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.