Pathologizing the Bigotry of Black Folks.

When CNN’s Don Lemon came out earlier this week, his expression of his fears about being black and gay got a lot of attention.

Even beyond whatever effect his revelation might have on his television career, Mr. Lemon said he recognized this step carried special risk for him as a black man.

“It’s quite different for an African-American male,” he said. “It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine. In the black community they think you can pray the gay away.” He said he believed the negative reaction to male homosexuality had to do with the history of discrimination that still affects many black Americans, as well as the attitudes of some black women.

“You’re afraid that black women will say the same things they do about how black men should be dating black women.” He added, “I guess this makes me a double minority now.”

A big reason for the persistence of the  idea that black people are more homophobic than other groups is because nonwhite people are still defined in the broader culture as monolithic groups organized around big, abstract institutions. Lemon can fix his face to suggest that black people are especially homophobic — and have that wobbly stance taken seriously —  because “black culture,” for lots of people, means shit like hip-hop and the black church. But even an idea like “The Black Church” is wild problematic.  Eddie Long or  Donnie McClurkin aren’t representative of the breadth of black Christian life; they’re just among its most prominent voices.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t virulent and violent homophobia in black America, but there’s nothing uniquely black about that sad reality. Lemon says black folk believe that gayness can be prayed away, which must mean that all those Mormons, evangelicals and Orthodox Jews who believe the same thing must have been turned to ignorance by all their black adherents.

One of the most difficult balancing acts of being black and progressive is fighting against and pushing back on bigotry and regressive attitudes, while still arguing for a fuller humanity that allows individual Negroes their imperfections and their ignorance. We have to argue that black people, in essence, get to be horribly wrong about shit, without it being seen as some larger cultural failing.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Taking your post into consideration, it almost makes his words sound like scapegoating for denying his truth publicly. As in, “the reason I was closeted is because i didn’t want Black folks to gay bash me.” I’m sure much of it is due in part to him being a Black man and feeling that he would be pressed to address that in relation to his sexual orientation. If he were white, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. This is a important observation you’ve made.

  • Trackstre

    “We have to argue that black people, in essence, get to be horribly wrong about shit, without it being seen as some larger cultural failing.”

    The liver and lungs of living racism. Good luck with that.

  • black gay men are afraid to come out because of what black women will say? i’ve never heard that one before.

  • “We have to argue that black people, in essence, get to be horribly wrong about shit, without it being seen as some larger cultural failing.”

    Not going to happen. If people can deny Black oppression AND make it appear that Black people are also the most oppressive, they win. Nothing changes.

  • The Last Wino

    I think when people have secrets like this, they think of all the worse case scenarios and project them onto other people, even before anything has happened. I wonder if the anticipation of rejection caused him to come up with all these “reasons” why he couldn’t come out because even now, it seems like everyone has been very supportive of him. Part of me thinks that a month from now, he’ll realize that what he thought would happened and the reality of what has happened has been so different that he’ll take back what he said. Then again I’m ridiculously optimistic.

  • J

    On the one hand we can play dumb and pretend that black Americans are nothing more than a mass of individuals who, in the strictest sense, trace their heritage back to slaves brought to the 13 colonies between roughly 1619 and 1810. In which case Lemon’s statement is stupid. Or we can not play dumb and accept the fact that the majority of these individuals evolved out of a unique culture (Lemon’s “black culture”) that was shaped overwhelmingly by conservative protestantism, which is indeed hostile to homosexuality. The former, (supposedly) anti-essentialist stance taken to its logical extreme would seem to suggest that black American culture is a chimera and that blackness, in the American situation, is simply a matter of descent. An oddball position, IMO. To say that “black [American] cutlture,” is homophobic is no more provocative or problematic than saying that Anglo-American culture is anti-black, an assumption that few people who write for or post on this site, I imagine, would seriously question.

    • VC

      But is the homophobia found in black american culture uniquely black? Lemon’s statement seems to imply that reactions to gay males in “the black community” are somehow exceptional. Homophobic attitudes amongst certain communities is definitely worth discussing; I just think we have to be careful not to follow Lemon’s lead and illustrate homophobia as a black thing.

      On another note, Lemon’s statement is flawed on other accounts, i.e. conflating masculinity and sexuality.

