What is it with Black People and Sexuality?

black-lesbian-women

Black people (at least those that I know) seem to have a strange relationship with sexuality issues. I’ve noticed this over the course of my life. I am a baby boomer so that officially makes me old. As a little girl I remember gay people in our community but also remember almost everything we did seem to render them invisible. I recall my mother referring to a woman in the neighborhood who dressed in men’s clothing as a “she/he”. It didn’t seem offensive (but I was a kid so I wasn’t sure) but it also didn’t seem nice. Mostly, I think we ignored her.
As a teenager one of my good friends was a brother I’ll call “Chad.” He was a terrible stick ball player and probably never touched a football. He was very tall and quite imposing so generally, people did not bother him. He and I would go downtown to shop together because he had impeccable taste. He was the one teenager in my neighborhood who got a cool job–he was a gossip columnist for the local African American paper. Everyone wanted to be spotted out and about by Chad and no one wanted Chad to call them out for having a bad outfit or being uncool. For my prom Chad and his date double dated with me and my date. By midnight we both figured out we’d have more fun with each other than with our dates so we ditched them and partied all night until almost 10:00 a.m. the next morning. I never thought of Chad as gay probably because I didn’t think of anyone in terms of their sexuality when I was a teenager…he was just MY friend Chad.
When I moved to California I had a number of friends who were gay. As young adults I could see how difficult and complex their lives were. Most were not out. Some were living “double lives”–pretending to be straight. Others just never talked about their sexuality.
Black people have made sexuality, particularly homosexuality, their most taboo topic. We love James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and June Jordan. We laugh at the comic genius of Wanda Sykes and we absolutely LOVED (almost to a point of worship) Michael Jackson. But we do not talk honestly about the complex lives of Black, gay people. It was not until I read Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place that I got an inkling of the fear and social exclusion of Black gay life. The brutal attack of the lesbian woman in the text turned my stomach. The premise of her attacker was that what she needed was a “real man.” It seemed to me an ultimate violation–not different from what happened to Black women during slavery.
Today I have many gay and lesbian students, colleagues, and friends and I have great admiration for them. They are fierce in their approach to their scholarship, activism, and loyal to Black people beyond belief–even when Black people do not honor their personhood.

I do not pretend to have the answer to our complex relationship with sexuality. I hear the religious arguments (I am a Christian) and find the evidence pretty thin (legalistic interpretations of Scripture suggest we should be stoning a lot of folks…). All I know is that as a people who historically suffered extreme oppression we should ALWAYS be on the side of the oppressed and persecuted whether they are minor undocumented children fleeing persecution in Honduras or Guatemala, Palestinians without a homeland,  linguistic minorities, religious minorities, people of color, women, the poor, disabled, and yes, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning people. I will not be so cavalier as to say, “Black people get over it.” Rather, I want to say, Black people let’s keep talking and let’s continue to be the inclusive people that is the hallmark of our culture.

 

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15 thoughts on “What is it with Black People and Sexuality?

  1. Thanks for this post! This has been on my mind a lot lately. I am heterosexual male who tends to be disgusted by how homophobia our community is about issues of LGBTQ. On the other side of the coin, when those in the LGBTQ group state their rights are the new civil rights I feel uncomfortable about this. I think to myself “do you know Bayard Rustin?” Can we ever have a thorough talk about sexuality amongst and between black people that leads to community?

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    • Yes, the point of my post was to say we need to talk about this. I don’t have THE answer. In my own courses I try to help students understand the difference between “equivalent” and “analogous.” I think various oppressions are analogous but we can never lose the specificity of each groups experience(s). They are not equivalent…just as Native Peoples removal from the land is not equivalent to slavery and we diminish the experience of both when we try to collapse them. Let’s stay committed to struggling for justice no matter how difficult!

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  2. I’m curious about you mentioning Michael Jackson. Wanda Sykes is an out lesbian but Mr. Jackson never claimed to be gay even though that was speculated sporadically during his adult life.

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    • Sexuality is a broad concept and includes affect and representation. Michael Jackson’s gender ambiguous presentation (e.g. lipstick. eye makeup. etc.) are a part of the conversation we seem not to want to have. The post is not “outing” him, it is including him.

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      • Perhaps Prince is much more representative of gender ambiguity. Michael had feminine features but I think it’s inaccurate to suggest he wore lipstick and eye makeup. What he eventually–for lack of a better term–morphed into was a result of, in my opinion, unfortunate cosmetic surgery choices. Whereas Prince purposefully walks the line of gender non-conformity (e.g. high heels, feminine clothing). And I wasn’t suggesting that you were outing Michael, I just found the choice to include him a bit odd.

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  3. As a black women raised around and with family members of all sorts, I never saw anything wrong with what a person form of life was. I have a problem when people say that we should not allow people to be who they are in God’s house.

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  4. What a refreshing and respectful post. In my faith–which is Christian based but largely Unitarian—I believe that God is all inclusive and wants us to be loving and respectful towards others. I really like your point about the distinction between equivalent vs. analogous. I am not sure what makes people so uncomfortable around differences; and yes, The Women of Brewster Place was very effective in terms of showing the realities and the horrors of homophobia. Another person most Black people loved but seemed to ignore his sexuality: Luther (Vandross). Thank you for this wonderful essay.

