The history of African-American gay men is far from a linear progression in status from social pariahs to more or less accepted and acceptable members of both the black and gay communities. Rather, it is a troubling and often painful story of the attempt to find an identity and build a visible community within the white and heterosexual power structures. On the one hand, the post–World War II economic boom and the gains of the civil rights movement have contributed to increased financial stability and social mobility for many black Americans. At the same time, relatively relaxed attitudes toward sex have prevailed in contemporary society. These circumstances have led to a broader range of black gay identity becoming visible and have reduced in some respects the stigma on such activity. However, black gays and lesbians experienced the large increase in poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, and other ills that afflicted other blacks during the 1980s and early 1990s; moreover, they have been plagued by antigay violence and by the epidemic of AIDS.
Although black civil rights leaders and elected officials have sometimes pushed for legal protections for gays and lesbians, homosexuality was not and is not generally accepted in the black community, which shares white society's negative attitudes toward sexual minorities. Various explanations have been propounded for the black community's response to homosexuality. First, the black church, as an important and historically independent institution, has had great prominence in African-American life, and its ministers and clergy have traditionally evinced a patriarchal, homophobic stance. For instance, in 1993 black minister Eugene Lumpkin, a member of San Francisco's Human Rights Commission, referred to homosexuality as an "abomination." (He was forced to resign soon after.) The same year, conservative black ministers in Cincinnati played a crucial role in overturning a local antidiscrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation. At the same time, the black church's music, ritual, and message of love and community have served an important nurturing role for the many gay men who retain a strong bond with their church and community.
Another example of homophobia is the traditional disdain of homosexuals as effeminate. Ironically, large numbers of black men, particularly those in prison, have same-sex contact but remain strongly antihomosexual and refuse to consider themselves gay. Black militant politics has often had a homophobic side, a famous example being Eldridge Cleaver's attack on James Baldwin, and numerous militant cultural figures, such as rap musicians, have included antigay slurs in their work. Many African Americans who tolerate private same-sex conduct oppose public affirmation of homosexuality. They fear it is an embarrassment to the larger black community, which is trying to overcome white stereotyping of black crime, immorality, and sexual excess. A notable example is civil rights activist Bayard Rustin's dismissal from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the early 1960s, due in part to concern over his homosexuality.
Perhaps the most crucial element in the black community's homophobia is the widespread assumption that gayness and gay men are white ("the white man's weakness" as Amiri Baraka termed it in 1970). Since many blacks do not realize that their own friends and relatives may be gay, they have no reason to change their negative outlook, and they resent the gay movement's appropriation of the civil rights movement's tactics and rhetoric as an attempt to divert attention from the cause of African-American liberation. All too often, white gay activists reinforce this belief by projecting a white image for the gay community and by refusing to incorporate black leadership and culture. In 1993, when the subject of admitting gays and lesbians into the military was being nationally debated, the contributions and the important legal precedent of Sargeant Perry Watkins, an African American who had successfully litigated his discharge on grounds of sexual orientation, were largely ignored by activists and the media. Similarly, the media and public all but ignored the life and tragic death in 1995 of Glenn Burke, an openly gay major league baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics.
Some black scholars claim that same-sex desire is the result of the alienating forces of modern life or merely a more or less recent white intrusion into and against "African" values. Nevertheless, while we know little about its early history, same-sex contact by African Americans has existed since at least as far back as 1646, when Jan Creoli, "a Negro" in New Netherland (now New York State) was sentenced to be "choked to death, and then burned to ashes" for a second sodomy offense. Similarly, in 1712, Massachusetts authorities executed "Mingo, alias Coke," the slave of a magistrate, for "forcible buggery" (presumably sodomy). Through the nineteenth century the subject remained almost completely hidden except for what can be gathered from criminal records or the shrill exhortations of elite editors and writers in antebellum black newspapers warning blacks to curb both their sexual appetites and their tendency toward revelry and erotic abandon. In 1892 a report on "perversion" by Dr. Irving Rosse discussed such topics as African Americans arrested for performing oral sex in Washington D.C.'s Lafayette Square (still a popular cruising area in the 1990s) and the rituals of a "band of Negro men of androgynous character." In 1916 Dr. James Kiernan reported on blacks who solicited men in Chicago cafés and performed fellatio and sometimes "pederasty" on them in a "resort" under a popular dime museum.
The Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s and the consequent urbanization of African Americans led to the creation and expansion of gay spaces—bars, dance clubs (including "drag balls," dances where men dressed as women), bathhouses, and theaters—in the black communities of larger cities. These served as meeting places for black gay men and sometimes for white gay men trying to escape the rigid sexual mores of white society or seeking black male prostitutes. Popular songs such as "Foolish Man Blues" and "Sissy Man Blues" (sung by such singers as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, both bisexual women), though disdainful in tone, testified to the existence and attractiveness of homosexuals.