      • J

        I strongly suspect that there’s a unique brand of black American homophobia due to the confluence of certain prevalent factors within black American communities: out of wedlock births, single parent households, holy roller Christianity, and a significant prison population. Why should all cultures be expected to hate the same way anyway? Lemon’s comments reflect his experiences with his culture. I don’t see how anyone can seriously read him as saying that “homophobia is a black thing.” That’s a pretty clear misreading.

        • Why should all cultures be expected to hate the same way anyway?

          Of course. One of my dearest friends is a Xicana queer activist, and she constantly rails at the way Catholicism informs homophobia in Mexican-American communities. Of course homophobia presents itself in a way that metabolizes the cultural traditions in which it operates.

          but…so what? the idea that you can be cured of your gayness isn’t exclusive to black people or even Christians. The argument that homophobia is an issue specific to or more pronounced in black communities is baldly untrue.

          • J

            “But…so what?”

            Um, I was responding to V.C.’s question.

            “the idea that you can be cured of your gayness isn’t exclusive to black people or even Christians.”

            Lemon didn’t say it was.

            “The argument that homophobia is an issue specific to or more pronounced in black communities is baldly untrue.”

            Re the first part of your statement, see above. The second part is pretty presumptuous. Surely it depends on what communities one is comparing to black ones.

          • So do black people black people “get to be horribly wrong about shit, without it being seen as some larger cultural failing,” or is Don Lemon, being horribly wrong here and all, responsible for the dissemination of his horribly wrong belief to others?

  • Ash

    While his statements were somewhat irresponsible, I hope it doesn’t deflect from the point he was trying to make. Homophobia is a big issue within much of the black community, and it needs to be addressed (whether or not it is more or less prevalent in other communities).

  • joebeau

    If some of my fellow black folk want to remain ignant and hateful, I will most certainly call them out on it. It’s easy to say we must let them be when you, yourself are not the target of the hate and violence. We musn’t use the red herring, ‘what will white people think when they hear this?’ as an excuse to avoid constructive and much deserved criticism about how we treat each other. I’m not down with what Mr. Lemon said about my sisters, but straight supremacy in our community MUST come to an end. I have bled because of it, I have lost my family because of it. I pray that we will, in my lifetime, see these straight supremacists marginalized and ostracized as they truly deserve to be.

  • Andy T

    J — you’re right on the money.

  • Believing, as a Christian, that the homosexual act is a sin and being homophobic are not the same thing. It is also not the same thing as hate.

    I really wish people would stop equating the two. But then again if they did, they would have to accept ambiguities and gray areas that threaten the gay political agenda.

    If wishes were fishes….

    • Trolly McTrollerson

      Ummm…I’m kind of flabergasted. I’m not going to go off on you too much because I don’t think you mean any harm, but what you’re saying is actuallt pretty offensive. Essentially, what you’re saying is that someone is being evil by the very act being themself. It’s like me saying that while I believe your being black makes you defective in some way, I’m not a racist.

      I hate to break it you, but the idea you articulated is virulently homophobic. You don’t have to be standing on top of a building shouting “I hate fags” to be a homophobe. But of course just like there are no racists, there are no homophobes, I guess.

      Maybe this is an attack on your religion, but you and your friends don’t know the mind of god any better than the billions of other people who came in history before you. Keep in mind that at one time sourthern Protestantism taught that the slavery was the rightful place of African Americans. This sort of thing is exactly the reason why I don’t go to church.

      • MH8D

        “It’s like me saying that while I believe your being black makes you defective in some way, I’m not a racist.”

        That’s actually not what she said at all. She said that she believed the homosexual act to be wrong, she didn’t say anything about people themselves being wrong for being homosexuals. I think most people agree at this point that those feelings aren’t a choice and it’s not their fault. But she didn’t say anything about feelings or identity, she said ‘behavior.’ There is no ‘black behavior’ with which to compare her statement directly.

        You don’t need to hate people to have reservations about their choices in behavior. Hating a homosexual for being attracted to people of the same sex makes about as much sense as hating a schizophrenic for hearing voices. They are obviously compelled from within.

        That said, hating a person is not the same thing as disagreeing with the way in which that person chooses to behave… I love my little sister more than anyone in this world, but she eats pork, and her choice to do that will always disgust me.

