Sunday, May 25, 2008

BLACK EMPOWERMENT AND FEAR OF THE GAY MAN

This is an excellent article to which I was alerted by my good friend, Don Charles.

Although this article concentrates on the homophobia that seems to run rampant at Morehouse College, we have no reason to doubt that homophobia is institutionalized within much, if not most, of the African American community, that is not to be outdone by the assorted community structures and institutions of higher education that are largely populated by whites. Although homophobia, to one degree or another, is entrenched in most of the populations in each of these groups, I want to focus on the seemingly inexplicable homophobia among African Americans, given their own history of oppression from which their ancestors have suffered, and to which, albeit to a much lesser degree, many Black people are still vulnerable to this day.

What makes homophobia especially problematic in the African American community is the fact that rationality would seem to dictate that an historically oppressed minority group, with a history of suffering tremendous indignities and treated as mere property to be bought and sold, would have compassion and empathy toward any other minority group called upon to suffer indignities and denial of civil rights that the former minority group now enjoys, after having gone through its own "season of suffering," to use the words of Martin Luther King.

However, not only has that not been shown to be the case, but we can see that many African American people, particularly as seen in "Black" churches, have been among the vanguard in fighting against the acquisition of full and equal civil rights by LGBT people, and many rejecting and resenting any comparison between their history of oppression and suffering with that of LGBT people. Why might this phenomenon occur, and why would an institution like Morehouse College house such homophobic ideas and students who would articulate that homophobia both rhetorically and even, in some cases, physically?

When one, Black or white, associates being Gay solely with sex; adheres to the fallacy that being Gay is a choice; feels threatened particularly by the presence of gay men, we have to look deeply into the reasons for this seeming enigma of "the circulation of elites," whereby one minority group turns on another minority group once the former group gets somewhat of a leg up in the social hierarchy.

If any one person can be credited with doing the most for African American civil rights in the U.S. it's Bayard Rustin. Bayard Rustin was a gay man of enormous courage, and who suffered horribly for his courageous stands for civil rights. And Rustin was an out and proud gay man!

Indeed, when it was felt by many leaders in the civil rights movement that Rustin's being Gay would hurt that movement, Rustin tendered his resignation to Martin Luther King who, surprisingly to Rustin, accepted his resignation. It was A. Philip Randolph who brought Rustin back into the movement, and it was Rustin who taught the art of non-violence and who orchestrated the March on Washington that agitated for full and equal civil rights for African Americans, just as he had orchestrated so many other civil rights actions.

"From the end of the Great Depression to his death in 1987, at the age of 75, Rustin was the 'master strategist of social change,'' as the historian John D'Emilio writes in his biography, 'Lost Prophet.' The tactics of public protest that became familiar in the 1960's -- marches on Washington, Freedom Rides, sit-ins, passive resistance, civil disobedience -- were pioneered and refined by Rustin two decades earlier. Indeed, through his decisive influence on Martin Luther King Jr., whom he instructed in the philosophy and tactics of Gandhian nonviolence, Rustin created the model for the social movements of post-World War II America -- civil rights, antiwar, gay liberation, feminist. 'He resurrected mass peaceful protest from the graveyard in which cold war anti-Communism had buried it,' D'Emilio writes, 'and made it once again a vibrant expression of citizen rights in a free society.''' [See here.]

From the ardent segregationist Strom Thurmond to the charismatic African American politician Adam Clayton Powell, Rustin was under fire, and he never sought to hide his sexuality and he never felt uncomfortable with his sexuality. Indeed, he was "out" long before the Stonewall era. He was not only a man of tremendous courage in the civil rights arena, but he was also a man of tremendous courage in his authenticity!

So, it was a gay man, a gay African American man, who was largely responsible for the many non-violent actions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that paved the way toward institutional integration of African Americans in American society. That fact must not be lost on anyone!

It seems to me that the origin of Black homophobia, just as with white homophobia, is the illusion of the essential femininity of gay black men! Regarding Black homophobia, when one has a history of being treated like a child, a man whose father and grandfather were often called "boy," one is understandably defensive about being identified with anything or anyone that smacks of perceived femininity that is all too often equated with "weakness."