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    • This conversation is refreshing and healing! Currently I am in a Ph.D. program at Miami University where we attempt to have this conversation about the intersection of black and sexuality. This post and public conversation is one that is helping me think through examples of black masculinity and how many narratives there are, but how many are needed to allow other possibilities. The contributor Diane brings up a good point that Luther Vandross was loved and still is loved by the black community, but we also gave little conversation to his sexuality. Juxtaposing Luther, a black male who walk on the queer/other sexuality carpet, versus a hyper masculine Barry White we see the sexual politics played out in our black community. Mark Anthony Neal takes this work up in his text Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. No doubt, we have always had queer folk in black culture, but at times I feel we want to hide this for fear of what white folk will say and for fear of what elder folk will say. Space it seems is a gift and curse, as the hyper black masculine rapper Jay-Z would say.

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  5. Hi ya’ll,
    I loved this post and the reminder of the difference between equivalent and analogous plus the reminder of W.E.B. DuBois “double consciousness” which queer people and gender nonconforming people acquire? choose? when “passing” in a dominant White (supremacist) heteronormative culture.
    Jo Foy
    TX native
    KS immigrant from the South

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  6. I agree with your assertions that Black folk should be on the side of the oppressed and persecuted and that analogous is different from equivalent. Thank you!

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  7. Good morning! I love this topic. I did my dissertation on Black Gender identity, and specifically transgender identity. As far as I can surmise from the research, our degradation as men and women during slavery has placed a premium on the European ideal of masculinity and femininity. In short being a gay black male (or any non-conforming sexual/gender identity) weakens the fight to be seen as whole persons in the eyes of White oppressors.

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  8. As for me I don’t agree with homosexuality period. My opinion is not simply based on religion but natural and biological evidence. I ask the question if nature intended for two of the same sex to be together we would not need to existence of the opposite sex. It make no logical sense when the idea is suggested that one should find companionship in the form of a same sex lover but seek someone of the opposite sex to procreate. The very idea of treating this gay ideology as though it were the new age civil rights is a slap in the face of all those who endured persecution for the real civil rights. I hold firmly that homosexuality is a mental disorder and should have remained classified as such. That the real reason it no longer is classified as such is due to political correctness. Yes i know some will want to state that political correctness is what suggest that man should only be with a woman and vice versa but nature supports that philosophy too. Secondly I want to make very clear that i do not under any circumstances condone or support violence or harassment of anyone simply due to their sexual orientation. Lastly with regards to marriage; marriage was created by religion and the rules are clearly stated. When someone chooses to be with someone of the same sex you forfeit the privileges associated with the lifestyle. In plain terms members of the LGBTQ community should not be afforded marriage privileges nor the privilege of adoption and raising children because their union does afford them the ability to procreate within the confines of their lifestyle.

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    • Tunde, I must respectfully and strongly disagree. In fact, I sincerely hope that you are not a health care professional because your beliefs are not scientific or fact based, nor do they follow what years of mental health research has indicated. Homosexuality is not a mental illness– mental illness is defined as something that causes subjective distress, causes impairment in functioning in terms of occupational, cognitive, and/or social functioning, and/or something that is harmful to others by violating their rights or personhood. Homosexuality does not fit this operational definition, which is held by the American Psychiatric Association as well as American Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, and other accredited health care professionals. Furthermore, your argument implies that the purpose of marriage is mainly for procreation—IF that is the case, then, should people who are unable to procreate for medical reasons, etc. not be allowed to marry? What about women who no longer menstruate and therefore are no longer able to bear children? Older adults? Really? And what about all those unwanted children or the children who are awaiting adoption who could be raised by loving, caring, and capable parents who happen to be LGBT? If you don’t agree with homosexuality, then don’t engage in it. But don’t pass judgment on others. I’m a heterosexual Ph.D. level scientist with gay friends and gay relatives and I love them and defend them fiercely.

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    • I admire your strength in being honest. Even as a gay black male, I struggled with understanding the purpose behind homosexuality. You are right about it not being reproductively valuable. Still, I find that coming from a place of curiosity and not condemning motivates me to remain objective and holistic in my understanding. In other words, I’m always thinking what is the bigger picture? So, I challenge you to think about human nature more complexly and broadly. We know that people, being highly social, rely on others for survival. So sexuality, not only promotes reproduction but it also reinforces bonding and connection which increases the likelihood that the young will survive right (because s/he will have two parents to love and protect them instead of one). Therefore, if a component of sexuality is bonding, and bonding promotes group survival, then why can’t there be homosexuality? Think about it, homosexual behavior probably reduced the likelihood of killing others for reproduction rights. IF you don’t believe me, just about every social species engage in homosexual behavior. Now I agree that the concept of exclusive homosexuality is a pretty rare phenomenon and appears to be an artifact of western globalization. But still, live and let live. Even as a gay male, I don’t really believe in the institution of marriage because I feel it puts heterosexism on a pedestal. But all people deserve the right to love, protection, freedom, and happiness. You’ve said a lot in your post.

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