BLACK ARE NOT LIKE GAYS:THE ANTI-RACIST CLAIM
The notion that Blacks are not like gays takes several rhetorical forms in Black anti-racist discourse. Perhaps the most problematic is idea that in a biological, cultural, and "natural" sense, homosexuality is fundamentally unBlack.1 Blacks are not like gays, in other words, because gays are white. Frantz Fanon, for example, claimed that "there is no homosexuality [amongst Caribbean men] . . . [and that homosexuality is] an attribute of the white race, Western civilization."2 Far – rakhan "assures" gay Black men that "you weren’t born that way brother—You never had a strong male image."3
The idea "that homosexuality is something that white people ‘do’ (and something that Black people should not ‘do’) has been circulated and reified in black communities at least since the 1960s."4 This helps to explain why Bayard Rustin, a gay Black man and one of the main organizers of the March on Washington, was dismissed by some members of the civil rights movement.5 Rustin, because he was Black, was not supposed to be a homosexual. As Amiri Baraka reminds us, homosexuality is something "most white men [but not Black men] are trained to be."6 This racialized claim is sometimes "supported" employing historical rhetoric. According to the rap cultural icon Professor Griff, of Public Enemy, "In knowing and understanding black history, African history, there’s not a word in any African language which describes homosexual, y’ undersand what I’m saying? You would like to make them a part of the community, but that’s something brand new to black people."7
Marlon Riggs characterizes this "Pre-Diasporan history"8 the following way: "Before the white man came, African men were strong, noble protectors, providers, and warriors for their families and tribes. In precolonial Africa, men were truly men. And women—were women. Nobody was lesbian. Nobody was feminist. Nobody was gay."9 Riggs’s representation of this "mythologized"10 historiography clearly reveals the link between the racialization of homosexuality as white and the ontological conception of Blackness as straight. We are not at all surprised, then, when Molefi Asante, author of Afrocentric – ity, suggests that homosexuality is not an "Afrocentric relationship."11 Accordingly, he urges Black homosexuals to subordinate their homosexual desires for the "collective" good of Black people.12
And there is an awareness in the Black community that homosexuality undermines Blackness. What I mean by this is that one’s authenticity as a Black person is linked to, among other things, one’s sexual identity. As Cornel West observes, "Black gay men who reject the major stylistic option of black machismo identity. . . are penalized in black America for doing so. In their efforts to be themselves they are told that they are not really ‘black men.’"13 Real Black men and real Black women are resolutely heterosexual.14 In some sense, being out as a Black gay or lesbian in the Black community is race negating. This was precisely what the late Audre Lorde was alluding to with the following comment: "In the Black community I am perceived as a lesbian."15 Significantly, in making this observation, Lorde is not suggesting that the Black community should ignore her lesbian identity. Rather, her point is that the perception of her as a lesbian should not negate or undermine the fact that she is also Black. Lorde did not wish to be discursively or ontologically fragmented. She writes:
As a black feminist comfortable with many different ingredients of my identity and a woman committed to racial and sexual freedom from oppression, I find I am constantly being encouraged to pluck out some aspects of myself and present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts of self. But this is a destructive and fragmenting way to live.16
For Lorde, being Black and being lesbian was not contradictory. Accordingly, she rejected the idea that she had to choose one over the other. Her hope was that the Black community would accept her as a Black lesbian. And she did not want that acceptance to portend "the death of the race."17
The more complicated, though not unproblematic, anti-racist argument that gays are not like Blacks is reflected in Black civil rights interventions into the public debates about the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. To a large extent, the purpose of this intervention was to critique the (white) gay movement’s "appropriation" of Black civil rights symbols, heroes, and rhetoric.18 Some of those who intervened opposed the Black/gay analogies that gay rights proponents deployed to challenge the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.19 Consider, for example, John Butler’s anti-racist intervention into the controversy: According to Butler, we should not compare homosexuality (which is colorblind, "running through all racial groups,"20 with race (which arranges individuals into different groups).21 To illustrate the nature of the difference between race (read here: straight Blacks) and sexual orientation (read here: white gays and lesbians), Butler asks the following rather pointed and rhetorical question: "Where did these people drink water during the days of segregation? If the answer is that they drank from the ‘Whites Only’ fountain, instead of the ‘Coloreds Only’ fountain, then their oppression should be seen in a different historical light than that of black Americans."22
What is interesting about Butler’s argument here is that he seems to want to both recognize and deny Black gay life. He understands that homosexuality is not race specific ("it runs through all racial groups"), yet in thinking about Blacks and segregation he appears to normalize Black heterosexuality and to racially particularize homosexuality as white. Stated differently, in asking the question, "Where did these people drink?" Butler obscures a fundamental reality: Some Blacks are "these [gay] people" to which he refers. His question presupposes a white gay sexual identity, otherwise his query is not meaningful. Most of us know which fountains Black people drank water from in the segregated South.
However, Butler is mindful of Black gay and lesbian life. He does not argue that Blacks are not gay or that gays and lesbians are not Black. Moreover, Butler recognizes that "when someone says, blacks and homosexuals, they automatically leave out blacks who are homosexuals."23 In other words, the statement "Blacks and homosexuals" renders invisible Blacks who are homosexuals. I couldn’t agree with Butler more. Yet, the rhetoric Butler employs—"gays are not like Blacks"24—replicates that invisibility dynamic. What does that assertion mean vis-a-vis a Black gay or lesbian person? Black gays and lesbians exist at both ends of the comparison; they are Black and gay. The point is obvious enough, and I doubt very much that Butler would quarrel with it. Indeed, it is precisely because Butler acknowledges Black gay and lesbian existence that his rhetoric "gays are not like Blacks" is especially problematic. Who are the "gay" people and the "Black" people imagined in the statement?