        • distance88

          “That said, hating a person is not the same thing as disagreeing with the way in which that person chooses to behave… I love my little sister more than anyone in this world, but she eats pork, and her choice to do that will always disgust me.”

          True, but as far as I know, pork-eaters have the right to marry each other, can easily adopt children if they choose to do so, and usually aren’t the targets of derogatory slurs. Disagreeing with the way in which a person is (I’m hesitant to say ‘chooses to behave’ here) doesn’t mean you can deny them basic rights.

          • That is the problem right there. The hesitancy we have to saying “chooses to behave”. And many of us have been bullied into that irrational, and simply ridiculous position.

            Heterosexuals can be attracted to someone, really want to have sex with the person and choose not to. A heterosexual can choose to be celibate, for religious or other reasons. A person can be in a sexless marriage and choose not to break their vows.

            So, yes. It is possible for a person to be attracted to the same gender and not act on it. If they do act on it, that is their choice. No one is ever forced to have sex.

            You may believe that it would be wrong for anyone, especially homosexuals, to feel compelled to deny their desires. But that is another issue entirely.

            I would think it a great advancement in our society when we quit pretending that homosexuality means you have no longer have will, choice, self-control or agency.

            • 1) “No one is ever forced to have sex.” You have heard of date-rape drugs, blackmail, manipulation, sex-slavery, and rape, right?

              2) I grew up in a Church that emphasized that all of God’s Creation is Good. There was no time in Genesis that God said something in Creation was inherently evil.

              Do you want to take various books, written by different men at different times, translated and reinterpreted throughout history (sometimes by vicious racists and sexists such as King James) to be the unerring work of God? If so, how do you resolve the portions of the Bible that contradict each other? … Or the changes in the various translations. (For example, during King James’ time, they didn’t believe black women could be beautiful, so they changed the portion in Song of Songs about being “black and comely” to “black *but* comely”)… And most important, do you hold as dear to Jesus’ insistence it is as hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom as you do to the prohibitions against homosexuality in Leviticus and Paul’s letters? Have you given up everything you own to follow Jesus? Or do you consider your wealth a blessing? If so, then I have serious doubts about your adherence to biblical principles.

              A great friend of mine who is a scholar and preacher said that black people have always interpreted the Bible in light of our own political plight. I think there are aspects of our destruction of human life and God’s Creation that deserve our attention before we attack two people wanting to share their lives together. We are supposed to grow in our knowledge of God, and I think this hard-heartedness toward gay people is one area in which we are called to do that.

        • really? ugh.

        • VC

          your argument basically boils down to ‘you can *be* gay, just don’t *do* gay stuff’. this is problematic for many reasons, perhaps the main one being that it posits sexuality as this thing people are, rather than what they do (the same argument that has guided the policing of sex since the 17th century). this ‘be, don’t do’ perspective is also the logic behind a bunch of ex-gay camps and recovery centers that are meant to make people stop doing gay stuff. but in my humble thought, doing gay stuff is the gay part.

          • Its not logic, its religion. Bible says that homosexual acts are a sin. And it says to love your neighbor. Regardless of what they do.

            So my argument is only that the belief that homosexual acts are sin does not equal a homophobia or a hate.

            • okay, so let’s game this out. your bible-based disdain for gay people ends…where exactly? do you not support policies that are discriminatory in effect? are you cool with same-sex/LGBTQ couples adopting? holding all the offices/titles hetero folks would hold?

              i don’t get how the idea that folks are broken doesn’t translate into actual real world prejudice and discrimination, or the holding of discriminatory views.

              • MH8D

                But the holding of discriminatory views doesn’t always need to manifest into actual real world discrimination. I think that most logical adults can make the distinction… I manage people for a living and I’m completely fair to people with whom I would NEVER associate personally, it’s just the right thing to do.
                I think that the key to progress with regard to gay rights is to stop trying to convince people that there’s nothing different about it. Instead, inform people that they have no right to deny civil rights to other people, no matter what their personal views may be.
                You can teach people that public spaces and resources are not subject to their private judgement, but you can’t tell people what to think.
                I find that the view of many people who would call themselves progressive, with regard to religion, is nearly identical to the view of religious conservatives with regard to sexuality. You don’t have to agree with or even respect what people think and/or do to be fair to them.

