The historic roots of homophobia in black America

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President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage — supported by a host of black celebrities, public figures, religious leaders and notables — is presented as evidence of progress in the black community regarding gay rights. Nationally, the politics of gay rights is rapidly changing. Yet, as some black clergy have expressed their opposition to the president’s “evolution” on the issue, the media have focused on the recurring theme of black homophobia.

While the African-Americans and LGBT communities have each experienced a legacy of oppression and a struggle for equality that shares some similarities, resentment has existed between the two groups. Some elements of the black community have resisted, even resented the comparison between the civil rights movement and the gay rights movement, viewing homosexuality as a lifestyle choice if not a sin. Meanwhile, voices from the white-dominated gay community have singled out black homophobia as a problem in American life.

That rift was once again brought to light when it was reported that black voters in North Carolina voted for Amendment 1 — which defines marriage as solely between a man and a woman — by a 2-to-1 margin. Ultimately, the measure won with 61 percent of the vote, prompting Gov. Bev Perdue to say she was embarrassed, and that the vote made the state “look like Mississippi.”

Similarly, in 2008, when California passed the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, 70 percent of blacks voted in favor according to one poll, compared to 53 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of whites and 49 percent of Asians.

A recent Pew poll found that 49 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage in 2012, while 67 percent disapproved in 2008. Today, according to the survey, 43 percent of whites and 43 percent of all Americans oppose such marriages.

CNN anchor Don Lemon believes that the black community is not accepting of gays. “It’s quite different for an African-American male,” he told the New York Times last year, “It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture.”

Although part of the rift between blacks and gays is attributed to religion, religion is only part of the story. Even as some black clergy have engaged in gay-bashing from the pulpit, LGBT people — whether open or in the closet — are no strangers to the black church, whether as parishioners, choir directors or members, organists or pastors. Not unlike the Catholic Church, the black church has been no stranger to sexual repression, homophobia, sexphobia and sexual abuse.

The sexual scandal involving Atlanta mega church pastor Bishop Eddie Long and several of his young male parishioners was a teachable moment that exposed hypocrisy in the black church. Moreover, the church’s failure to grapple with sexuality and the rise of HIV infection and AIDS among young, black gay and bisexual men has not helped promote a constructive dialogue.

Voices in the black community, particularly black gay men, point to black male insecurity as a root cause of black homophobia. And that insecurity comes directly from slavery. Since then, black men have struggled to get beyond this emasculation and redefine their image. It is for that reason that machismo traditionally has been highly valued among black people, and homosexuality viewed as a threat to black masculinity.

“Without an understanding of the deep hurt that black men have around issues of masculinity and their role as a man, you can’t hope to eliminate anti-homosexual sentiment in black men,” says Cleo Manago, founder of the Black Men’s Xchange, a community-based movement of gay and bisexual black men. Manago says there should be a national project to address the psychic damage that white supremacy has done to black men, but that whites are tired of discussions about racism.

“Black men, from the very first moment they were brought to this country, were criminalized and stigmatized. Black virility was prized because it could ensure that there would be more slaves, but it was also something to be feared. Black men watched their fathers, sons, uncles, cousins and friends castrated, whipped, raped and beaten, and ‘drawn and quartered,’ often to ‘break’ black men and bend them to the will of White people,” he added.

Manago rejects the claims from predominantly white gay organizations such as GLAAD that black people are more homophobic than others, noting the media attention paid to anti-gay remarks made by black celebrities, as white personalities are given a pass for making similar remarks. His comments counter those of white gay journalist Dan Savage, who placed blame for the success of California’s Proposition 8 with African-Americans.

“I’m done pretending that the handful of racist gay white men out there–and they’re out there, and I think they’re scum–are a bigger problem for African-Americans, gay and straight, than the huge numbers of homophobic African-Americans are for gay Americans, whatever their color,” Savage said.

Others have deflected the blame placed on black voters. For example, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight said Prop 8 reflected more of a generational split than a racial matter, with support from older voters making the difference. In addition, failure of the LGBT community to reach out to churchgoers and communities of color has been cited as a reason for failure at the ballot box.