At the same time, black gay men assumed important positions in American cultural and intellectual life, a primacy they have maintained ever since. Cultural movements—notably that brief concatenation of artists and intellectuals known as the Harlem Renaissance—were heavily gay flavored. Socialite hostess A'Lelia Walker surrounded herself with gay men whose work she promoted, and Carl Van Vechten, a gay white man, helped sponsor the movement's artistic products. Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Lawrence Brown, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent were gay or bisexual men who were some of the brightest lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Significantly, Nugent published the first explicit piece of black gay literature, "Smoke Lilies and Jade" (1926), a short story published in the short-lived Harlem Renaissance journal Fire. Claude McKay's novel Home to Harlem (1928) features a scene in a recognizably gay bar.
Despite the high visibility of gay men in black culture, many aspects of gay life itself remained secret, forbidden, and indeed alienating to many black gay men themselves. The idea that black gays actually composed a community that intersected, but was not subsumed in, either the black or gay communities would have seemed altogether odd to earlier generations of black gay intellectuals. James Baldwin, a literary giant of the latter part of the twentieth century whose works included homosexual characters and complex meditations on sexuality and race, commented as late as 1984 in a Village Voice interview that he felt uncomfortable with the label "gay" and presumably with the idea of belonging to a (black) gay community. "The word 'gay' has always rubbed me the wrong way…. I simply feel it's a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it."
Despite the presence of such openly gay individuals as Baldwin and science fiction writer Samuel Delany during the 1950s and 1960s, the emergence of gay African Americans as a political group did not occur until the late 1960s and 1970s, when the success of the civil rights movement in empowering and enfranchising blacks led other groups to struggle publicly for their liberation. Fittingly, African Americans had a large hand in the Stonewall rebellion, traditionally considered the founding event of the gay liberation movement. In June 1969, the Stonewall Inn, a New York gay bar, was raided by police. Many of the patrons were black, largely drag queens and effeminate gay men. Tired of police harassment, they fought back, throwing bottles and bricks. News of the incident quickly spread and led to the formation of political groups, notably the short-lived Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Sensitive to the revolutionary nature of the gay struggle, the GLF formed alliances with radical black groups, such as the Black Panther Party. However, as most gay political groups abandoned their radical beginnings and reverted to a predominantly white, middle-class outlook and membership, gay black activists became alienated from and less involved in their activities. Many blacks continue to feel unwelcome in the white gay community. Bars, dance clubs, and other spaces in gay areas sometimes discourage black patronage through discriminatory "carding" and harassment policies.
Split between the black and gay communities, many African-American homosexuals continue to feel obliged to choose. Writers such as Max C. Smith and Julius Johnson have noted the rough division of African-American homosexuals into two groups, "black gays" and "gay blacks." Black gays remain primarily active in the black community and have mostly black male friends and lovers. Many of them remain private about their gayness, and some lead bisexual "front lives." Gay blacks, on the other hand, identify with the gay community. They more frequently date and socialize with whites, and they tend to be more open about their sexuality.
Black gays and lesbians have worked to create a community and to mold a distinctively black gay culture. An important ingredient of the drive has been to construct independent black gay institutions. Black gay men, often in cooperation with black lesbians, have, since the late 1970s, created a number of political, social, and cultural institutions. The founding of the National Coalition of Black Gays (later the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays) in 1979 demonstrated a profound belief in the viability of the black lesbian and gay community. Indeed, the creation of such a national coalition by a handful of Washington, D.C.-based activists showed just how secure some black gays had become in their assumption of black gay cultural and political unity. This initial effort was followed by the founding of black gay organizations throughout the country, including several black gay churches (the Pentecostal Faith Temple of Washington, D.C., among them); a writers collective called Other Countries; music groups, such as the Lavender Light Gospel Choir; and a number of social institutions, including Gay Men of African Descent (New York), Black Gay Men United (Oakland), Adodi, and Unity (both of Philadelphia).
A notable example of organizing within the larger black community was the founding of a gay student group at Howard University, the first of several gay organizations at historically black colleges. Black gay men have also branched out into fighting racism in the gay community through work in such groups as Men of All Colors Together (formerly Black and White Men Together). They have also been active in AIDS education, Philadelphia's Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues (BEBASHI) being a noted example. Bars, bathhouses, and restaurants catering mainly to a black gay clientele have been set up, and black gay men have organized plays, musical performances, and dances (including the drag balls immortalized in white filmmaker Jennie Livingston's 1991 documentary Paris Is Burning ).
