Sexuality Research and Social Policy

, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp 81–92

All the Gays are White and all the Blacks are Straight: Black Gay Men, Identity, and Community

Authors

    • Department of SociologyNorthwestern University
Article

DOI: 10.1007/s13178-010-0011-4

Cite this article as:
Hunter, M.A. Sex Res Soc Policy (2010) 7: 81. doi:10.1007/s13178-010-0011-4

Abstract

The research on which this study reports was informed by the following questions: Do Black gay men identify more closely with a racial identity or with a sexual identity? What experiences influence the saliency of a racial or sexual identity for Black gay men? How do Black gay men use daily interactions to inform a sense of self? Essentially, how do Black gay men negotiate stigmatized identities? Based on 50 in-depth interviews with self-identified Black gay men, the author highlights three emergent models of identity negotiations: interlocking identities, up–down identities, and public–private identities. Identifying the strategies Black gay men use to understand both themselves and the larger Black and gay communities helps illuminate the diversity within those communities and highlights the ways in which individuals who find themselves at the intersections of racial and sexual stigma understand themselves and the larger communities to which they belong.

Keywords

RaceSexualitySelf-identityStigmaIdentity negotiationSexual identity

With a vote in favor of Proposition 8, a measure that would legally ban same-sex marriage in California, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights activists and pundits took to the local and national news media and organized various rallies to protest the passing of such a measure. Within this larger protest and discussion was a conversation about not only the passing of such a measure but also the various parties that supported such a ban. Although this discussion pointed to the usual suspects, mostly right-wing conservatives and fundamentalist Christians, it also included the suggestion that the Black vote in California was responsible for passing of such a measure.

According to exit polls, Black voters hugely favored the measure with approximately 70% voting in support of the ban (Blow 2008). Whereas others have considered the actual impact of the Black vote for the success of Proposition 8 (Blow), or the connection between President Barack Obama’s campaign platform and Black support for the ban (McKinley 2008), this moment is highlighted here as an example of the ongoing issues of inclusion plaguing the Black community and the gay community alike. Within the debate surrounding Proposition 8 and the Black vote, invisible were discussions of the heterogeneity entailed in a Black vote, and a consideration of how that vote possibly also included Black LGBT individuals. Questions about whether Black LGBT individuals identified with Proposition 8 as an important political issue went unexplored, and instead debates that positioned a notion of homogenous Black vote dominated the discourse.

Placing the fight over gay marriage alongside the Stonewall riots and the protest surrounding the murder of 21-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard, it has been made clear that the fight for LGBT rights has involved a continuous battle with not only external forces but also internal ones (Ghaziani 2008). In particular, the voices of LGBT people of color have often been ignored or invisible, an issue that has continued to be a source of debate and conflict. It has also been suggested that there are many similarities to be found between the genealogy for LGBT rights and the history of the civil rights movement for Blacks.

Missing in both of these narratives is an understanding and consideration of minorities who simultaneously operate within marginalized racial and sexual statuses. As a result, the lived experiences and identity politics of Black LGBT individuals are displaced. This absence extends beyond ground-level social movements and community-based organization agendas to the larger academic research on the social realities of LGBT individuals. Although scholars such as Collins (1989, 1990, 2000) and Crenshaw (1989, 1991)1 have forwarded notions of intersectionality—a framework in which race, sexuality, gender, and class are viewed as interlocking—much of the research on race, class, gender, and sexuality still treats these categories as separate or obscures difference within these categories. This gap, particularly as it pertains to an empirical analysis of the subjectivities of Black gay men, serves as the focus of this article.

Employing an analysis generated from 50 in-depth interviews2 with self-identified Black3 gay4 men in Philadelphia and New York City, this research seeks to answer several important questions: Do Black gay men identify more closely with a racial identity or a sexual identity? What experiences influence the saliency of a racial or sexual identity for Black gay men? How do Black gay men use daily interactions to inform a sense of self and community? Ultimately, how do Black gay men negotiate marginalized identities in order to articulate an understanding of self and community that accounts for their own subjective realities?

