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.

Why We Used To Run

By Dennis Henderson, M.Ed., ACLU of Pennsylvania Client

Dennis Henderson, an African-American teacher who was wrongfully arrested and jailed for 12 hours. photo credit: Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette

ACLU of Pennsylvania attorney Sara Rose and Dennis Henderson, an African-American teacher who was wrongfully arrested and jailed for 12 hours. photo credit: Larry Roberts/Post-Gazette 

Growing up in a public housing complex, my friends and I were conditioned to run when we saw a patrol car coming our way.

Between the ages of 6 and 10, we weren’t breaking any laws while walking home from school or playing in our neighborhood, but we knew we’re supposed to run when we saw a police car.

Every now and then, one would sneak up on us. Shock, anxiety, and fear would grip us. During those times, we just stood still not knowing how to respond while the patrolling officers drove past us slowly staring us down with a look of suspicion.

Between the ages of 11 and13, I figured that I shouldn’t have to run from the police if I didn’t do anything wrong. I stopped running. Looking back, I stopped at a good age, because that’s when the police started chasing. Many of my friends were caught and placed in the juvenile to prison pipeline system for reasons that would be considered “typical adolescent male behavior,” if they were from white middle class families.

Because of the detainment of many of my peers and witnessing the arrest of many of the adults in my neighborhood, as a teenager I still retained the emotions of anxiety and fear when encountered by a police officer.

It was also during this time that I encountered great mentors that taught me black history. I was educated about numerous African Americans who contributed their work, ideas, talents and lives to enrich the quality of life for all Americans.

While in college and as a young adult, I learned that in 1619, Africans were brought to the shores of North America in bondage, recognized as only 3/5th of a person under the ensuing U.S. Constitution, and subsequently, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled blacks had no rights in the Dred Scott decision.

Today, as an adult, I now mentor youth. As a middle school history teacher, I share with them what I’ve learned and teach them that the very same Constitution that restricted our rights eventually outlawed slavery and granted full citizenship and equal rights! So I thought.

On June 26, 2013, while standing next to my truck exchanging contact information with another individual, a police car sped across the intersection towards us. We assumed he was responding to a call, however, as he got closer, the patrol car continued to veer closer to where we were standing. As he passed, both of us pressed ourselves against my truck to avoid being struck by the police car.

His actions were unprovoked and shocking. The officer then made an abrupt u-turn and came back to enquire if I had a problem with what he did. I had no reason to run.

Now educated about my constitutional rights, I was no longer afraid. I choose to exercise my rights by requesting his name and badge number. This request prompted him to get out his car and demand our IDs. Concerned for my safety because of his erratic behavior and questionable intentions, I informed him that I was documenting the remainder of our conversation on my smart phone. He told me I had no rights to record him.

At that moment I realized that he didn’t agree with me having the audacity to believe I had rights [Dred Scott Decision].

He used his car to endanger me and treated me with no dignity or respect during our encounter [3/5th of a person].

I was handcuffed, slammed to the ground, arrested and locked in a cell [since 1619].

According to a recent article published in the “Crime &Delinquency” journal, a study indicated nearly 50 per cent of black males are arrested before the age of 23. I have no doubt that at least half of those arrests were unwarranted such as mine.

A harsh reminder as to why we used to run when we saw a patrol car coming our way.

Dennis Henderson is a middle school teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School in Pittsburgh. Read more about Mr. Henderson’s case

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