Jonathan Mathias Lassiter
It is a popular belief that African American people are more homonegative than people of other races. This belief is more delusion than fact. Homonegativity is a problem within African American communities. I am not too idealistic to know that some African Americans express homonegativity in subtle and extreme ways toward same gender loving people (SGL). However, African Americans do not have a monopoly on homonegativity. They are people just like individuals of other races and are not the exception to the rule. They have their prejudices and areas for growth just like their other human brothers and sisters. The purpose of this essay is not to excuse homonegativity among African Americans but to provide an examination of the historical context of homonegativity in African American communities and provide strategies to mitigate it.
The myth of hyper-homonegativity within African American communities is just another example of the portrayal of African Americans (and people of color in general) as hyper aggressive, intolerant, and ideologically stagnant. To my dismay, people of African descent often perpetuate this fallacy. Recently Lee Daniels, an African American filmmaker, commented in an interview that “black men can’t come out” (Hernandez, 2013). His reasoning was that because African American SGL men receive messages from religious, familial, and community sources touting the deviance of homosexuality that there is no way that they could possibly disclose their sexual identities to others and live an authentic life. He spewed, “the black culture and the Hispanic culture have a thing about [homosexuality]” (Hernandez, 2013).
This type of myth dissemination paints a picture of SGL people as victims of African American homonegativity who must deny their sexual selves or be punished through rejection and possibly violence. It also paints a picture of African Americans and other people of color as draconian sexual and gender role police. Homonegative sexual and gender role policing do take place in African American communities but it is not a given. It is not the case for many and it does not happen exclusively in African American communities. Heterosexual African American people have nuanced relationships with SGL people in and outside of their communities. All SGL people are not stuck in closets fearing for their lives. In fact, a recent survey found that SGL people from communities of color (including African Americans, Latino(a)s, and Asian Americans) identify as SGL more openly than Non-Latino(a) European Americans (Gates & Newport, 2012). Furthermore, research has consistently shown that religion (most often Abrahamic religions-i.e. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) not race is the most significant predictor of homonegative bias (Schulte & Battle, 2004). Indeed, religion and the deviant sexualization of bodies of color can be understood as the biggest contributors to the homonegativity that is seen in communities of color today. This essay will provide a brief exploration these major factors related to homonegativity in African American communities, specifically, and discuss methods for moving away from homonegativity and towards tolerance and affirming relatedness for African Americans and SGL people of all colors.
The Influence of Racism and the Deviant Sexualization of the Body on Black Americans’ Expression of Homonegativity
Audre Lorde (1984) provides powerful insight in her book Sister Outsider when she discusses the actions often taken by people in response to difference. The following passage provides a synopsis of the engagement patterns people and government historically has had-and in many ways, currently have-with each other.
Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy, which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human difference as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion. (p.115).
While I do not propose that pre-colonial African peoples were free of bias toward SGL people, or any peoples deemed different for that matter, colonialism had a potent programming effect on Africans subsequent engagement with SGL people. The subsequent treatment of SGL people by Africans and African Americans mirror the model set forth by European colonists in their treatment of African peoples and their differences. Since the early introduction of the two races, it has been a constant struggle for African people and their descendents to resist blight (Douglas, 1999). Almost immediately, European people began a process of defining and redefining African people. The definitions conjured by them and their offspring-European Americans-often cast them not only as other, but as deviant other (Murray & Roscoe, 1998).
European explorers first defined African people as primitive (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). The primitive was viewed in predominately two ways: as the noble savage or the sylvan wild man (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). Murray and Roscoe (1998) reported that the noble savage was perceived as “healthier, better adjusted, and the bearer of wisdom” (p. xi) and the sylvan wild man was considered monstrous and someone to be feared. Roscoe and Murray (1998) noted that the primitive African person served to highlight the differences between western and non-Western culture. Whatever the African person was, the European person was not and vice versa. In contrast to the sophistication of European culture, African peoples were judged to be “close to nature, ruled by instinct, culturally unsophisticated…heterosexual, [their] sexual energies and outlets devoted exclusively to their ‘natural’ purpose: biological reproduction” (Murray & Roscoe, 1998, p. xi). Early European anthropologists bolstered this heterosexist claim with reports of the absence of same-sex relationships and practices among African peoples (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). When they did acknowledge it, they either explained it as a necessity due to lack of women available for men or a temporary phase among adolescents (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). The European perception of African peoples and their African American descendents as primitive and impulsive-and thus, inferior-came to define all aspects of them, including their intelligence and sexuality (Guthrie, 2004; Murray & Roscoe, 1998). (See Guthrie, 2004, for a detailed account of European American people’s misuse of science to define African people and their African American descendents as unintelligent.)
