The fact of the matter is simple. Stereotypes and labels are not innocuous. They are far from harmless. Not as long as they have the power to color perceptions, invoke slurs, incite brutality and compromise one’s safety.
In the wake of last year’s Baltimore protests for Freddie Gray, black people challenged their mischaracterizations as “thugs” and “rioters.” These monikers, which came from various segments of the population and media, stigmatized blacks as inherently criminal, violent, and disorderly. While black men and women rightfully contested such labels, another one has circulated generally and goes largely uncontested as if it’s conventional wisdom: that is, the labeling of black people, particularly black men, as the most homophobic racial group—ever. (Or, in other words, the false idea that they are somehow the epitome of excessive fear, prejudice, hatred, or violence against gays and lesbians—or, pretty much the LGBTQ community as a whole).
Much like the racially coded labels “thugs” and “rioters,” exaggerated claims of black homophobia achieve similar false propaganda and dangerous stereotypes. They ascribe a backwardness to blacks, conflate them with excessive homophobia, and cast homophobia as a black phenomenon, while simultaneously minimizing other homophobic attitudes in our society.
We are, to be clear, in an era when the first-known black U.S. President, Barack Obama, endorsed same-sex marriage and is the first to use “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” in the State of the Union address. Civil rights organizations and leaders—the NAACP and Rep. John Lewis, the late Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and others—have publicly championed LGBT rights. Young queer black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement to protest state violence against black bodies (cis and trans), celebrate black humanity, and challenge anti-black racism.
And, black male hip hop artists from Jay-Z to Kanye West (whom Bruce Jenner credited for Kim Kardashian West’s acceptance of Jenner’s gender transition to Caitlyn Jenner) have expressed support and, in the process, challenged black men, black masculinity, and hip hop as viciously hyper (hetero) sexual, hypermasculine, and homophobic. As Jay-Z noted, “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love.”
Why, then, do black men and black folks generally get such a “bad rep” regarding homophobia? And, why is there such historical oversights of their championing sexual liberation or gender fluidity as Jaden Smith has recently done in his modeling debut, in traditional women’s clothing, for Louis Vuitton?
This is not new. In fact, more than four decades ago, during the black power movement, Huey P. Newton—as supreme commander of the Black Panther Party, known for its conspicuously hyper-masculine and revolutionary black nationalist approach to liberation—expressed support for gay liberation. In his 1970, “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” Newton asserted: “We haven’t said much about the homosexual at all and we must relate to the homosexual movement” and “must understand [homosexuality] in its purest form; that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body whatever way he wants to.” “Homosexuals,” he continues, “are not enemies of the people.”
So, surely some folks will suggest that black religiosity or organized religion accounts for excessive black homophobia. But, let’s be clear: these alone are shortsighted and do not quantify the myths. According to the Pew Research Center, 21% of white Evangelical Protestants and 41% of black Protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2014, while 13% of white Evangelical Protestants and 30% of black Protestants did so in 2001. Simply put, black Protestants’ support of same-sex marriage has been consistently higher than their counterparts. And, generational attitudes, religiously unaffiliated blacks, and other variables further debunk myths.
Why, then, we might ask, are there such historical oversights, limited representations (of black men and masculinity—and black women, too), as well as inattention to black people’s nuanced responses to and support of LGBTQ folks and concerns? And what are the underlying consequences?
When we sensationalize black homophobia or stigmatize black people as homophobic collectively, we not only stereotype black men and women; we neglect and do a disservice to black people’s complex history of advocacy for civil and human rights, gay liberation, and equality for all. Second, we condition ourselves to accept, justify, or normalize hatred and deadly violence against black gay, trans, and queer bodies like Michelle Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Monica Roberts, and others whose names and murders we seldom know.
Equally problematic, we ignore the contours and realities of homophobia in America—the same dynamics and realities that account for NFL players like Odell Beckham Jr. having to contend with derogatory gay slurs or vicious invectives when he dares to dance with men, don honey-blonde-dyed hair, or refuse to deny himself or be encumbered by rather limited constructions of (black) manhood
We cannot afford to be uncritical, blind sighted, or to accept homophobia or heterosexist sentiments in any shape, form, or variation; nor can we succumb to the hype of black homophobia. When black people are called out of their names and labeled the epitome of homophobia, we should be as offended as when called “thugs” or other racially-charged insults. And, we should respond in similar fashion as when black bodies—male or female, young and old—are targets of attack and violence: whether in a crowd in Chicago, on a bicycle in Baltimore, at pool party in McKinney, Texas, or on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio.
After all, the fact of the matter is simple. Stereotypes and labels are not innocuous. They are far from harmless. Not as long as they have the power to color perceptions, invoke slurs, incite brutality and compromise one’s safety, or to cause black and LGBTQ folks their very lives.
Photo: Flickr/ Calvin Fleming