"An Honest Look at Black Gays and Lesbians"

By Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D.Associate Professor of PsychiatryHarvard Medical School<br />
Lately, they have “come out of the closet” in increasing numbers<br />
Some people fear and scorn, others tolerate homosexuals, but few understand and welcome them as equal partners in African-American society. Most of us have laughed at Eddie Murphy pretending to be a swishing drag queen. Black comedians rely on stereotypes of Black gays and lesbians as a ready source of<br />
[images: Phil Wilson, co-chair of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in Los Angeles, feels that Black gays can avoid rejection by the Black community only if they are not too obvious about their gay orientation. At right, Venus Medina, a project officer at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, says that most Black lesbians identify as Black women first and lesbians second. Medina is a 30-year-old mother of two]
AN HONEST LOOK Continued<br />
unflattering portrayals, adding to the common misconception that homosexuals are concentrated primarily in the theater and arts.<br />
A gay presence exists within most, if not all, of our institutions, including sports, the church, and the armed services. “People should realize that the Black gay community is not monolithic. There is extraordinary diversity among us that mimics the heterosexual world,” says Craig Harris, AIDS educator at the Gay Male Health Crisis Center in New York City.<br />
How many African-American gays and lesbians are there? For obvious reasons, no one knows for sure. The data on White homosexuality that Dr. Alfred Kinsey reported more than 35 years ago may apply to Blacks as well: 4 percent of White males were exclusively homosexual, 13 percent were predominantly gay, and 13 percent expressed erotic feelings for males but did nothing about them.. Figures for females were about one-third those of males. The important point is that while gays and lesbians are – and always have been – a significant part of the Black community, they have come “out of the closet” in increasing numbers, forcing “straight” men and women to take notice. Many Black women in America’s major urban centers, including New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, bemoan the fact that finding “a good Black man” for the purpose of marriage or a committed relationship has becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Justifiably or not, they blame this situation on what they perceive as a rapidly increasing number of upwardly mobile-looking, educated Black males who can be seen in upscale neighborhoods living obviously gay lifestyles.<br />
Homosexual behavior is practiced in nearly all societies, many of which consider it normal. In parts of Africa it can be a culturally accepted interaction. The suggestion that White Europeans introduced homosexuality to Africans and African-Americans cannot be substantiated. There is no “cause” for homosexuality, which is part of the range of human experience. From the psychiatric standpoint, homosexuality is different from heterosexuality, but it is no longer considered deviant. Whether a person is attracted to the opposite sex or to one’s own seems to be deeply rooted in one’s personality, perhaps as inborn as height or hair curl. Some psychologists argue that<br />
[images: Craig Harris, an AIDS educator at the Gay Male Health Crisis Center in New York, says that the Black community frequently perceives Black gays as part of its problems, along with such social ills as crime and poverty.<br />
Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, a clinical psychologist and director of the New York City Mayor’s Office for the Lesbian and Gay Community, feels that the AIDS epidemic has resulted in increased irrational fear and repression of gays in the Black community.]
[image: Jerome Boyce, assistant director of Project Survival in Detroit, regrets that civil rights organizations do not address the issues of gay rights in spite of what he calls gays’ high level of social commitment]<br />
AN HONEST LOOK Continuedthe potential for homosexual behavior exists in most human beings; bisexuality is common.<br />
Accordingly, there is no single gay lifestyle. Many people think most homosexuals are promiscuous, engage in heavy smoking and drinking, and use illegal drugs. Some gay people have even imitated these destructive stereotypes. Yet the horrors of AIDS, alcoholism and lung disease come to all those who abuse their bodies, with no regard for sexual orientation.<br />
It is perhaps inevitable that we are uncomfortable with those who are different from us. Phil Wilson, co-chair of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in Los Angeles, reflects on the Black attitude towards gays: “The Black community will not outrightly reject you, but they may make their love for you contingent on your being quiet about your gay orientation. So there is always a threat of rejection.” Open demonstrations of gay pride often provoke a strong negative reaction. Harris says that the Black community frequently perceives gays as part of its “problems,” alongside social ills as crime and poverty.<br />