The European notions of African sexuality were codified among American slave owners and dictated the beliefs and behaviors of European Americans regarding African Americans (both past and present). American slave owners conceptualized the enslaved Africans as “oversexed, to have animalistic large genitals and to be characterized by predatory sexual behavior” (Griffin, 2004, p. 133). African male slaves were perceived as violent bucks. The use of the word buck conjures the image of a beast. This term had the effect of stripping African male slaves of their humanity and linking them with the animal kingdom, the primitive. As violent bucks, they were seen as powerful sources of production in the plantation fields and as virile inseminators of female slaves in the slave quarters (Donoghue, 2008; Douglas, 1999). Both of these roles had positive implications for slave owners’ profits. However, they also constituted a threat to white society (Douglas, 1999). If African male slaves became too powerful, they might overtake slave owners. If their sexual lust became too strong, they might rape white women or worst, seduce them into voluntary erotic liaisons. In a Freudian manner, slave owners projected their ills and insecurities onto their slaves. While they accused the African male slave of conspiracies of domination and sexual subjugation of white women, they were the real perpetrators of these crimes against African slave women and white women (Donoghue, 2006; Douglas, 1999; Hernton, 1992). Slave owners viewed African women as sexually deviant as well. They formulated African women as either asexual domestics or hypersexual seductresses. These formulations allowed slave owners to cast African women in the roles cooks, maids, and nurses as well as justify the rape and sexual torture inflicted upon these women.
The detrimental effects of these definitions stamped upon African bodies persist in the present. African men have gone from the violent, overly sexual buck to the violent, sex crazed African American thug that still have all of the attributes of the former incarnation. The incessant rendering of African American men in this manner has made them the target of systematic castration, lynching, and incarceration (Douglas, 1999). It has also caused them to be objectified as body parts for sexual gratification by both men and women (West, 1994). These stereotypes negatively affect both SGL and heterosexual African American men (McBride, 2005). In the eyes of many, African American women are also stamped with the stamp of abnormality in regards to their sexuality and sexual roles. Overall, they are still conceptualized in the imaginations of many as either overbearing caretakers who are asexual and who emasculate their sons and male partners through their caretaking. Many African American women are also seen as sexually undesirable and interpersonally unappealing by many men (of all colors) due to their body shapes, skin color, or nontraditional gender role qualities such as being opinionated and forthright in their interactions. On the other hand, some African American women are oversexualized and fetishized as “video vixens” and “big booty hoes” with large sexual appetites and uninhibited sexual practices. Such deviant conceptualizations of black sexuality have caused African Americans to be not only homonegative but also sex negative in general (West, 1994). Given these factors, it is not surprising that the policing of sexuality is a problem in too many African American communities.
In an effort to prove their morality and humanity, many African Americans have cast SGL people as the deviant other (Douglas, 1999). They have done this in the same manner that it was done to them by European explorers and American colonists. In order to be above someone in a hierarchy of oppression, someone must be below. In an effort to gain approval within a white supremacist society, some African Americans use homonegativity as a way to separate themselves from “depraved” SGL people. Many African Americans have internalized the notion of SGL as morally corrupt, unnatural, and perverted (Griffin, 2006). Just as early Europeans defined themselves by distinguishing between what was Western and what was not, African Americans have engaged in the same differentiating. It is as if with their homonegativity, many African Americans are saying to their oppressors (i.e. white supremacists and white supremacist institutions): “we are not as bad as them (i.e. SGL people), accept us.” In some ways, the homonegativity of African Americans unifies them with their homonegative Caucasian counterparts. The supposed depravity of SGL people is a rallying call for all purported “pure, good moral people.” In accordance with this reasoning, some African Americans’ objection to same-sex practices and relationships can be viewed as a testament to their purity and humanity as heterosexual African Americans.
