By Hollis Holmes, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania
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.