This article posits and analyzes three identity types to uncover how Black gay men see themselves and other LGBT individuals: (a) interlocking identities, (b) up–down identities, and (c) public–private identities. Although some respondents privileged a raced identity over a sexual identity, others situated race and sexuality as equally important; still others gave precedence to a sexual identity. Examining the narratives of Black gay men, this article explores how they saw their lived experiences as a part of the larger Black and gay communities, and the ways in which race and sexuality informed their sense of self. Each of these instances brings to the fore the complex realities of Black gay males and the implications these realities have for community building and alliances within the Black community across sexual orientation and within the gay community across race.

Relevant Literature

Research that has considered and examined Black identity has revealed the distinct links between individuals’ sense of Blackness and their sense of self. Rooted in discussions of race and racism, examinations of Black identity have revealed that such factors as racial discrimination and prejudice have produced a series of trends with respect to racial identity for Blacks (see, for example, Cross 1991; DuBois 1994). Focusing on shared affinities between Black students on the grounds of race (Cross; Smith and Moore 2000; Tatum 2003), the relationship between marginalization and citizenship (DuBois; Fanon 1963, 1967), the relationship between West Indian immigrants and US-born Blacks (Waters 1999), scholars in this area have underscored the dynamics involved in a racial identity for many Black people.

Adding to this research, scholars highlighting the performative nature of Black identity have shown the situational nature of a Black identity. Anderson (1999) and Jackson (2001), for example, both observed in separate ethnographic case studies, that Black identity often gets either played up or downplayed in strategic ways, particularly in the presence of other Blacks and Whites. This behavior, often referred to as code-switching, points to the fluidity within Black identity, as well as the ways in which Blackness may operate for Black individuals. Pointing to the diversity in Black identity, Cross (1991), for instance, has posited encounters with Whites as a significant factor in the production of a salient Black identity.

Despite the importance of such findings and analysis, a limitation of this research is the lack of discussion of the ways in which sexuality, particularly as it pertains to Black LGBT individuals, influences the prominence of a racial identity for a Black person. The vast literature on masculinity, particularly as it pertains to Black men and their sense of self, provides some information about the relationship between sexuality and race. Scholars in this area have underscored the ways in which dominant tropes of masculinity, gender power relations, and heteronormative beliefs about family, work, and relationships affect notions of racial and sexual identity for men in general and men of color specifically (Battema 1998; Chen 1999; Franklin 1986, 1994; Lemelle 1995; Pierre et al. 2002; Staples 1978, 1982; Woodward 2004). In this work, issues of sexuality are most present in discussions about marriage or cross-gender relations (see, for example, Anderson 1999; Staples 1982). Beyond such discussions, the social realities of Black gay men and other LGBT individuals of color receive little to no discussion, most often implicitly addressed in analyses of conventional male gender roles.

In turn, the work of such Black feminists as Smith (1983), Lorde (1984), and Collins (1989) offers an important perspective. In particular, the emphasis on race and sexuality as relational and mutually reinforcing identities is crucial. These Black feminists are not alone in their claims: The work of noted Black gay activists and scholars Beam (1986) and Hemphill (1991) consistently illustrated the complexity of having a marginal racial and sexual identity, and the absence of the social realities of Black gay men from the larger gay rights political agenda. Despite these insightful claims, similar to research on Black identity much of the study of sexual identity has paid little attention to the social realities of LGBT individuals of color. As it stands, much of the empirical research investigating sexual identity has looked specifically at that process as it occurs for Whites, who are most often middle class.

Although not attending to the social realities of Black LGBT individuals, some key ideas in this research is instructive for thinking about the ways in which LGBT individuals of color generally, and Black gay men in particular negotiate gay identity. Esterberg (1997) and Brekhus (2003), for example, have illustrated the importance of fluidity when considering lesbian and gay identity.5 Esterberg’s examination of lesbian and bisexual identities generated from in-depth interviews revealed that sexual identity is negotiated over time, and is not often as fixed as many may believe. She has demonstrated the ways in which being lesbian or bisexual are embedded just as much in a particular ideology about life and love as they are in sexual acts. Brekhus, on a somewhat different note, has illustrated how White men in a New York suburb negotiate their sexuality in relation to other identity categories. Asserting that although gay is a marked identity its salience is not automatic for the individual, Brekhus has demonstrated the importance of context matters and social situations are most often the impetus for making a particular identity salient.

