the Bible to condone the evil of slavery (“Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters.”) and the fiction of African-American inferiority (the “curse” of Ham).
At day’s end, though, the great tragedy here is neither historical amnesia nor moral cowardice. No, the tragedy is embodied in Barry’s description of African Americans as a people for whom open homosexuality is rare. That description is, unfortunately, too accurate – not simply for black Washington, but for black America. We are a socially conservative people.
And our conservatism is, quite literally, killing us.
It is no coincidence the community that has yet to make a safe place for its gay members to openly be who they are, the community that still regards gay as a dirty secret not to be spoken in open company, the community in which people still think gay “can’t happen in my family,” is also the community that accounts for half of all AIDS diagnoses in this country, the community that has lost 211,000 brothers and sisters to this disease, the community where marriages keep popping like balloons from the discovery that the husband is gay on the “down low.”
It was Pitt’s use of King’s quote, and his recommending it to Barry that brought the Audre Lourde quote to mind for me, and in the same context. When I went back to Lourde’s essay, to read the quote in context, it rang even more true.
Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
Barry, and the ministers whose stage he shared, have their hands on the master’s tool’s, and not only do they like the feel of them, but think those tools are their own, too.
Maybe I took one too many feminist theory classes in college, but one valuable take-away I got from those classes was the understanding that all of the “isms” that infect our culture are connected to one another, like links in a chain – racism, sexism, classism, and (yes) heterosexism. And when those of us who have been, as Lourde said, “forged in the crucibles of difference” and “identified as outside the structures” start firing up “crucibles of difference for others” and identifying them as “outside the structures” we are in the act of perpetuating every ism we have struggled against.
Just over 80 miles from Carol County, VA, where Mildred and Richard Perry were arrested 51 years ago, for violating Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act by returning to the state after marrying in Washington D.C., Marion Barry and a number of black ministers fulminated against marriage equality with a righteous fervor equal to the proponents of anti-miscegenation laws. And without a hint of irony.
The point is not to compare sexual orientation with race. As a black gay man, I know both histories quite well, and I know the differences between them. But, I also know the points of connection, because that is where I live my life from one day to the next.
Again, Leonard Pitts can perhaps get away with saying more than I can.
To anyone familiar with the deep strain of social conservatism that runs through the black electorate, this is not surprising either. It is, however, starkly disappointing. More- over, it leaves me wondering for the umpteenth time how people who have known so much of oppression can turn around and oppress.
Yes, I know. I can hear some black folk yelling at me from here, wanting me to know it’s not the same, what gays have gone through and what black people did, wanting me to know they acted from sound principles and strong values. It is justification and rationalization, and I’ve heard it all before.
I wish they would explain to me how they can, with a straight face, use arguments against gay people that were first tested and perfected against us. When, for instance, they use an obscure passage from the Bible to claim God has ordained the mistreatment of gays, don’t they hear an echo of white people using that Bible to claim God ordained the mistreatment of blacks?
When they rail against homosexuality as ’’unnatural, ’’ don’t they remember when that word was used to describe abolition, interracial marriage and school integration? When they say they’d have no trouble with gay people if they would just stop ’’flaunting’’ their sexuality, doesn’t it bring to mind all those good ol’ boys who said they had no problem with ’’Nigras’’ so long as they stayed in their place? No, the black experience and the gay experience are not equivalent. Gay people were not the victims of mass kidnap or mass enslavement.
No war was required to strike the shackles from their limbs.
Except that it was. No, there was no armada of slave ships that pulled up to the coast of Homoslavia three hundred years ago, or slave traders who snatched us up
I’m quite used to seeing black LGBT people erased from black history by black people, or iconized once part of their lives had been cut away and disposed of, like any number whose names I and many others could call. And I don’t believe Pitts intended to imply that there were no black gay people.
In any case, it took a white, gay Irishman to point out to a black New York legislator that, yes, not only have there been gay people throughout history, taking part every historic moment or movement, but (yes) some of those people were black and gay. (“Gay” may be a modern term, much like modern day concept of homosexuality, but there have always been people who were same-gender oriented, and many cultures not-only tolerated same-gender oriented individuals, but found ways of weaving them into the fabric of their communities and society.)
Assembly member Michael Benjamin, who’s black, asked [Assembly member Daniel] O’Donnell a series of questions about whether significant milestones in U.S. history, such as the American Civil War or the passage of civil rights laws, involved blacks or gays. When Benjamin asked O’Donnell whether it was blacks or gays who were brought to the United States from Africa in slave ships, O’Donnell responded that it would be both because some of those blacks were probably gay.
