A third reason the black community has been slow in responding to AIDS is that many of us do not want to be associated with what is widely perceived as a gay disease. More than once I have heard of black parents readily volunteering, so as to forestall even more embarrassing speculation, that their HIV-infected children are addicts. Homophobia is not, of course, unique to the black community, but it takes on a particular character within the context of African-American history and culture. Precious little has been written on the subject. Straight black authors tend to ignore the subject altogether. A notable exception is bell hooks, who deftly captures the complexity of black attitudes toward homosexuality and the imperfect connection between those attitudes and actual behavior.24 Gay black writers seem to find it easier to train their fire on racism within the white gay community than on homophobia within the straight black commu – nity.25 Recently a small but hardy band of academics has begun extensive research on the life expectancies of black gay men and lesbians.26 In time, this work will provide a rich base from which a fuller picture of the character and consequences of black homophobia can be drawn.
If we in the black community are to make progress coping with AIDS, we must deal simultaneously with our homophobia. As a first step, we must name the problem, map its contours, and develop an understanding of how it is detrimental to us as a community. I will not attempt to advance this enterprise far here, in part because I am not sure that this essay is the best vehicle for doing so. I fell obliged, however, having flagged the issue, to at least say a bit more.
First, let me distinguish between homophobia that is directed at whites and homophobia that is internal to the black community. As we seek to understand the former, it will be difficult, I suspect, to disentangle it from an animus based on race. That is to say, gay whites who encounter hostility from blacks may be the target of antigay sentiment, antiwhite sentiment, or both. Even the originators of the hostility may not know where one motivation ends and the other begins. Moreover, racial prejudice and homophobia may well activate or reinforce each other. It stands to reason that someone who is viewed as an "other" along one dimension will more easily be viewed as an "other" along a second and third. Internal homophobia does not suffer this complication, but it scarcely lacks complexity. Like most aspects of the African-American subculture, its roots are dual. The black community has doubtless been influenced by the larger society’s attitudes toward sexual minorities even as its historical experience has produced a distinctive set of attitudes and practices. I would like to focus briefly on the latter.
In the manner in which homosexuality is spoken about, the black community differs markedly from the larger society. In our denunciation of homosexuality and of persons thought to be gay, blacks (including closeted gays) tend to be much more open and pointed than whites.27 Our verbal attacks seem tinged with cruelty and are usually delivered with an offhandedness that many white observers find unnerving. At the same time, there is, within the black community, an enormous gulf between talk and action, or for that matter, between talk and belief.28 What we say and what we think, or do, need not be congruent. In fact, a cruel tongue is often used to hide a tender heart. Bell hooks tells of a "straight black male in a California community who acknowledged that though he often made jokes poking fun at gays or expressing contempt as a means of bonding in group settings, in his private life he was a central support person for a gay sister." "Such contradictory behavior," she adds, "seems pervasive in black communities."29
On reflection, none of this is surprising. We, as people, are given to verbal excesses, to hyperbole, to putdowns meant for sport rather than wounding. People of my generation and older grew up "playing the dozens," verbal horseplay that involved the most scandalous imaginable accusations about the families of acquaintances of the other participants. So long as you stayed within certain well-understood (albeit unwritten and unspoken) bounds of propriety, you could say vicious things without anybody thinking you really meant it. A similar dynamic attends verbal gay bashing. There is a common understanding of which nasty things are acceptable to say, and as long as one stays within the canon, one can claim an absence of malice.30
There is, however, a key difference. In the dozens, the participants stand on equal footing; typically they alternate between the role of the slanderer and the role of the slanderized. In addition, there is no necessary relationship between the calumnies heaped on an individual and those heaped on her or his real-life position. In fact, one of the unwritten rules is that you tread lightly around areas of true vulnerability.
