Black Parents, Gay Sons and Redefining Masculinity

Research confirms what we already know: The pathway to wholeness and self-acceptance for gay African-American youths begins with support from parents.

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“As a gay black man, I find myself at the top of the list of people to hate,” wrote Michael Arceneaux for The Root five years ago. “That’s a hard fact to contend with at 25, let alone at 11. The accepted notions of how a black man should look and act are confining and dangerous, whether you are gay or not.”

He was lamenting the deaths by suicide of two 11-year-old black boys: Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera. Both were victims of incessant taunts and bullying by peers who perceived them as “gay.”

For young Carl, the taunts ended in April 2009, the day his mother found his lifeless body with an extension cord wrapped around his neck hanging from the third-floor rafter of their family home.

Jaheem silenced his bullies the same year—hanged by a belt in his bedroom closet.

These boys are not alone. Hallways of American schools and playgrounds are ripe with the words “f--got,” “d--e” and “s--sy”—used to slander and demean—often against young kids who aren’t actually gay. And despite so much social progress on the issue of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights and protections, the problem appears to be getting worse.

The Black Youth Project found that 43 percent of African-American gay youths have thought about or attempted suicide, and 26 percent reported being the target of anti-gay bullying. Additional research found that 84.9 percent of LGBT youths (pdf) reported hearing homophobic remarks from their peers, and 56.9 percent said that their teachers or other school staff used similar anti-gay slurs.

Research by the American Sociology Association (pdf) found that bullying significantly lowers GPAs, even among high-achieving black and Latino students—with their scores falling half a percentage point lower than those of students who did not experience harassment. Reports showed that about 25 percent of black LGBT students had missed days in school because they felt unsafe. And African-American gay youths were less likely to attend schools that offered affirming programs such as gay-straight student alliances.

But for all the attention placed on the experiences of gay youths among their peers, the truth is that the pathway to wholeness and self-acceptance begins at home. And it’s also where the seeds of self-hatred and doubt are first sown.

More than 90 percent of black gay youths listed “family acceptance” as the main factor that could actually make their lives more bearable. But for young African-American males in particular, that acceptance is too often a distant dream. 

Michael LaSala, a professor of social work at Rutgers University, conducted research on the intersections of homophobia and racism affecting young gay black males. He explains in his work, “When I spoke to white gay boys about coming out, their parents told them ‘You have everything going for you, so why choose this?’” But, by contrast, when he speaks to African-American boys, their parents say, “You have everything going against you, so why choose this?”

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