Although research examining gay identity through the lens of White gays and lesbians has made both interesting and important contributions, the absence of an analysis of non-Whites and an examination of the ramifications of a simultaneous marginal racial identity leave many questions unanswered and a significant population of LGBT individuals of color under-studied or ignored altogether. Few scholars have taken up research that centers an analysis of identity and sexuality as it relates to LGBT individuals of color. Within the last decade, several scholars have made noteworthy headway into the examination of the social realities of LGBT individuals of color.

Focusing specifically on Black gays, Crichlow (2004) and Hawkeswood (1996) have demonstrated the ways in which race and sexuality often determine conceptions of community and potential partnering for Black gay men in the New York and Toronto respectively. In her study of Black and Latina lesbians in New York, Moore (2006) has argued that the relationship between race and sexuality, Blackness and lesbian-ness, produces a series of trends with respect to gender presentation. Asserting that the interplay between Black and lesbian complicates gender presentations, Moore found that Black lesbians’ gender presentations did not fit neatly within conventional models of butch and femme. In particular, Moore found that being Black informs lesbian practices, implicitly pointing to a critical connection between racial and sexual identity for Black lesbi-gays, thus highlighting that these differences in gender presentation have to do with differences in the intersection of race and sexuality, and perhaps because these women are negotiating three (multiple) marginal identities. Despite such headway into the study of the social realities of LGBT individuals of color, Moore concluded her discussion by noting that “there is a need to know how individuals conceptualize gay identity in the context of other overlapping identities” (p. 134). This article answers such a call, providing an examination of the ways in which Black gay men understand and negotiate the simultaneity of a gay and a Black identity.

Furthermore, this research helps to make explicit the links between race and sexuality for Black men in ways that have not been discussed. Whereas existing research has often attended to race and sexuality as separate endeavors and enterprises, an examination of the social realities of Black gay men bridges these literatures, shedding light on the interplay between a Black and a gay identity. Ultimately, this article seeks to further knowledge of how racial and sexual identity are understood by individual, exploring them as they occur together—exploring negotiations engaged in by individuals who are both racial and sexual minorities. Such knowledge can provide needed information to enhance policy and activism and challenge existing understandings of racial and sexual identity.

Method and Research Design

Ethnographic studies of identity, particularly those that rely heavily or solely on qualitative interviews, are often criticized for not triangulating the responses of study participants with their behaviors, actions, and the observations of others. However, examining how people talk about a phenomenon—as Swidler (2001) has illuminated in her cultural sociological study of love—uncovers how people consciously think about that phenomenon, how they want to present, understand, and live that phenomenon, and how that phenomenon has been socially constructed. Thus, talking about race and sexuality can uncover some of the individual-level microprocesses deployed to conceive of and articulate a conception and presentation of self. Examining how Black gay men talk about their identities historically, biographically, and contemporaneously is particularly important for this study, because it was concerned primarily with the negotiation of stigmatized identities within and through consciously articulated conceptions of the self.

Fifty one-on-one interviews, each lasting from 45 minutes to 1 hour, were conducted using a series of questions that sought to uncover respondents’ negotiation of race and sexuality in constructing their identities. These interviews were conducted between the summer of 2002 and the winter of 2003. All participants were self-identified6 Black7 gay men. Of the respondents, 60% resided in New York City and 40% were from Philadelphia. The respondents represented diverse professions and occupations, including lawyers, construction workers, teachers, and students, and ranged in age from 18 to 36. Educational attainment ranged from high school graduate to graduate-level coursework. Close to 70% identified as African American, with the remaining 30% identifying as West Indian or Caribbean; of the 30%, 5% were foreign born. Approximately 65% of the respondents reported that the neighborhoods they grew up in were predominantly Black, whereas 25% characterized their neighborhoods as predominantly White, and 10% reported that their neighborhoods were racially mixed.