Perhaps Butler’s argument that "Blacks are not like gays" relates to his conceptualization of homosexuality as behavioral, voluntary25 and thus, unlike race, changeable. Butler reasons that "Comparing homosexuals to blacks is comparing lifestyle with a race: an achieved characteristic with one that is ascribed; a choice in an expressed lifestyle with one that is by and large not a choice. . . . Certainly there is more choice about one’s sexuality than about one’s race."26 Butler’s formulation of homosexuality as behavioral is intended to convey two interrelated ideas. First, that homosexuality is not an identity: "Men who engage in homosexual behavior do not make a separate racial or ethnic group; they do not have a history of all emerging from a common continent (there is no country called homosexual land), but rather are found throughout all populations."27 Significantly, Butler does conceive of religious based identities,28 even as certain religions "run through" all racial and ethnic groups. Failing to see that his conception of identity is not pre-political (why is identity narrowly defined to mean belonging to a separate racial, ethnic or religious group?), Butler insists that "A white homosexual is just a white man with a different sexual lifestyle, and a black lesbian is simply a black women with a different sexual lifestyle."
The rhetorical strategy at work in Butler’s analysis is clear: "white" and "Black" are deployed to convey identity (conceptualized as static and fixed) and "homosexual" and "lesbian" are deployed to convey a lifestyle (conceptualized as fluid and fixable). For Butler, a Black lesbian is really just another Black person with a "different" lifestyle, "as though one way of living was characteristic of everyone who is [lesbian or] gay."29
Butler’s conception of Blackness normalizes heterosexuality. Butler doesn’t explicitly say that the normal Black person is heterosexual, but we can infer this much from his dichotomous representation of "Black" on the one hand and "homosexual" and "lesbian" on the other. The following modification of Butler’s argument more clearly illustrates this point: "A white homosexual is just a white heterosexual man with a different lifestyle, and a black lesbian is simply a black heterosexual woman with a different lifestyle." The insertion of "heterosexual" reveals the normalization of heterosexuality in Butler’s conception of race. For Butler, homosexual Blacks are heterosexual Blacks, only less so.30
A second reason why Butler formulates homosexuality as behavioral is to represent Blackness in a way that transcends sexual orientation, as though Blackness exists outside of sexual identities. Butler’s behavorialist conceptualization of homosexuality allows him to conceive of race as an essential category, unmodified by sexuality. His unmodified anti-racism imagines a Black discriminatory experience that is tout court: "Black homosexuals, like all Blacks, have a different experience in the workplace [than whites]."31 Though Butler may be right, his reasoning obscures the fact that heterosexual Blacks and openly gay and lesbian Blacks have different workplace experiences as well.32 Butler’s racial essentialism ignores the extent to which the sexualization of race affects the nature and extent of discrimination against Black lesbians and gays.
Butler is not alone in his unmodified anti-racism, however. A very recent article by law professor Roy Brooks also represents Black heterosexuality as the race/sexual orientation identity norm for Black anti-racist efforts. His civil rights agenda imagines an essential Black community, even as it purports to be mindful of intraracial Black differences. According to Brooks, because Black people experience a "separate form of discrimination,"33 race should be treated as a distinct analytical category.34 Brooks is careful to point out that he does not intend for his arguments to mean that "all African Americans must receive the same remedies (legal or otherwise) in order to resolve the American race problem."35 He concedes that there are important intraracial differences in the African American community based on, among other things, sexual orientation.36 Notwithstanding this disclaimer, Brooks contends that "using race as a proxy for all forms of social and cultural oppression would not only harm African Americans but would also create significant conceptual difficulties for civil rights law."37 More specifically, he asserts that a multi-faceted approach to discrimination linking "African Americans with women, the disabled, gays and lesbians and other culturally oppressed groups would not only be empirically incorrect but would also dilute attention that should be given to the ‘separate’ problems of African Americans."38
The problem with Brooks’s notion of the "separate problems of African Americans" is not simply that it legitimizes the idea "that there is an essential [Black person] beneath the realities of differences between [Black people],"39 but also that it normalizes heterosexuality, ignoring the fact that Black people as Black people experience homophobia. Brooks’s analysis, in other words, overlooks the fact that race, to employ Kendal Thomas’s term, is sexuated. His oppositional formulation of identity (African Americans and women, African Americans and the disabled, African Americans and gays and lesbians) linguistically and conceptually authenticates an essential notion of Blackness that, at the very least, is gendered and heterosexist. His unmodified antiracism renders the experiences of Black lesbians and gays invisible.40
I should be clear to point out that my critique of Butler and Brooks is not intended to suggest that the race/sexual orientation analogies deployed by some gays rights proponents were entirely appropriate. They were not. Their analysis, too, heterosexualized Blackness and rendered white identity the default race for lesbians and gay experiences. In the next section, then, I provide a brief indication of how one might advance an anti-racist critique of the race/sexual orientation analogies gay rights proponents advanced without marginalizing the experiences of Black lesbians and gays.