Saturday, March 12, 2011

notes on black homophobia II

Part II: Cutting it Down to Size, or Waking up From an Imperialist Hangover

After one more week of  hedge-clearing, I think I will be able to talk about black homophobia as I have experienced it from within black spaces rather than as it has been portrayed from the outside.

This week, I go into what appear to be the assumptions that allow whites and Westerners to find the mote of homophobia in black and brown communities while ignoring the plank in their own. After all, majority white states and municipalities have blocked gay marriage and adoption and refused to grant human rights protections. And the slender recognition and protection for queers in the US has come (as did racial integration before it) by judicial intervention rather than by groundswell of voters. Nevertheless, on this very unstable foundation of enlightenment on the question of sexuality, has been erected a tower from which to espy minority homophobia

On this one matter, I am tentatively aligned with the "dirty laundry" police--those minoritized people who don't want certain topics discussed in front of white folks. It does appear to me that we need to have a serious internal conversation about the damage that homophobia does to all its targets. In cases when the perpetrators and targets are primarily within racially oppressed communities, we need not have that conversation publicly and confirm pernicious stories that Africans, Latin Americans, Muslims, and the black and brown underclasses of the West are the backward folks responsible for holding back gay rights on a national or global scale. 

After looking through some evidence of premature self-congratulation on the part of those straight white liberals who wish to isolate homophobia in black and brown spaces, I end by arguing that there is nothing inherently homophobic about nonwhite communities or religious faith. The task in this case, as in all social struggle, is to reshape relationships. The most effective appeals, as legal scholar Patricia Williams once wrote, tend to be to already-existing ideals. That is, you convince someone that they were already for what seems to be a frightening change. You appeal, that is, to a conservative desire for precedent, continuity, and stability. There is more than enough room within both Christian and black nationalist ideology to argue in favor of equality, compassion, respect, and mutuality among all persons. It's not that such claims would not be opposed; it's that one need not dismiss these cultural starting points as irredeemably corrupted. 

What follows is looooooong, so I've just encapsulated the full argument above. Next week, I plan a post called "Black Homophobia, or Class Warfare by Other Means." There I'll be thinking about the strange way that homophobia has been positioned as a working-class phenomenon and homosexuality as the playground of luxurious decadents. I think this will take us away from religion as a single variable and toward nationalism, which always has reproduction of a race at its core. It may also tell us a bit more about why white gay organizations don't see race as a "gay" issue and it remains a hard sell getting gayness seen as a "black" issue, like economics, health care, or police brutality.
In the meantime, one final attempt to clear some ground and get some things committed to e-paper.

The belief in black culpability and white innocence on the matter of homophobia might best be described as the thinking of a person hung over from a cocktail of Enlightenment secularism and imperial arrogance. 

In vino veritas? Get many a liberal drunk, and beneath the tolerance, anti-racism, and atheism, you might hear something like this, if you'll forgive the stiffness of the monologue: 


Secularism is the only engine of social and technological progress. Religious faith is incompatible with scientific knowledge and breeds social antagonism. Only abstract and dispassionate reason can lead to the equal treatment of citizens. Religion is just emotion and frenzy, part of the childhood of the species. Religion is what the West had before we had science, and now, Arabs, Muslims, Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans--as well as our own undomesticated colored underclasses--exhibit those prejudices whites used to hold before we became enlightened. Ah, how we spent those halcyon days of the Victorian era, pouring white pepper seed into skulls, calculating facial angles, and fondl--eh-hemm, measuring genitalia [by which we determined both racial origins and who was a nasty sexual invert]. Yes, science always leads away from magical thinking and from ethnic and sectarian hierarchies and leaves in their place proper, scientific hierarchies. For example, the white man is most scientific, most scientific, indeed!** 

** For this conversation to work, the drunken former imperialist has to be looking across the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean because, if he were looking at the Pacific, he would see those Asians who Marge Schott told us come here and "outdo our kids."