Religion as Justification of Homonegativity in Black Communities
Religion is often used to justify the oppression of the other in many communities (Farajaje-Jones, 1993). (Other is defined by this author to mean anything or anyone that does not fit within the notions of the mainstream or the status quo in a society or community). Just as European colonists used Christianity to justify the enslavement of Africans in the American colonies, it was and is used by many African American Christians to condemn SGL people. This horizontal oppression is particularly unfortunate and has negative effects on the well being of many African American SGL people (Boykin, 1996; Griffin, 2006). As a Pew study (2008) indicated, 55% of African Americans believe that religious scriptures should be interpreted literally. This might explain why Biblical text is often cited as the authoritative source providing support for Christians’ disdain for SGL people and their behaviors. In the Old Testament of the Bible, scriptures from the book of Genesis (particularly, the story of Sodom in Chapter 19) and Leviticus (Chapter 18) are used to admonish same-sex sexual behaviors and attractions. Paul’s words are used to condemn them in the New Testament.
Chapter 19 of the book of Genesis describes the arrival of two male angels in the city of Sodom. These two angels were staying at Lot’s house when some men from the city came to Lot’s house and requested to “know” the angels carnally. When Lot would not allow the city’s men access to the angels, the city’s men tried to forcefully gain entry into Lot’s house. As a result, the angels blinded the men and then destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with brimstone and fire. Many Christians interpret the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as evidence that the Christian God condemns same-sex sexual behaviors and attraction. Same-sex attraction and intent of same-sex sexual behaviors are interpreted in the passages by the request of the city’s men to know- know in the Old Testament has traditionally been interpreted to mean sexual intercourse-the angels, who were also male. However, many scholars debate the true sin of Sodom (Long, 2004). Many dispute whether the men’s sin was homosexuality or the violation of hospitality (Long, 2004). Given that it was custom for strangers to be treated hospitably when they entered into a new town. Some argue that it could have been both, that they were inhospitable and desired to rape the angels (Long, 2004). Yet, nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures is the story of Sodom used to condemn same-sex sexual behaviors and attraction and the sin of Sodom is never explicitly identified (Long, 2004).
Leviticus 18:22 forbid men from lying with other men as if with women. Scholars have pointed out that this scripture is a part of what is known as the Holiness Code, which is comprised of chapters 18-20 of the book of Leviticus (Long, 2004). It is hypothesized that the Holiness Code is the work of a priestly writer or school that through contemplation of the Sodom story wrote a set of laws to distinguish the Israelites from their foreign neighbors (Long, 2004). Indeed, these chapters not only forbid same-sex sexual behaviors but the mixing of fabrics and imposed rigid diet restrictions. Whatever the rationale of the Holiness Code, it is clear that it was written for a particular people in a particular moment in history and is now outdated.
Just as the author of the Holiness Code wrote his list of laws to make sure the Israelites were distinct from their neighbors, so did Paul prohibit early Christians from engaging in several behaviors in an attempt to differentiate them from non-Christians (Long, 2004). One such behavior was sexual intercourse between partners of the same sex. In Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:8-10, he warns against the evils of same-sex intercourse. These scriptures cast homosexuality as the result of ungodliness and people that engage in same-sex intercourse as unrighteous people that will not go to heaven in the afterlife.
Such judgments in the scriptures and literal interpretation of these scriptures about same-sex sexual behaviors and attractions have caused many people in African American churches to hold homonegative beliefs. The literal interpretation of these scriptures is shocking and contradictory given the historical use of Biblical scriptures by African Americans. African Americans have a history of using Biblical scriptures to foster liberation and not oppression (Douglas, 1999). For example, when slave owners attempted to use Paul’s words to justify slavery, enslaved people rejected that interpretation and instead focused on the story of the Exodus, which emphasized deliverance from oppression. It is unfortunate that some African American clergy and congregants would then cite an author whose words were once utilized to facilitate their oppression-as slaves-to contribute to the persecution of SGL people. It is a classic example of the oppressed becoming the oppressor.
