The Roots of Black Homophobia

Image for article titled The Roots of Black Homophobia

Part of Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s tough-guy act is as expected of boxers as it is of rappers, but his recent racist rant against his Filipino opponent, in which he repeatedly called him a faggot, has the clichéd homophobia we also expect of extreme hip-hop.


It is part of something bigger and more involved than we tend to see discussed in our time. This era particularizes itself because we get more information and rumors about almost anyone than we need — or want. Consider rapper Cam'ron's cold sweat as he insists that even though he "digs pink," what he has to say contains "no homo." The subject of black homophobia is as intriguing as some find it disappointing.

Homosexual activists and those sympathetic to their cause were publicly disturbed when black voters in California voted against same-sex marriage with Proposition 8. Were they opposed to "the new civil rights movement"? Did they not realize that male and female homosexuals had become the "new black people"?

Nope; it is much more complicated than that. Negroes exemplify the modern age in their contradictions as thoroughly as any other ethnic group; how the members of this group get information is not one-dimensional and does not have easily predicted results.

In "the quarter of the Negroes," as Langston Hughes called it, information and opinion come along the way they always do in America: from the top to the bottom. Sometimes they vehemently rise from the absolute bottom to dominate the top. We can easily see what the wing nuts have done to the Republican Party, which now lamely dances to their tune.

Among Negroes, information and opinion come from three central forces: the literate, semiliterate and functionally illiterate. The last are formed among those at the bottom or those who dropped out of public school and now depend on the shortcomings of the oral part of a culture.

Black men who come from communities where far too many young males begin entering the penal system in their teens see things much differently from men of any color who do not. Those reared in communities where it is not at all common for young males to be incarcerated have only recently become aware of what actually can happen behind bars. Without The Shawshank Redemption or HBO's Oz, others with no penal experience and no backlog of gossip about the sexual horrors imposed behind bars might still be fully clueless.


On the other hand, lower-class black people who have been exposed to the penal system are fairly sure that they have all the clues. In most cases, they're not privy to statistics illustrating that sexual predators are usually heterosexual, not homosexual. But they know people whom the penal system did not protect from sexual assault. And more often than not, those experiences inform their prejudices.

Contrary to paranoid superstition, black men who were sexually molested in institutions very rarely become homosexuals. Even so, many are thought to have been "turned out" by the raw and brutal experience, almost as if rape has magical properties that can transform someone who isn't sexually attracted to men into one who is.


That is how it tends to go among all people. Intensely negative and unforgettable experience — personal, witnessed, or heard about and believed — is thought to be a threatening norm.

Bayard Rustin was central to organizing the 1963 March on Washington, but his homosexuality was as great a concern to Martin Luther King Jr. as his left-wing pedigree. King worried that enemies of the civil rights movement, such as J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, could use those facts to smear and deny the rightness of the movement.


Virulent homophobia was hysterically and consistently inserted into 1960s black nationalism single-handedly by Amiri Baraka. Before changing his name (from LeRoi Jones) and his racial politics, he had written confessional, homoerotic material; the most forward examples appear in his 1965 novel, The System of Dante's Hell. There it is.

When it comes to popular culture, things get a little more complicated. Career jealousy and feelings of resentment have been expressed toward Tyler Perry because he has so successfully appeared in drag as the Madea character. Perry's critics argue that this is a "betrayal" of black masculinity, as if black masculinity should remain "pure" as the aesthetic soot of the blaxploitation era. Apparently, we heterosexuals desperately need to know that our testicles are an endangered part of the race.


But Perry, in donning a dress and playing Madea, isn't endangering black masculinity. And if he is, black audiences have not noticed. There is no confusion for them because his popularity is but another expression of the American love for low, broad and obvious comedy. Perry stands in a line of drag well established by men such as Flip Wilson, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx.

Earlier this year, in response to the spurious claim that pedophilia within the Catholic Church was its "gay problem," homosexual activist Abbie Kopf wrote an essay for, "Ending the Gay Pedophile Myth, Once and for All," which included the following:

All too often, we in the gay community mistakenly believe that no rational human being could possibly believe that because we have same-sex attraction it means that we want to enact them on children. Because we know how ridiculous it is, we often don't raise hell as often or as much as possible, believing that other people see the bad logic. Or, for many of us, being characterized as evil pedophiles curbs us from defending ourselves; the shame they've placed on us becomes a part of who we are as a culture, it silences us because in our darkest hour, we're terrified that those around us really believe on some level that we have the capacity to molest children. Once and for all, we need to proactively, rigorously and consistently dispel this rumor. If we wait to defend ourselves, we're only running on a treadmill, never able to get ahead of it. And worst of all, it isn't even the gay community who is hurt the worst — it is the children who have been molested.


Kopf brought the red meat to the table and got right down to what homosexuals are obligated to make clear in order to clear the air. Is it fair? Fairness and political clarity have nothing to do with each other. As Kopf notes, such is the lot of a subjugated group. And, as she puts it, it's necessary to "blast these untrue allegations out of the goddamn water."

Beyond that, it seems to me that the rest comes down to what we think about the actions of consenting adults. Like it or not, consenting adults will win out over all of the blather. They usually do in the United States.


Stanley Crouch is an essayist and columnist based in New York. He has been awarded a MacArthur and a Fletcher and was recently inducted into the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The first volume of his Charlie Parker biography will appear within a year.