And O’Donnell is right. As much as many black folks try to convince themselves that homosexuality is something “non-African” that blacks somehow “caught” from whites, the facts of history suggest otherwise.
I won’t ask where Nigeria got an Anglican church, but the answer to the previous question essentially comes down to the assumption that homosexuality is un-African, an idea probably best exemplified by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s claims that homosexuality was brought to Africa by Europeans and pretty well summed up by Keith’s explanation.
To be honest, these recent examples of African homophobia are not much different from the homophobia in the United States, but what makes them noticeable is the assertion that homosexuality belongs solely to other cultures. The leaders of these anti-gay campaigns seem to share a common belief that homosexuality is somehow un-African, a vestige of European colonialism. But “culture and values are changing things,” says Cary Alan Johnson, a representative for an American relief and development agency, who has been working in Central Africa since 1993.
Keith goes on to discuss work documenting that same-sex activity existed in Africa long before the arrival of Europeans and, as African journalist Chido Onumah writes in response to Nigeria’s anti-gay campaign:
The argument about homosexuality being un-African is not supported by the facts of history. Gays and lesbians may be in the minority but homosexuality in Africa is as old as civilization.
In fact, the facts of history suggest that not only was same-sex activity a reality in pre-colonial Africa, but many African cultures (note, plural) developed niches in their societies for those who were noticed to have predominantly same-sex orientations.
Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe’s book, Boy-Wives and Female Husbands (1998) explores African homosexuality and documents same-sex relationships in some fifty societies in every region of the continent. Essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines explore institutionalized marriages between women, same-sex relations between men and boys in colonial work settings, mixed gender roles in East and West Africa. The book covers recent developments in South Africa, where gays and lesbians successfully made that nation the first on the continent to constitutionally ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and assists in revealing the denials of African homosexuality for what they are – prejudice and willful ignorance.
Ingorance? Yes. (Indeed, same sex activity goes all the way back to the rock drawings left by the San people in what is now modern day Zimbabe.) Willful? Well, in some cases yes.
In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman writes about his grandmother’s response to the biblical passages used to justify slavery, which Horace Griffin references in his book Their Own Receive Them Not: African American Lesbians And Gays in Black Churches, to sum up how many African Americans respond such troublesome contradictions. Thurman’s grandmother tells him of the white minister who would preach obedience to the slaves on her master’s plantation, using his bible to justify her slavery. She finishes by saying:
I promised my maker that if I ever learned to read and if freedom ever came, I would not read that part of the bible.
We choose on a daily basis to “not read” parts of our history that conflict with what we must believe, or that requires too much of us, in that it requires us to think about what we believe, why we believe it, and whether it makes sense.
The point isn’t whether or not blacks are more homophobic than other groups. Of course African-Americans are no more homohpobic than any other group in our culture. Just as we all live in a culture that still has a strong element of racism that we all absorb to varying degrees, so to do we live in a society with strong elements of sexism and heterosexism that we all absorb. That’s true of everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
So, no, black people aren’t any more homophobic than whites, or any other group. Having been tagged with ever other negative characteristic the dominant culture can dream up, some African-Americans are naturally defensive when it comes to being labeled with one more.
Having made that defense (again, African-Americans are no more homophobic than any other group), however, the discussion shouldn’t stop there. And though I’ve been told it’s something best “worked out between us,” rather than in mixed company or in public, I’ve reached a point where I’ve decided that washing the dirty linen in public is nowhere near as bad as wearing them in public. If we’re ever going to work it out between us, we’re going to have to do it where we are, instead of waiting until we’re at home, with the door locked and the shades drawn.
I say, wear it in the street, wash it in the street. And what was on display in D.C. after the council vote needs washing up.
African Americans are no more homophobic than any other group, but there’s an argument to be made that our history requires more from us than falling back on the same arguments and actions that were “first texted and perfected against us.”
Pitt’s mentions the social conservatism of many African-Americans, and correctly identifies it as the main source of the strong reacions some African-Americans have to gay issues and the topic of homosexuality itself. If he’s right, and I think he is, then the next step is to understand the social, historic, and cultural context of that conservatism – how was it forged, what hardened it, and what has strengthened it for so long?
