"Gay Really Is The New Black"?

Author Says Black Community Has Special Responsibility To Fight For Equality



By John McWhorter

When President Obama sounded off about Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall during Monday’s inaugural address, it got me thinking about how fragile the links between those events actually are, despite his attempt to paint them as part and parcel of a single progressive movement throughout our history.

For example, early feminists often had little interest in assisting what was then called the Negro with his (or her) problems. By our standards, many of them were racists. After their victories, we still had some way to go.

Today, we are at a similar stage. Too many black Americans have little more interest in keeping the ladder out for gay people than early feminists had in doing the same for black people.
It won’t do to euphemize it as a matter of black people resenting the gay movement taking on the civil rights banner, with its calls of “gay is the new black.” This isn’t a battle over political theory or jostling over who’s been more oppressed; it’s good old-fashioned homophobia.

Yes, homophobia is American, not African-American. Blacks neither taunted Rutgers student Tyler Clementi into killing himself nor murdered Matthew Shepard in a field on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyo.

And to the extent that homophobia has been more deeply rooted in the black community than in the white population, this is changing.
The percentage of blacks who favor gay marriage is about the same now as the percentage of whites, according to a Pew poll taken during the last election season. “One of the striking results in the 2012 exit polls was the support for legalizing gay marriage among black voters,” that poll noted.

However, rising support isn’t enough — we must keep going. When Michael Richards spouted the N-word on stage, he was shamed by the nation for weeks. It won’t do for Tracy Morgan to get a mere slap on the hand for crowing that he would stab his son if he turned out to be were gay.

As a consequence of its painful heritage, black America has a special responsibility: to be further ahead of the curve than whites on accepting gay people as full citizens.

The Bible cannot be used as an excuse to hold us back. We should remember that racists once also appealed to the Bible to justify segregation, slavery and all manners of hatred. Let’s be progressive for real this time around.
One indication that the black community has turned a corner on this issue will be from celebrities. Black America has yet to see the equivalent of Ellen DeGeneres’ famous coming-out.

Wanda Sykes, Don Lemon and rapper Frank Ocean have been noble pioneers — but then again, none are megastars or play romantic parts.

I am reminded, as I write this, of gospel singer James Cleveland, whom I caught in a 1960s clip when I finally got to see the excellent gospel documentary “Rejoice and Shout” last week.
After about 30 seconds, I caught subtle gestures that suggested a certain something about the man. All I had to do was Google him. There it was, just as I suspected: Cleveland spent his life closeted.
In his time, he had to, like all public figures (and most private ones, for that matter). But the sad thing is that a James Cleveland today lives the same lie.

As do, almost certainly, three very prominent black Americans I am thinking of right now. One can’t be certain about them, obviously. But let me put it this way: The life histories of all three make it so that if it turned out they were straight, it would be extremely surprising.
One of them gets by with “It’s none of your business.” Another uses artfully gender-neutral language when talking about romance. With another, a longstanding and deafening silence has had a certain eloquence of its own.


There are white people corresponding to all three in the public pantheon who have long been public about being gay.
It is highly likely that the reticence of the above trio is at least partly due to fears of rejection by the black public.

One way we will know black America has fulfilled its responsibility in keeping the struggle alive for others is when figures such as the three above can own up to themselves in public — and their fellow black Americans are okay with it.

That this hasn’t happened yet is not surprising. Nor, however, is it the way things should be as we think about a pathway from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall.

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