In practice, black communities across the country have knowingly and sometimes fully embraced their gay members. But the price has been high. In exchange for inclusion, gay men and lesbians have agreed to remain under wraps, to downplay, if not hide, their sexual orientation, to provide their families and friends with "deniability." So long as they do not put the community to the test, they are welcome. It is all right if everybody knows as long as nobody tells.31 That is more easily accomplished than you might imagine. For the most part, even the pillars of the black community are content to let its gay members be and to live alongside them in mutual complicity. This is true even within the church. Indeed, it is a well-kept secret, or, more precisely, it is well-denied knowledge, that gays are disproportionately represented within the ministry, including (and perhaps especially) the ministry of many of the more fundamental denomina – tions.32
This complex relationship works most successfully when gay men and lesbians are willing to carry on appearances, to live, in effect, straight lives. Many gay black men seek the ultimate cover and become ostensibly involved with women. One noteworthy consequence of this phenomenon is that their female sexual partners may unknowingly be exposed to an increased risk of HIV infection.33
What accounts for the way in which the black community has approached homosexuality—boisterous homophobic talk, tacit acceptance in practice, and a broad-based conspiracy of silence? I have a theory (and it is no more than that) that, within the black community, internal homophobia has less to do with regulating sexual desire and affectional ties than with policing relations between the sexes. In this view, gay black men and lesbians are made to suffer because they are out of sync with a powerful cultural impulse to weaken black women and strengthen black men. They are, in a sense, caught in a sociocultural cross fire over which they have little control.
Among the many horrors of slavery is the havoc it wreaked on relations between black men and women. Slave couples were not allowed to form stable bonds, and those relationships that did develop were burdened in ways painful to recount. Men were torn away from their families, women were subjected to the slavemasters’ bidding, and both were, on occasion, bred like animals. As a result, men were unable to provide for, much less protect, "their" women and women were unable to rely on their men. This emasculation of black men (when measured against traditional gender role expectations and concepts of male prerogative) bode ill for male-female relations in the postslavery era in the absence of a fundamental redefinition of gender. The near century of Jim Crow that followed—legalized discrimination backed up and surrounded by powerfully disintegrative social forces—simply added to the strain. Black people in general, black men in particular, were "kept in their place," routinely excluded from places that would bring them honor and respect or that would allow them to serve as family providers. While women could usually find employment as domestics, black men frequently drifted and did not, could not, come close to pulling their own weight.
For me, this reality is best captured by something that happened on the old Art Linkletter show during the 1950s, I believe. The show included a segment entitled "Kids Say the Darnedest Things," in which Linkletter interviewed children about whatever was on their minds. Somehow the word spread that on this particular day Linklet – ter would have a black kid on the show, a rare occurrence. Like hundreds of thousands of other black folk, I eagerly tuned in and watched with fascination and horror as this little kid, who looked a lot like me, answered the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" "I want to be a white man," he answered quickly and confidently. Linkletter gulped, paused, and then plunged ahead. "Why?" he asked. "Because," answered the kid, "my momma says that black men aren’t worth shit!"
The network instantly broke for a commercial, and, when the show returned, that little black kid had been whisked off the set, but no commercial break could stanch the psychic wound opened up in an entire community at that moment of childlike innocence. Black people talked about that show for months, amidst much handwringing and headshaking. Yet, despite the countless retellings and postmortems, the message implicit in the little boy’s answer—that relations between black men and women had reached a parlous state— was never disrupted.
What does this have to do with homophobia? My suspicion is that openly gay men and lesbians evoke hostility in part because they have come to symbolize the strong female and the weak male that slavery and Jim Crow produced. More than even the mother quoted on the Linkletter show, lesbians are seen as standing for the proposition that "black men aren’t worth shit." More than even the "no account" men who figure prominently in the repertoire of female blues singers, gay men symbolize the abandonment of black women. Thus, in the black community homosexuality carries more baggage than in the larger society. To address it successfully, we may have to take on such larger issues as the social construction of gender and the nature of male-female relations.