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Running head: MINORITY WITHIN A MINORITY

Minorities Within a Minority: An Exploration of

The Unique Challenges Facing Black Lesbians and Gay Men

Travis Sky Ingersoll


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Abstract

The challenges facing the Black non-heterosexual in contemporary society are legion.

This paper focuses on exploring homophobia within the black community, and how

heterosexist ideologies affect Black gays and lesbians. Furthermore, the high prevalence

of discrimination within the predominantly White gay community will be reviewed and

addressed. In conclusion, possible routes to take in combating discrimination of Black

non-heterosexuals are presented.


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Minorities Within a Minority: An Exploration of

The Unique Challenges Facing Black Lesbians and Gay Men

Using popular television shows like The L Word, Six Feet Under, Will & Grace, and

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as rationale, you’d assume that America has finally come

to grips with the fact that not everyone is heterosexual, and even, dare I say, come to

partially accept homosexuality as a normal form of sexual orientation. This may be

somewhat true for the White American culture, however within American Black culture

there appears to be less of an atmosphere of openness towards non-heterosexuality. This

paper will explore possible reasons behind such pervasive homophobia within the Black

community, explore the unique challenges facing Black gays and lesbians, and offer up

possible avenues to address such important issues.

When I began my exploration of this topic, I was surprised at the relative paucity of

literature and empirical research on Black non-heterosexuality. Unfortunately this was

not due to poor research skills, for many authors confer with the scarcity of historical

documentation and contemporary research about Black homosexual behaviors

(Anderson, 1998; Herdt, 1992; McBride, 2005; Richardson, 2003). In particular short

supply was information on the behaviors and issues facing Black gay men.

One explanation for the short supply of research was that due to the overwhelming

homophobic atmosphere in the Black community, most Black gay men do not admit to

homosexual behaviors (Herdt, 1992). In addition, for a variety of reasons, many Black

men may not perceive their same sex encounters as being homosexual. It is obvious that
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further research and discourse is needed on the topics of Black non-heterosexuality

within the Black community, within the predominately White gay community, as well as

within American society in general. In this way, we may come to understand and address

the unique challenges facing the Black non-heterosexuals.

The challenges facing Black homosexuals are an extension of the wider problems

concerning gender relations within the Black community. Much discourse has pointed at

the emasculation of Black men by slavery, and to the rise of the matriarchal family

structure as being the downfall of the Black community (Hernton, 2003; Staples, 1972,

1990). In the book, A Profile of the Negro American, by Pettigrew (1964), it was argued

that the creation of matriarchal Black families, due to slavery, endangers the Black male

and female sexual identity. It was further argued that children raised by strong mothers

grew up confused about proper gender roles, which resulted in a greater proclivity to

produce masculine women and feminine men. Moynihan (1967) boorishly added that, in

general, Black female dominance dangerously retards the advancement of the Black race.

Such sexist beliefs, appear not only to have aggrandized homophobia within the Black

community, but has led to the oppressive treatment of the Black woman by both Black

and White men for generations (Richardson, 2003).

What such rhetoric seems to have created in the contemporary Black community is an

environment where heterosexism is rigidly enforced and adhered to. Richardson (2003)

proposed that Black hyper-sexuality is the result of Black society’s self-assertion of

“normalcy” in the eyes of White America; that it is due to the drive to feel like ordinary
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human beings after generations of being labeled sexually deviant and obscene (Lee,

2003). In this hyper-masculine environment, the Black gay man and the Black lesbian

are all but invisible (McBride, 2005).

In a 2002 survey of more than 2,500 Black gays and lesbians within nine major cities

in the United States, 66% of respondents agreed that homophobia in the black community

was a problem (McBride, 2005). Further research has confirmed that the majority of

Blacks disapprove of homosexuality (Cannick, 2004). Some Black Americans even view

homosexuality as a predominantly White phenomenon (Icard, 1986). Possible cited roots

of Black homophobia include; religion and the role of the Black church, the strict sexist

gender role socialization in Black communities, beliefs that male homosexuality and

lesbians further emasculates the Black man, and the pervasive attitude that homosexuals

are best left locked in the closet to preserve community face (Anderson, 1998; Asanti,

1997; Peterson, 1992).

Because of anticipated disapproval, many Black non-heterosexuals choose not to

publicly disclose their sexual orientations. To do so may cause an individual to risk

rejection, isolation, or even physical assault (Dowd, 1994). Such negative stigma and

disapproval toward homosexuality creates a situation where there is little support for

Black gays and lesbians within the Black community, and no distinct Black gay culture.

In a study by Loiacano (1989) Black lesbians and gay men were interviewed to get a

better understanding of the challenges they face, and to explore ways to meet their needs.
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One of the reoccurring themes expressed was the need for validation within the Black

community. Interviewees commonly expressed the pressure to stay secretive of their

sexual orientation, or risk losing the support of those in the Black community, as well as

the fear of the ramifications their “coming out” could have on their families. It was also

discussed how the masculinist, heterosexist, “save the Black family” rhetoric within the

Black community further propagates homophobia. Many have expressed sadness at how

the Black community has come to oppress the sexuality of their own people, due to the

sexist ideologies of those who have oppressed Black people throughout history

(Anderson 1998; Loiacano, 1989).