In addition, there has been an explosion since the early 1980s of black gay (and lesbian) literature. Black gay and lesbian literature was regularly collected in special issues of gay and lesbian magazines. Moreover, a number of independent black gay and lesbian publications—namely, Habari Daftari, Other Countries Journal, Pyramid Review, Blacklight, Blackheart, BLK, Yemonja, Black/Out, Moja: Black and Gay, B, and Real Read —were started with the express purpose of providing an outlet for the broadest possible group of black gay and lesbian writers. Many of the most prominent and successful pieces of black gay literature have been anthologies, beginning with the foundation collections In the Life (1986) and Brother to Brother (1991), and continuing through the 1990s with Shade (1996) and Fighting Words (1999). In the early twenty-first century, collections such as Black Like Us (2002) and Freedom in this Village (2005) continue to survey and catalogue an ever-growing canon of black gay men's writing.
Several black writers have become prominent outside the community. Randall Kenan's Visitation of Spirits (1989) and Let the Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) and Melvin Dixon's Vanishing Rooms (1991) were published by major presses. Essex Hemphill has not only had his 1992 collection Ceremonies published by a major press, but he has also achieved renown through his appearance in Marlon Riggs's popular nonfiction films, such as Tongues Untied (1991). E. Lynn Harris's stirring novelistic explorations of bisexuality, which he at first sold himself door to door, became a major publishing phenomenon. At the same time, black gay publishing concerns produced more and more literature just as black gay men began to organize new mediums of expression on the Internet. After working in President Bill Clinton's administration during the early 1990s, Keith Boykin started exploring the invisibility of black bisexual and gay life in novels and then nonfiction: he now keeps a regular "blog" detailing his experiences as an urban black gay man. The Internet has provided black gay men a virtual space for promoting events such as film festivals and parades. The Internet also has served as a forum for community and support networks and has established an arena for creative and private expressions separate from publishing firms.
Black gay artists and intellectuals have established inroads into areas of expression outside of literature. Alvin Ailey helped revolutionize modern dance with his integration of black folk music and motifs and strong sensual elements, while Bill T. Jones was a pioneer in New Wave—including openly gay—choreography. Films such as Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston (1988) and Marlon Riggs's Anthem (1994) and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" (No Regret, 1992) have been enthusiastically received by gay and straight audiences throughout the world. Thomas Allen Harris's two short videos, Splash (1991) and Black Body (1992), have established a strong black gay presence in video, while his brother Lyle Harris has enriched the field of photography through such works as Confessions of a Snow Queen. The San Francisco performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos has offered a powerful testimony on the black gay experience. Performer RuPaul has become a major singer and cultural icon. Jazzman Billy Strayhorn collaborated with Duke Ellington to produce immortal songs. Harvard theologian Peter Gomes has elucidated biblical teachings on sexuality. Actor Howard Rollins, star of such films as A Soldier's Story (1984) and the television series In the Heat of the Night (1988–1994), was a major sex symbol before disease cut short his career. Producer/director/playwright George C. Wolfe has made major contributions to American theater, including direction of the landmark drama Angels in America (1993). In an attempt to focus and unify critical study of these diverse artists and genres, black literary and cultural critics have been brought together at the Los Angeles–based African-American Gay and Lesbian Studies Center, founded by Gil Gerard in 1992.
As the twenty-first century begins, the dilemma facing black gays, particularly black gay artists and intellectuals, is whether they will be able to maintain and develop their autonomous institutions while continuing to push into the mainstream of American political and cultural life. Already very serious questions have been raised about who can and should control the image of the black gay man. For example, black critics bell hooks and Robert Reid-Pharr have questioned the political and cultural imperatives underpinning the representation of black gay men in the film Paris Is Burning. Furthermore, black gay men still face explicit harassment and isolation from more visible African-American men, particularly from conservative political and religious leaders and in hip-hop and reggae lyrics. The cultural atmosphere for black gay men remains ambiguous and uncertain, marked on the one hand by huge amounts of gay political and cultural activity along with abundant representations of black gay men in books and online but on the other hand by disproportionate invisibility in other arenas, which makes the persistence of violence, disease, poverty, and despair problematic.
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Boykin, Keith. Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
Carbado, Devon W., Dwight A. McBride, and Donald Weise, eds. Black Like Us: A Century of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual African American Fiction. San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2002.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.
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Harris, E. Lynn, ed. Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing, 1969 to the Present. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005.
Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Boston: Alyson, 1991.
hooks, bell. "Is Paris Burning?" Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
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Morrow, Bruce, and Charles H. Rowell, eds. Shade: An Anthology of Fiction by Gay Men of African Descent. New York: Avon, 1996.
Peterson, John L. "Black Men and Their Same-Sex Desires and Behaviors." In Gilbert Heratt, ed. Gay Culture in America: Essays from the Field. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
Reid-Pharr, Robert. "The Spectacle of Blackness." Radical America 24, no. 4 (Winter 1992).
Smith, Charles Michael, ed. Fighting Words: Personal Essays by Black Gay Men. New York: Avon, 1999.
robert reid-pharr (1996)
justin rogers-cooper (2005)