Long, Hard Look: Separate But Unequal

Should oppressed people oppress others? For some African-Americans, the answer is yes.

The raucous scene blew my mind. It took place in 1994: I was involved in a demonstration outside of Baltimore’s City Hall. Inside, the City Council was deliberating on a watered-down measure that would have granted hospital-visitation rights to gay and lesbian couples. Word was that the bill stood a very good chance of being passed.

Waving the flag for gay equality was a ragtag group of progressive activists: We were assembled in front of the municipal building, waving signs and shouting at the tops of lungs as if our lives depended on it. Which they did. What we were chanting, however, could not be heard over the gospel singing of anti-gay activists also gathered in the plaza outside of City Hall. Vocalizing loudly and passionately was a huge crowd of Baptists — all of whom identified as African-American or black. Our opponents outnumbered us by about two-to-one. As the minutes passed, the tension grew in intensity. When word finally came that the council had voted in favor of the fundamentalists’ position (for reasons political, not moral), the anti-gay protesters, who had all been bused in from other states, erupted into joyful singing and shouting.

I’ll never forget this: One woman directed her passionate praise toward the skies. “Thank you, Lord,” she cried. “Thank you for striking down these forces of evil! That’s my protector; that’s my Jesus!” Being a Christian, one who believes that God loves all of his children and that Jesus never said a word against homosexuals, I could not remain silent.

“How dare you!” I retorted angrily. “My Jesus would never, ever, want to hurt his gay and lesbian children. You are slandering God!”

The woman leapt toward me, her face ending up less than an inch from mine, which, like hers, is brown in hue. “You are no Christian, and you’re a disgrace to black people. You are an affront to God!”

Noting the presence of television cameras rushing in to capture the fracas, I stepped back, feeling angry, hurt, demoralized. Had I (a multiculti human who does not identify as “black” or “African-American”) not been a pacifist, I do not know what might have happened if the quarrel had escalated. But as I have said, the scene, by now a live-TV frenzy, blew my mind. All I could do was wonder: Why is it that these people — who know the dehumanization of legally instituted oppression all too well — so eager to keep other people oppressed under law? Why were these people, whose ancestors once were considered by inhumane laws to be worth only three-fifths of a human being, so determined to keep us consigned to the hell that is second-class citizenship?

To this day, I don’t have an answer to that question.

Historically, the so-called African-American community has demonstrated an intense antipathy toward GLBT people.

Online publication Shades of Love, which describes itself as a “black relationships magazine,” notes in the essay, “Are Black Men Homophobic?”:

In 1968, Eldridge Cleaver stated, “Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to become head of General Motors.” To be a healthy male, then, is to be homophobic, afraid of and opposed to homosexuality. It may be no accident that Cleaver was a Black male, spokesman for a generation asserting their rights to power and authority in a hostile environment. Power and authority were not only political and economic, but also sexual. The Black male, according to Cleaver, should reject social pathologies in the forms of capitalism and homosexuality. More recently, homophobia by Black males was also reinforced by Louis Farrakhan who equated homosexuality with prostitution and drug addiction in his 1995 “State of America” address. Black male leaders, it seems, view homosexuality as a barrier to racial progress.

That is a concept I witnessed a few years ago, while covering a Maryland General Assembly hearing on legislation intended to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians in the areas of housing, employment, and public accommodations. State Del. Emmett C. Burns, a Baptist minister, vehemently opposed the bill and vociferously challenged anyone making a connection between the African-American civil-rights struggle of the 1960s and the modern gay-rights movement. I watched as the delegate glowered and trembled as he leafed through the pages of a Bible to justify his refusal to grant any measure of equality to a segment of his constituency. The scene made me feel physically ill.

Writer Gala Oliver shared her struggle with homophobia in her community in an article that appeared in lesbian magazine Curve:

As a 35-year-old, middle-class, Black lesbian feminist, and a member of an interracial couple, I run the gamut between many worlds. I have experienced external racism, classism, sexism and homophobia, but I’ve found that oppression hurts a lot more when it comes from “one of your own.”

I came out to myself when I was 11 years old. It was 1976, just two years after the American Psychiatric Association struck homosexuality off its list of mental disorders. People just didn’t talk about homosexuality then. Unfortunately, in the Black community, we still don’t.