Another dominant theme in the Loiacano (1989) interviews was the desperate need for

Black non-heterosexual role models. This need for Black gay and lesbian role models

has been well documented elsewhere (Anderson, 1998; Asanti, 2001; Cannick, 2004;

Loiacano, 1989; McBride, 2005). Everywhere in mainstream White media, you see

depictions of successful White gay men and Lesbians. Shows such as The “L” word,

Will & Grace, and Six Feet Under to name just a few. For the most part, American

television unashamedly ignores Black gays and Lesbians (Cannick, 2004). When there

are depictions of Black homosexuality it is often in a derogatory way, such as skits

performed on the show “In Living Color,” and in the movie “Car Wash” with Snoop

Dogg. In these depictions, Black gay men are utilized as props for juxtaposition with the

“real” manliness of the Black male characters that interact with them (Dowd, 1994).
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McBride (2005, p. 4) proposes an important question, “where in the popular or

cultural imagination is the bourgeois, well-educated, fairly cosmopolitan Black gay

man?” The only place where I’ve seen one represented is on the show “Six Feet Under,”

in the form of Keith, the Black security officer who is the on and off again romantic

partner of the show’s main White gay character, David. However, even in that role the

Black gay male is instilled with the stereotypical characteristics of nearly uncontrollable

hyper-sexuality and irascibility; two derogatory characteristics generally assigned to the

heterosexual Black male.

With the pervasive homophobic attitudes of the Black community, many Black gays

and lesbians are presented with the difficult decision of either trying to be accepted

within their own community, or within the predominantly White gay community. A

viewpoint that I personally agree with, was stated by Cannick (2004) who believes that

the Black homosexual, or bisexual, should not be forced to choose between one

community or the other. “You can’t be Black and ignore issues that face the gay

community, and you can’t be gay and ignore issues that face the Black community. It’s

who you are – an important part of both communities (p.1).” Such logic would appear

irrefutable. However, the reality of the situation is quite different.

One respondent in the Loiacano (1989) interviews, Larry, sheds light on this difficult

situation by demonstrating how even within the supposedly open and accepting gay

community, Black people become the victims of discrimination. Larry experienced

discrimination when trying to enter a gay night club and expressed his feeling about the
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situation by stating, “it really saddened me because I thought because we were all gay, we

were all fighting for equality. You know… we would pull together. But I found more

overt racism among White gays than I did among just Whites period… which really upset

me (p.23).”

This tendency for the gay community to discriminate against non-Whites has been

well-documented (Anderson, 1998; Asanti, 1997; Cannick, 2004 Dowd, 1994; Herdt,

1992; Icard, 1989; Lim-Hing, 1990; Loiacano, 1989; McBride, 2005; Jackson, Shannon,

and Yu, 2002; Richardson, 2003). Why there appears to be a greater deal of

discrimination against Black gays within the gay community, than in the White

community in general has not been properly explored. In fact, I have found no literature

addressing this phenomenon from the gay community’s perspective.

What all this homophobic discrimination, within both the White gay community and

Black community, has resulted in is a situation where there is virtually no incentive for

the Black gay male or lesbian to identify themselves as such. With no role models to

look up to, and no place to go in which one feels accepted and safe, it is no wonder that

most non-heterosexual Black gay men and lesbians decide to keep their orientations

secret. Coming out within the Black community poses a variety of safety risks for the

Black gay male. This reality seems to have resulted in a tendency for such men to prefer

living a life on the “down low.” Living on the “down low” is the term coined for

describing a situation where Black males establish heterosexual relationships and engage

in homosexual activities on the side, and in secrecy (Smith, 2004). For the Black woman,
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proclaiming oneself as a lesbian would add yet another hated identity to an already heavy

load to bear (Richardson, 2003). However, this atmosphere of secrecy has consequences.

This powerful sense of isolation is identified as a main reason for the high incidence

of suicide among Black lesbians (Asanti, 1997). An atmosphere of hyper-masculinity,

homophobia and heterosexism has created a situation in which “coming out” in the Black

community is just not a viable option for the Black gay or bisexual male. Secrecy and a

life of living on the “down low” becomes the only option. The sense of shame and

deviance one feels by being forced to act out one’s sexual desires in secrecy lends itself to

greater risk taking, and is resulting in an increasing prevalence for men living on the

“down low” to contract and transmit HIV to their unsuspecting girlfriends and wives

(Smith, 2004).

