Why Is It So Hard to Be Black and Gay?

Raven-Symoné's Twitter statement has once again underscored the widespread undercurrent of homophobia in the African-American community.

By Manuel McDonnell Smith

Last Friday, former Cosby Show and Disney Channel actress Raven-Symoné sent out the following tweet:

Hollywood journalists and celebrity bloggers widely took the statement as confirmation of long-time rumors that the young African-American actress is a lesbian. But instead of universal accolade for her announcement, it again revealed a widespread culture of homophobia in the African-American community.

As Allison Samuels of Newsweek and The Daily Beast pointed out, journalists rushed to add Raven to galleries of Black celebrities who have also come out as gay. (Only one other female Black celebrity, comedienne Wanda Sykes, is openly LGBT.) Is it tougher for Black celebrities to come out as gay than white celebrities? Judging by online and social-media responses, the answer is yes. But as Samuels wrote, "Many believe that is for good reason."

Exposing the Issue

During the 2008 presidential campaign speech, candidate Barack Obama exposed rampant homophobia among African-Americans in a speech at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church, saying, "If we are honest with ourselves, we'll acknowledge that our own community has not always been as true to King's vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them."

But exposure of the issue, even by a widely respected figure like President Obama, did little to change attitudes. In May 2011, CNN anchor Don Lemon publicly announced his homosexuality in the book Transparent, a bold move that he was hesitant to make. "It's quite different for an African-American male," he explained to The New York Times. "[Gay is] about the worst thing you can be in Black culture."

"Interracial relationships and same-sex relationships are still subjects most famous people of color won't discuss," author and historian Donald Bogle told Samuels, who traces attitudes in the Black community back to strict Baptist Church teachings." Since the days of slavery, and especially through the civil-rights movement, the Baptist Church has remained a pillar in African-American community life, determining not only religious but also social norms. Renouncing homosexuality has been a cornerstone of the preaching of many Black ministers, leading to the renouncement of gay life by Blacks. "Those ultraconservative beliefs can go a long way in deciding who is and who isn't supported by the Black community," wrote Samuels.

Resolving the Debate

With support for LGBT culture growing, a result in part of efforts to end assaults and bullying of members of that group, what can be done to evolve perceptions of the gay community among African-Americans?

While more traditional approaches including education and sensitivity training can be part of the solution, there are other avenues. "Just as African-Americans call for more positive depictions of themselves in film and television," wrote author Helena Andrews, "the doubly or triply ostracized groups that represent LGBTQ people of color are crying out for the same thing."

In a column titled "Jason Collins: The Great Black Hope," blogger Irena Collins described the NBA athlete's coming out as a "game changer" that would hopefully lead to "more straight brothers embracing their gay brethren."

In any case, a truthful conversation among African-Americans regarding sexual orientation is needed. Although some Blacks may not feel comfortable about being openly gay, in a 2012 Gallup study of more than 120,000 people, 4.6 percent of African-American respondents identified as being LGBT, higher than the rates of whites (3.2), Latinos (4.0) and Asians (4.3). DiversityInc has several resources, including "Things NOT to Say to LGBT Co-Workers," that can serve as a guide to opening more productive and inclusive conversations on the issue.

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