Thoughts on Race in the Gay Community
This piece was submitted by TNG reader, J. Clarence Flanders.
Recently, actor and activist Doug Spearman, most famously known for his role as Chance on Patrick Ian-Polk’s Noah’s Arc, wrote a piece for the Human Rights Campaign, where he articulates what he sees as a prevalent racism within the gay community.
The fallout from Spearman’s piece, which was copied and pasted and cropped across the web, is indicative of how contentious this issue is within the gay community. Like many other essays dealing on the subject, it sparked a heated debate from both sides. This debate is not without merit, as it has become increasingly clear that if the gay community does want to move forward, this discussion must happen, and frankly it’s long overdue.
So exactly what is on the table? This is what Spearman said in his piece that really frazzled many readers, and likely sparked much of the anger:
People tend to believe that racism, on all sides of the color lines, is something that stops at the gates of the LGBT community. As though at the entrance to the various Boys Towns around the country you were required to check your ideas about Blacks, Asians, Jews, Arabs, etc… The way cowboys were required to turn over their guns when they walked into a saloon in the Old West. It just doesn’t happen that way. In fact, I think it’s worse now than it was when I came out in l980. Back then the bars felt a lot more friendly, prejudice was a dirty word, and the kids of the 1960’s and early 70’s – those that had created the gay movement – were still on the dance floors of America elbow to elbow with the people who’d marched in Vietnam protests and Black Power parades, and had been active participants in the original Civil Rights Movement. Those were the grownups who were standing at the bar when I got there. They welcomed me. But they’re gone. That spirit seems to have evaporated. Not everywhere and not for everyone, but enough so that if you’re over the age of thirty-five you would notice.
Spearman’s recollection of the past is to a certain point more idealistic than it actually was. Interracial relations on the platonic level in the gay community have always been a touchy subject. For example, in his memoir, Mississippi Sissy, Kevin Sessums, contributing editor to Allure magazine, discusses how the gay bars he used to visit when he was in college were heavily segregated. Whites stayed on one side, and Blacks on the other, and rarely did the two ever meet. (Until Sessums had sex with one of the star Black football players, that is.) Despite being marginalized by the mainstream society, the racist and privileged ideology of the time slithered into the gay community like it did everywhere else.
However, it is also true that the gay community was much more egalitarian than mainstream heterosexual society, especially as a political/activist community began to take form in the late 70′s and 80′s. The Gay Rights Movement brought people together who shared a common cause; there was something to fight — besides each other. Regardless of ethnicity, gays were all grouped together by the mainstream heterosexual culture. It was a great “a-ha” moment, but clearly one that was rather short lived.
During those decades of civil unrest there was a visible Black presence in mainstream queer culture, something we have not seen a lot of recently. In the groundbreaking film, Boys in the Band, there was an African-American main character. This was indicative of the many diverse family-like relationships gay men had to form, because they were outcast everywhere else. Sylvester was a artist known around the country. Audre Lorde was banging on the door of established feminism. And the Village People were, well, the Village People.
It was an era of activism, where no matter who you were you felt the sense to get up and say something, and felt free to express yourself the way you wanted.
However, when the party died that feeling of freedom died with it.
The AIDS epidemic in the 80′s brought the community together, because no one else was going to help us besides ourselves. However, it also took many lives and changed its face. That, coupled with the the socio-economic rift we see take place in the ’80s under President Reagan, caused the unraveling of much of the cohesiveness of decades prior. Whites largely moved up the economic ladder. Conversely, Blacks either stayed in place or fell down. We started living different lives; the shared experience of being homosexual was not enough to hold us together. Towards the end of the 80′s, we see a completely different image of interracial relations in the gay community. For example, in Jennie Levington’s documentary, Paris Is Burning, we see how external variables like class, wealth and income, education, and race shaped this new gay community.
Today, we know that there is a huge disparity between how the gay community is depicted in magazines, television shows, movies, pornography, etc., and of whom it’s actually composed.
Many of Spearman’s critics have said that the Black gay community has itself to blame for the less than outstanding presence of Black gay characters in gay media, for example, by not challenging the stereotypes enough within the heterosexual Black community — in particular the stereotypes and ideology of the Black Church. The argument, apparently, is that if Black gay organizations and activists like Spearman did more and got more men that are on “down low” to come out of the closet and be open about their sexuality, gay media would instinctively become more diverse and representative.
However, there is already an established Black gay community: Black Gay Pride celebrations take place all over the country; there are family outings, beach parties, Balls, sporting events, and much more. Despite all of this, the gay media has not been as reflective as we would be led to believe.
There is undoubtedly a “gay problem” within the Black community, but as we all know, there is also a “gay problem” within the White community. Anti-gay organizations like the Family Research Council, Americans for Truth, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Westboro Baptist Church and more are led by White Americans and campaign against gay rights across the country, regardless of the color of anyone’s skin, and have at their disposal far more resources than your average Southern Baptist Black minister. However, to combat this, gay media and gay advocacy groups have done a fantastic job over the years presenting positive images of gay people to counter the negative imagery and stereotypes, to the point that they have shifted the perception of what it means to be gay in the mainstream. Gay and White, that is.
Some have argued that it is Black gay people who have chosen to remove themselves from the equation by not going the extra mile and reaching out. Such a position comes across as highly narcissistic, and one that fails to take into consideration the variables on the ground. Many do in fact reach out, and for many who do the response is unwelcoming, whether on the micro level (two individuals at a bar), or on the macro level (the gay community as a whole).
We have to realize that if the gay community, and organizations such as HRC, come across as unwelcoming to everyone who does not fit the mold, that will turn people off. And right now that’s what’s happening. The attitude that we should leave the “Black problem” to the Black gays is, well, to put it nicely not very constructive, if the stated goal is to further gay rights and not just White gay rights. As we learned from Prop 8, when we do not work together to combat the rhetoric and ideology from the various demographics we all suffer the consequences.
The sad truth is doing the right thing in this instance is relatively easy, and has been for some time. By seriously committing to highlighting the diversity that exists within our community, and has always been a part of it, we can change the mentality out there that says that the mainstream gay community is only welcoming to a certain demographic. And by inviting queer people of various backgrounds and subcultures to the table, we can finally start to put this issue behind us.
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