Conversations about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in the African American community are nothing new and have been an orbiting narrative that we have heard one too many times. Remember when several black LGBTQ members fired back at author and LGBTQ activist Dan Savage after his piece on Black homophobia falsely connected a rise in African American voters with the passing of anti-LGBTQ legislation with California’s Prop 8? Michael Arceneaux was one of many who stood on the opposite side of Savage’s argument when he published “Black People Are Not More Homophobic Than Everyone Else.”
“In mass media, white upper middle class men tend to serve as the face of the LGBTQ community,” Arceneaux said. “Meanwhile, in 2012 Pew did a study and it revealed that Black people self-identify as LGBTQ more than anyone else … people regardless of background are becoming more acceptable of LGBTQ people. Most of prejudices surrounding these groups are rooted in religion or misogyny.”
In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that 43 percent of black Protestants supported gay marriage compared to 23 percent of white evangelical Protestants.
PRRI’s survey last February also showed that black Protestants favored nondiscrimination laws 64-31. The social group actually opposed religious refusals to LGBTQ members at a higher rate than their own counterparts.
The argument around homophobia in the African American community is a grayish assumption. This is not to say that homophobia, transphobia and biphobia are no longer an issue in the black community. But there have been many instances in which the conversation has almost shelved itself, because of the many roles of African Americans.
Viktor Kerney is an African American gay writer who covers stories on LGBTQ issues, social justice and pop culture. Like Arceneaux, he highlighted how mass media plays a role in shaping how society may perceive the relationship between African Americans and the LGBTQ community.
“I created a hashtag once that said ‘gay media is so white’ because of the fact that they really focus on white male perspectives when it comes to being LGBT,” Kerney said. “When it comes to our issues, we don’t see ourselves. So we don’t believe that we exist.”
Despite how society may view the black and LGBTQ community, we have in fact seen several black celebrities challenge gender norms – and we’re starting to see more of the Princes along with the 50 Cents. The actor Jaden Smith spoke recently with Variety about why he wears dresses in hopes that other kids feel comfortable dressing however they want. Hip-hop artist Young Thug was also seen wearing a dress on the cover of his new album. Thug even shared hip-hop’s uncommon portrayals of gender in a Calvin Klein advertisement saying, “In my world, you can be a gangsta with a dress or you can be a gangsta with baggy pants; I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
“There are artists who are really shaping things within pop culture who are coming out and supporting,” Kerney said. “Visibility is also important, too, because you see it more and you see it accepted to the point where you can’t run from it, you can’t deny it.”
The media can influence and shape the public’s perceptions of many things, but Arceneaux said he doesn’t think pop culture is solely helping alter gender and social norms.
“Pop culture tends to reflect society, so it’s not so much them leading the charge as it is them responding to what’s already happening,” Arceneaux said. “But yes, I value Young Thug for saying gender does not exist. It’s important, but again, society is advancing on its own and it’s reflected in pop culture.”
Nadine Smith, an LGBTQ civil rights activist and executive director of Equality Florida, said she doesn’t think celebrities should exclusively be credited for giving voice to the LGBTQ community.
“When you look at black elected leaders, our biggest champions of LGBT rights have been the black caucus,” Smith said. “From Dr. King to John Lewis to Coretta Scott King to President Obama – the strongest records on advancing LGBT rights, you got to give it to black elected leaders.”
We cannot ever forget the historic Supreme Court ruling President Obama helped advance for the legality of same-sex marriage. Though we lost a pop icon this year, we also cannot forget how Prince helped shape not only music, but gender roles in fashion. Nevertheless, there are still several leaders in black history we need to remember who also affected the movement of inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ people.
Bayard Rustin, an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr., was an openly gay activist. His partner described him as someone who didn’t give off a sense of shame or guilt about his homosexuality – a rare characteristic during his time. The iconic black writer James Baldwin helped advance the conversation around sexuality with his book “Giovanni’s Room,” which illustrated an intersection of bisexuality with an American man engaged to a woman living in Paris while engaging in relationships with several men. Coretta Scott King spoke at a gay conference before her death, Audre Lorde kickstarted conversations around gender, sexuality and race, and Huey P. Newton wrote to his fellow Black Panthers all the way back in 1970 asking for LGBTQ acceptance because “Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.” And the list goes on. Not to leave out that three black queer women leaders helped start today’s movement for black lives to highlight issues between African Americans and police communities, and to elevate the visibility of all LGBTQ members living in the community’s own backyard.
Despite the beliefs about homophobia in the African American community, it’s difficult to argue that black leaders were not pivotal in helping shape the progression of the LGBTQ rights movement. Of course, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done, but all of the efforts of black activists exemplify an optimistic future for African Americans and the LGBTQ community, and the members of both communities.
About the Author
Senait Gebregiorgis is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Learn more about her here.