              • There is no such thing as a “bible based disdain for gay people”. Just like there is no bible based disdain for adulterers. The homosexual act, like adultery is a sin.

                Just because some people equate acts with people doesn’t mean that Christianity does. The very fundamental basis of Christianity is to separate people from acts. Sins are forgiven and Christ teaches to love everyone equally.

                If you don’t like the bible, Christianity or religion in general because of its judgment of the homosexual act, then you have full freedom to reject it.

                Just don’t try to deny Christians the right to believe that homosexual acts are a sin. Or bully them with knee jerk labels like homophobia and hate. Because the division between acts and people is basic enough for a five year old to understand. You all are sticking your fingers in your ear and shouting la, la, la, I can’t hear you!

                • @Wild Cougar

                  Hm. So you–a “40-something woman” who “likes to fuck younger men” and then blog the gory details–are the Christian authority on sex and sexuality on this thread?

                  Okay then.

                  You are officially my favorite person on the internet today.

                • Speaking of fingers in ears, Cougar…. The question GD asked you was not about whether homosexual acts are sinful. The question was whether or not you feel our government has the right to restrict their rights to conduct their private lives, enter into marriage contracts, raise children, earn employment, obtain housing, and have recourse to protection from physical assaults. You can think it’s a sin all day long… but if you think your belief matters more in our democracy simply because you are Christian, then I don’t think you understand how a country works that isn’t a theocracy.

            • VC

              so there’s no logic behind the religion… okay. well, it’s not really important to me whether or not we call the argument homophobic or hateful. i find the ‘be but don’t do’ religion to be fundamentally flawed in its consideration of sexuality as a characteristic. to me, being against gay acts = being against gay people… gay behavior comprises gayness. but, i think we disagree on this or maybe it’s irrelevant to religion. anyway, i’m also curious where your anti-homosexual acts religion leads and ends?

  • And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, / And binding with briars my joys and desires.

  • To me, his statements reflect the cumulative psychosis–some of it the result of experience, the rest the result of paranoia–that comes from living a closeted life. Instead of annoyed, they struck me as acutely sad.

    The comment about being a double minority is a dangerous one, because it buys into a victim posturing/messianic complex that does nothing to further personal growth or accountability. This, when combined with Lemon’s closet claustrophobia, speaks directly to G.D.’s thesis.

    It doesn’t seem like it would be any easier being white, straight, or male these days (inherited blame for oppression, end of white supremacy/privilege) than it is being a “double minority.” At the end of the day, human insecurity has got everyone feeling inadequate in one way or the other. Man is a less than perfect beast; let’s stop pinning the blame on being black, gay, female, disabled, or what-have-you and use our “limitations” as our strengths.

  • @ Lawrence Forbes: As to the first of your well-written paragraphs, I am both annoyed and saddened by your insistence that closeted people have somehow, en masse, missed the dawning of the Wiz’s Brand New Day. Recall the aphorism: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s out to get you.

    While I’m dusting off my quotations… 1) reports of the death of “white supremacy/privilege” are greatly exaggerated. Many indicators — from disproportionate unemployment (even for black men with college diplomas) to the decline of black talent in both blockbusters and art house films — suggest a retrenchment of white privileges, name as such or unnamed. Indeed, my friend called the last Oscars the Tea Parts Oscars with their dearth of nonwhite nominees.

    And 2) the “inherited blame” for oppression is much more a case of “the white man’s burden” or “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” In other words, it is undoubted that a) dominant groups have subordinate classes within them and b) even the most dominant have certain pressures–usually referred to as education, discipline, and decorum. However, just because everyone has *some* constraints does not mean that those constraints are shared equally or result in the same advantages as a trade-off.

    Finally, the real problem with the “double minority” formulation is that it attempts to separate the hierarchy-establishing powers of race and sexuality. What is needed, instead, is an understanding of the way sorting people into race or class groupings also entails assigning each group distinctive sexual tendencies. The converse is, therefore, also true: visible indicators of queer sexualities (hair, skin, nonnormative gender) often remove otherwise white people from the spaces and privilges that would normally accrue to white skin.

    I agree with you that insecurity is human… but I would love to see acknowledged that part of the human story has been digging ditches to channel the insecurity toward certain populations. We can undo it, but we have to acknowledge that it’s not a level field.