by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.
I still can't forget the scene I saw in a movie during the mid-1970s for two reasons. One, it was the first time that I had ever seen two men passionately kiss on the screen. Two, was the reaction from the mostly Black audience. It went wild. People screamed, jeered, and hooted-at the screen. It took several minutes for the crowd to quiet down and ushers to restore order.
As I left the theater I listened to the young men talk. Their contempt and disgust for these two men spilled out into the street and parking lot. They called them "faggots," "punks," and "sissies."
A year or so later I was at a local political meeting. Afterwards, while talking with a friend, a young Black man came up to us. My friend winked at me and whispered "he's queer," and quickly walked away. I stood there alone with him, and after a moment of awkward silence we started talking.
I mentioned that I was a jogger. His eyes immediately lit up and he said he was too. He quickly suggested that maybe we could go jogging together. I didn't know anything about this man, or what he was, and I suspect my friend didn't either, but I still froze in naked panic.
I thought about the young men who ridiculed the gays at the theater. At the time I thought that their antics were downright silly and in poor taste. I now realize that I was no different from them. I had the same horror of, and prejudice against, gays as they had.
But why did they threaten me? Why did they stir deep and violent passions in so many of us? Why did I feel such intense dislike for gay Black men? Did they threaten and challenge my fragile masculinity at the basest and most ambiguous level? They did.
And this realization forced me to do some deep soul searching into my own homophobic fears. For even though I hated what I saw, I had no rational explanation for these fears.
From cradle to grave, much of America has drilled into Black men the thought that they are less than men. This made many Black men believe and accept the gender propaganda that the only real men in American society were white men.
In a vain attempt to recapture their denied masculinity, many Black men mirrored America's traditional fear and hatred of homosexuality. They swallowed whole the phony and perverse John Wayne definition of manhood, believing that real men talked and acted tough, shed no tears, and never showed their emotions.
These were the prized strengths of manhood. When men broke the prescribed male code of conduct and showed their feelings they were harangued as weaklings, and their manhood questioned. Many Black men who bought this malarkey did not heap the same scum on women who were lesbians.
White and Black gay women did not pose the same threat as gay men. They were women in a patriarchal society and that meant that they were fair game to be demeaned and marginalized by many men.
Many Blacks in an attempt to distance themselves from gays and avoid confronting their own biases dismissed homosexuality as "Their thing." Translated: Homosexuality was a perverse contrivance of white males and females that reflected the decadence of white America.
Also many Blacks listened to countless numbers of Black ministers shout and condemn to fire and brimstone any man who dared think about, yearn for, or engage in the "godless and unnatural act" of having a sexual relationship with another man.
If they had any doubts about it, they fell back on the Good Book. They could, as generations of Bible-toting white preachers did, flip to the oft-cited line in Leviticus that sternly calls men being with men, "the abomination."
For many African Americans, Black gay men became their bogeymen and they waged open warfare against them. Black gay men became the pariahs among pariahs, and wherever possible every attempt was made to drum them out of Black life.
Some of these efforts have been especially pathetic. Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin, a known gay, and the major mover and shaker being the 1963 March on Washington, was all but banned by March leaders from speaking or having any visible public role at the March. A popular Black nationalist magazine of that day frequently referred to him as "the little fairy." No Black leader publicly challenged this homophobia.
In Soul on Ice, published in 1969, then Black radical Eldridge Cleaver viciously mugged James Baldwin for his homosexuality and delared homosexuality the ultimate "racial death wish." No Black leader publicly challenged Cleaver on this point, and his outrageous theories on sexuality were praised by an entire generation of radical "wannabes."
A decade later Black gay film-maker, Marlon Riggs, hoped that the hostile public attitudes of many Blacks toward gays had lessened enough to at least permit a civil discussion about masculinity and homophobia.
In a purposely ambiguous and veiled concession to the anti-gay mood, Riggs stole a bit of the rhetoric of Black militants and proclaimed that "Black men
loving Black men is the revolutionary act of our times." It didn't work. Riggs found that anti-gay bigotry was just as entrenched as ever among many Blacks.