And if it is ever discussed, it is often misnamed or mislabeled. I mean, even at 11 years of age, I had heard terms like “punk,” “fag,” “bulldagger,” “he-she” and “lezzie,” but “homosexuality” was reserved exclusively for crazy white people, because the majority of Black people mislabeled it as being a “white thang” — a product of the decadence of white culture.

So many of us who grew up in the Black community never hearing the term “homosexual” applied to us believed that it had to be a white thing and if we were to embrace homosexuality it would mean that we were truly crazy for adopting “the white man’s sickness” from our oppressors.

One of the reasons Black lesbians and gays are ignored or discounted is that our presence threatens the Black family model, which is still rooted in the Black matriarchy myth.

The myth basically says that Black women not only dominate the Black family, but are in cohoots with the white power structure to disempower Black men.

Many Black men still use this myth to assert that the Black male should be reinstated into his “rightful” role as head of the Black family; of course, that means that the Black woman’s role is reduced solely to supporting her man, often at the expense of her own self-definition. From a Black nationalist point of view, anything that isn’t in line with this male-dominant/female-subordinate model is considered to be anti-Black family.

Alternative newspaper The Stranger also notes this theory in Charles Mudede’s 2001 piece, “The House Agenda”:

When the former president of Zimbabwe, Caanan Banana, was tried and convicted for sodomy in the late ’90s, most Africans believed that his advanced Western education (he was a learned theologian) induced his abnormal desires for men. Excessive exposure to Western culture had turned a once normal African man with a standard sexual appetite into a European libertine with an appetite for the bizarre gay sex. This is how homosexuality is represented in Africa’s popular imagination: It is the ultimate sign of white culture, the final product of democratic freedom.

White culture is corrupt, exemplifying nothing less than the fruit of knowledge that awakens the innocent mind to evil delights, unearthly pleasures. Too much white knowledge will dislocate the African man from what Disney’s Lion King describes as “the cycle of life.” Indeed, while the West has blamed African promiscuity for AIDS, Africans have always accused Western decadence for bringing the deadly disease to Africa.

Black America also makes similar connections between white decadence/gay lifestyle and corruption. In a class I taught many years ago at Seattle Central Community College, a black student had no problem linking J. Edgar Hoover’s purported homosexuality with the fact that he was, one, white, and two, morally bankrupt. To find the most hysterical expression of this attitude (white culture = decadence = homosexuality) in black America, you only have to read the once popular book Soul on Ice, by Eldridge Cleaver, which argues that “Negro homosexuals” were “touching their toes” for white men because their sense of masculinity had been corrupted by white culture.

Whether in Africa or America, for blacks, homosexuality takes the form of the foreign, the rupture on the border of black culture that initiates the fall from grace. This perception not only locates black gay men as dysfunctional or sick (which is what black homophobia shares with white homophobia), but also as race traitors, sexual Uncle Toms who have surrendered their black identity to European decadence.

That combination of racism and homophobia is a major part of the reason why gays and lesbians of all hues remain unequal under secular law in the US.

The situation is all the more inexplicable because of a dichotomy that appears within what society labels the African-American community. The vast majority of Americans categorized as “black” vote for Democratic candidates because of the party’s stance on economic and labor issues. As the Democratic party has become more open in its support of gay issues over the past decade, more of those who identify as African-American have come to grasp the importance of equality for all.

Coretta Scott King, pro-equality widow of slain civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has said: “Lesbian and gay people are a permanent part of the American work force who currently have little or no protection from the arbitrary abuse of their rights on the job. For too long, our nation has tolerated the insidious form of discrimination against this group of Americans, who have worked as hard as any group, paid their taxes like everyone else, and yet has been denied equal protection under the law.”

To their credit, the Rev. James Lawson and his brother, the Rev. Philip Lawson, marched alongside Dr. King in the civil-rights movement nearly 40 years ago. In 2000, they joined other civil-rights luminaries such as the Rev. Robert Graetz, a “white” Lutheran clergyman; Dr. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas K. Gandhi, the father of nonviolence; and Yolanda King, one of Dr. King’s daughters, in standing against the oppression of GLBT people in religious denominations and under law.

