“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.”
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?”
Herein lies the separate-and-unequal footing upon which these youths begin their journeys.
LaSala found that young black boys—both gay and straight—feel tremendous pressure to grow up and become strong black men who are “armored to battle racism and social barriers with a veneer of hypermasculinity.” That masculinity, he says, is characterized by toughness, control, poise, emotional stoicism and a hyperheterosexuality—always eager to prove one’s manhood through female conquests and outward expressions of strength.
For gay African-American boys still suffocating in the closet, those expectations are particularly acute. Simply by virtue of who they are, they feel they’re rejecting “black masculinity”—and thereby betraying the already victimized and denigrated image of black men in American society.
In his research with black families, LaSala found that African-American fathers were less willing to discuss these issues; and black gay boys often admitted to feelings of guilt as their male cousins and brothers were placed in difficult positions of having to defend them against their peers and within their communities.
When the first openly gay NFL draft pick Michael Sam came out earlier this year, these same familial concerns played out on a national stage between him and his father. “I’m old school,” his father told the New York Times in response to his son coming out. “I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.” Yet despite struggling with the issue, Sam Sr. explained that he loves his son and wants him to succeed.
“As a black man, we have so many hurdles to cross,” he said. “This is just one he has to cross.”
Following the Times interview, Sam’s father told a local Texas paper, “My son did the right thing, and I am not against him at all. Once he gets on the field and hits [someone] once, they won’t think he’s gay.”
His response echoes the feelings of many African-American fathers, who fear for what the added burdens of blackness and gayness will mean in a world that is unkind to both.
But his latter comments also underscore the hypermasculine ideal expected of black men and boys—and the fallacy that being gay is the very antithesis of that ideal.
Christianity in African-American culture and its role in defining strict social and gender norms have been well researched. Too many parents frequently still use fundamentalist religious views as the standard to evaluate sexual orientation, and as such see their gay sons and daughters as out of favor with God at best, and damned to hell at worst.
These lessons are learned and absorbed whether explicitly expressed or not. And so the bullying in schools becomes an extension of the isolation and alienation often felt by the fathers and mothers who are supposed to love their children the most.
But with time and healing, perhaps black fathers loving their gay sons will cease to be a revolutionary act.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.