Have Black attitudes toward gays undergone much change today? Hardly. Rappers such as Ice Cube still rap that "Real niggers ain't faggots." Leading Afrocentrists have sworn that "homosexuality is a deviation from Afrocentricity." And bushels of Black ministers, with generous support from their white Christian fundamentalist brethren, still brand homosexuality "a sin before God." Some Blacks have escalated their low-intensity warfare against gays to an all-out, "take no prisoners" battle.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has made it almost part of his divine mission to attack homosexuality. Even though the Million Man March publicly welcomes gays and treated the ones who participated civilly, no one really believed that this represented a sea of change in attitude among Blacks toward gays.
If some did, Farrakhan quickly dispelled that notion in a TV interview with Evans and Novak in March 1997. He made it clear that he still regarded homosexuality as an "unnatural act" and would discourage the practice whenever and wherever he could.
Some traditional civil rights leaders have continued to denounce homophobia and urge support of gay rights. They remind Blacks that homophobia and racism are two sides of the same coin and that many of the same white conservatives, from Pat Buchanan to Jerry Falwell, that relentlessly savage gays are the same ones that relentlessly savage civil rights gains.
They are right, but their arguments still cut little weight with many Blacks. The one and only comprehensive survey conducted in 1995 to measure Black attitudes toward gays, found that Blacks, like whites, hadn't slackened up on their hostility one bit.
More damning and ominous for Blacks is the fact that they still continued to pile special scorn on Black gay men. The one potential bright spot in this even has a taint.
The survey found that there was less anti-gay sentiment among the more educated, less religious and more affluent Blacks, but ONLY if the gay male was white. They still cast Black gay men deep in the nether world of contempt.
That anti-gay feeling runs so deep among many African Americans that there is a virtual "Black-out" of any discussion or activities of Black gay men. Black gays and lesbians have held a number of National Black Gay Conferences since 1987. Yet there has been only the scantiest mention of them in the Black press. The national gay and lesbian publication, BLK, might as well gather dust in the Smithsonian Museum for all that most Blacks know about it.
Black gay men continue to feel like men without a people. They carry the triple burden of being Black, male, and gay. They are rejected by many Blacks and sense that they are only barely tolerated by white gays. Many Black gay men feel trapped, tormented and confused by this quandary. They are still forced to repress, hide and deny their sexuality from family members, friends, and society.
Black gay men worry that the hatred of other Black men towards them won't change as long as they (heterosexual Black men) feel that their manhood is subverted, accept America's artificial standard of manhood, and gay attitudes remain firmly rooted in much of the American public.
This will only change when more Black leaders understand that when you scratch a homophobe, underneath you'll invariably find someone who will deny you all your civil rights. And when more Black men realize that Black gay bashing will win no brownie points with conservatives and will certainly not make them any more sympathetic to Black people.
Khalid Muhammad, the former national spokesman for the Nation of Islam, found that out. In a widely publicized speech in 1994, he made one of the most devastating and disgusting public assaults on gays. Yet he remains one of the most vilified Black men in America.
Some of the leaders who upheld the spirit of the Million Man March were gays. This was a positive step in that it was tacit recognition that all Black men, regardless of sexuality, face many of the same problems. But it in no way meant that the majority of Black men were willing to completely accept Black gay men as brothers and equals.
In time, more gay Black men will come out of the closet and more heterosexual Black men will meet them, get to know them better, or in some cases, discover that they have known them all along.
This will force even more Black men to re-examine their own faulty definitions of manhood and confront their own homophobia. This will go far toward ridding them of their fear of Black gays as their bogeymen.
But mostly I hope that more Black men are wise enough to see that they should be the last ones in America to jettison other Blacks who may be in a position to make valuable contributions to the struggle for political and economic empowerment.
It took time for me to learn all of this,
but I did, because I no longer wanted my gay problem to be my Black problem.
Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Assassination of the Black Male Image, Beyond O.J.: Race, Sex, and Class Lessions For America, and Black Fatherhood: The Guide to Male Parenting.
Reponses may be sent e-mail to Earl Ofari Hutchingson
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