Sunday, March 6, 2011

Notes on black homophobia: Part I

Part I: Coming (Back) to the Topic

An excellent article by my friend and future colleague, Aymar, inspired me (finally) to take on this massive topic--on which, much more to come. 

I was impressed with Aymar Christian's measured celebration and critical analysis of the achievement of having a gay black character represented in a flattering light on a black sitcom. This was a recent episode of Are We There Yet? from Ice Cube's production company, a rival to Tyler Perry's.  

Beyond marveling at how he was able to sit through an episode of a trite sitcom (musta been the eye candy, right Aymar?), I was also impressed by the article's drive to point out the downside of supposedly positive representations. After noting the complimentary aspects of the show's gay jock character, he reflected on its limits. Specifically, a gay character who is tall, attractive, muscular, and isolated (i.e., no 'boo' in sight) goes down so smoothly as to call the achievement of his supposedly barrier-breaking appearance on-screen into question. After all, same-sex desire is what causes problems, and this gay jock seems to have none. By virtue of having not done things that seem to be gay, he becomes a gay who is not gay--problem solved, right? 

That's certainly one way to achieve social harmony: Mort à la différence! ("Death to difference,"). Once there are no queers; homophobia will have no target (This is a bit like the fairy tale that hopes that "racism will end because one day everyone will be mixed and then we won't know who is not-white anymore." The reality of multiracial people didn't stop slavery in Virginia, New Orleans, or Haiti; it's no cure-all. Ditto for the assimilation solution: if you'd just become us we wouldn't try to remove you from our sight. Oh, that's a mighty generous gesture--embracing the whole world as long as everyone in it admires and emulates you). Unfortunately, these scenarios of permanent peace could only result from a planned genocide--through violent eradication, cultural re-programming, or gene therapy. Choose your poison. 

But there's a more stubborn aspect of the fear of difference: antigay violence doesn't need actual gay people in order to exist and do its work. Some gay people don't trigger it; some straight people do. Homophobia is about fear, and fear is often based not on objective conditions but on what one imagines is happening. It's a pre-written script that often has nothing to do with what is actually in front of us. As Deepak Chopra once put it, "everything we are afraid of has already happened."

Aymar's piece stimulated these thoughts about the insufficiency of assimilation as a lone political strategy. 

While reading him, however, I became troubled by the wording of one of his claims: 
"Unlike more 'mainstream' shows – Spin CityTrue BloodModern Family – black sitcoms largely stay away from gay characters as series regulars. Why? The short and obvious answer might be the truest: black audiences still have issues with same-sex sexuality."

I will return to this "still" below. 

But first, there is obvious truth in the statement that, in the aggregate, black audiences have a problem with same-sex sexuality and gender nonconformity: homophobes exist in the black viewing audience. Yet, is the converse true--that the presence of gay characters on shows with predominantly white casts indicates that white people are comparatively more accepting? 

When using television and film characters as evidence of social progress, it's worth asking: does a viewer have to change routines, ways of relating, or voting patterns because a minority character appears as a regular on a TV show one likes? It would certainly seem not. Have we forgotten the brilliant scene in Do the Right Thing in which it is revealed that the person who engages is the most racist talk and action is a fan of Eddie Murphy, Magic Johnson, and Prince?

Being a fan of certain minority celebrities does not necessitate that one change attitudes or behavior toward those from the group who are not separated out as special. So, there is no sure proof of greater white acceptance of queers from the appearance of television characters--certainly not when these characters 1) rarely engage in affectionate behavior (Modern Family) or 2) are subsumed within a larger narrative of an extended white heterosexual family (Modern Family, again, or Brothers and Sisters).

But isn't it undeniably true that there are comparatively fewer white homophobes? The (disputed) exit poll data from the Prop 8 vote in California were pretty stark: 70% of blacks voted to disallow gay marriage, compared to 53% of Latino voters, 49% of white voters, and 49% of Asian voters. Is Aymar's racial timeline, therefore, accurate? Are blacks "still" stuck in homophobic attitudes that the 'mainstream' left long ago?