Examples of this unearned self-satisfaction abound. When the US helped draft an Iraqi Constitution in 2004, it mandated that one quarter of the Parliament be comprised of women. The United States has never had female representation that high and, in fact, recently experienced a drop in the percentage of women in Congress. Jasbir Puar observes that laws regarding homosexuality are similarly being used as "a barometer of civilisational aptitude," i.e., a pre-text for the US and the UK to (re-)establish colonial rule in the Muslim world--err, spread democracy. 

Certainly, Puar is not arguing that the stoning or incarceration of women or queers should pass without protest.  But there should be a certain level of suspicion when Republicans--never the prime proponents of women's rights on the domestic front--suddenly adopt this issue as part of their foreign policy mission... or when gay rights' activists in the West articulate support for military occupation of Islamic countries deemed rotten at their core because of their statutes criminalizing sodomy. 

Surely, it can't be too difficult to advocate for sovereignty for these countries and the protection of human rights for all of their citizens simultaneously.

Are the US and Britain in a position to chastise for human rights violations the decolonized world they humanely colonized and purposely underdeveloped? These imperial powers have disregarded the human rights of all persons in the (former) colonies--it is safe to assume that gender-nonconforming people were among those who went to deaths in diamond mines and counted among those who were collateral damage of military operations. Western imperial powers also have only very recently done a very little to protect the human rights of women and queers in their own locales and of their own color. 

Quick. Name a US city besides New York City that recognizes domestic partnerships. Name a state or city with laws that treat sexual orientation as a protected category, alongside race, religion, or gender? I can name two that refused to add sexual orientation to the list just off the top of my head: Cincinnati and Colorado.

Yet, despite these spectacular failures and very miniscule accomplishments, the progressive elements in the West suggest that Western nations are, at least in comparison, already over this whole sexuality issue. (See comments)^

For example, The New York Times--which my friend Twunch called something like the daily paper of  liberal America's bubble--presents violence against gays in Africa as if it were a foreign occurrence or remote memory requiring translation for its already-enlightened audience: "The most outspoken gay rights advocate in Uganda, a country where homophobia is so severe that Parliament is considering a bill to execute gay people, [David] Kato had received a stream of death threats, his friends said.

The reader of this article is imagined to be so unfamiliar with homophobia as to require explanation. Perhaps her grandfather knew about "severe" homophobia, involuntary outing, and punitive legislation, but she doesn't. 

It would appear the 24-hour news cycle has damaged memory even more than I initially feared.

One need not look as far back as the famous murder of Matthew Shepherd to see the effects of homophobia in the States. The Rutgers suicide happened but five months ago--and in the Times' own back yard. Nor is this to even mention the kinds of sexual abuse dished out to arrested persons and prisoners. But most of these things happen to invisible people who don't have a sitcom. Unfortunately, sitcoms--absent legal protection and other fundamental social changes--are nearly the sole evidence of the US's supposed progress on the gay issue.

But the Times' most frustrating tendency is its presumption of homophobia as a default mode of blacks and Latinos who are put in the strange position of answering an old question, reworked: When did you stop beating your wife? becomes When did you stop being religious conservatives who hate gays? This premise was on full display in an article from 2004--an incredulous take on black deacons and ministers who blocked the passage of an amendment banning gay marriage in Georgia. By the end of the piece, the author seemed to understand and to convey that black legislators' opposition to this amendment sprung from both electoral strategy and an ethical commitment as black people to oppose de jure discrimination. 

However, the lesson seems not to have taken, as subsequent articles have continued to trot out the same tired storyline. Despite the fact that it was black legislators who cast the decisive votes to block the amendment in Georgia, it was assumed even before the vote on Prop 8 that African-Americans, so staunchly religious, would wash away gay rights as they flooded the polls to vote in their Messiah, candidate Obama.

I mentioned the disputed exit poll data regarding California's 2008 Proposition 8 vote. The early figures got quite a bit of play, but my friend Sarah pointed me to better estimates that became available months later. These calculations estimated that roughly 58% of African-Americans voted to ban gay marriage in the state -- as compared to 52% of the state as a whole. This figure no longer seems cause for special alarm--not when black voters comprised only 7% of the state's voters. 

One of the more intriguing factors is that, among those who reported attending church weekly, black support for the ban was lower than that of any other ethnic group. (Ta-Nehisi Coates excerpts these conclusions and a link to the entire report.)