Throughout this paper I have presented information regarding the adversity faced by

today’s Black gay men and lesbians within their communities, as well as within the gay

community. The following suggestions to address the issues facing the Black non-

heterosexual population come from a variety of sources, and all appear to be well thought

out. However, I know that creating the needed changes will take a lot of work and

sacrifice from the Black community, the gay community, Black gay men and lesbians, as

well as from our society as a whole; obviously no easy task! With that said, I’ll now

review a few worthwhile ideas of how to address the difficulties facing Black non-

heterosexuals.
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One avenue to address the challenges facing Black gays and lesbians, suggested by

Cannick (2004), is through greater activism on the part of Black gays and lesbians

themselves. In her opinion Black gays and lesbians will continue to be invisible and

ignored as long as they continue to ignore themselves, so the need to unite and organize

against the oppressive forces at work is paramount. This, however, may prove to be a

difficult task to undertake. In an article by McBride (2005) the opinion was expressed

that only middle-class Black gay men and lesbians can discuss the importance of

combating homophobia within the Black community, since they most likely no longer

live there and are therefore more safe from the repercussions of such activism. On the

flip-side, lower-class Black gay and lesbian activists would be at greater safety risk, for

they must daily negotiate the perils of such actions within their communities.

Another possible method towards change that may lead to less homophobia and

greater support for the non-heterosexual members of the Black community, would be to

rewrite black history in a way that would truthfully represent the Black voice, and not the

heterosexist views of a puritanically oppressive culture (Richardson, 2003). Black

lesbians and gay men have been almost entirely omitted from black history, although it is

very likely that at least some of the prominent figures throughout Black history were not

heterosexual. To recognize the achievements of non-heterosexual Black figures in

history could possibly lead to a greater acceptance of sexual minorities within the Black

community, as well as providing further impetus to reject the oppressive sexual

ideologies of mainstream society.


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Sexuality education is yet another route to combat homophobia and heterosexism

within the Black community, as well as within society in general. Many studies have

demonstrated how sexuality education positively affects specific attitudes towards non-

heterosexuality (Finken, 2002; Larsen, Cate, & Reed, 1983; Serdahely, 1984; Wright, &

Cullen, 2001; Lewis, 2003). However, in the study by Lewis (2003), evidence suggested

that education had less of an affect on the homophobic attitudes of Blacks than of Whites.

Education as a means to decrease homophobia within the Black community may need to

be culturally specific in its design to be most effective. Perhaps the reason that Black

student’s attitudes towards homosexuals were not as impacted as the White student’s in

the Lewis (2003) study was that the curriculum was not speaking directly to Black

students?

What all the information seems to boil down to, is the need for honesty towards non-

heterosexuals within the Black community (Anderson, 1998; Asanti, 1997; Peterson,

1992). The presence of homosexuals and bisexuals within the Black community is well-

known, what is now needed is validation and acceptance. Black non-heterosexuals are

valuable members of their communities and should be treated with the decency they

deserve. However, before such a utopian ideal can be realized, the strict heterosexist

ideologies carried down from mainstream society must be challenged and refuted.

Without honesty an acceptance of homosexuality, the homophobic, heterosexist

atmosphere will continue to create a situation in which Black lesbians have a higher rate

of suicide than Black heterosexual females, and where Black gay men are forced to live a

life on the “down-low” (Boykin, 2006).


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The predominantly White gay community also needs to come under attack for its

discriminatory tactics. Discrimination within the gay community not only affects Blacks,

but other minority groups as well (Lim-Hing, 1990). You’d think after years of being

marginalized and persecuted by society, White gays and lesbians would be more inclusive

towards all sexual minorities, no matter their color or culture. Unfortunately evidence

has shown this not to be the case. However it may be addressed, such as through

education, media campaigns, or through lawsuits against discriminatory practices within

the gay community, change needs to take place.

As one can ascertain from the information gleamed from the research I have presented

in this paper, the challenges facing the Black non-heterosexual are legion. Not only must

they negotiate the difficulties of being minorities within mainstream society, they must

also deal with oppression within their own communities, as well as within gay

communities. To realistically make positive headway towards greater respect,

understanding, and equality of the Black non-heterosexual, activism must take place on

many fronts. Perhaps if Black non-heterosexuals would start to be depicted in media in

non-derogatory ways, public acceptance will slowly begin to increase. I seems to me that

this is the way the process works in our country. As was evident with the fact that more

people voted for the last American Idol than did for the last presidency, we are truly “one

nation under television.”


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I remember before Ellen DeGeneres publicly “came out” on her sitcom,

homosexuality was much more taboo than it is now. After the initial public outcry, 700-

Club damnation, and political controversy, people began to feel less threatened by those

omnipresent, yet hidden “homosexuals” within our society. Now it is hard to flip through

the channels without being presented with homosexual personalities. I believe the same

thing will happen for Black homosexuals as soon as there are Black media figures brave

enough to identify themselves as being non-heterosexual. Until that happens, for those of

us in the field of human sexuality, we need to spread as much knowledge about such

issues as is possible, and offer our support wherever we can.


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