During a media blitz for his book Transparent, gay CNN anchor Don Lemon candidly opened up about the homophobia he has experienced in the black community.
"It's quite different for an African-American male," he told the New York Times in May 2011. "It's about the worst thing you can be in black culture."
It wasn't the first time that African Americans had been accused of not supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. But his comment inspired a swift deluge of criticism from black women, black LGBT folks and LGBT allies. In The Root, contributor Michael Arceneaux contested Lemon's allegation. The backlash against Lemon challenged the perception that African Americans are more homophobic than any other group.
In January, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous addressed a crowd of around 2,000 at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force event Creating Change, the 24th National Conference on LGBT Equality, in Baltimore, saying that LGBT and civil rights organizations must work together for equality.
Efforts to join forces — including the NAACP's own LGBT Equality Task Force, launched in 2009 — already exist. But cultural barriers, as well as the negative assessment — shared by Lemon and many others — of African-American support of the LGBT community may serve as a roadblock to bringing the two groups together.
The Root talked to advocates at Creating Change to get their take on LGBT support in the black community.
"My mom would say, 'Don't you bring nothing else up in here,' " Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said about her mother's opinions on Nipper being both black and lesbian. "[People say] being black is enough. So there is this aspect in the black community that that's a big-enough problem, and we don't want anything else."
The Rev. Sam Offer, an interfaith minister and a member of the Task Force conference host committee, said that the topic of sexuality has been a taboo for many African Americans. "Within the black community, we've just begun to talk about sexuality," he said. "There was no unpacking of this notion of sexuality.
"Folks are not willing to engage what it means to be black and gay," he added.
The tide may be changing as civil rights organizations, like the National Black Justice Coalition and the NAACP, begin to address gay issues within the black community and start to partner with LGBT organizations.
As Jealous challenged gay and civil rights organizations to join forces in his remarks at the conference, he also addressed the two movements' common villain: the media.
"Unfortunately, the national media tends to exaggerate divisions between civil rights and LGBT institutions," he said. "This tendency is what caused the media to blame the African-American community for Proposition 8's success in California."
Jealous isn't alone in his criticism of the media.
"The mainstream media picks up on the sound bite kind of issues, and they can get the ratings from saying something salacious about same-sex marriage," Nipper said. "And it's not being framed by us."
In fact, black people may be more supportive of the LGBT community than the media portray them to be. According to a survey by LGBT media-monitoring organization GLAAD conducted between 2007 and 2009, a sizable number of African Americans seem to care about issues that the LGBT community faces. More than 70 percent of the survey's respondents say that hate crimes are a problem for gays and lesbians, while almost 60 percent believe that protection for unmarried gay and lesbian couples is an important issue.
"When you look at black people's support of LGBT equality, I think a lot of times the media often overlook how supportive the black community is on different issues," said Kimberley McLeod, GLAAD's media field strategist for communities of African descent.
"There's an array of [LGBT] issues that African Americans are overwhelmingly in support of," McLeod continued. "Unfortunately, the dialogue in the media is not dominated by that support. Too often the voices of support get stifled."
Media aside, the LGBT community continues to face long-standing issues of discrimination and intolerance. But the often-heard theory that African Americans are not supportive of LGBT people may be an exaggerated segment of a larger, more promising narrative.
"There are so many African-American people who are in my movement," Nipper said. "As a leader, I can pick that up, go with it and feel very confident."
Joshua R. Weaver is The Root's editorial assistant.