After last week's column, commenter David asked me if the influence of evangelicalism produces different attitudes toward sexuality and different expressions of homophobia among black people. I suspected that this question was a kind way of saying that black people are more homophobic because more are evangelicals. My sense -- having not conducted a study myself -- is that the link between envangelicalism and black homophobia is not an easy one to make. Some black preachers, propelled by conviction and/or spurred by Bush administration dollars, began pushing traditional marriage with increasing fervor in the last decade. The sermons, marches, and petitions of such pastors may have received significant publicity, but they don't tell us much about what the members of the congregation believe or how they behave. This evidence tells us, at best, the content of sermons in churches whose pastors may have received incentives to emphasize a particular aspect of doctrine in their ministry (We certainly know President Bush didn't encourage them to preach the passage that decrees it is more difficult for a wealthy man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle! Those tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans wouldn't have gone down so well with the base).

The impact of this funding and preaching on black voters is still in dispute. One leftist analyst argues that black evangelicals remain more committed to the social gospel than their white counterparts, who emphasize opposition to gay rights and abortion and support of school prayer as paramount issues. Yet, at the same time, he points to what he hyperbolically describes as the black community's "relentless" hostility to gays. 

This is a strange example of refusing to let facts get in the way of a good hypothesis. His own data cannot be held to support this portrait. The voting patterns that he cites--decreased support among black evangelicals for 2004 candidate Kerry in relation to candidate Gore--may have indicated not that black people are more homophobic as some permanent (i.e., "relentless") state of affairs but that both funding and rhetoric of the Christian right were encouraging a shift in attitudes and priorities. It is possible that encouragement from Bush administration-funded pastors to speak out against homosexuality increased willingness to answer pollers' questions forthrightly. Even this poll data does not necessarily prove a comparatively greater homophobia among African-Americans. For, if the infamous "Bradley effect" names a real phenomenon, we have evidence that white voters have been capable of adopting socially enlightened views when on the pollster's hot-seat but discarding them when in the isolation of the voting booth. Could the same not be true for reported attitudes toward sexual difference?

Of course, the narrative of increasing conservative seizure of the black evangelical vote came to naught with the overwhelming black vote in favor of President Obama--despite his holding positions fairly typical of contemporary Democrats on key evangelical issues. This vote as well as the disputed "Bradley effect" suggest that polls and election results are not infallible ways of accessing beliefs, much less behaviors (which very often contradict stated beliefs, anyway).

Individual positions and social norms change over time. Politics is about attempting to direct that change. The problem with the conventional wisdom about black homophobia is in the way it posits both blackness and evangelical Christianity as inherently homophobic, rather than as internally fraught--and therefore capable of being mobilized in any political direction.

These kinds of characterizations are maddening because they malign black identity and Christian faith as antithetical to compassion and social justice when, I dare say, those two cultures have as much to celebrate and as much to account for as any other. Certainly, too many people of faith malign and attack GLBT persons in the name of religion, while too many ethnic groups attack them in the name of racial purity or nationalism. However, science, psychology, sociology and programs launched in the name of whiteness/civilization have, at best, a spotty track record of recent conversions on these matters. (I hear, though, that recent converts are the most impatient with those who still hold the views they just discarded.)

But I have been surprised enough by people of faith and those living in minority communities who oppose homophobia to learn the lesson that residents of the 'liberal bubble' have been unable to retain, it would seem, because their heads are full of an idea that secular science and Western nations are intrinsically oriented toward defending the rights of all people. 

Science gave us the homosexual as invert, deviant, and head case requiring electroshock. Scientific homophobia does not strike me as any more appealing than state homophobia was (and is), with its solution of criminalization. And the clearest alignment of homophobia with white identity actually comes from white supremacist nationalists, who are as homophobic as they are xenophobic and racist... after all, if white men don't propagate the race in hetero sex, the niggers, the Chinese, or the Mexicans will take over.

