Black homophobia still has a deadly hold on African American life. And while I would like to say its oppressive grip only impacts lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people of African descent, in truth, black homophobia maims the entire community.
For example, to date more than a quarter of a million African Americans have died of AIDS—both straight and gay.
There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of the epidemic in the African American community—racism, poverty, health care disparity, violence, to name just a few—but the biggest attitudinal factor still contributing to the epidemic and showing no sign of abating is homophobia.
Like many who have grown up in communities of African descent—here and abroad—we cannot, escape the cultural, personal, interpersonal, and institutional indoctrinations in which homophobia is constructed in our very makeup of being defined as black.
The community’s expressions of intolerance of LGBTQ people is easily seen along gender lines. For example, sisters mouth off about us while brothers get both—verbally and physically—violent with us.
“My son better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little n-gger to death,” Tracy Morgan, comedian and former actor on NBC’s “30 Rock,” told his audience at the Ryman Auditorium in 2011.
When CNN’s Don Lemon came out he told Joy Behar on her HLN show that, “In the black community they think you can pray the gay away.”
So, whenever there’s an opportunity to applaud and/or celebrate a person’s—especially a high profile celeb, athlete or mega star—coming out moment, it helps loosens black homophobia’s persistent sharp teeth buried in our collective flesh and hold on the community.
Black high profile celebs’ public coming out events correct and heal—if only for a moment—a community’s irrational and persistent fear, shame, taboo, and ignorance about the wide spectrum of human sexuality—even found among people of African descent.
And we had one such moment with one of America’s beloved newscasters.
“Good Morning America” co-anchor Robin Roberts came out of her “open” closet, using a Facebook post to publicly announce what we all knew.
The Obamas—both Barack and Michelle—congratulated Roberts with Michelle gleefully tweeting “I am so happy for you and Amber! You continue to make us all proud.”
While many Americans across the country felt the way the Obamas did about Roberts admission, some, however, felt a personal congratulation to Roberts coming especially from President Obama was not warranted and highlighted “divisiveness” rather than inclusion.
“That message of inclusion is missing in this country, as demonstrated by the President’s odd decision to make a news event out of a person being gay. Such solicitous affection is creepy and divisive. It’s like gushing over someone with a deformity. Most people don’t want to be patronized; they just want to be treated like everyone else,” Wendy Murphy wrote in a “Patriot Ledger” op-ed titled “It’s fine to be gay, but is it GREAT?”
Murphy, an ex-prosecutor and an adjunct professor at New England Law, is a local legal pundit celeb. She’s also white and heterosexual, and has at least one LGBTQ friend or acquaintance (I know this because Murphy told me before we suited up to appear on Boston’s local TV show “Greater Boston” to discuss her opposing views that perhaps she should have run her op-ed by someone gay before submitting it.)
“If the President and his wife want to use their bully pulpit to influence social norms, they should be congratulating people not because they’re gay, but because they did something meaningful for society, without regard for personal risk or gain. Robin Roberts may well deserve that kind of attention, but we’ll never know because the Obamas were thinking more about politics than humanity when Roberts got a presidential salute,” Murphy continued.
Oddly, Murphy isn’t alone with this view. There were also many LGBTQs who felt similar to Murphy, especially with us now in an era of acceptance of LGBTQ people in news broadcasting like CNN’s Anderson Cooper, ABC’s Good Morning America former weather anchor Sam Champion, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and her colleague Thomas Roberts, to name a few.
Murphy like so many are befuddled about the President’s brouhaha with Roberts’s coming out disclosure, since he has used his bully pulpit for that very purpose by legislating on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights—like DADT, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the repeal of DOMA, to name a few.
And let’s not forget Roberts got the coveted interview when the White House specifically chose her for President Obama’s May 2012 coming out interview announcing his unequivocal support for marriage equality.
Roberts has overcome a lot—in 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 2012 with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease of the bone marrow. And now black homophobia’s grip on her.
What Murphy and others also miss in their condemnation of the Obama’s perceived gratuitous applaud of Roberts coming out announcement is how the intersectionality of white queer racism, elitism and sexism not only framed the legislations Obama signed on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights, but how it also shaped which LGBTQ demographic group would most benefit. Consequently, this is another factor feeding and fueling black homophobia that doesn’t exempt Roberts in spite of her status or interracial relationship.
Sue O’Connell, a white lesbian and editor and publisher of BayWindows gets it why Roberts’ coming out moment warranted high praise. In her spot on op-ed “The Harsh Lesson of Robin Roberts’ Coming Out” O’Connell explains how the intersectionality of not only white queer racism, elitism and sexism play in Roberts difficult struggle to come out, but how the complexities of African American community, religion and culture also make Roberts’ coming out moment an Herculean feat most definitely worthy of personal shout-outs from the Obamas.
In her piece O’Connell says, “Challenges of class—of race and gender—are deeply entrenched obstacles to living an open life. Each coming out process is unique, yet African Americans face a path entwined with family, religion, racism and more. Robin Roberts should be congratulated, again, for her bravery. Let’s not let our growing marriage equality success blind us to the very real challenges many still find to living an open and honest life.”
It’s my hope that Murphy not only reads her op-ed but also takes a page from O’Connell’s book.
Rev. Irene Monroe