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The Black Gay Experience

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On the hit TV show Empire, Jamal seeks acceptance from his father Lucious. Photo courtesy of FOX.

Tristan Dominique Cabello is working on a book entitled Queer Bronzeville: Race, Sexuality and Culture in Black Chicago, 1920-1980, a history of African-American gays on the South Side of Chicago. But as he contemplated a new course on the broader experience of LGBT African Americans, he worried that the subject matter might still be too specific. After discussing his course idea with students across the university, he realized there was not just enthusiasm, but a real demand for a course on this subject.

This semester he is teaching “In the Life: The Black/Gay Experience in America,” as part of the American Studies Program. The popularity of the course exceeded Cabello’s expectations: seats filled up quickly, and another class will be offered in the fall of 2016. Based on his review of curricula around the country, Cabello says American University is now one of the few institutions with a course focused on African-American queer history. (Morehouse College, for instance, offers a course on black gay politics.)

In an interview, he says that “In the Life” is his contribution for a more inclusive curriculum. “CAS is very supportive of multidisciplinary and critical diversity initiatives. ‘In The Life,’ just like all American Studies courses, will question power structures that regulate race, sex, gender, and class,” says Cabello, who directs the American Studies Program housed in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Assumptions Debunked

There are plenty of widely held assumptions that Cabello hopes to debunk. Political commentators assert that there is rampant homophobia in the black community, but Cabello says that the evidence, and African-American history, suggest otherwise.

“Sociological surveys show that age, gender, class, education level, party affiliation and religious beliefs can predict homophobic beliefs much better than race as a single factor,” he says. “Media outlets gave too much importance to radical segments of the population who opposed gay marriage, for example. But these individuals were not always representative.”

In addition, black homophobia that does exist may not necessarily result in opposition to gay rights. Cabello notes that a peer-reviewed study published in Public Opinion Quarterly concluded that “blacks appear to be more likely than whites both to see homosexuality as wrong and to favor gay rights laws.”

And this support for gay rights is not limited to the average black citizen, but the highest echelons of power in black communities. “What we have forgotten is that some of the first supporters of gay rights in America were African-American political leaders,” he says.

A wave of black mayors elected in the 1970s and 1980s also ushered in opportunities for gay officials at the municipal level, Cabello says. “Black mayors got elected by building ‘rainbow coalitions.’ These coalitions were inclusive of all minorities, including LGBTs,” he explains. Chicago Mayor Harold Washington established the city’s first Committee on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry appointed LGBT individuals to high positions in the early 1980s. In 1983, during the early years of the HIV epidemic, Barry was the first U.S. mayor to award an LGBT clinic (Whitman-Walker) with a city contract for AIDS-related services.

Representations in Popular Culture

If you’ve watched FOX’s highly-addictive drama Empire, you’re familiar with Jamal. Even as Jamal comes out to the world in the first season, he’s still seeking acceptance from his own father, record-industry mogul Lucious Lyon. The show includes flashbacks of young Jamal trying on women’s clothing, which prompts an ashamed Lucious to throw his son into a trash can.

“We need to listen carefully to the narratives those characters and other pop culture figures are creating,” Cabello says. “Having more black queer characters on TV is certainly a positive sign. But popular dominant discourses also tend to be normative and exclusionary. Jamal’s narrative in Empire remains a story of rejection.”

He adds that black queer figures like Jamal are hardly new in popular culture. “There was a whole genre in the early 20s—when the blues was very popular—that was called Sissy Blues. And those were blues artists talking about same-sex love, and they were very accepted,” he explains. “Later on, but in a different fashion, Little Richard, Prince, and Michael Jackson androgynously played outside the box of normative gender identity.”

The willingness to acknowledge various sexual identities also extends to African-American media outlets, he says. Ebony magazine covered drag balls as early as the late 1940s, and the publication was writing about black gay weddings decades before they were legal.

Sexuality is Fluid

African-American R&B artist Frank Ocean personifies the complexity of gender identity, sexual orientation, and race. When Ocean publicly “came out” in 2012, it was altogether different from some white celebrities who simply declared themselves gay. Instead, Ocean discussed a much more specific scenario about falling in love with a man. “The way he described his sexuality was circumstantial. That is, it was a way to describe sexuality that was fluid—influenced by the situation, influenced by people,” Cabello says.

Creating new sexual identities involves some resistance to power structures, and the construction of new language. “We cannot define homophobia without defining homosexuality. And not everybody has the same understanding of what it means to be ‘gay’ or ‘queer,’” he says.

Towards a New History

Cabello’s research is drawn from oral histories and archival research. His course will rely on primary sources, with autobiographies, novels, and documentaries, as well as historical and sociological research, depicting real-life experiences. There are new stories to tell, and old categories to discard.

“Labels like bisexual, gay, heterosexual—those are categories of the past,” he says. “These fixed identities may have never existed. Sexual identities are much more complex than that.”