I am well aware of the problem of black homophobia, and I will address it in some detail later. But I am also concerned about an overestimation of its prominence and its hold on black thought. An example of the complexity of black responses to sexuality is exemplified in the black ministers who blocked passage of the amendment banning gay marriage in Georgia (although they had previously helped to defeat passage of a bill recognizing it). It would seem that, for them, black Christian identity both propelled and restrained homophobic tendencies. The question then, for those of us who want to blunt the power of homophobia to waste human lives (through slow or quick violence) is not "why are black people so/more homophobic" but, rather, How can we take hold of the elements in Christianity or black communal thought that already oppose homophobia, enhance them, and make them part of the ideal of black consciousness toward which people aspire?

Some white gays have argued that they resent having to beg or persuade in order to get what are basic human rights. While I appreciate the indignation, I must say this is based on a profound amnesia about civil rights. Even using only the most famous of figures--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King--one can see that an immense amount of lobbying, consciousness-raising, and campaigning was necessary for the constitutional amendments outlawing slavery and giving black men revocable voting rights...and then giving the franchise to all women. Despite the so-called "self-evidence" of natural rights, excluded groups have never achieved them without engaging in coalition-building and compromise--in short, the persuasions and concessions of politics. It may be insulting to have to argue for one's rights, but it's also a necessity--and one which a certain segment of white gays appear to have been spared, standing, as they do, on a whole heap of automatically granted white privileges.

My aim of seizing upon non-homophobic elements in black or Christian culture does open me up to certain charges of elitism or condescension. It might be argued that a middle-class, over-educated person, steeped in white institutions should not be permitted to mount a campaign to root out homophobia among working-class black people. Certainly, if one viewed this task as a missionary's sojourn, ministering to benighted, under-educated, religious zealots, it would be elitist and condescending. But I don't consider this a mission trip. I consider it a political engagement with one of my communities. 

These are the negotiations of a society: I get to put forward my vision of blackness--my interpretation of its history, meaning, and potential--in the hopes of persuading others to adopt it. Certainly, I came to understand the ethics and responsibilities of being black through confronting a competing array of programs--black arguments in favor of radicalism, capitalism, conservatism, nationalism, integration, Afrocentrism, feminism, futurism, and more. Since 1) I am part of the black community--a birthright that I have neither renounced nor forfeited because of my time on the white side of things--and 2) I am a potential target of black homophobia (in a way that few white people  ever are), I will exercise the right to campaign for my particular way of mobilizing blackness: call it Huxtablean,  radicalized by a quasi-black nationalism, reconstructed through James Baldwin, Hortense Spillers, and Phillip Brian Harper. Call it that for a start...


  1. I appreciate the response. I'd quibble with the analysis of Iraq, I think you could argue that the actual bureaucrats w/in the State Department and Defense Dept. who would have been engaged in constitution writing are far more a part of the liberal intelligentsia and are reflective of the same white liberal forms of imperialism that you discuss elsewhere, rather coming from the ideology of Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld.
    It would be fascinating to hear your thoughts on the way the sexual and gender identity of Condi Rice played out in public during her period in the spotlight. But I digress.
    On race and religion, I agree that religion is not necessarily the sworn enemy of a more humane understanding of sexuality that secularists have characterized it to be. Nevertheless, couldn't you carry out a similar analysis of homophobia in America that forgoes racial distinction and instead focuses on the similarities w/in American faith communities founded mostly in the South in the aftermath of the Second Great Awakening - Methodists, Baptists - and their various less-denominational descendants. I know your focus is on homophobia w/in the black community - so I entirely understand if you want to bracket this discussion, nevertheless, couldn't you argue that the Protestant religion was present at the creation of the culture of 90% or so of black Americans (the other 10% would include Louisiana and Kentucky black Catholics as well as other exceptions I figure exist) and thus the search for black homophobia has to go to the very historical foundation of the creation of this 'nation' out of the diverse African diasporic communities.
    David Merkowitz

  2. (an amended post) ... It never seems to occur to well-off whites that some of the so-called acceptance of gays in their own group might be little more than 1) the avoidance of inflammatory language, 2) the coding of inflammatory language as irony, or 3) the enjoyment of the various services identifiable gays provide--from music and theatre to grooming and interior design. But the most important of these services might by psychological: an "out" gay community, defined by oft-stated "difference" assures the straight liberal that there IS a such thing as same-sex desire, but its locus is entirely outside of me in a person that I am magnanimous enough to "accept."

