One Stereotype Stomped, Another Perpetuated
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University-educated writer currently based in Los Angeles.
Rachel Maddow's wish has been granted. Less than a month after the MSNBC anchor's much-talked-about interview with the Guardian, in which she encouraged her closeted on-air peers to reveal their true gay selves, someone answered that call. It might not be the cable-news anchor people expected, but CNN's Don Lemon has managed to snatch up a number of headlines all the same.
Lemon came out in a recent New York Times profile, in which he discussed his new book, Transparent, which was spurred by his disclosure last fall that he was molested as a child. The weekend news anchor explained to the Times that he knows that a common reaction to the news will be that people will try to make a connection between his sexuality and past sexual victimization as a young boy.
In the news and around the Web, the other typical reactions are there, too. Some have expressed shock; others are quick to boast that they already knew, due to their "gaydar" — enhanced psychic powers. There are also those who offered a "So what?" as if the first black national news anchor to say he's gay is much ado about nothing.
But there are other reactions to Lemon's profile that are far more interesting. Explaining the risks that come with being an openly gay black man, Lemon told the newspaper, "In the black community they think you can pray the gay away." Lemon also mentioned other obstacles, like the pressures to attain certain ideals of "manhood" within the black community, plus his own fears of the attitudes of some black women toward gay men.
The Baton Rouge, La., native said, "You're afraid that black women will say the same things they do about how black men should be dating black women." In a later interview with theLoop21, he made his feelings even clearer, responding to a question about whether or not the black community is homophobic with a "yes."
Critics of Lemon's interview argue that the journalist is perpetuating an unfounded stereotype that black people are more homophobic than other groups and vilifying black women.
I often share similar sentiments to Lemon's about black homophobia and, thus, am usually quick to dismiss the sort of criticism he's getting as denial of an inconvenient truth. After much reflection, I can admit to being a bit misguided. It's not that Lemon's point of view is completely unfounded.
In our culture, there are rigid definitions of what makes a "real man," a heavily Judeo-Christian-influenced standard of morality, and other areas within the black community that do lead to negative consequences for openly gay black men.
Still, we have to ask ourselves: Are these qualities exclusive to our race? Moreover, are they tantamount to the notion that blacks are collectively so much more homophobic than everyone else? I don't believe either to be true. Homophobia is rooted in religious fundamentalism and misogyny — neither of which is exclusive to blacks.
The idea of "praying the gay away" is not a black thing. Just ask white evangelicals who turn to organizations like Exodus International and use prayer to expel same-sex attraction. As for black churches' creating an unfriendly environment for gays, blacks can point to those ubiquitous eternal-bachelor choir directors or reference the Bishop Eddie Long sex scandal, but what about the scandals involving white church leaders such as the Rev. Ted Haggard, Bishop Jim Swilley and Paul Barnes?
That's why, despite great respect for writer and commentator Keith Boykin, I can't co-sign this erroneous claim he made in support of Lemon: "When it comes to homosexuality, the black church practically invented the policy of 'Don't ask, don't tell.' "
I'm not defending black homophobia with an "Everyone else does it, too" excuse. I'm merely pointing out that homophobia is a collective American societal ill — otherwise, the It Gets Better Project would be directed only toward black teens. That's why there is a danger in even indirectly promoting in the media the myth of the big black homophobe.
Many blacks have grown tired of being lumped into that monolithic narrative, and press for more nuance in this discussion. Religious blacks can be prone to gay intolerance, but so can many other religious people. The prejudices we have been conditioned to accept should be the issue, not arbitrary debates over who buys the bull more.
I'm grateful that Don Lemon has come out, and agree that he has a right to share his truth. But if we don't choose our words wisely, we run the risk of turning off those who need to hear them most. Until we speak about homophobia with richer context, it won't matter how many new faces we add to the debate. The direction of the conversation will remain, well, transparent. Copyright 2011 The Root. To see more, visit http://www.theroot.com/.