On May 1, Jason Collins, the 7-foot-0 center for the Washington Wizards and a former Boston Celtics, came out. His statement — “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” — made the cover story for the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated. That same day, three Morehouse College basketball athletes were charged in connection with the rape of an 18-year-old Spelman College student. The story didn’t make national headlines like the Collins story.
Many in the African-American community were silent on both stories, because they view both as poxes on the community. But when some in the African-American community did speak out on which of the two stories the community should be more focused on, they sadly revealed where they stood in terms of valuing some members of the community and devaluing others. “While too many of us were concentrating on an NBA player’s sexuality despite the fact that most of the population had never heard of him, some much bigger news was transpiring,” wrote Tom Joyner in his May 3 op-ed, “Reading, Writing and Rape? Sexual Assaults on Campuses Must End,” on his nationally renowned website Black America Web. “‘Four Morehouse athletes were arrested in connection with sexual assaults,’ was the headline of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s website.”
Although Joyner is nowhere near the league of Rush Limbaugh or Rev. Rick Warren in terms of spewing homophobic vitriol, he isn’t just your run-of-the-mill homophobe either. When Joyner speaks, black America is listening. He’s the founder of REACH Media, the largest media platform reaching African Americans in the country. Joyner reaches as many African-American homes as does the black church, and he does it more often, and some would say more effectively too, because he’s the nation’s number-one syndicated urban radio jock. His jewel, The Tom Joyner Morning Show, airs weekdays in more than 100 markets and reaches a listenership of over 8 million — approximately one in four African Americans.
Incidents of rape always need to be called out, as Joyner did, and addressed immediately, but it shouldn’t be brought to attention while denigrating a member of another minority group within the same population, as Joyner also did. But Joyner is not alone in his views on the relative unimportance of Collins’ coming-out story compared with the Spelman rape. His statement is illustrative of the African-American community’s unresolved struggle with homophobia and misogyny, which fall on the backs of our women and LGBTQ populations, and it’s emblematic of how the black community, like Joyner, often pits one disenfranchised group against another. Violence against women and LGBTQ people within the African-American community is an ongoing problem whether within the hallowed halls of one of America’s historically black colleges or on urban streets.
Morehouse College is lauded as the jewel of black academia. Founded two years after the end of the Civil War by William Jefferson White in the basement of Springfield Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., Morehouse continues to confer degrees on more men of African descent than any institution of higher education in this country. Following the recent rape incidents, the college released a statement that declared, in part, “Morehouse has a zero tolerance policy related to violence of any kind. Violence is the very antithesis of the Morehouse ethos and the values of a Morehouse Man.” But Morehouse’s recent rape incidents point to an ongoing problem on college campuses nationwide, especially among male athletes: rape culture. And the same mindset that gives rise to rape culture encourages violence against LGBTQ people. It’s one of the reasons that LGBTQ people in general fear coming out, especially LGBTQ athletes on team sports, like Collins.
Morehouse has had its fair share of anti-LGBTQ incidents as well. In 2002 there was a highly publicized gay bashing in which a student sustained a fractured skull at the hands of a classmate, sophomore Aaron Price, who beat his victim with a baseball bat for allegedly looking at him in the shower. Not surprisingly, Price is the son of an ultra-conservative minister. Jafari Sinclaire Allen, a professor at the University of Texas who was an openly gay student at Morehouse in the late ’80s and early ’90s, recalls fleeing campus one evening after a forum to address homophobia turned virulently homophobic. And throughout the ’90s Morehouse was included in the Princeton Review’s annual list of the 20 most homophobic campuses.
Collins’ coming-out story is good news, especially in light of the Spelman rape, because both women and LGBTQ people are frequent subjects of violence in our community. For me, Joyner’s derisive comment about Collins recalls the Aaron Price bat-wielding incident because it reminds me of how frequently LGBTQ people of African descent are figuratively and physically bashed on the head by members of our community who deliberately want to strike out our existence.
Since its inception in 1867, Morehouse College has been regarded as the bastion of black male leadership and masculinity. Embodying W. E. B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth,” which designated the “exceptional black men” who would lead the race, Morehouse College has certainly produced a pantheon of notable black men. (Its most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King Jr., graduated in 1948.) Its alumni maintain the “Morehouse mystique” that the college is renowned for: images of strong black men. But as strong black men, they need to both stop violating women and beating up on LGBTQ people.