All of the respondents frequented similar sites, including nightclubs and bars, as well as Internet meeting spaces. The interview sample was generated from these commonly frequented spaces. Most interviews were conducted at respondents’ homes, and the rest were conducted at my home. Respondents were located through the use of a snowball, or respondent-driven, sampling method. Both New York City and Philadelphia were ideal locations for finding participants from what is often a hard to find population. In particular, both cities have an active Black gay nightlife scene, well attended and publicized Black Gay Pride events, and also have areas of the city that specifically cater to LGBT individuals. With significant Black gay populations, both New York City and Philadelphia have also been reported as having some of the largest concentrations of Black same-sex cohabiting couples (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force 2004, 2005).

All interviews were tape-recorded and transcribed, with attention to pinpointing the places where individuals spoke about both race and sexuality separately, but also in conjunction with one another. Questions that specifically asked respondents to interpret interactions they had in particular spaces they mentioned (i.e., clubs, jobs, and schools), as well as those with individuals (e.g., family, friends, bosses, peers) were also asked. Interactions and possible negotiations described in these racial and sexual experiences were then coded. As a means of getting a clear picture of the identity arrangements and negotiations, respondents were asked questions that required them to articulate exactly how they see their race and sexuality linked, connected, or disconnected. The verbiage used to express racial and sexual identity as presented in each of the identity models directly reflects how respondents articulated their racial and sexual identity. The data presented in this article were generated from the coding of interviews, wherein trends associated with identity and negotiations thereof were emergent themes.

It is also important to note some of the weaknesses and limitations of this research design. Because this study focused on the reflections of individuals who self-identified as gay, it may not account for those who identify outside of this particular sexual category (e.g., transgender, lesbian, bisexual, queer). Nor does it necessarily capture those who may be described as down-low8 or closeted. Although Philadelphia and New York provide substantial potential with regard to recruiting a sample, these are large northern cities. Hence, this study cannot account for factors that emerge via rural, southern, and suburban spaces or places that are more politically conservative. These limitations notwithstanding, this study offers qualitative data that allow observation and examination of the myriad narratives and negotiations engaged in by men who are both Black and gay.

Three Expressions of Self: Interlocking, Up–Down, Public–Private

The following types best characterize these expressions: (a) interlocking, (b) up-down (dominant), and (c) public-private. Each of these models points to the (sometimes) contentious relationship between race and sexuality. In many ways, these models speak to the various social trajectories that the respondents represented. Each of the models demonstrates the links made or not made by individuals in connecting race and sexuality. Respondents engage in the negotiation or reconciliation of race and sexuality in identity formation, and incorporate these processes into a larger sense of self.

In the interlocking conceptualization, race and sexuality were signified as united identities for the individual, often expressed as “Blackgay.” In the up–down model, respondents privileged one identity over the other, often expressed as “Black-then-gay” or “gay-then-Black.” Finally, in the public–private model racial and sexual identification were specified through a specific understanding of space, wherein race is perceived as a public identity and sexuality is considered a private identity, often expressed as “Black and gay.” Approximately 50% of the respondents fell within the up-down model, whereas 24% fell within the interlocking model and 26% fell within the public-private model.

Ultimately, these models are presented as means to explain and understand the diversity in understandings of racial and sexual stigma among Black gay men, These narratives provide a fruitful way to understand the social realities of Black gay men, highlighting factors that may directly influence their perception of both the Black and the gay communities, as well as their active involvement in either or both of those communities. Although in the following section these identity models are presented separately, it is not meant in any way to imply that the respondents may be fixed within these models. One can imagine that if identity is fluid and not static, that the respondents may float in and out of each of these models. These models are ideal types—models that allow for an empirical analysis of the social action ingrained in the process of identity formation.

Interlocking Identities

Observe how Mike, a 25-year-old construction worker, spoke of his sexuality and his race as informing a larger identity:

For me it is never a matter of gay or Black, or Black and gay, it is more of a gay Black thing. My life is a struggle on both ends so much that it is silly to even identify myself on either end…and you know what, I refuse to choose between the two, because they work together in a way that’s different. Because I am not White, my gay experience is different, and because I am gay my Black experience is more complex. It is impossible to associate myself along either line. In order for me to understand myself I’ve had to place my understanding of myself in a way that helps me consider both gay and Black at the same time.

