When I was a first-year student at Yale Law School, I enrolled in a class entitled "Race and the Law." During one session of the class, several black gay and lesbian students (myself included) attempted to discuss issues of sexual subordination and the needs of gay and lesbian people within the black "community." A black male hetero­sexual student, known for his political activism and community serv­ice in the Yale and the New Haven black communities, offered the fol­lowing insight to the discussion: "to the millions of black people, most of whom are poor, this just is not an issue." The student’s decla­ration rests upon at least two assumptions, both of which are prob­lematic.

First, the student’s comment implies that there are no gays and lesbians among "the millions of black people"—especially the poor. Needless to say, this is not true. There is an entire body of literature documenting the existence and experiences of gays and lesbians of color—many of whom are poor—and examining the relationship among race, class, and sexual orientation.19 Moreover, black gay and lesbians are visible in a number of social and political organizations throughout the country and abroad. That the student did not imagine black gay and lesbians as being among "the millions of black people" he was ostensibly representing is particularly ironic, given that it was black gay and lesbian students who raised the issue.

Second, the student’s declaration invites a "ranking" of oppres­sions; his comment suggests that, even if black gays and lesbians exist, racial and class issues (especially for the poor) overshadow or eclipse the importance of sexual identity and sexual marginalization. But, in order to rank oppressions, one must assume that racial, class, and sexual subordination are wholly separate and unconnected. This simply is not the case. Feminists of color have written extensively on the convergence of racism and sexism and the impact this "intersec- tionality" has had upon women of color.20 Similarly, lesbian and gay scholars of color continue to explore the ways in which racism and homophobia converge to impact the lives of not only gay and lesbian people of color but all people of color. Significant to this exploration is the idea that homophobic acts may themselves help perpetuate racial marginalization. Consider the vitriolic outcry surrounding the airing of Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied and Cheryl Dunye’s Water­melon Woman.

In 1991 the Public Broadcasting System aired Marlon Riggs’s film Tongues Untied, a documentary about black gay men. Many of the re­sponses to this film were sexually and racially charged.21 For in­stance, Dick Williams, a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution, be­lieves that Riggs’s film on black gay men takes the viewer on "a trip through society’s sewers." His editorial denounces not only black sexual diversity but rap music, poetry, and dance as well.22 Williams’s comments disprove the troubling assumption that homophobia does not affect black people.

Other responses to Riggs’s work demonstrate that homophobic acts may themselves promote racial subordination and that racism may have a homophobic component. Patrick Buchanan, whose nega­tive record on issues of race and sexuality has been well docu­mented,23 appropriated footage from Tongues Untied for use in a 1992 presidential campaign advertisement criticizing then President George Bush and the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded Riggs a small monetary grant to complete the project. The advertisement presented one of the few scenes from the film that fea­tured white gay men. The advertisement stated that "this so-called art has glorified homosexuality."24 The text of the advertisement and its obfuscation of the film’s black focus may suggest that Buchanan in­tended only to disparage gays and lesbians. It seems to me, however, that Buchanan "whitened" Tongues Untied to prevent the public from perceiving his criticism of the film as a product of both racial and sex­ual intolerance. Buchanan manipulated societal homophobia and ha­tred of white male homosexuals to suppress black gay cultural expres­sion. Thus, Buchanan utilized homophobia to marginalize and subor­dinate black people and to reinforce both racism and homophobia.

Many individuals reacted similarly to Watermelon Woman, a film with black lesbian themes produced by Cheryl Dunye, a black lesbian filmmaker who also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. Senator Jesse Helms, whose record on race and gay rights rivals that of Buchanan, commented that, by funding Water­melon Woman, the National Endowment for the Arts continued its "obsession with handing out the taxpayers’ money to self-proclaimed ‘artists’ whose mentality is just so much flotsam floating around in a sewer."25 The similarity between Helms’s comments on Dunye’s work and Williams’s opinion of Riggs’s work is blatant: both of these "gentlemen" believe that black sexuality occupies society’s "sewers." Given the positions that Helms, Williams, and Buchanan have taken with respect to issues of racial inequality, their opposition to the work of Dunye and Riggs inevitably stems from—and reinforces—racial (and gender and sexual) hatred. Thus, their opposition to these films merits the attention of antiracist politics.

The relationship between racism and homophobia may have a vi­olent dimension, as well. For example, some of the available data on violence against gays and lesbians suggest that this violence follows a racial pattern. Although there remains a dearth of statistical analysis of demographic patterns in homophobic violence, Gary David Com­stock’s seminal study indicates that a higher percentage of gays and lesbians of color experience such victimization than do white gays and lesbians.26 Comstock’s study also finds that many gays and les­bians often encounter hostility from police officers when they report incidents of homophobic violence. Comstock, however, finds that gays and lesbians of color experience such hostility and even further victimization at significantly higher rates than those reported by whites.27 Furthermore, numerous news accounts indicate that the perpetrators of homophobic violence are often members of white su­premacist groups.28 These statistics and reports suggest that an act of homophobic violence against a gay or lesbian of color may also per­petuate racial domination.29

Despite the negative impact heterosexism and homophobia have on people of color and the use of homophobic acts to effectuate racist political agendas, racial civil rights organizations and antiracist polit­ical activists invariably fail to challenge heterosexist oppression. For instance, during the controversy over Tongues Untied, racial civil rights organizations did not mount a visible political reaction to the racially charged public criticism of the film. Although the controversy surrounding Dunye’s film generated a public response among some blacks, these commentators did not defend the film; instead, they at­tempted to sever it from the black community. For example, Edmund Peterson, a conservative black commentator, proclaimed that "[t]here is no demand in the black community for this movie."30 Similarly, Jesse Peterson, the founder of a Los Angeles organization of black men, opined that

[t]o associate this [film] with the clout of black people is a disgrace and a slap in the face of black people who have died for the advance of black people in America. . . . Dr. . . . King would be outraged by this. He didn’t die so that black homosexuals or any other homosex­uals could force their lifestyle on black people.31

These individuals exclude the black gay and lesbian people who starred in, viewed, and produced the film from the "black community"; their "demand" for the film has no "clout" because they are not "au­thentic" blacks.32 Thus, these homophobic comments reinforce the perception that blackness is separate from and oppositional to gay and lesbian identities. This narrow construction of black identity and black politics likely explains the silence of antiracist groups in the wake of the racial attacks against Riggs and Dunye. In the context of the Riggs and Dunye controversies, the prevailing heterosexual con­struction of racial identity and racial politics precluded political chal­lenges to racial hierarchy and marginalization. The fallacious con­struction of blackness as oppositional to gayness and lesbianism threatens the struggle against racial subordination because it allows racist acts to escape challenges from antiracist political activism.

The failure of racial activists to confront racially based attacks against black gays and lesbians becomes more disturbing and con­tradictory to racial justice when we consider the traditional connec­tions between racial aggression and sexual marginalization and the attention antiracism has paid to this connection. For example, the systematic lynching of black men in the postbellum South and the unpunished rape of black women (during and after slavery) were supported in part by depictions of black (hetero)sexuality as wanton and dangerous.33 Thus, when black political activists deny that issues of (homo)sexuality are important to racial justice, they mask the many ways in which sexuality has historically informed racial ag­gression and political responses to this aggression. They also, in op­position to the inherent goals of antiracist struggle, permit acts of racial aggression against black gays and lesbians to elude antiracist activism.