More recently, poet/activist Amiri Baraka has joined the gay-rights movement in the wake of the apparent hate-murder earlier this year of lesbian teen Sakia Gunn.

And many politicians and voters have put aside their personal discomfort to support some pro-gay issues. In Baltimore City, for example, the domestic-partner hospital-visitation bill finally won passage in 1995. Also ultimately successful was Maryland’s anti-discrimination bill, which became law in 2001, and even survived a right-wing repeal effort. Many people — of all stripes — finally have figured out that giving GLBT citizens parity in the workplace and in some family issues won’t bring the wrath of God down upon us. But what happens when the issue is legal marriage?

In the Sept. 24 issue of the Village Voice, Ta-Nehisi Coates ponders whether the pull of “black homophobia” could create new support for Republicans pushing for the enactment of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would bar gay relationships from any sort of legal recognition, and for the re-election of the squatter in the White House.

The votes are there to be gathered, or so the numbers would suggest. A July poll, by Gallup and CNN/USA Today, concluded that since the Supreme Court overturned Texas’s anti-sodomy law in June, support for gay marriage has dropped precipitously in the black community. Before the decision, when African Americans were asked whether homosexual relationships should be legal, 58 percent said yes; afterward that figure dropped to 36 percent. To put that in perspective, consider that among people — of any race — who attend church every week, 49 percent answered yes.

What’s more, the Alliance for Marriage, for instance, has very consciously recruited African Americans in its efforts to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay unions. Reverend Walter Fauntroy, who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963, is prominent in the group. Its board of advisers comprises several clergymen from the African Methodist Episcopal church and its website conspicuously features black people on page after page.

That may be an isolated attempt at inclusivity. Black conservative Robert Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, says the GOP hardly capitalizes on what should be natural affinities. “The Republicans don’t exploit the similarities,” he says. “African Americans are vehemently opposed to gay marriage, and Republicans should be working with them to fight it. They should be bringing the two groups together, saying, ‘How can we join you?’ ”

New York-based author Keith Boykin, who’s black and gay, also sees same-sex marriage as an issue that might allow Republicans to siphon a few black votes. Unlike Woodson, the left-leaning Boykin warns that politicos are already trying. “The right wing wants to use same-sex marriage as an issue to divide the progressive base,” says Boykin. “It’s a wedge issue because the right wing wants to convince black people that Democrats are out of touch.”

Ultimately, Coates doesn’t believe that Republicans will succeed in seducing African-Americans to, um, the dark side. She points out that “[w]hile the black church has been the source of some backward thinking on social issues, it’s also been a hotbed of black leftism — just look at Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, or Al Sharpton.”

Sharpton, one of the many candidates seeking the Democratic-party nomination in the 2004 presidential race, recently spoke directly to the issue of marriage equality for GLBT Americans: “It's like asking ‘Do I support black marriage or white marriage?' … The inference of the question is that gays are not like other human beings. [It's] like saying you give blacks, or whites, or Latinos the right to shack up — but not get married.”

The other African-American candidate, Carol Moseley Braun, also spoke on the importance of equality for the gay community, pointing out the downside to Vermont’s Jim Crow solution to the gay-marriage issue: “The concept of ‘separate but equal’ was properly rejected as inherently problematic by the Supreme Court in the landmark school-desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. While I applaud the Vermont Civil Union law, I am convinced that ultimately inequities will arise if there is one set of laws governing marriage commitments for heterosexuals, and another set of laws governing marriage commitments for homosexuals.”

Do the enlightened views of Sharpton and Moseley Braun filter down to the “black” community? To some, perhaps, but certainly not to all or even most of its members. Many African-Americans remain opposed to the idea of legal marriage for gays. But in her Voice piece, Coates says that while many conservatives share the homophobia of some African-Americans, they have not come up with any pocketbook issues that would benefit this particular constituency (or any other one, save for the wealthy).

In the end, what may end up saving American GLBTs from the unjust Federal Marriage Amendment is that famed James Carville truth: It’s the economy, stupid. Let’s just hope that Republicans don’t bring in a cadre of Bible-thumping gospel singers to shore up their cause.

© 2003 Natalie Davis, All Rights Reserved

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Natalie Davis is an award-winning journalist based in Baltimore, MD, USA. She offers progressive news and commentary at “All Facts and Opinions,”


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