Although some African-Americans can tolerate low-key gay and lesbian behavior, many homosexuals complain that this attitude results in their being treated as invisible, thereby suffering the psychologically damaging effects of adapting to that situation. Many gays experience feelings of rejection and low self-esteem. Others become over-achievers to mask their homosexuality, according to Bert Hunter, a writer and former IBM marketing representative. The gay predicament is similar to that of Black Americans who historically were rendered invisible by racism.<br />
Many Americans, both Black and White, are homophobic – irrationally fearful of gays and lesbians. Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, a Black clinical psychologist and director of the New York City Mayor’s Office for the Lesbian and Gay Community, feels that the Black community, already confused and apprehensive about gays, has had its fear of them reinforced by its anxiety about the AIDS epidemic. Indeed, its head-in-the-sand homophobia has made it difficult to establish AIDS prevention and education programs in African-American neighborhoods. Such fear also precludes an empathic response to the tragedy of AIDS and the grief of those who lose loved ones to the dreaded disease.<br />
The AIDS crisis notwithstanding, homosexuals have a unique mission in convincing their oppressors of their human rights and humanity. Physical assaults and other forms of gay-bashing are a constant bane to the homosexual community. Because they face such overwhelming discrimination and abuse, we can understand why so many elect to stay in the closet.<br />
Black homosexuals report that, in addition to the discrimination they suffer because they are gay, they are subject to racial discrimination by White gays and lesbians. Black gays are not welcome at certain gay bars and bath houses. They are often excluded when White gays advertise for partners or share phone number networks. Sandy Lowe, a staff attorney for the Legal Defense and Education Fund at Lambda who handles sexual orientation discrimination suits, feels that White homosexuals, who are themselves victims of discrimination, still cannot be counted on to be less racist than other Whites.<br />
Being gay and Black, therefore, frequently complicates African-American
homosexuals' sense of identification. While some Black lesbians and gays identify primarily with the gay community and others identify primarily with Blacks, the gay identity within the latter group may remain strong. In recent years, some Black homosexuals who have organized to make their voices heard and to fight racial and homosexual bias have become powerful cultural and political forces within the Black community.<br />
<br />
According to Dr. Hill, Black gays and lesbians tend to be more communal than their White counterparts. They are more likely than Whites to have children and be involved in extended family systems. Venus Medina, project officer at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and 30-year-old mother of two, says that most Black lesbians identify as “Black women first and lesbians second.” Some observers report that such Blacks are more likely to live in Black neighborhoods than in gay and lesbian ghettos.<br />
<br />
Still, the Black community does not acknowledge the contributions that lesbians and gays have made to Black culture and the struggle for freedom dating to the times of slavery. Leaders like Alvin Ailey, Bayard Rustin, and James Baldwin are cited by Black gay groups for their contributions to the Black struggle. However, some sources hold that many Black homosexuals in leadership positions do not admit their same-sex orientation.<br />
<br />
Harold Robinson, co-chair of the board of Gay Men of African Descent, says that the contributions of Black gays and lesbians to the arts, education and politics is so great that it is unconscionable that their accomplishments and sexual preference are not publicly acknowledged. Jerome Boyce, assistant director of Project Survival in Detroit, says few people are aware that Black gays and lesbians have been leaders in the fight against AIDS. When they have shown such a high level of social commitment, it is even more distressing to Black homosexuals that civil rights organizations do not address the issue of gay rights.<br />
<br />
Many Blacks, both heterosexual and homosexual, believe that the Black community, with its ongoing crisis, short-changes itself by resisting the input of lesbian and gay “soldiers.” As Hill notes, “Bickering only adds to our oppression and retards our development.”<br />
<br />
Clearly, human rights for gays and lesbians will more firmly establish freedoms for all people in America.


"An Honest Look at Black Gays and Lesbians"


1990 September


Poussaint; Alvin F.; Ebony (Chicago, Ill.)


Article by Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. on the African American LGBT community


All images in this collection either are protected by copyright or are the property of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, and/or the copyright holder as appropriate. To order a reproduction or to inquire about permission to publish, please contact archives@auctr.edu with specific object file name.








Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library


Homophobia; Sexual minorities


Publications (documents)