important part of black life that up until recently, was absolutely necessary to for survival in the harsh social climate of American life. For the majority of its history the black church has been a pillar in the black community because it provided help and protections like those of government institutions to which black people had little or no access. The church was the school, bank, community center, or whatever else it needed to be to give people a sense of dignity and equality in a culture that consistently denied it to them.
It also served as a place where black people could establish a healthy self-image. People who were heavily involved in the black church tended to be well dressed and well spoken. Many of the leading members in the church were educated and the whole environment validated black people and allowed them to recalibrate their image of themselves into something other than the one that the rest of society consistently placed on them.
Placed at the helm of the church were the preacher and his wife, who tended to be the most educated and wealthiest members of the community. Black preachers were and in some cases still are deified by their congregations. There is a sense in the black church that the preacher has a right to comment on any and all social issues. The preacher’s role is far broader than that of a holy man. He or she is also expected to help the community and place it on a path that will lead to psychological, spiritual and financial prosperity. Historically, black preachers have been expected to above all protect the interest of the black community, even in cases where it might conflict a bit with what the Bible says.
Black churchgoers turn to their PHD wielding preachers for a sense of direction but also for strategy. From Martin Luther King to Jeremiah Wright, most black preachers will spend a lot of time try to impart on their congregations lessons in what they feel is the best defense against racism, classism, poverty, or whatever plagues their particular members. The sermon will always be uniquely black. Not all black churches operate this way, but most do.
When you look at the job description of a black preacher in historical context, it makes it easier to understand why he or she is not rushing to defend gays even if they are black. For more than ninety percent of America’s history, black people have been at the bottom of the totem poll in the consciousness of the broader national community. At this juncture, there are multiple groups that are having a hard time. Muslims, gays and illegal immigrants, have emerged as the new groups that have to struggle for their integrity in the mind of the broader national community. These groups are all being treated somewhat poorly at this time, but only gay people have staying power as America’s oppressed group. Eventually, Illegal immigration will be hammered out, and September 11th will take its place among other tragic but no longer raw events in American history and these groups will be let off the hook. The cultural oppression of gays however, will be somewhat more difficult to resolve.
At this point, I feel safer traveling anywhere in the country as a black man than I do as a gay man. I am reminded of this in subtle ways all the time. Faggot was a very popular word in my high school. Teachers and administrators heard it getting thrown around all the time and took no action. But I have a very strong suspicion that calling another student a nigger would not have been met with the same nonchalance from the administration. The reason behind this is simple. Broader society has a keen interest in not appearing racist and so it jumps on racism wherever it can find it. Live through one modern gubernatorial or presidential race and it becomes clear that the same cultural desire to protect gays from discrimination is not nearly as strong.
Black leadership has no interest in protecting or defending the interests of the gay community because it realizes that gay people are sitting in a seat that black people have kept warm for decades. It’s the seat for those whose presence is more tolerated than accepted. In some sense, preachers and other leaders are sacrificing the welfare of the gay community for the welfare of the black community. The hatred for gays in the black community wasn’t born out of animosity; it was born out of strategy.
Looking at the history of the black and white perception of gays, it is clear that hatred toward homosexuals and other sexual minorities has not declined in the among blacks as it has among their white counterparts. Over the past 3 decades although black intolerance has not grown within the population, it has intensified. Many older blacks can remember in the 60’s and 70’s that every neighborhood had its gays, and they were tolerated and largely left alone. Black Americans were essentially the original authors of don’t ask don’t tell. So long as you did not parade your homosexuality around, you could get respect at the grocery store or the barbershop, even if everyone knew. More recently however, there has been a visible rise in the desire to uproot and harass gays. Young black males throw accusations of homosexuality around with a level of frequency and consequence that gives it an eerie inquisition like quality.
The denigration of the homosexual is a powerful tool to provide esteem for black males, especially those that are not doing so well. The image of the gay man has been soiled to such a degree in the black community that virtually any straight man regardless of his status within the community can consider himself above a homosexual. There is a certain intoxicating effect that comes with the knowledge that irrespective of the degree to which you have failed in your life, there is a group of people over which you can claim superiority and have that claim go unchallenged in the public sphere. In a twisted way, the trampling of gay people in the public sphere elevates black people in the public sphere. There is absolutely no incentive for leaders in the black community, religious or otherwise to come to the aid of gay people and some believe it would be to the black communities detriment to do so.
Given the lack of support from American media, black media, and the black church the only place that gay black men should be able to turn to for total support and acceptance should be the gay community. Black men that I have spoken to about the coming out experience gave it a surprisingly subdued review compared to white, Latino, and some Asian men I spoke to. If coming out were a product, there would simply be fewer black men selling that product to other black men. For white men, there are certain benefits that one can expect to be gained during and after the coming out process. It winds up looking something like this
Give up certain family and friends
Be accepted into the gay community to replace that loss
Be free to express love and sexuality in a way not previously possible
Reconcile with their own original community
For black men the coming out process is similar, but often looks more like this
Give up certain family and friends
Be partially accepted into a gay community to replace the loss
Be free to express love and sexuality minus discrimination
Never truly reconcile with the community they left.
For white men the coming out process has benefits that clearly outweigh the risk.
Gay black men are really the only intermediaries that the broader gay community has to the straight black community. If gay black men were consistently dissatisfied with their experience with the gay community, why would they stick their necks out to defend it in a community that already offers them a certain degree of love and security albeit conditional?
This dual minority status will create tension even in the most unexpected situations.
As black men they were raised in black households. They were likely to have spent