The “Unnatural” Argument against Same-Sex Attractions and Behaviors
Some homonegative African Americans not only cite religious scripture for the basis of their homonegativity but also rely on ideologies that purport the sexual behaviors and attractions of SGL people are the result of unnatural aberrations and contaminations (Douglas, 1999). The fact that two same sex people cannot procreate through their sexual activity with each other is perceived as proof for many homonegative people that it is unnatural. These people claim to believe that sexual intercourse was designed exclusively for procreation. It is not uncommon to hear homonegative Christians say, “Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve.” This mantra expresses their belief that the natural order is for men and women to be sexually and romantically paired with the opposite sex and not in same sex dyads.
Anal intercourse among men is often viewed in a particularly negative way. Some clergy and homonegative people cast anal intercourse as the manifestation of a double deformity that separates the natural from the unnatural (Long, 2004). Even though anal intercourse is practiced among heterosexual and SGL people alike, SGL men are often the only ones considered to be deformed for engaging in this practice. They are seen as deviating from the “good form” of men having sexual relations with women. Furthermore, because at least one partner in anal intercourse is penetrated, receptiveness is also conceptualized as a deviation from nature because, stereotypically, a man is only a penetrator in the act of intercourse. Thus, not only are African American men seen as abandoning their sexual relationships with women but some are also accused of assuming a feminine role, further deviating from gender norms-or what is natural.
Some homonegative people in the African American communities have constructed the mythology of same-sex sexual behaviors and attraction as a disease transmitted to African American people by European colonists during slavery, and European American men, in modernity, in an attempt to sabotage the survival of the Black community (Fullilove & Fullilove, 1999; Griffin, 2004). Interestingly, as described above, Europeans first propagated this myth (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). However, historians and anthropologists have found evidence that clearly prove that the assertion is indeed fictional (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). Several African tribes all throughout the African continent engaged in same-sex sexual practices and had same-sex romantic relationships (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). In Africa, however, egalitarian same-sex relationships-in which both partners have relatively equal social status-were not as widespread as they were among Europeans (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). Murray and Roscoe (1998) reported that the two most common and widespread types of same-sex relationships among males were age-based and gender-based. Age-based patterns of same-sex relationships were those in which one partner was older than the other. The older partner usually was the penetrator and the younger partner was receptive. Often the older partner would also serve as a mentor to the younger one. In gender-based same-sex relationships, the penetrating partner is not deemed SGL. However, the penetrated partner was expected to perform the gendered role of a woman. That meant dressing and behaving like a woman. Also, in some African societies, same-sex sexual activity was a rite of passage (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). For example, among tribes in Cameroon and in parts of West Africa, it was common among children and adolescents in the years that preceded their marriages to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex. Some even continued their same-sex sexual activities into adulthood (Murray & Roscoe, 1998). It was more common for African women to enter into same-sex relationships as adults than it were for their male counterparts. There were even tribes composed entirely of women who worked together and had romantic liaisons. It was not unheard of for widows to take the money left by their husbands and start romantic symbiotic relationships with other women-often younger-for whom they provided financially. The evidence presented by Murray and Roscoe (1998)-and the other authors-in their anthology provide substantial proof that homosexuality is not a foreign transmission to African people and their descendents-African Americans. As Audre Lorde (1984) wrote, many African Americans have given “false power to difference” (p.15). This false power is often destructive in nature. However, this deleterious use of difference was greatly influenced by European colonists. Europeans did not introduce same-sex sexual behaviors and attraction to Africans but encouraged them and their descendents to distrust and thus antagonize SGL people (Griffin, 2004; Murray & Roscoe, 1998). African American people’s homonegative attitudes and behaviors may be influenced by endemic and outside factors but it is their sole responsibility to move away from homonegativity. Such negative ideologies separate African American people from their loved ones and others struggling for justice.
