Estranged Family: Black History Month and the Stigma of Gays in the Black Community

By Hollis Holmes, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

My early experiences of Black History Month conjure up images of Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I saw the same images year after year, with maybe a few controversial figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali included. By fourth grade, I formed my opinion of the annual event as a limited and symbolic reminder of the contributions of my race to America. It wasn’t until my teens, while discovering my sexual identity, that I thought more seriously about this specific celebration of black figures. A teacher instructed us to write an essay on an influential person; however, I struggled to find an individual, both black and gay, whom I could relate to. Not seeing myself reflected in the celebration of Black History Month, I realized the black community fails to accept and even stigmatizes homosexuality.

Now, apparently support amongst black voters for same-sex marriage is approximately the same as whites. While a positive step, the black community still must understand that the fight for equality extends beyond marriage to basic civil rights. Black transgender people, isolated even within the LGBT community, particularly face shocking levels of discrimination and almost non-stop violence. While black LGBT people accounted for 73 per cent of the homicides in 2012 amongst the LGBT community, black transgender women accounted for the highest number of those murdered. The condition of black youth is also very appalling, where they disproportionately experience homelessness more than their white counterparts due in large part to family rejection and employment and educational discrimination.

In spite of this crisis for survival, black churches and pastors remain a pivotal force in hindering the expansion of gay rights. Reverend Patrick Wooden, a pastor of North Carolina, likened himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., after receiving a standing ovation from a 3,000 member congregation for his efforts in successfully passing a statewide amendment banning same-sex marriage. Other institutions mirror the opposition of the black churches. In spite of progress at a couple of black academic institutions, of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the United States, fewer than a quarter offer course listings with LGBT-related classes or formally recognize LGBT student groups. The lack of community support forces people to choose one side of an intersectional identity over the other, seeking refuge in the LGBT community while losing visibility in the black community. Even more, this shunning of black gay people comes across as ignorance to the fact that we still also endure the obstacles associated with the historical legacies of slavery, and on that basis alone need black community to share common experience.

Black History Month, a time when we celebrate black historical figures, reveals the stigma against black gays present in the black community. People left out of the dialogue include Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Alvin Ailey, Basquiat, Josephine Baker… and the list goes on. Even if granted some visibility, the sexual orientation of figures like James Baldwin is often excluded or under-emphasized in public commentary. About her experience, Audre Lorde states, “I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.” Feelings such as this persist, even though seemingly out of place with the recent expansion of gay rights.

Challenging America not to erase the contributions of black individuals from public consciousness depends on the efforts of the black community to value our own history. The support of President Obama and the NAACP for same-sex marriage provides an opportunity to internally address existing homophobia and embrace black gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons. In doing this work, the black community has the power to capitalize on the moment by alleviating the hypocrisy associated with the exclusion of black gays and redefine the black American legacy.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

10 thoughts on “Estranged Family: Black History Month and the Stigma of Gays in the Black Community

  1. This post alerts us to crucial questions and challenges for confronting the ongoing impacts of intersectional oppressions (and privileges). We have to continually remind ourselves to be self-reflexive about how we construct stories about our past – and how these stories influence our present. Thanks, Hollis Holmes, for this important and provocative work.

  2. Sad but true. Too many historically black institutions and organizations contiue to support, and/or are indifferent to, anti gay sentiments and behavior.

  3. Groups which can be so very liberal on some issues can be equally illiberal on others. Our world is not simple, and it is not always kind and understanding, either. Lots of work to do.

  4. PREACH!
    In his first attempt to articulate the intersectionality of liberation Huey P. Newton said, “Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it.”
    Thank you for this piece, for rejecting binary, silo-ing, isolating identity politics and demanding a revolutionary value system that is both critical and expansive.

  5. this is a beautiful beginning to a very necessary conversation! i cannot wait to read more like it!

  6. Yes! Such a critical intersection. Hopefully black LGBT people can find a home in both movements.

  7. This piece is so critical to beginning a myriad of deep conversation in the Black and people of color LGBTQ community. This idea about family provides us with a lens into the historical construction and destruction of the black “family.” Thank you for clearly pointing out the distinction that black trans folks are disproportionately susceptible to violence and this violence is makes this dialogue even more necessary. Thank you, Hollis.

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