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GAY IS THE NEW BLACK:
A LOOK AT HOMOPHOBIA
AND THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY
For a number of reasons, the view of homosexuality and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) individuals taken by many in the African-American community is not the most positive one. This does not speak to any kind of ignorance, stupidity, or other negative quality among Americans of African descent; rather, it has roots that go back centuries, to the period even before the United States even existed. In this essay, I am going to examine some history, look at how that has gotten us to the present day, and propose some ideas for the future.
One thing that many non-black observers note about the African-American community is its vibrant sense of spirituality. This is obviously not true of all African-Americans, but many are very devoted to their religious beliefs, which — as is typical in America — tend to be some brand of Christianity. (There is a sizable contingent of black Muslims as well, more so than among whites, but this is still a numerical minority.) Sunday services at mostly African-American churches tend to be lively, participatory affairs, certainly in comparison to, say, a Catholic Mass or Anglican services. There is a greater passion for religion, it seems, in the black community than in the white community.
This passion for religion is, in some ways, a vestige of centuries-old African spiritual/religious practices. Today, what remains of these practices is commonly called “voodoo,” though it may go by different local names. Voodoo rituals often heavily involve dancing and singing, and there is an emphasis placed on the spiritual nature of all things — not only humans and other living beings, but inanimate objects and even abstract concepts as well. It is not sexual in nature, as it has often been portrayed by the mass media outside the African or Haitian community, though spirit possession does figure into some of the higher-level rituals of voodoo.
Obviously, the vast majority of modern-day Americans of African descent do not practice anything close to voodoo in their religious observance. (A notable exception exists in Louisiana, particularly in New Orleans and in rural Cajun country.) Certain elements of voodoo, though, have undergone a process called syncretization and, heavily modified, have found their way to the present day in largely-black Christian churches. Chief among these elements are, as I mentioned above, a particular passion for religion and spirituality and a greater degree of congregational participation in the services than is seen in largely-white churches.
I will now fast-forward to the period from roughly 1600 to 1850 or so, when millions of West Africans were taken against their will into slavery in the New World. Slaveholders, who were almost universally white, forcefully suppressed the practice of voodoo among slaves and in many cases required them to convert to Christianity. It would be more accurate to say that the slaves were taught a perversion of Christianity, namely that which ignored the message of Jesus and instead served the slaveholders’ needs by emphasizing the “slaves, be obedient to your masters” aspects of the Bible.
Obviously, this view led to the adoption of a strictly hierarchical, top-down model of Christianity, among both black slaves and white slaveholders. The economic interests of the slaveholders — maintaining order among their slaves — completely trumped the fact that Jesus never preached on the need for a strict hierarchy. This 17th-century perversion of Christ’s message has survived to this day in both black and white churches — all over America in black churches, as African-Americans would begin to spread out from the South after the Civil War, and somewhat more confined to the South in white churches. It should be easy to see why so many black churches are very conservative in their outlook, as much of African-American Christianity is descended from this hierarchical worldview taught to the slaves of generations long past.
After the Civil War, African-Americans were freed from slavery, but still struggled to exercise the rights taken for granted by white Americans. The long struggle for black civil rights would last for over 100 years, well into the twentieth century. One excellent example of the means used by whites to hold blacks down — one that will prove the greater point of this essay — was anti-miscegenation laws, which made it a crime for African-Americans to marry outside their own race. The logic put forward by white supporters of anti-miscegenation laws was generally something along the lines of, “the black man is a sexual beast and can’t control himself,” or something similar.
Obviously, this was an utterly absurd lie intended to make people fear and loathe African-Americans, who are just as capable of controlling their feelings and desires as are people of any other race. The only possible motivation for fabricating such a lie is the hatred that flows from Satan, in opposition to the love of Christ. Regardless, though, enough people in the right places believed such ugly untruths that anti-miscegenation laws existed right up until 1967, when the Supreme Court finally struck them down in its Loving v. Virginia decision.
Some of the racial divides in evangelical Protestant Christianity began to ease in the period following the great advances in civil rights. There were no major re-mergers of churches once split along racial lines, e.g. the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God, but instead, black and white churches began working more closely together on mutually-accepted doctrines. As abortion and homosexuality became major issues in conservative white churches in the 1970s and 1980s, black church pastors began preaching on these topics as well.
As mentioned above, many black pastors and church-goers were already receptive to the conservative (i.e., anti-gay, anti-abortion) position on these issues, and as a result, the church would become one of the most anti-gay forces in the African-American community. The aforementioned great passion for religion and spirituality in the black community further fanned the flames, to the point where many black gay men will not come out and instead live “on the down low,” allowing themselves only quick, anonymous sexual encounters in order to keep their true orientation hidden. It becomes a vicious circle, when nobody stands up to nonsense like this coming out of black church pulpits:
It takes real men to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. I’m not talking about no faggot or no sissy … Wait a minute! Let all the real men come on down here and take a bow. All the real men — I'm talking about the straight men. 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.
As anyone who studies anti-gay rhetoric knows, one of the most common memes used by those who hate gays is that gays are “promiscuous” and “sexual deviants.” This sounds rather eerily like the arguments that were used to support anti-miscegenation laws a half-century ago; conservative whites have gone from saying “the Negro can’t control his dick” to “the homosexual can’t control his dick.” It would make sense, then, that African-Americans would see through this hateful rhetoric for what it is — a bigoted lie.
Sadly, though, it seems that many African-Americans are more afraid of having that broad brush turned in their direction a second time. Rather than taking courageous stands against the bigotry of the conservative white religious elites of the day, as they did in the 1950s and 1960s, too many African-Americans are instead cooperating in bigotry with today’s white religious elites. If it was a lie when it was directed against black people, and there is no denying that it was, then why is it somehow assumed to be true of another minority group?
This essay is not at all intended as a slam or attack on African-American people, pastors, or churches. Instead, I write it as a challenge to African-Americans to realize that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of all races are your fellow travelers and allied warriors in the battle against discrimination of all forms. Despite the great advances of the 1960s and the virtual eradication of institutional (i.e., law-based) racism, there remains much work to be done to equalize opportunities for African-Americans, and we gay folk are more than willing to do whatever we can to get you there. As Dr. King so eloquently said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and nowhere is this more true than in the parallel, intertwined struggles of black people and gay people to achieve equality in America.
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