“No Hetero:” Homosexuality in the Black Community

heterosexual hand holding

Image from Terry Johnson on Flickr

My story/article/Q&A didn’t fit into a specific category, also I the editor suggested they didn’t know who was taking, so I told them to scrap my piece for Excalibur’s 2012  Black History Month Paper (York University’s main campus paper). Instead, I figured it might as well go somewhere, so if you’d like you are more than welcome to read it below:

As a queer woman of colour, I continuously feel like a minority in spaces oriented towards Black individuals. During a recent “Beautiful We” session with York United Black Students Alliance (YUBSA), people raised their eyebrows as I shared my coming out story.

With my personality it is easy to assume I fall into a heteronormative category, thus exposing my sexual orientation throws others off. In my two years as a member of YUBSA, I’ve met only one other member who was open about her sexual orientation and felt comfortable in the space.

Many YUBSA members have grown up with traditional perspectives on life and I believe if an “obvious” gay person entered the space some people would no longer feel YUBSA is a “safe space” due to their discomfort with queer individuals. Of the approximately 50,000 students that attend York, I’ve personally met a handful of queer Black youth who are open about their sexuality.

In this article, I want to share opinions about queerness in the Black community from both straight and gay voices. I visited two Toronto support groups to get a perspective from the queer community. Ranging from 19 to 30 years old, participants of Black Queer Youth (BQY) and Spektrum, composed of mostly male-identified persons of colour, answered questions I posed about homophobia in the Black community.

To gain a perspective from the straight Black community, I spoke with a small group of YUBSA members who were also asked similar questions. Names have been changed to protect the identity of these youth.

Q: How long did you keep your identity secret and how did you finally come out?

Everyone’s coming-out experience was different. I noticed I was equally interested in males and females during my transition from middle school to high school. I first came out to a close friend,  who also identified as bisexual, in grade 11. That was five years ago. I came out to my family for my 21st birthday, and it has been a supportive 2 months now that I’ve fully been open about my sexuality.

However, Twisted has not told his parents to this day that he is gay in order “to save them from a heart attack.” M.M exclaimed: “If I was to come out, no one would believe me.” Beau, on the other hand, revealed his sexuality when he came to school one day in acrylic nails and a lace front.

Coming out in the Black community is difficult because it requires sharing a piece of you that isn’t always accepted by others. And there can be many repercussions if you choose to expose your true identity. For instance, people in the LGBTQ community are often confronted with ignorant questions and phrases. For instance in Ottawa, October 2011 there was a news report of Jamie Hubley committing suicide because he was being bullied as the only openly gay person in his school.

There are even terms in the black community that are applied to gay individuals such as “chichi man” and “batty boy” which are used very often.  Another repercussion of coming out is that one’s safety can be jeopardized due to homophobia. There are many media examples of gay bashing, such as Sakia Gunn who was stabbed and killed May 11,2003 in New Jersey after her and a group of friends rejected advances by two men declaring her and her friends were lesbian. Homophobia is also expressed in song. Such as BujuBanton’s “Boom ByeBye” and JipsyKing’s  “Rapapmpam” which promote murder against the gay community. Even more unfortunate, was that I found a forum that claimed the “biggest battybwoy killing anthems” in which viewers could post these overtly hateful songs.

Other repercussions of coming out are losing friends, being seen as an immoral person, and a potential decrease in respect. All of these negative factors add up and keep people in the closet, potentially for their whole life.

Q: When coming out to other members of the Black community, what was the reaction?

During my interviews, I realized that there was a noticeable trend of either initial disbelief or confirmed assumptions when these youth come out. Sometimes being “stereotypically gay” (e.g. flamboyancy) tends to give away one’s identity such as Renda’s friend who came out to her in high school. Yet, in Renda’s case, she made the assumption when initially meeting her friend and gave him the space and opportunity to come out to her on his own. However, when a person exposes her/his sexuality to close-minded members of the Black community, assumptions arise. “They assume you are attracted to every single person [when you come out],” stated E.M.P, a member of Spektrum.

There is a very typical response of over-sexualizing the LGBTQ community especially amongst women. E.M.P. shared her experience of coming out as a bisexual woman while dating a male. She immediately received comments from family members such as “but you’re with a guy… so you’re fine now.” Sadly, the ignorant comments are only the beginning of one’s coming out experience but as L. King (B.Q.Y.’s co-ordinater) suggested, “for every closed-minded person you lose [as a friend] there’s a good ally out there to support you.”

Q: How do you feel about the phrase “down low”?

As J. from Spektrum said, “it’s for Black people only… it was made by us, for us,” which was followed by a chorus of head nodding. For those who haven’t encountered this phrase in such a context, D.L. is in reference to men who identify as heterosexual (yet are in the closet about their sexuality) and have sex with other men. This term is closely related to M.S.M. which means “men who have sex with men,” without any identification with the status of a ‘gay man’. There is a lot of discomfort with these terms because of infidelity in relationships; lying to one’s partner (or to one’s self) about sexual preference is never taken lightly.

Q: How do you feel about the phrase “no homo”?