Mike’s assertions speak to the overarching concerns among the respondents within the interlocking model—concerns of feeling as though they must choose an identity in a world that oppresses them on each side. Therefore, in the interlocking construct, considering a formulaic notion of identity as an either-or equation would miss the true fundaments of oppression and struggle. Mike acknowledged the struggle that he faces as a Black person while recognizing the struggle he faces as a gay man. These two struggles are not mutually exclusive for him; instead, they are responses to overlapping systems of oppression and White male heterosexual patriarchy.

Often within these assertions of oppression, respondents told a very White male-specific experience with discrimination and racism. Corey, 22 years old and unemployed, echoed this point:

White gay people do their own thing and don’t include me, just like Black people do their thing and don’t include me.…What’s different is that when you’re Black, you have a similar experience because you’re Black, you know, White people are the ones doing shit to you, especially White men. So even though White gay people are gay, they are still White and they are still White men.…They aren’t really much like me.

Those who operated within the interlocking model spoke directly to notions of gender, wherein they distinguish masculinity—or, more accurately, maleness—in terms of race. Eric, a 36-year-old accountant, furthered Mike’s stance:

You know this world is so full of shit. Black people want you to join arms and just be Black, fuck everything else, but what if there is something else. I am gay.…It took me a long time to accept myself, but to be struggling with other Black people and feel the homophobia I feel within my own community is ridiculous. It is impossible to be just Black and nothing else, because then you’re forgetting other shit that people deal with, like what women go through. It really doesn’t matter what you are, if you aren’t a White man, then you are never the same kind of man or the same kind of White. It makes a difference.

Eric highlighted another integral sentiment. For this particular group it is not important to privilege one identity over another but to instead realize the perspective each provides for the individual in understanding his life and the experiences therein. For these respondents, identity formation had a direct correlation to racism and heterosexism, leading to one compounded identity in which the identity formed represented the individuals’ experience.

Men within the interlocking model did not use conjunctions or hyphens in describing themselves; Malik, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, spoke to this process:

I find it important to understand race and sexuality as one thing. In life people try to make everything seem separate but I think it’s empowering to understand the sameness in both. I’m still a minority in either respect, you know.…With my identity, I can decide, and I say that thinking of them as a unit is more powerful than thinking of them as fragmented.

Ultimately, the narratives of men within the interlocking model demonstrate instances in which individuals imagine their marginal and intersecting stigmas as interlocking, specifically as they relate to larger notions of hegemonic Whiteness and heteronormativity. These respondents identify forces of oppression and sense that there are overarching structures that enforce the marginalization of Blacks and gays.

Notwithstanding this emphasis on interlocking oppressions and stigmas, respondents also relied heavily on interpersonal interactions. These interpersonal relations did at least two things for these men. First, these interactions were used as a way to gauge larger power structures, wherein interactions with Whites, particularly White men, helped to confirm their sense of structural oppression and enforced marginality. Second, their interactions with those around them, particularly other Blacks, helped produce their sense of Blackness and gayness. Stated differently, these interpersonal relations helped these men understand their Blackness, how their sexuality complicates what is considered Black, and make larger connections between what it means to be always at once gay and Black in a way that melds these stigmas. Dwayne, a 30-year-old cashier, illustrated these larger points:

I mean being Blackgay makes me who I am as a Black person and as a gay person. I don’t know anyone who can say that being gay changed what kind of Black person they were and that being Black didn’t change what kind of gay they were…so why separate them. I know there are people in power who are homophobic and make laws from that point, and there are some who are racist who make laws from that point…that’s not even mentioning those who you grow up with and who raise you who interact with you a certain way just because you are who you are.…You think of yourself, I think, first of all, in how you interact every day with certain people for the simple fact that you see these people every day—your mom, your friends, your coworker, your boss; being around these people helps you know what type of person you are, how you identify. Two, you think of yourself by the people who make laws like politicians, and people like that, because what they do is always going to come back to you.

