Three recent events cause me to ask the question – “Is the African-American community homophobic? First is the recent fracas about Isaiah Washington’s use of the work faggot in a derogatory manner in relation to his “Grey’s Anatomy” gay co-star T.R. Knight. Second was the withdrawal from the “Episcopal Church of the United Sates” by parishes that object to the elevation of a gay man to Bishop and their move to the see of a Bishop in Africa. The African church is very intolerant of the progressive movement in the church- specifically regarding homosexuality. Third was the memorial service of an African American colleague who recently died unexpectedly and whose family acknowledged neither his homosexuality nor his status as an HIV positive man. What made this memorial colossally peculiar was that this man worked in the HIV field and had a history with a boy friend.
Attitudes and affective reactions to lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals are slowly improving in this country. As more lesbians and gays come forward and people see them for the people they are rather than the label, the level of acceptance has improved- although it is hardly universal. Various authors have noted that anti-gay attitudes and sentiments may be even more pronounced among African Americans. For example, Fullilove and Fullilove (1999) have commented that “homophobia is very common in the African American community” (p. 1,123). That sentiment was echoed by Kennamer, Honnold, Bradford, and Hendricks (2000), who reported that homophobia appears to be “a major part of the African American culture, driven by both religious forces and political forces” (p. 522).
Various critics contend that homophobia among African Americans is partly responsible for slowing an African American mobilization against the AIDS epidemic in their communities (e.g., Brandt, 1999; Fullilove & Fullilove, 1999; Morales & Fullilove, 1992; Peterson & Marin, 1988).A modest number of studies have investigated African Americans’ views of LGBs and have yielded contradictory findings. Some of those studies have failed to find significant differences in homphobia between African Americans and Whites (e.g., Glenn & Weaver, 1979; Herek & Capitanio, 1995; Irwin & Thompson, 1977; Marsiglio, 1993). Other studies have found African Americans, on average, to be more homophobic than Whites (e.g., Hudson & Ricketts, 1980; Lewis, 2003; Schneider & Lewis, 1984; Tiemeyer, 1993; Waldner, Sikka, & Baig, 1999).
The more noteworthy of those studies is the one by Lewis (2003), who attempted to compare the opinions of approximately 7,000 African Americans and 43,000 Whites on homosexual relationships, civil liberties for gays and lesbians, and employment rights of homosexuals. Lewis compiled data from 31 national surveys conducted between 1973 and 2000, mostly by news or popular survey organizations, such as the Times Mirror and Gallup polls. His goal was to identify demographic variables, including education and commitment to religion, that may account for racial differences in opinions in these three areas.
The findings were somewhat paradoxical. Even after controlling for frequency of church attendance, education, age, and gender, he found that African Americans were more homophobic than Whites. More specifically, Lewis found that African Americans were 11 percentage points more likely than Whites to condemn homosexual relations as “always wrong” and 14 percentage points more likely than Whites to see LGBs as deserving of “God’s punishment” in the form of AIDS. Moreover, African Americans indicated that they would support removing pro-gay books from their public library by 6 percentage points more than Whites and would be less willing to allow an openly gay person make a speech in their community by 4 percentage points more than Whites. Ironically, however, African Americans were more supportive than Whites of gay civil liberties and significantly more opposed to antigay employment discrimination than Whites.
Lewis commented that “Blacks appear to be more likely than Whites to both see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay rights laws” (p. 66), and he interpreted those findings in light of African Americans’ historically strong opposition to discrimination in political and economic spheres. Given that religiosity, education, age, and gender did not meaningfully eliminate African Americans’ relatively high levels of homophobia, Lewis concluded that additional research is needed to understand the variables at the heart of African Americans’ homophobia, particularly as a means for developing more effective, culture-specific campaigns against homophobia.
Charles Negy did a comparison of African American and White college students’ affective and attitudinal reactions to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals that was published in The Journal of Sex Research in November 2005. In the study African American (n = 70) university students were compared with White students (n = 140) on their affective (homophobia) and attitudinal (homonegativity) reactions to lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. The results initially suggested that African Americans had modestly higher homophobia and homonegativity scores than Whites. However, those ethnic differences vanished after controlling for frequency of church attendance, religious commitment, and socioeconomic status. For both ethnic groups, gender and religiosity variables significantly predicted homophobia and homonegativity. Men in both ethnic groups had significantly higher homophobia and homonegativity scores than their female counterparts. Lastly, additional regression analyses revealed that one aspect of African American culture–family practices–significantly predicted homophobia, but not homonegativity, above the predictive ability of religiosity.
Research on lesbian and gay populations within the African American community has covered a great deal of ground over the last quarter century. While early work on homophobia was based on the assumption that the fear of Black gays and lesbians was justified because homosexuality was either a disease or a strategy of European domination, the latest research starts with the recognition that gays and lesbians are a significant part of the Black community. Though such research has, for the most part, clearly moved from intolerance to tolerance, it has tended to stop short of acceptance.There is clearly room for further research which is not focused so much on the ways in which the problems of the past continue to haunt Black gays and lesbians — from oppression and its negative effects to HIV/AIDS — but on their hopes and dreams for the future that are unfolding in the present.
The paradox of the African American Community having religious based issues with homosexuality while overwhelming supporting civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans is an interesting one. My conclsuion is that they African Americans know from their own oppression the need to promote civil rights for all groups and thus it isn’t being African-American that causes homophobia- it isn’t that African-Americans see homosexuality as a “white man’s sin and disease” rather it is the socially conservative churches which often figure prominently in the family lives of African Americans that breed the intolerance. It just happens that many African-Americans in this country grew up with a significant influence from socially conservative churches.