After asking this question there were many responses (from both the straight and gay groups) such as “if you’re saying it, it’s coming out of a gay place” (J, co-ordinator of Spektrum), “…it means homo” said C.J.S. (member of YUBSA) and “I think you’re gay if you use it” (Anon. participant of YUBSA) Kellie suggested “[‘no homo’] shows how insecure people are and how detrimental it is of being thought of as homosexual.” On the other side of the argument one of the men shared that he uses the phrase for fear of walking into a potential fight. This phrase is a “get out of jail card” and offers a safety net, as Renda suggests “[it is] a stamp of ‘yes I am straight’”. Many individuals of the queer community aren’t strongly offended by the phrase but they do take it seriously. Jordan said the phrase is distasteful, “[it’s like saying] that’s so gay,” rather she suggests a comeback of “…no hetero”.

Q. What factors are to blame for homophobia in the Black community?

There was a general consensus that strong religious ideals was, and still is, the main reason behind homophobia – not to mention many other communities of colour. Beau said “because I’m black…I felt like I was going to hell”. Anon, believes that many LGBTQ youth leave the church out of an “urge to be free” (Anon). L. King suggests for the homophobic Black community, “…if you are going to Church, practice what is preached to ya”.  Her radical perspective is suggesting that the individuals who hold religion and sin over homosexuality could potentially be sinning in other ways (e.g. lie, cheat, steal, murder, etc).

Another reason lies in how economics affects power dynamics. As Djellia said “the poorer we get, the more close-minded we get,” implying the transition back to a traditionalized role mindset. What she suggests is when money is fleeting, people blindly search for a false sense of power and look for an out-group which they feel is below them to attack.

The third major reason behind homophobia is the need to title and categorize every single person. With such rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity the Black community tends to feel pressured if an individual cannot be easily categorized. This is typically why homophobic people attack the ‘obvious’ outliers such as flamboyant males, overly masculine women, and a significant amount of our beautiful transgendered persons. As Anon at YUBSA said, “we need to take titles off people… [everyone is] put into boxes and there’s always people who won’t fit in these boxes”.

Q: Do you have any recommendations for queer Black folk who want to come out? Or recommendations for allies who want to show support?

For the LGBTQ community…

1) Baby Steps

I find the process of coming out is rather quick, you should feel content with being who you are and sometimes allies and supporters can pick up on certain cues recognizing certain aspects of you are changing. When you feel ready, begin telling people you with whom you feel comfortable about your identity.

2) Resources

Members of BQY and Spektrum recommend finding someone – a queer support group or a strong ally – who can help you out on your journey. There were recommendations on hearing other people’s coming out stores in person or online (via chat rooms or YouTube). Another form of resource that was strongly recommended by Twisted and Beau was money. If there is a possibility of being kicked out of your home after coming out, save up some money before you share your true identity in case the environment becomes hostile and you need somewhere to stay.

3) Informative Conversations

Engaging in intellectual conversations about such ‘taboo’ topics helps the community progress and grow. As Renda said, “the fact that we’re talking about it makes it easier and better”. When ideas are shared there is an opportunity for people to broaden their perspective and gain an urge to learn more. As Dwayne also said “the root of discomfort it ignorance,” even though such conversations may make you squirm it is one step away from ignorance and one step closer to maturity and competence.

4) Stay Strong

Beau easily summed it up, “if [you are] insecure there’s something to target, stay strong”. If you don’t seem confident about yourself, people are more likely to push you around. Stand your ground and stick up for what you think is right.

And for the straight identified individuals…

Recognize your privilege. In society, being straight is seen as a privilege. Queer people of colour don’t have these opportunities.

5) Join LGBTQ Communities

L. King also encourages you to “come into queer spaces”. Not only are they significantly safer spaces that are more open and accepting, but there’s a sense of appreciation when allies make the effort to support the LGBTQ population.

6) Take your Time

I recommend taking baby steps such as watching a queer film, finding out what LGBTTIQQ2SA stands for, or visiting  the 519 (the most popular LGBTQ resource and support centre in Toronto). But if you want a radical jump into the queer community, have a drink on Church street (Toronto’s largest LGBTQ neighborhood), develop a strong bond with a queer identified individual, check out TBLGAY’s events, or as Twisted enthusiastically recommended “go to a ball!”

Unfortunately, the issues I spoke about above are only surface issues in the Black LGBTQ community. But as our generation continues to grow I hope to see more Black youth feeling comfortable in both their own skin, feeling safe about their  sexuality, and allies walking confidently beside their queer-identified friends. For all the Black LGBTQ students at York U, stop by YUBSA or TBLGAY and say hi.

Sources:

Boykin, Keith. “She Didn’t Have to Die,” http://keithboykin.com/arch/000737.html

May 13, 2003.

Boykin, Keith. “Sakia Gunn Remembered,” http://keithboykin.com/arch/001117.html May 11, 2004.

Burke, Ashley. “Ottawa Teen Who Killed Himself Was Bullied,” http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2011/10/18/ottawa-teen-suicide-father.html October 18, 2001

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