Moving Away From Homonegativity
Heterosexual African Americans have and continue to become more tolerant and affirming of SGL people within and outside of their communities. Scholars have found that African Americans are in favor of policies that benefit SGL people such as nondiscrimination employment measures and civil liberties at rates higher than their Caucasian counterparts (Lewis, 2003; Rivas, 2012). Heterosexual African Americans have made great strides and still have some growing to do in regards to making their communities more inclusive of their SGL brothers and sisters.
SGL people, their allies, and heterosexual African Americans have the responsibility of furthering this inclusion. Some strategies (adapted from Gibbs & Jones, 2013) toward this aim include educating African American people about SGL people, both past and present; engaging in individual contact with heterosexuals in an open and mutual manner that is not condemnatory or entitled; group contact between heterosexual African American organizations and SGL organizations with members of all colors; and realistic public health and public education initiatives that display SGL people as diverse-not cookie cutter clones aping heterosexual norms-in their identities, races, socioeconomic statuses and other ways while providing accurate, nonstigmatizing information.
Most people do better when they know better. It should not be assumed that African American heterosexual people automatically understand same-sex attraction and behaviors or the wants and needs that are unique to SGL people. Educational efforts should be made in schools, churches, and community organizations. These efforts should incorporate SGL history and civil liberty issues into curriculums and discussions within African American institutions in a way that is relevant to African Americans. One of the best ways to do this is by featuring the narratives of African American and other people of color who are also SGL. SGL people should not be painted with the brushstrokes of whiteness that centers on European American gays and lesbians. It is imperative that these curriculums and discussions do not intentionally or inadvertently position the struggles of SGL people as greater than or identical to those of African Americans. This diminishes the very real and current injustices that African Americans continue to experience and will hinder relatedness.
Individual and group contact might be the most important method of fostering community among seemingly different groups. Members of SGL communities and African American communities (which are not mutually exclusive) must be willingly to reach beyond their comfort zones to commune with each other in a way that is not antagonistic and is without motivations to persuade. Relationships formed must be genuine with the sole purpose of getting to know the other person. Relationships should not be a means to an end but the end itself. These types of relationships involve real, whole people who do not lead with their difference. SGL people should not enter heterosexual spaces as SGL people but as human people. African American people should not consider their blackness as their most important attribute in their engagements with others. While differences should be respected and affirmed in relationships, it is not necessary for them to be primary. Humanness, complicated and complex, should always be at the center.
Public health and public education initiatives have the potential to foster attitude change and shift interpersonal relations at the macrolevel. Public health and public education initiatives such as marketing campaigns and research agendas that focus on accurate, diverse, and nonstigmatizing subject matter can help positively progress attitudes about SGL people. Too often the images and information disseminated about SGL people is narrowly focused and color-coded. For example, while there is a range of issues important to SGL people, marriage equality-most often with a white face-has been the most highlighted one in the current millennium. Also, while there are a number of ills that affect African American SGL people, government agencies overwhelming fund research projects that focus on pathology such as HIV-risk behaviors and drug use. More attention should be given to the resilience and normal development of SGL people and not just their shortcomings. The relationships of SGL people-and not just the sexual ones-should be examined and highlighted. This treatment of SGL people shows their diversity while accentuating their humanness. For example, racial and ethnic minority lesbian couples in the Southern United States are more likely to be raising children than their male and European American counterparts (Gates, 2013), however; these narratives are hardly ever heard in mainstream discourses. These strategies when implemented in an inclusive and reflexive manner have the potential to mitigate homonegativity among African Americans and the SGL people in and outside of African Americans communities.
Homonegativity is still an issue in African American communities. However, it is not a problem unique to African Americans and it is not more of a problem for African American communities than for other communities. Homonegativity has a long and complex history in the African American community stemming from human ineptness at engaging with difference, colonization and religious indoctrination, and “natural” order ideologies. The history of homonegativity and its current presence in African American communities do not mean that SGL people have no place there. It does not mean that African American SGL people “can’t come out” and live authentic lives. Indeed, many currently do lead fulfilling, honest lives. Homonegativity in African American communities means the same thing that its presence means in any other place: there is more work to do.
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