The best analysis I’ve read is Horace Griffin’s Their Own Receive Them Not, which I reviewed three years ago. In which he makes a convincing case , but not for African-Americans being “more homophobic” than others. He refutes that assertion, but without excusing himself from examining the subject itself further.
While it would indeed be wrong to present black heterosexuals as more homophobic than whites if they are not,it would also be dishonest to present black people as better on the issue of homosexuality than they really are. …Covering up black homophobia serves no good purpose and will ultimately hinder black heterosexuals from confronting the many ways in which they are homophobic and participate in a system that promotes homophobic attitudes and practices.
Instead he searches out the roots of, reasons for, and the context in which homophobia among African-Americans exists and persists.
What’s most intriguing is Griffin’s suggestion that this particular brand of religion combined with the popular sexual myths about Blacks at that time – that Black men and women were insatiable sexual savages, prone to predation, seduction and violence – and the strict sexual morality of the Victorian era, to produce Black churches and communities that still respond vehemently and even violently to the very concept of homosexuality let alone actual homosexuals in Black churches, families and communities. In fact, is the most cogent explanation I’ve heard yet of a reality that still tends to mystify me.
Following slavery, the racist attitudes that defined black men as sex predators caused black men extreme hardship and death. By appealing to the age-old stereotype that black men harbor an insatiable desire for white women, black men existed as targets for to be blamed for raping white women. Indeed as Paula Giddings notes, it was black women themselves who were identified as culprits for their own rape due to the purported sexual appetite that blacks had for sex. … Given the majority culture’s racism and sexual attitudes, African Americans soon learned that their very survival depended on distancing themselves from “sexual perversions.” Much of black heterosexuals’ antihomosexual sentiment exists as a means of countering the perception of black sexuality as perverse in order to survive and gain respectability and acceptance by the majority. Thus, it is understandable that African Americans would approach homosexuality with more dread and disdain than others, often denying a black homosexual presence to avoid being further maligned in a racist society.
Griffin eases up to an obvious question, that Michael Eric Dyson later called out. (I’m giving Dyson the benefit of the doubt that he doesn’t believe blacks are more homophobic, but is addressing the “dread and disdain” Griffin references.)
One of the reasons I think black people tend to be more homophobic is that our heterosexuality has already been treated as queer by a dominant society. So backpedaled should tap into our symbolic queerness to understand the homophobia that we house is antithetical to our own identity. Because we’ve been treated like gays in a very serious way so i think that’s critical. And then what’s interesting is that in hiphop is the same kind of tension as in the black church; homoeroticism up against homophobia. Hate gay people but got your pants down to the butt crack. Can’t stand gays but standing up saying you love jesus more than any other person in your family.
You might notice that of the writers I’ve mentioned most often so far, only one of them (Griffin) is an out gay man. If the social conservatism of some African-Americans is rooted in religion, then so is the “dread and disdain” that causes so many to “[deny] a black homosexual presence to avoid being further maligned in a racist society,” that leads ministers like D.C.’s Rev. Willie Wilson to preach words like these from the pulpit.
“Sisters making more money than brothers and it’s creating problems in families … that’s one of the reasons many of our women are becoming lesbians,” Wilson said.
…“Lesbianism is about to take over our community. … I ain’t homophobic because everybody here got something wrong with him,” he said. “But … women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain’t real. That thing ain’t got no feeling in it. It ain’t natural. Anytime somebody got to slap some grease on your behind and stick something in you, it’s something wrong with that. Your butt ain’t made for that.
“No wonder your behind is bleeding,” he said. “You can’t make no connection with a screw and another screw. The Bible says God made them male and female.”
And to the apparent approval of his congregation.
The congregation can be heard shouting its approval in the background during Wilson’s sermon.
(Wilson, one of the leaders of the Millions More Movement was instrumental in denying Keith Boykin to speak at the march to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Million March, after Keith had been invited to speak, came to the event, was just about to take to the stage.)
Bishop Alfred A. Owens Jr.-pastor of the Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church, one of the city’s largest congregations-had a clever theme for his April 9 service. His sermon was titled “Fan or Follower!” Owens, who is an honorary member of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Interfaith Council, delivered a message urging congregants to be move beyond being fans of the church to becoming followers of the righteous path.
He also made clear that one segment of his congregation is not welcome on that path: gay men.
