Homophobia and the Black Community

james baldwinI know that some days have passed since the “Homophobia in the Black Community” discussion in the Lowell JCR (hosted by ABHW, the LGBT Political Coalition, and the Black Men’s Forum) but I still find myself returning to my memories of the discussion and its contents, picking them up, and turning them around and around in thought. I would like to share some of my thoughts here in hopes that we can get a discussion going as I’m really interested in your reflections on these topics.

The format of the discussion, for those of us who weren’t there, began as a panel of sorts with former Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 and his successor, Mayor E. Denise Simmons, both openly gay/ lesbian (respectively) and both black (Reeves was the first openly gay African American mayor in the US). Both were asked very generally to speak on homophobia and the black community- reflections on their experiences and thoughts in general. After they spoke, the conversation moved to a Q and A session in which attendees both asked questions of the mayors and also responded to questions others asked.

The first thing that struck me at the discussion was the order in which the speakers were presented. First, a white, male student got up at the podium and introduced a black, male student who introduced the former (male) mayor. Where were the women? Luckily, Reeves took the microphone and immediately commented on this particular order of introduction by insisting that the “men” in the room take note and offer the current mayor, who happens to be female, the microphone first. Later, he insisted, he would be the clean-up speaker.

I wonder a few things about these introductions:

First of all, was there to be the assumption that the later speakers were the more honored (the way the last musical act in a concert is often the “main” act)? In this case, it might be in deference that the white male preceded that black male, and that the women were not asked to speak until after the former mayor. Or, perhaps, in this view gender was not a factor at all: maybe the former mayor was to speak before the current mayor as an “opening” act of sorts. Maybe it was a coincidence that the a male student introduced the male mayor instead of a representative of ABHW.

Neither of these reflections explain the fact that a white student introduced the event. He was representing the LGBT Political Coalition, and therefor (at least) was not pushing a necessarily straight, white, male identity onto his position as first speaker at the event.Regardless of motive, however, I was shaken by the order with which intended speakers came forward. One symptom of and unfortunate compliance in being a part of an oppressed group involves a silencing of self.

What I mean by this (and this is not my idea) is that the farther one is from being a part of the favored group within the hegemony the less one is visible and audible within that hegemony. Thus, in our time and place, white, male presenting people tend to take up the most space and volume while both women and people of color and people who simultaneously occupy the intersections of non-male, non-white categories are silenced- made to feel physically, intellectually and emotionally afraid, not represented in the media in humanizing ways, made to feel ashamed of our bodies, our anger, our desires, our voices ( fragmented and unable to really exist within a homophobic, racist, classist, misogynistic, ableist, ageist society- Audre Lorde writes about this beautifully in her essay, “transformation of silence into language and action.”)

This particular discussion was at the least at its core honoring the existence of two marginalized communities by implicating them in the title “homo” and “black.” We sat in a room discussing one kind of oppression within an oppressed community- and certainly paid tribute to two leaders who gained power despite their intersectional oppression- thus confirming that people who come from oppressed groups lack access to positions of power that elevates them to vocality- the acquisition of a public and listened to voice. Yet, somehow, the order of introductions- and the glaring lack of a female introducer- didn’t seem cognizant of giving voice and space to those who tend to lack it.

Secondly, Mayor Simmons spent quite a lot of words discussing how homophobia is not the most important issue at hand right now, how we live in a time (and i hope that implicated in that was place, although i do not think i heard that directly) in which being gay is OK. she focused a lot on how homophobia is not an issue in cambridge, and that rather than talking about it she would rather speak with her constituents about more relevant issues: such as violence, education, health care. I find this surprising (and a similar comment was made by an incredibly articulate student present at the discussion) because it takes real problems and compartmentalizes them as though they exist in vacuum. Violence does not exist outside of an oppressive binary gender system: for example. The masculinity that is taught to us in the media equates itself with aggression, dominance, physical strength, lack of emotional expression, and heterosexuality. The very same masculinity that perpetrates violence against women, for example, vehemently pushes homosexuality away from it. (Trans issues were not at all discussed- which given that binary gender was not looked to as one system of oppression that underlies and connects many of the issues that the Mayor discussed along with homophobia.)

I was shocked by the attitude of several audience members in their comments that it’s the responsibility of gay people who feel oppressed to tear down the walls around them and in front of them, and to stand up for themselves. I’m pretty sure that someone even said that it’s not their responsibility to make homosexuals comfortable (I use the term “homosexual” in the vein of the people making the comments and not myself- i find that term dehumanizing and clinical). Whose responsibility is it to make anyone comfortable? To be kind and generous with anybody? And I’m sorry, but is this not homophobic? The implication that, though we are taught to be (at the very least) polite towards other people in order that they are comfortable, but that gay people are somehow different? Finally, i can’t think of a better example than this comment to connect homophobia to many other problems in our communities in that it displays a real lack of empathy. A lack of empathy is dangerous in that, in my mind, it nurtures violence and many actions that cohere into systems of terrible oppression.

Finally, someone raised their hand and commented that perhaps the reason why the Mayor was able to deemphasize the presence of homophobia in the community had to do with her privileged position as a queer person of color who clearly was able to reach a place of social and political visibility and respect despite her queerness, blackness, and femaleness.

Were any of you there? What are/ were your thoughts?

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3 responses to “Homophobia and the Black Community

  1. I was sad to have missed the discussion, and I’m sorry it was distressing (though, from what I hear, the turnout was high, which is a good sign, at least). Some of the best dialogue-based events I’ve attended were ones in which the organizers took care to center the people who are usually marginalized or, at best, only passively included. Sounds like there wasn’t a lot of that going on, which is too bad.

    Violence does not exist outside of an oppressive binary gender system: for example. The masculinity that is taught to us in the media equates itself with aggression, dominance, physical strength, lack of emotional expression, and heterosexuality. The very same masculinity that perpetrates violence against women, for example, vehemently pushes homosexuality away from it.

    Absolutely. And the black women athletes Imus called “nappy-headed ho’s” are the same ones commonly ridiculed as lesbians (whether or not the players self-i.d. as dykes).

    There is so much queerness in Black communities worth honoring, celebrating, defending, and cherishing (same goes for Blackness in queer communities). Yet, homophobia and white privilege continue to muffle it. For Mayor Simmons to dismiss homophobia by pointing to other, ‘more important’ issues is truly disappointing.

    Apart from the fundamental links between modern U.S. masculinity and homophobia, how are queer kids of color supposed to learn in public school environments that fail to ensure their safety? How should non-hetero poc couples assert their visitation rights in hospitals? And what about sex education in Black communities that omits safety practices for queer sex? It’s not like homophobia is unrelated to these other problems.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Noa — so glad to have you here! :)

  2. Pingback: Catchin’ The First Thing Outta Here « Cambridge Common

  3. One more thing I want to add is that I think it is important we emphasize that there is homophobia in many and possibly every community. Black communities are not special in their homophobia, and i think it is a result of their own marginality and oppressed nature that we focus on homophobia within them more than we do within white communities.

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