    It's somewhat ironic that the evangelical sense of homosexuality as a demon or a temptation is, in one sense, less segregating than the tolerant, liberal version of homosexuals as a distinct population. My understanding is that the official evangelical position is that anyone is capable of homosexual acts and that everyone should resist them. Therefore, a person who tries to curb homosexual acts can still be accepted in the community.

    The secular version, on the other hand, insists on an absolute difference, a "true" gay self that emerges after a period of "confusion" and then becomes permanent. While I agree that picking a team simplifies life, I can't say that team-picking is entirely motivated by inner truth. Rather, it seems--like most things--a compromise between individual drive and the threat of social ostracism. I'm not trying to defend religious prohibitions on homosexuality. But I am suspicious of the self-congratulation of secularists who have created, as Foucault said, the homosexual as a species. Is this "rational" bifurcation (the hetero/homo divide) more accurate than the beliefs of every prior group (from the ancient Hebrews and classical Rome to Victorian Britain)? Is it more hospitable and humane not to separate those who engage in same-sex activity as a distinct population?

  3. I knew it was the Merk! I'm so glad to have you as a reader. It's almost as if we're continuing those old van rides from the days of speech and debate!

    I am ill-equipped at present to carry out some of the very necessary analysis you call for--especially that of the Second Great Awakening.

    While I think you may a very good point about the regional center of the Great Awakening, I am skeptical of the notion of a transracial, regional homophobia. The whole reason for 'black denominations,' was the racial thinking that could not be entirely uprooted, even from the promising, liberatory aspects of New Light theology (Jeremiah Wright lays out this history [ ].

    It's hard for me to imagine convergent theologies in an antebellum South that was absolutely committed to racial slavery, first, and the color line, thereafter (in imitation of their Northern compeers). So, I look for the roots of black homophobia in a place besides shared Protestant doctrine.

    To wit: you may know that, in the first half of the twentieth century, black newspapers carried ads for drag balls. Some argue that the community's attempt to hide black gays coincided with the strong emphasis on middle-class respectability that propelled the 60s civil rights movement. I think it has roots in black nationalism as well. But, as usual, you anticipate next week's post!

    Your quibble regarding the bureaucrats who drafted the Iraqi Constitution may well be correct -- it's another area beyond my epertise. However, there is ample evidence that conservatives have seized upon the 'treatment of women' as a damning fact about Islam (without any acknowledgment of the right's own poor record in regards to women's rights). It's on Fox News in the mouths of female anchors and pundits; Bush himself mentioned it. The new coda to Melani McAlister's second edition of Epic Encounters has the best take on this.

    And as for Condoleezza Rice, I do have a full-length academic article in need of editing. Do I have a volunteer to read it?

  4. postscript to David --

    The adoption of this "saving women" meme by Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld seems to suggest to me both the fact that they had to sell the regime change mission to "liberals" and the fact that, in the traffic of politics, both liberals and conservatives find that, in attempting to persuade the other side, they also become infected by their opponents' rhetoric (if you'll forgive the strong metaphor).

  5. Whew, MPG that was an eyeful! I probably need to read it over twice, but in lieu of needing to sleep tonight, I'll just point out some initial thoughts.

    First my favorite point:

    "These kinds of characterizations are maddening because they malign black identity and Christian faith as antithetical to compassion and social justice when, I dare say, those two cultures have as much to celebrate and as much to called to account for as any other."

    Well said. And it seems these are the real cultural stakes in the campaign to malign Evangelical/black cultures as inherently homophobic: a missed opportunity to reach out.

    But I feel a bit weird, because while I agree with mostly everything as you framed it, I do question some basic assumptions: 1) the ubiquity of secularism among white liberals, 2) any particular concern over black homophobia among white elites.