During a dramatic presentation on how strong men follow the teachings of the church, he pointed out that “real men” for the Lord are straight. “It takes a real man to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I’m not talking about no faggot or no sissy,” said Owens on a church tape recording. “Wait a minute! Let all the real men come on down here and take a bow,” he said, inviting them to the front of the church. “All the real men-I’m talking about the straight men,” he preached. “You ain’t funny and you ain’t cranky, but you’re straight. Come on down here and walk around and praise God that you are straight. Thank him that you’re straight. All the straight men that’s proud to be a Christian, that’s proud to be a man of God.”
Of course there were gay men right there in the congregation. Closeted, yes, but there.
One attendee of the service, who describes himself as a gay, says the house was packed for the Palm Sunday service. He and “about 20” other closeted gay men in the crowd, he says, felt they had no choice but to join Owens’ spontaneous celebration of straightness.
No choice? Well, yes, because at least some of them had wives or girlfriends sitting beside them in the pew, who would otherwise be wondering why their men weren’t making their way to the altar right about then.
“I will be leaving the choir at the top of the year because 80 percent of the tenors are homosexuals and act more like a female in choir rehearsal than I do,” the church choir member said in one of her e-mails to Bishop Alfred Owens Jr., the church pastor.
The e-mail, sent in December, identifies about 45 fellow church members as gay. She sent a second e-mail to Owens on Jan. 2 identifying another 62 church members as gay.
“The following people I am asking you to monitor very closely and my prayer is that you will sit them down from their ministries,” she told Owens in the December e-mail. “Because they are ushering in the presence of sin, lies, a spirit of homosexuality and sexual spirits.”
She sent a copy of her e-mails to a Yahoo list group that goes to more than 300 church members, the gay former church member said.
The gay former church member redacted all of the names from the copies of the e-mails he sent to the Blade, including the name of the choir member who orchestrated the outings.
Bad enough. But then Owens reacts.
The former gay member of Greater Mount Calvary who provided copies of the outing e-mails to the Blade, has withheld his own name. He used the pen name “Jeff Hammer” in his own e-mail correspondence with the Blade.
He said Owens responded to the first e-mail by calling a meeting of all members of the church’s numerous singing groups. The groups include the Alfred Owens Chorale, the Sanctuary Choir, the Celebration Choir, Voices of Calvary and the Male Chorus, among other groups.
“He said he only wanted to help people who wanted help to not be gay and that he was willing to help anybody change from being gay,” the former church member said.
The former member quoted Owens as telling people attending the meeting, “The Bible says that wheat and tares grow together but there are too many tares. When the tares outnumber the wheat I got to do something.”
According to the former church member, Owens said, “I’m going to meet with all the people mentioned in the e-mail and use my discernment to figure out who needs to be monitored or sat down from what they do …”
“In Christ, God puts his seed in us. Any other way is a spiritual abortion. Cloning, Homosexuality and Lesbianism are spiritual abortions.”
“Homosexuality is a manifestation of the fallen man.”
… “God brings himself back to himself through covenant through blood. When the ordained process of God (marriage), when a virgin man has sex with a virgin woman, there is blood shed on his penis which represents covenant and the redemptive grace of God. That’s the reason why men, you are circumcised, so that every time you pull out your male organ and wants to go in the wrong direction, you can SEE that you are in covenant and anything that goes against the covenant is Anti-Christ. It creates a religious system that will not return God to God. Anything that will hinder that is Anti-Christ. It’s an abortion of the whole process of covenant and blood shedding.”
“…They (children) cannot have 2 female parents. They cannot have 2 male parents. They will be off balance.”
Bishop Long’s answer to “I was born that way” – “spirits can be inherited or acquired. You can have a strong domineering mama and a weak daddy that creates a spirit in the male child that makes him more effeminate. This is true for homosexuality or any other disorder in our lives.”
It leads Bishop Harry Jackson to say things like this:
“I’m not against gay people; I’m not trying to bash them per se. I just think that we’re in such a terrible situation in my community that I’ve got to protect the institution.” According to Jackson, only 30 percent of blacks are in monogamous married relationships.
(Funny story. After the California Supreme Court ruling on marriage, I was on an NPR show about the ruling, with Bishop Jackson. But there was no discussion between us, as we were in different segments and, for that matter, it totally different studios. We never even saw each other.)
Of course, Jackson misses the point that if “we’re in such a terrible place in my community” then there are black gay people – black gay couples and their families – in his community and in that “terrible place” right along with his community. But he probably won’t see us, because we’ve learned too well our place, and the price for stepping out of it.
I could go on. suffice it to say, it’s too often a reality of being black and gay.