Time to Overcome Black Homophobia

Whilst marking their ballot boxes in favour of Barack Obama last Tuesday, 70% of African American voters in California -- just one of the states that have passed Proposition 8 -- also marked their ballot boxes against gay marriage.

With African-Americans turning out in record numbers last week to vote for Barack Obama -- California saw an increase of some 500,000 black voters -- many gay rights supporters are now angry at what they see as an apparent hypocrisy amongst African American voters, who they perceive as having used their numbers to help elect America's first black president whilst simultaneously voting to deny freedoms to another minority. (It's interesting to note Barack Obama's position on the matter -- he is against gay marriage, but supports civil unions and doesn't believe there should be a ban on same-sex marriage, a slightly contradictory position.)

Gay rights supporters are surprised that African Americans could have voted against gay marriage believing that they, more than anyone, should understand discrimination having suffered from it for so long. However, not only are African Americans traditionally conservative when it comes to homosexuality -- carrying strong, often negative and deeply religious feelings about the issue -- some are not convinced that that gay rights are, as many activists believe, on a par with the civil rights issues that black people have faced.

Naturally, many African Americans are pretty irritated at the blame that is being heaped at their doorstep. After all, they were not only ones to vote for a ban on gay marriage. As Raymond Leon Roker points out 49% of Asian Americans, 53% of Hispanics and nearly 50% of white voters -- who make up 63% of the voting population in California voted in favour of the proposition. Furthermore, in California, black voters make up a small proportion of the population and therefore could not have statistically have made the major difference.

Regardless of who is to blame, the African-American community (and black communities around the world) does have an issue -- a deep rooted and as yet very much unresolved one - with homosexuality that needs to be addressed.

Discussions about homosexuality within the black community still often revolve around homophobic attitudes, often couched in and absolved by references to religion and the Bible. We often hear, from young and old, about sin and Sodom and Gomorrah in conversations about homosexuality. Using religion is a good way for people uncomfortable with homosexuality to shut down discussion: after all, how do you argue with the Bible? Preaching the Bible is fine, but it does nothing to address the very pressing issues that our black lesbian and gay community members face.

Our issue with homosexuality is also partly about our own struggles and conflicts over black masculinity and femininity. Whilst black people often complain about the images of black men and women that have been forced upon us and perpetuated through the media, we also struggle with our own ideas about what it means to be a black man or woman. Unfortunately, there is little room for homosexuality within any such discussions.

"No homo," a phrase popularized by rappers is one example of the issues surrounding black masculinity. Expressions of emotion or intimacy (particularly between two men), according to the "no homo" rule, is gay and therefore bad and it should be made known that said expression carries no homosexual connotations, hence the use of the phrase "no homo."

When intimacy and expression are equated in black popular culture, with being gay which is openly and unequivocally equated with being bad, what message does that send not only to gay black men and women about how they are viewed but to heterosexual men and women about how they express themselves?

It's also about our unwillingness to adequately address sexual health issues within our community, with diseases like HIV and AIDS still remaining taboo subjects despite the fact that they disproportionately affect us. Recent research from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention shows that "there were more new HIV infections in young black [gay and bisexual] men aged 13-29 than any other age or racial group".

It's also about the role of the black church, its ability to influence and what it does with that influence.The church has historically blazed a positive trail on civil rights issues affecting the black community, yet on homosexuality they remain either silent of vehemently against it.

Similarly, it's about the black community's willingness - at times - to engage in a head-in-the-sand attitude about certain issues that we feel uncomfortable about. There are a multitude of rumours about black actors, musicians and entertainers who are gay, but there are very few -- if any -- openly gay high profile black people. Those people are not out because homosexuality is still not socially acceptable within the black community, but we all know they are there. With homosexuality, as with some other matters, many of us in the black community seem to operate a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Regardless of whether or not we agree with it -- I personally do not care who people sleep with or who they marry so long as they are consenting adults -- the fact is that we have brothers and sisters who are gay who require support: emotional, mental and sexual. And supporting them, by constructively engaging with and deconstructing our own prejudices and dealing with some of our own internal conflicts about the issues I've raised above helps the entire black community, in a myriad of ways.

It's not all bad though, apparently. A study by Gregory B Lewis of Georgia State University found that "despite their greater disapproval of homosexuality, blacks' opinions on sodomy laws, gay civil liberties, and employment discrimination are quite similar to whites' opinions, and African Americans are more likely to support laws prohibiting antigay discrimination. Once religious and educational differences are controlled, blacks remain more disapproving of homosexuality but are moderately more supportive of gay civil liberties and markedly more opposed to anti-gay employment discrimination than are whites."

That's all good to some extent. However, there's still plenty of work to be done surrounding the attitudes towards homosexuality within the black community.

It's hard enough being black without the added stress and turmoil that I can imagine comes from being gay within the black community. It's time for us to face up to our issues.