    You provide ample evidence for (2), but I think it misses a larger point: gay activist organizations look for and highlight homophobia everywhere. Maybe I just read too much Queerty, but, while there is a tendency among white gays to single out black people on certain occasions (Prop 8 chief among them), much more often they single out Tea Partiers, Republicans (Democrats too!), Closeted politicians, celebrities, mainstream networks, etc. I guess my point is while I appreciate someone calling out hypocrisy on the part of the gay elite toward black homophobia, I'm not sure the degree to which their fascination with us is any greater than their fascination with other kinds of easily identifiable homophobia. But maybe I just have too many conversations about how white people need to shut up about black homophobia. That's probably it.

    And maybe too I listen to "Speaking of Faith" (now "Being") on American Public Media, but I've actually found an increasing desire about liberal elites to RESCUE spirituality and religiosity, a kind of post-secular movement. In light of spectacular performances of Islamism, liberals are embracing the persistence of religion and so-called "irrational" after the Enlightenment: the Enlightenment, I read, has failed to capture what humanity needs. Christopher Hitchens and his ilk are still quite rare, even if moderately ascendant.

    All that is to say that I'm not sure how much gay fixation on white/black Evangelical homophobia is about the religion per se as it is about a particular brand of belief that violates "proper" forms of exercising religion: for personal fulfillment and -- for the most intelligent -- a kind of humanist/environmentalist brand of social justice. I would never say we are already post-Enlightenment, but the growing consensus from the media (liberal white elite media!) I consume is: secularism is dead, the rise of Islam and Christian Evangelicalism are evidence A & B, and all that isn't a bad thing. Moralism about black homophobia would then stem more from a notion of spirituality being about "loving thy neighbor" or something like that.

    I look forward for your in-group discussion of black homophobia! Any sources you can reference on the way would be much appreciated, particularly ones that historically situate the current moment.

  6. AJC --

    Wow. Return of the Mack! You are correct that I didn't really provide evidence of the ubiquity of secularism and the evidence may be scant on the matter of white fixation on black homophobia. I am not trying to say this is the dominant view, I'm just trying to analyze it when it does appear. I still run into the belief in secularism and the belief that blacks, Latinos, and Muslims are particularly anti-modern. I decided not to cite the discussion boards where I've had these conversations with quite obstinate people who are sure that 'education' and the move from religion to science will eradicate homophobia.... This led me to equate liberalism with secularism because I am really thinking of liberalism as an adjunct of Enlightenment philosophy and not liberal as in "Democratic party."

    I'm hoping readers will supply their own examples to supplement the few public examples I have found of a malingering set of elitist presumptions.

    I also think it possible that the gay elite pays little attention to black homophobia because black culture does not often cross over to receive coverage in mainstream venues. However, past exposés have left a certain conventional wisdom: Africa, the Caribbean, hip-hop, and the black church are major sources of homophobia--and nothing else. Because the coverage is so sparse and intermittent, I think that presumption holds even when black people aren't on their radar.

    A related example would be the static picture of Haiti in the US press. It appears only occasionally in the news, but the story is always the same: chaos. I think this pattern holds for major stories about black people in the media most white Americans consume.

    I should add, by the way, that I am not suggesting an 'internal conversation' for the purpose of keeping all white people out of the room. As I told a former student who wrote me: Surely, white people who live in black communities, have black partners, or have truly been targeted by black homophobia can and should be present. But, beyond these cases, I don't see why other white people should feel empowered to speak authoritatively or entitled to listen in. I don't think any of our problems are going to be solved by "national conversations" anymore, but by local cooperation and coexistence, with an acceptable amount of cantankerousness.

  7. Be happy to read to read it. I think the best on secularization is Charles Taylor's The Secular Age - though that is deep in the rough philosophy/history.

  8. Jasbir Puar's complaints about Peter Tatcehll's "Islamophobia" (complaints about Muslim ritual murder of gays and incitement to ritual murder of gays) remind me of a rapist complaining that his victim screamed or bled on him.

  9. Hi, Frank (and apologies for the delay). I don't know very much about Puar v. Tatchell. Hence, I didn't mention that controversy. I do agree with Puar, however, that if and when accusations of homophobia or sexism are used alibis for reconquest of former colonies, that's not a good thing.