The reality that many gay males can and do manifest gender performance as "masculine" as defined by the culture does little to inhibit the identification of gay males with effeminacy, an inculcation that has been so ingrained in most people that many men are threatened by that identification due to their perceived need to appear "macho."

This need to appear "macho" is a defense mechanism, an adaptive response to a potentially hostile environment, to overcome the fear of any "taint" of the feminine, erroneously defined and identified as "weak," that the diminutive epithet, "boy," historically used by segregationists toward Black men denoted; that humiliation, that discounting, has understandably not left the psyches of many African Americans.

The fear of appearing to be "weak" in a culture and subculture that values "macho" as a virtue in a male is perceived as antithetical toward embracing gay men as fully equal and deserving of full civil rights. Gay men are, therefore, threatening to many other men and, given the history of the oppression of Black men, antipathy toward gay men, and gay Black men in particular, exponentially increases as one gets in closer physical proximity to gay men and to those perceived to be gay men.

Black (and white) identity and masculinity, for reasons of self-preservation and reinforcement of a concept of self as one of strength, rejects and resents even a hint of being identified with anything "weak" or "effeminate," and the stereotype of the gay man embodying and exuding weakness and femininity has been so internalized that a person who personifies these perceived negative traits is both threatening and viewed as a person to be avoided and, in many cases, vilified so as to avoid even the perception by others of any taint of effeminacy and weakness on the part of the ostensibly Straight male.

Moreover, beyond avoiding the "weak" and the "effeminate," and their labels, there is felt by many a need to attack that which they fear they, themselves, may be identified with, lest others perceive them to be gay and, therefore, weak, effeminate, and vulnerable to any and all attacks by others in an historically racist society. In such a society, weakness is the last thing with which one wants to be identified; weakness is merely inviting attack from a host of sources, ranging from one's peer group to the justifiable fear of police harassment.

So, homophobia in the African American community (as in the white community) cannot be seen apart from the larger structural context of the society. Hence, the Black Church, long an advocate and crucial force for the affirmation and liberation of the Black man, justifiably insisting that he is, indeed, "a man" according to traditional stereotypical definitions of that term, must still reinforce that affirmation by rejecting out of hand anything that smacks of "effeminacy" and "weakness," lest a major and important historical function of that Church be weakened, thereby threatening one of the reasons for its founding and its existence.

It is no accident that a T.D. Jakes and a Ken Hutcherson as pastors spout homophobic rhetoric that is largely met with strong approval by people who rarely, if ever, stop to think that they are vilifying LGBT people, using selected biblical passages devoid of context, much as White Supremacists did as recently as the 1960's, and that some "Christian Identity" groups do to this very day. Indeed, the Black pastor, Gregory Daniels was quoted as saying the following: “If the KKK opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them.” [See here.]

Anything or anyone perceived as "weak" and "effeminate" is terribly resented and feared by those who have a vested interest, in light of the dynamics of their own and their ancestors' oppression, in appearing "strong" and "manly." And this need is so strong in so many that a Rev. Daniels said he would align himself with those who were among African Americans' greatest oppressors!

And, it's terribly unfortunate that so many people have internalized the stereotypes that: 1. gay men are weak and effeminate; 2. there is something wrong with being weak and effeminate; 3. being weak and being effeminate are erroneously viewed as equivalents.

When one sees the psychological and social causes of homophobia, and the petrie dish of oppression that has allowed the pathogen of stereotyping and its consequent homophobia to grow, one can both understand and then use that understanding to transcend those stereotypes and realize that not only are they false but, even if they were true, it is the reactionary forces within society, those same forces that justified the oppression of African Americans in the first place, that largely created the defense mechanism of the venom and the exclusion of one's gay brothers, be that exclusion in the community, in a church, or in an institution of higher education.
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2 comments:

DON CHARLES aka "STUFFED ANIMAL" said...

Excellent analysis, Jerry. I would only add that you're not just talking about homophobia here, but also misogyny. Both feminist and Gay scholars have pointed out that the two neuroses are linked, and I agree.

Jerry Maneker said...

Thanks so much, Don Charles. Homophobia has much of its roots in misogyny: the latent or manifest disdain of "the feminine." It is no accident that the RC Church which will not ordain women; assorted fundamentalist Protestant denominations that resent or prohibit women pastoral ministers are among those in the "religious" vanguard of homophobia.