Dwayne’s insight demonstrates the structural considerations present among respondents who fell within the interlocking model. Others echoed Dwayne’s feeling; for example, Jeff, an 18-year-old unemployed Blackgay man, argued:

Both of these things matter in life. People don’t trust you in stores and you probably likely to go to jail just ’cause of being Black. Just like you can’t really get a kid to, like, adopt, or be married to somebody you love ’cause you gay. That’s politics, White people taking your freedom.

Both Dwayne and Jeff’s assertions illustrate the relationships that individuals make between notions of structure, self, and power as a means of understanding themselves. Essentially, respondents within this model articulated a sense of self in which they combined race and sexuality into a larger identity.

Although the class status of the respondents varied, for those who fell in the interlocking model class further entangled race and sexuality. Whether gainfully employed, unemployed, or a student, respondents highlighted class as a factor that allowed them to see the total effects of occupying a marginal racial and sexual status. Consider how Norman, a 22-year-old undergraduate, articulated his connections between class, race, and sexuality:

I am at this point where I am looking around at all the other people I am in school with. I feel like every time I am going on a job interview or am thinking about a career I realize I have two things against me before I even get in the door. I am Black, which means it’s already going to be hard to get anywhere or be taken seriously, and then I am gay, which means people will think I have no morals or won’t take me seriously or whatever.…Either way, I am stuck. It’s when I think of my economic opportunities that I realize that in being Black and gay there isn’t much separation. I want the nice house, the car, the vacations, but it just seems so much more difficult for me to get them because of my race and sexual orientation.

Class status for Norman, and class aspirations in particular, are seen as limited because of his marginal racial and sexual statuses. Jacob, a 27-year-old financial analyst, asserted a similar perspective stating: “At my job, I know that being a Black gay man places limitations on where I may go professionally. All the top people at my job are White, straight, and married.”

In essence, in the interlocking model respondents did not perceive a sense of difference or necessarily distinguishable attributes between a marginalized racial or sexual identity. In concert, respondents created an interconnected link between race and sexuality, in which neither identity was privileged over the other. Furthermore, these men combined the experiences they had as they came to know of and understand the stigma endemic to a racial and sexual differentness, wherein the marginalization experienced as Black and as gay were asserted as interlocking experiences.

Up–Down Identities

Men within this model privileged particular experiences vis-à-vis racial or sexual stigma, wherein the oppression experienced as Black as opposed to gay was more salient and dominated respondents’ conception of self (and vice versa). This discussion of up-down identities is an extension of the analysis of Peterson (1992). In reviewing psychological case studies regarding the racial and sexual dispositions of Black men, Peterson attempts to account for racial differences regarding identity and sexuality. According to Peterson, Black gay men feel forced to privilege racial identity in very definite terms. Peterson attributes this sort of coercion to the saliency of homophobia in the Black community. This assertion works in cooperation with a divide Peterson observes among his respondents. Peterson terms the two sides of the divide as the gay-Black man, and the Black-gay man, with the difference being found in the aspect of identity that is privileged by the individual.

Similar to Peterson’s (1992) study, the interviews for this research revealed that about half of the respondents identified themselves along one of these lines—Black-then-gay or gay-then-Black9—privileging one identity over the other. Respondents who identified in either way made clear that the second identity came after what they saw as their primary identity; and thus felt their conceptualization of self was best captured by connecting the two identities with the word then. The tension between the terms Black-then-gay and gay-then-Black best captures the crux of the up-down model, wherein the perceived distance between race and sexuality lead to an expression of self that places racial and sexual identity in opposition to one another—with one identity being played up and the other being downplayed. Consider how Nicholas, a 27-year-old graduate student, spoke of his identity:

I am Black first and always. That’s what people see, and that’s what I deal with. The gay thing is something else. It’s not that I locate it elsewhere, or don’t identify with it. But I choose Black first. Gay is an action, and Black is a way of life. When I go out, even when its to something gay, people still see me as a Black man. What I’m saying is, Black is always there, gay is when you’re out on a date or out there. When people are put in jail for no reason, beat on by police, or can’t get a job, it’s for being Black.

