Since the national ascendancy of Barack Obama, many commentators have tried to make hay out of an alleged rift between gay and black communities in the United States – from conservative groups or commentators hoping to drive a wedge between two typically-Democratic voting blocs, to well-intentioned activists across the spectrum citing racism in gay culture or homophobia in black communities.
(About a month ago, conservative columnist and radio host Colin Flaherty sent an email to me and the rest of Out Front’s editorial staff, and evidently the staff of any other LGBT news organization he found contacts for, asking for perspectives on “black-on-gay crimes” for an article he was writing for Right-wing World Net Daily.
He was cordial, but his questions seemed leading, to say the least:
Is Black on Gay violence something that exists?
Is it racist to notice it?
Does black violence towards gays exist out of proportion with other racial groups and their violent crimes against gays?
Can you think of an examples that are under-reported?
I chose not to use work time to reply, and got around to the email a couple weeks later – after his deadline – but the article he had written on the subject by then, ‘Perfect Storm’ of Black-On-Gay-Violence, is here. In the interest of disclosure, Flaherty’s full email and my response is here.)
The issue came to a head in late 2008, just after the election that elevated President Obama to the nation’s highest office and abolished same-sex marriage in the nation’s most populous (and perhaps its most liberal) state.
Black voters were accused of propelling the passage of Prop. 8, the initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California (though even if the black vote disappeared from California’s electorate, the numbers would have been enough for the initiative to pass) and controversy erupted after The Advocate‘s dramatically-titled cover story that followed, “Gay is The New Black?”
A long-standing point of contention in the conversations has been Hip Hop culture. While the big-time artists with mainstream popularity don’t necessarily reflect the sentiments of the wide variety of artists in places like Los Angeles and Brooklyn – and there is a whole heckuva lot that constitutes “black culture” beyond Hip Hop – many cited homophobic lyrics in popular songs and the popular phrase “No Homo” as evidence of irreconcilable differences.
It was as if the gay and black neighborhoods in North American cities – often walking distance from each other – were different universes. Was it true?
Fast-forward four years. Right when the issue was at its peak just after the 2008 election, Wanda Sykes came out as a lesbian. This year two developments rocked the conversation: The first black president made the the historic announcement that he supports gays’ and lesbians’ right to marry – the first American president to do so – and the NAACP officially endorsed same-sex marriage.
This year Frank Ocean has come out as gay, and dozens of black artists and performers have chimed support and affirmation. Now is the time, many say, that Hip Hop is ready to embrace gay artists – evolving, so to speak.
From a UK Press Association story:
Snoop said: “People are learning how to live and get along more, and accept people for who they are and not bash them or hurt them because they’re different.”
Snoop said of Ocean’s revelation: “When I was growing up, you could never do that and announce that. There would be so much scrutiny and hate and negativity, and no one would step (forward) to support you because that’s what we were brainwashed and trained to know.”
Meanwhile, rapper Ice-T said he could see a gay rapper on the scene, depending on what kind of rap he or she performed.
It must be some relief to those whose identities have always represented a unique, and highly-sidelined, perspective on the issue: Americans who are both black and LGBT, conflicted over which minority status comes first.
If blacks and gays are supposedly rivals, which group could they call home? Are there any completely safe and welcoming places at all? (The fact that two thirds of the victims of hate-motivated murders of LGBT people in 2010 were people of color makes the challenges clear.)
Of course Wanda Sykes was black and gay before she came out publicly. So was Frank Ocean. Bayard Rustin, a gay civil rights activist and close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was openly black and gay when the civil rights struggle was in full force and when LGBT rights were still unheard of.
It’s unlikely that views on LGBT rights in the black community turned on a dime – there has been support there for a long time – and it’s still unclear whether lesbian and gay scenes across the country are making progress on known hang-ups about race. But when it comes to the dominant narrative – and the affect it has on the perceptions and lives of ordinary folks across the nation – what a difference four years can make.