Black America, Sexuality and the Politics of Homophobia

Kevin Hart’s homophobic comments that he made on social media several years ago came to a head earlier this month as his acerbic remarks reverberated throughout the blogger sphere and beyond. Indeed, things became so tense that the mega comedian who had been tapped to host the 91st annual academy awards eventually forfeited “the role of a lifetime” as he described it due to both, intense backlash against his previous comments as well as his refusal to further apologize for what many people across the political and social spectrum saw as a level of inadequate contrition from Mr. Hart. The situation has become so unhinged that the academy is considering going without a major host for this years upcoming telecast.

Earlier this year, MSNBC commentator and political pundit Joy Ann Reid found herself in the middle of a messy, tangled and fierce controversy in the as reports surfaced that for several years in the early to mid 2000’s, the esteemed cable host had written a slew of intensely, vehemently homophobic comments attacking select politicians and celebrities she assumed to be gay as well as gay and lesbian people in general. This same blog had been disabled by 2008. As was the case with Hart, initial reaction to the news was fierce and immediate.

For her part, Reid issued a public statement arguing that her email account had been “hacked.” Not surprisingly, her suspect response raised even more ire among previous skeptics and her die hard detractors. Indeed, more than a few eyes rolled, side eyes were given and a serious, heavy level of shade was thrown at Ms. Reid. After several days, the coverage had become so intense that Reid made a mea culpa on air stating: “I genuinely believe that I did not write I wrote those hateful things,… but I can certainly understand based on things I have written and tweeted in the past why some people don’t believe me.” and all but conceded that hackers were not the likely source of her many rancid and scurrilous emails. The fact is that Hart and Reid and are hardly the first Black people to come under fire for espousing homophobic and anti-Gay comments.

Kim Burrell, Isaiah Washington, Tracy Morgan, other Black entertainers, numerous rap artists, gospel singers, prominent ministers and others in the Black community have delivered intensely scorching denunciations of LGBTQ people and the community for what they see as the supposed “perverted and immoral” lifestyle and values that members of gay men and women engage/engaged in. Even the late Atlanta mega pastor, Eddie Long, who was eventually indicted of inappropriate behavior with several young teenage gays delivered voraciously blistering sermons denouncing members of the LGBTQ community. The truth is that the issue of homophobia has been an ongoing source of contention within the Black community for decades, arguably centuries.

This is nothing new. The fact is that many Black Americans have always been socially and culturally conservative, especially when it comes to issues of reproductive rights and sexuality in general. This has been due to the deep religious focus that has left its deep imprint within much of the Black community from the days of slavery to the present. For centuries, more than a few Black pastors have railed against what they see as the supposed “retrograde” value system and behavior associated with homosexuality and lesbianism. In fact, it is probably rare or non existent for a Black person in their mid 30s or older who has attended church on a regular basis and not heard the pastor in question make blunt, if not outright, virulent comments about gay people. The bible gets referred to, dissected and recited in depth.

It was not uncommon for mid 20th century pastors such as Adam Clayton Powell and other Black ministers of the era to levy unflattering comments and brutal attacks attacks on gays and lesbians. In fact, those black men and women who were found to be gay or were openly gay were often denounced, ostracized and viewed with a critical, suspicious and jaundiced eye from many, if not, most members of the congregation and the larger black community in general. It was/is not uncommon for a number of Black LGBTQ men and women to be subjected to routine, occasional psychological and in some cases, physical violence from their communities. At the very least, they have faced considerable levels of marginalization.

Bayard Rustin, the brilliant, skilled organizer and primary brainchild behind the historic 1963 March on Washington was all but sidelined from the festivities of that day due to his open homosexuality and refusal to conceal it. Even Martin Luther King Jr. who respected Rustin’s organizational acumen, was forced to maintain his distance from his fellow human rights advocate because of his (Rustin’s) sexuality. Truth be told, the Civil Rights movement, like many other social movements/avenues of Black America and America in general at the time, was rife with homophobia. Even today, more than a half a century later, young, many Black gay and lesbian people are often ignored, shamed or dismissed in their communities by their elders and in some cases, their fellow, younger co-horts.

Such a mindset is interesting, and arguably hypocritical, given the fact that Black gays and lesbians have made significant contributions to the Black community, especially in the Black church and beyond. Truth be told, religion, mores and customs aside, from James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Nella Larsen, George Washington Carver, Zora Neale Hurston, Josephine Baker, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, June Jordan, Octavia Butler, James Cleveland, Jean Toomer and many others who are still alive and well. The LGBTQ community has been an integral and vibrant part of the Black community. Imagine the void that would be left in the Black intellectual and cultural sphere without several or all of the aforementioned individuals. Unthinkable and unimaginable.

Given the intense hostility that more than often is unleashed among them, many Black LGBTQ men and women decide to suffer in silence. Due to such denial and, in some cases, outright hypocrisy in segments of our various communities, we have seen enormously troubling rates of HIV, AIDS and another venereal diseases ravage parts of our community. This is due to the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters who fall into this category do not feel that they can be their true selves. Thus, they have to live a life filled with hypocrisy and facades, participating in sham marriages, sheltering, disguising and obscuring their sexuality in secret shadows or on the down low in some cases, denouncing themselves, and living in a quandary of self-hatred.

Recent studies indicate that Black Americans are no more homophobic than any other group of people. That being said, for many, in the Black community, certainly not all (especially among millennials and centennials), attitudes and dispositions toward sexuality is draconian, antiquated, outmoded, stagnating and, in some cases, killing us. Homophobia as well as sexuality is an issue that the Black community needs to acknowledge, come to grips with and deal with with a high degree of unabashed candor. It may very well be necessary for our potential and future survival.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of history, African American Studies and Gender Studies. He is also an author and public speaker. His forthcoming book Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America, will be published by the University of Chicago Press in 2019.

Historian, public speaker, social-cultural critic. Professor of African American and Gender Studies, Post-WWII U.S. History, at East Tennessee State University.

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