Matthew Hunter: A history of homophobia

BY MATTHEW HUNTER

Published October 8, 2009

On Saturday, film writer and producer Tyler Perry admitted on his website to being mentally and physically abused in his childhood, the details of which are all too common in the worlds of our black youth. One might think that being beaten bloody by one's father, witnessing him molest your 12-year-old girlfriend and being washed with ammonia to eliminate bad germs — better known as asthma — by one's mother might draw sympathy. And it did, to an extent. But many accused Perry of being gay because one of his experiences included being molested by a man he met at church.

Somewhat ashamedly, I scanned through the gutters of black community opinion on bossip.com (black gossip), and, for the first time, I questioned my support of the First Amendment. The majority of over 200 comments on Perry's online confession condemned him, assuming he must be a homosexual — a label with which Perry does not identify. For many, Perry's molestation proves that he is gay, which is a bad thing to many blacks. One bossip.com member shared his logic: “Yup, that turned that nigga gay. Children that get molested can sometimes turn out gay and you can look that shit up.”

On September 7, 2008, four men attacked Tony Hunter, a gay black man, in Washington, D.C. on the way to a gay bar. Hunter died days later. According to a Sept. 18, 2009 article in the Washington Blade, one black man, Robert Hannah, pled guilty to manslaughter. Rev. Abena McCray of D.C.'s Unity Fellowship church led a ceremony where Hunter was attacked after his death to build awareness about black homophobia. McCray is among a minority of outspoken church leaders who endorse gay rights and oppose leaders like Rev. Lester James who condemn equality for gays. James told the New York Times back in 1993 that “He (God) hates the homosexual lifestyle.”

In understanding the nature of oppression related to the black community, discussions of equality should not only be had about issues in which whites and blacks are at odds, but also those injustices that seem unique to and practiced by the black community.

But it isn’t as easy as putting blame on blacks. This issue is related to whites to the extent at which all injustices in the black community — from crime to poverty to the education gap — have their roots in the historical relationship between blacks and whites.

In her book, “We Real Cool,” bell hooks describes the process by which the black man's role in the church and at home was one of defensive patriarchy. While she holds the black community responsible for taking on these roles, the roles themselves were learned from the whites who oppressed them. The black patriarch was viewed as important to maintaining a familial stronghold against oppressive white society, and was endorsed as such by the church. The one remaining acceptable image of black men was one of heterosexual patriarchy and gays were considered harmful to the black family unit.

Obama's former Trinity pastor, Jeremiah Wright, also supports gay rights. On May 20, 2008, Rick Garcia, political director of a Chicago-based gay rights group, told The Washington Post, “Trinity has been among the strongest supporters of LGBT rights ... I have the highest regard and admiration for Rev. Wright.” Even if these accepting black churches are a minority, acceptance by religious figures speaks to a doctrine of greater acceptance, and works to counteract bigotry elsewhere.

But I think those who oppose gay rights today have already lost the battle, as new gay rights triumphs are made every year. Same-sex marriages are now legal in Massachusetts and Connecticut. In the past two years, New York, Oregon, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and other states have made significant progress toward establishing equal rights for gays. But just as slavery existed as discrimination for 100 years after it was banned, discrimination against gays, especially by those who submit to limited definitions of men and women, will continue for a long time before full acceptance.

So while we are waiting on the world to change, we can find some solace in the timeless contributions of numerous gay blacks, all of which, to some extent, are widely accepted in the black community. Lee Daniels was the producer of Academy Award-winning film Monster's Ball; Audre Lorde was a prolific poet and activist in the '60s; Octavia Butler was a brilliant fiction writer; James Baldwin is one of the most recognized African-American writers in the world — to name just a few. The more openly gay role models we have, the more we can cherish the representatives of our common struggle for equality. Even though Tyler Perry has never identified himself as gay, if he or any other prominent face in the black community (like Kanye West or LeBron James) were gay and publicly and they came out, I think it would be fantastic for further acceptance in the black community.

Matthew Hunter can be reached at majjam@umich.edu.