A two-part answer, which I will be expanding and exploring over several posts, follows. 1)  Black homophobia exists and is, to my mind, absolutely troubling and indefensible. Moreover, it is counterproductive in completing the unfinished business of black liberation because it piles an additional burden on black people who already have white racism to contend with. Black people killing, infecting, beating, maligning and raping other black people can never be part of a successful anti-racist strategy, because part of anti-black racism is the accusation of sexual deviancy. From this vantage point, black queers, queers who aren't black, and straight black people occupy different levels on the same boat.

2) Black communities (whether minority enclaves in the West or black majority countries) are not the last bastions of homophobia, standing against a tide of good feeling toward gays led by enlightened white Europeans and Americans. Black homophobia has become a scapegoat and a bogeyman, a curiosity to be gawked at. It's worth putting this monster in its appropriate context, trying to ascertain its genesis, its proponents, its destructive impact, and its relation to other beliefs and institutions.

First, who circulates the idea that blacks are more homophobic? Some black people do, but the most prominent proponents in the media spotlight have been white. Since the targets of black homophobia are most often other black people, it is strange when white people (gay or otherwise) give it so much weight. 

You might recall when sex columnist and activist Dan Savage floated the strange assertion that gays of all colors have more to fear from black homophobia than blacks do from racist white queers. He tried to walk the statement back a bit, acknowledging that white gays and lesbians are not typically in a position to be victimized by black people--but he didn't acknowledge that he had contradicted himself. Nor did he rescind the first statement. (I plan more attention to this evocative moment in a subsequent post).

Since white queers are not often targets of black homophobia, their inordinate attention to it suggests an attempt to simultaneously scapegoat racial subordinates while exonerating white people, collectively, and white liberals, in particular.

Part of the blindness to homophobia within secularized white communities might be too narrow a definition. Gay rights groups tend to focus on the question of identity--condemning violence committed against gay people "simply because they're gay." But the matter of homophobic violence is more complex. 

Let's think about the matter of hate speech. It may be true that fewer black people have (or value) the middle-class convention of speaking obliquely. As bell hooks wrote, 
"There is a tendency for individuals in black communities to verbally express in an outspoken way antigay sentiments... Yet, a distinction must be made between black people overtly expressing prejudice toward homosexuals and homophobic white people who never make homophobic comments but who have the power to actively exploit and oppress gay people in the areas of housing, employment, etc." 
If hooks is correct--and the vernacular humor of Cedric the Entertainer tells us she is--the pointed and elaborate talk prized in African diasporic cultures would tend to generate very explicit insults based on sexual difference--or any other distinction that could form the basis of a vivid image. But is insult always and only a precursor to violence? What of the old slogan in the early days of the AIDS epidemic: "Silence = Death"? 

Dwight McBride has already complimented hooks' distinction between sometimes toothless insults and the discriminatory power of social elites. At the same time, he has taken her to task for overlooking the homophobic violence blacks commit against each other. I would like to take this conversation a step further by suggesting that homophobia is at the root of a great deal of violence that has nothing to do with overt statements of prejudice or even the sexual identity of the target.

Straight people are not exempt from homophobic violence--which is not based on who the victim is but, instead, emerges from a vortex of fears about who the aggressor is in relation to the victim. The pictures from Abu Ghraib and the use of a bathroom plunger to penetrate Haitian immigrant Abner Louima are only the most spectacular surfacings of elaborate violence cooked up in homophobic minds and unleashed on racial subordinates. However, the prominent gay rights organizations don't treat these incidents as stemming from homophobia. 

What they fail to realize is that homophobia doesn't need actual gay persons to operate and, in fact, often appears in settings where the dynamic of difference seems to revolve around race or religion instead of gender and sexuality. Its targets can be people who are vulnerable not because they self-identify as gay but because they are perceived as posing an economic, psychological, or physical threat. Because the most prominent, white-led, gay organizations focus on 1) encouraging people to come out or self-identify as gay and 2) producing positive portrayals of gay characters, they can't access this broader context in which homophobia feeds on itself, sometimes without locating an actually gay target or even uttering a homophobic word.

