African-American LGBT People Saying It Loud

What we know of this population is more anecdotal than analytical. And what see of this population is seldom seen through the lenses of how both white queer racism and black compulsory heterosexism exact a toll on our lives.

As a fractured group both politically and socially, African-American LGBT people reside as resident aliens who too often live bifurcated existences in both communities. While our black skin ostensibly gives us residence in our black communities, our sexual orientation, most times, evicts us from them. And while our sexual orientation gives us residence in the larger LGBT community, racism constantly thwarts any efforts for coalition building, which weakens the larger movement for sexual equality.

To be tangentially aligned to these communities dangles our lives precariously on a thin thread with the nagging feeling of marginalization, if not complete dispossession.

For too long, African-American LGBT people have excoriated both the white queer community and the black heterosexual community for their flagrant forms of exclusion. Perhaps now with the latest study, “Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” that examines priorities, experiences, and demographics of African-American LGBT people, we will finally be heard.

“Say it Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” was released by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which has been working hard in the last year to bring to the fore the concerns facing LGBT people of color. This recent report is a first-time comprehensive look at how African-American LGBT people live out the intersectionality of their multiple identities as black and queer people.

Deceased African-American poet and activist Pat Parker, in her book Movement in Black, talked about how society did not embrace her multiple identities. “If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, ‘No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome, because I’m going to an all-white party where I can be gay, but not Black.’ Or I’m going to a Black poetry reading, and half of the poets are antihomosexual, or thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution.”

The data collected in NGLTF report derives from the Black Pride Survey 2000 that looked at nine U.S. African American LGBT Pride celebrations during the summer of 2000. Those celebrations surveyed were Philadelphia Black Pride, Houston Splash, Washington DC Black Pride, Oakland Black Pride, Chicago Black Pride, Los Angeles’s At the Beach, Detriot’s Hotter than July, New York Black Pride and Atlanta’s In the Life.

Granted, the survey of 2,645 respondents is skewed — the average attendee at these Black Pride celebrations is college-educated, middle class, 34-years old, Baptist, male, and slightly more Republican than the larger African-American population. But the survey nonetheless provides useful information in terms of important insights, significant policy implications and recommendations for both the white LGBT and the African-American heterosexual communities.

While concerns about HIV/AIDS, hate violence, marriage/domestic partnership, the Black Church, homophobia experienced in the African-American community, and racism in the larger LGBT community topped the list of the respondents, issues concerning sexual identity, behavior, and “who we say we are” were also of grave concern.

Finding a language that speaks truth to our identity and reality was given considerable concern in the report. Who we say we are, at least according to this survey, is people who are less likely to be identified as “queer” than as “gay” or “lesbian.” The survey showed that less than one percent identified themselves as “queer.”

While some African Americans do identify as “gay” or “lesbian,” it is still nonetheless problematic. The majority of the respondents prefer to identify themselves as “same-gender loving.”

As African-American LGBT people, we have no language that adequately articulates the unique embodiment of us as a people and of our spirituality. Looking for ways to express the ethos of who we say we are and our spirituality, many African-American LGBT people have borrowed language from both white queer and black religious cultures that, at best, have muffled our spiritual reality, and, at worst, muted it.

The task has always been for us as we straddle both cultures to develop a language that speaks truth to our unique identity and spirituality.

However, as resident aliens to white queer culture, African Americans navigate through the dominant queer culture’s lexicon for words to speak truth to our reality. And unfortunately, we find that their control and dominance of the lexicon erode our power and delete our spiritual expressions. Words like “lesbian,” “gay,” “queer,” “Butch” and “femme” all strip African-American LGBT people of our particular history, struggle and spirituality as a sexual group; thus, assuming a queer universality. Being subsumed by a queer universality not only renders us invisible, but it also renders us speechless.

As resident aliens to black religious culture, African-American LGBT people are forced to speak of a God we know of only through heterosexist language. And with the Black Church insisting on promulgating an essentialist racial identity, the Black Church not only loses the spiritual gifts of its LGBT people, but it also loses the full range of the African-American religious cosmos.

Language is an index of societal attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that all have spiritual and theological underpinnings that keep them in place. Language is a political tool that determines who speaks when, where how and on what topics. In other words, language is power. And our ancestors understood the power of language.

For example, as people of African descent, who we are is shaped by a spiritual understanding that is expressed in our music, living, social protest and language. Our enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but it was also rooted in their use of language, which is why they used the Exodus narrative in the Old Testament as their talking-book.

Functioning as a talking-book for our ancestors, the Exodus narrative dramatically shifts the discourse on slavery from the authority of white voices to the control of black voices. In so doing, Exodus was used to rebuke themes of silence, exclusion and oppression in the text, which in return allowed our ancestors to represent themselves as speaking subjects outside of the text.

White racist queer language and black heterosexist religious language not only diminish the range of African-American LGBT spiritual thought, but they also diminish the scope of African-American LGBT spiritual action to effect change. Caught in this quagmire how do African-American LGBT people develop a language that speaks truth to our spirituality?

The answer is in the model our ancestors used.

We need to adopt a spiritual narrative as our talking-book that speaks to our social reality. With such narrative we can construct a spiritual vernacular and theology that indelibly speaks for and to an African-American LGBT spiritual sensibility. This narrative would function as a mode of speaking not only within the text that reinforces our spiritual identity, but it would also function as a mode of speaking outside of the text that affirms our everyday lived experience. Only then will both white queer and black religious communities understand that the holiness of our lives is also expressed as a sacred text.

And perhaps only then when we say “I’m Black and I’m Proud” neither the larger queer and African-American heterosexual communities will see only half of us.

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