As you can see, the topic of black homophobia quickly balloons beyond my capacities.* 

  •  It has domestic and international dimensions (secular white liberals lament Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the ethnic ghettoes of the West as strongholds of homophobia while white evangelicals stoke and fund homophobic sentiments and enterprises in those places). 
  • It entails debates over the proper emphasis within religion (Is "love thy neighbor" a greater commandment than the prohibition of "man lying with mankind?") 
  • It is implicated in the working out of nationalist and anticolonial strategies (Are black queers detrimental to the struggle because they (allegedly) don't reproduce revolutionary babies, or is black homophobia counter-revolutionary because it piles additional burdens on black people already subject to white racism?). 
  • It summons questions of authenticity and representativeness (are black queers really a part of the black community? Are they a negligible subset within it, or expatriates from it, cuddled up with white partners in gentrified areas?).

Certainly, there is a book in here, but one that I don't have the time or expertise to write at present. So, allow the next few weeks' installments to be notes, questions, provocations, and puzzles. I hope that when my lack of knowledge shows or my insight fails, you will add to these pieces.

 Unfortunately, there is no term that is not unwieldy for the homophobic violence committed by blacks, Latinos, and Muslims inside the US and in other countries in which they are the majority. Since I know the issues surrounding black homophobia best, I will use that term but I will also connect to phenomena beyond black-and-white America when my knowledge permits.

-- And speaking of unwieldy terms... For those who don't know, "queer" is not meant here as a slur. Beginning with academics and activists, many have reclaimed it and use it as a sort of a catch-all to include gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people--even the intersexed. I'll use it in this way throughout, but I'll also just use gay in its colloquial sense, which also encompasses same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity.


  1. You may deal with this in the next part, but doesn't the power of the evangelicalism within the black community play a part in how sexuality is understood (and by extension how homophobia is displayed). Is it race or religion?

  2. Thank you, David. I do address it in Part II--already in draft form.

    I was thinking that we could add class to your list, because assumptions about the tendencies of certain religions, races, and classes all go into the belief that homophobia rules in black communities.

    A short answer might be that an overarching assumption of primitivism is at play. According to still-reigning Enlightenment philosophy, the European boureoisie used to be religious before they became scientific. The story goes that, without the benefits of a secularizing Liberal Arts education, the lower classes and nonwhite colonials remain mired in superstition and tribalism. So, a strange circle is drawn, including working-class and poor whites, white Christians, and nonwhite peoples as boors without the knowledge or breeding to stifle homophobic comments.

    My point is simply that homophobia is present in all of those locations, but that doesn't mean it is absent in a secular, liberalized middle and upper class. Nor does it mean that religion, black identity, and working-class sensibilities contain only homophobic impulses. I'm interested in seizing and using the impulses toward justice, fairness, and compassion that are present in Christian ideology, black political thought, and working-class politics.

    I don't want to steal my own thunder, so please stay tuned...

  3. This subject certainly is layered and definitely is a book. Looking forward to the discussion on black homophobia's implications on black nationalism.

    I appreciate that you pointed out the violent actions that are seen as racist rather than homophobic. I had noticed the noticed this but never verbalized it as you did here.

  4. Thank you, Mariam. You know I'm gonna speak on black nationalism... after all, I'm just a reconstructed black nationalist myself :)

  5. I think this is my first comment, although I did write a short novel about eduction that Blogger ate last time! I'll get back to that, promise. In the mean time, I wanted to commend you on a provocative introduction to this issue. Your focus on the homophobia of the aggressor, not the sexual identity of the victim, seems key.

    P.S. Yes, that is the correct form of the subjunctive, but I'd maybe rework the sentence to say something like "Que la différence meure!" or "Mort à la différence!" to distinguish it from what seems like should be the imperative, which cannot be conjugated in the third person.

  6. So I suppose, O Crafty one, that "Vive la différence" is idiomatic. I took a good bit of time trying to figure it out, which was fun, since I love language problems like that.

    I'm lucky to have your eagle eyes and generous spirit overlooking this blog. Thank you. I'll be in touch through other means.

  7. Ah yes, I see now - I would have to look more into it. I have only heard the verb "vivre" in that case. It seems that you should be able to say "meure" just as well as "vive," right? I shouldn't be nit-picky anyway, with that spelling of "education," above. I might become a sign-maker for tea party rallies if this humanities stuff doesn't pan out!