Nicholas’s statements highlight a recurring theme in the study among those who identified as Black-then-gay men. For this group, gay is isolated as an action; it represents an identity that is activated and then deactivated when the activity has ended. Nightclubs and romantic dates were among those activities that necessitated the use of a gay identity. In other words, a major feature of gay identity was its relation to activities of leisure.

Those respondents who identified as Black-then-gay privileged a Black identity because they believed that the stigmatization of Black skin directly connected and corresponded with their social interactions and people’s perceptions of who they were. For these respondents Black identity was an identity that was the product of social visibility and the uncontrollable nature of a social stigma, whereas their gay identity was inactive and irrelevant until a specific activity necessitated it. Gay identity was relegated to clubs and other leisure activities, whereas Black identity was placed into a larger and broader context usually related to issues of struggle and oppression. Tyrone, a 21-year-old waiter, spoke of his salient Black identity:

Black is what I am, and gay is what I am sometimes…you know what I mean. Not to take away from anything, or to take away from being gay, but I truly feel that people do not see that. When I’m being followed in the store, it’s because I’m Black, not because I’m gay; folks don’t even see that, you know. Black is just the reality of it all.…Sometimes it really is just black and white.

Discussions of class further illuminated the ways in which Black-then-gay men conceptualized racial and sexual stigma. Consider how Chester, 21 years old and unemployed, articulated how class works for him:

I mean I had a job.…I have actually worked since I was 15. When I was 19, I starting working at the downtown since that was the place with the most jobs. Even though the job helped me have some money of my own, I hated working there. I worked in this clothing store and was the only Black person there. I worked there two-and-a-half years and never made it to any management position. So many people came in after me and moved up. No one ever said directly to me, but I knew they weren’t ever going to have no Black manager. It was either I stay there and make peanuts or leave and try to get paid what I believe I am worth.

Essentially, the narratives of Black-then-gay men illuminate issues of choice. Although individuals often saw themselves as choosing or not choosing a sexual identity, respondents made clear that this process still comes with serious constraints. Jared, a 25-year-old retail employee, stated: “Yeah, I choose, but not really.…These categories already exist and so I just try to fix myself inside some of them, at least on my own terms.” Raheem, a 23-year-old student, added: “I say I choose to be gay when I want to, but am I really though? What are any of these things but boxes that people make you fit into, and check off.” Last, William, a 33-year-old elementary school teacher, asserted: “You just have to find your place somewhere.…People are going to put you somewhere; I at least like to feel like I chose my place somewhere in there.”

As demonstrated by both Nicholas and Tyrone, in the up-down model, Black-then-gay men positioned race as a master status. Because Black-then-gay men see their experiences of prejudice and discrimination primarily through a lens of race, their racial identity is more salient. On the other hand, those within the up-down model identifying as gay-then-Black readily identified with gay as a dominant stigma. In this case, gay-then-Black men are open about their sexuality and believe that they have indicators that make them readily identifiable as gay (i.e., openly affectionate relationships with other men, Gay Pride flags, and the use of language and behaviors that seem to deviate from dominant conceptions of man behavior). John, a 29-year-old teacher, spoke of his identity choice:

I know when people look at me they think, “Oh, look at the queen,” but I dress and act the way that makes me most comfortable. I think before people even realize that I am Black they think I am gay. Because it’s in the way I act, walk, speak, and relate to other people. I truly only feel Black when I am in an all Black community, or an all Black function. Otherwise I always feel gay first. I hold my boyfriend’s hand and everything. I don’t hide it from anybody. When we have problems I say “he” or “him”; I don’t have time for those bullshit phrases and words to seem secretive.

John’s feelings express a notion of externality, which is significantly similar to that of the Black-then-gay men. In his statement he expressed his feeling of conspicuousness. Similar to how Black-then-gay men characterized their Blackness as the most identifiable stigma, gay for gay-then-Black men is structured in relationship to what the individual perceived as his readily identifiable stigmatized trait. Though similar in their rationales for privileging a specific identity, within the statements of those who were gay-then-Black there was also a sense of identification in relationship to an opposing group.

As demonstrated in John’s statements, the respondents who were gay-then-Black articulated an identity that was structured specifically in opposition to those they saw as compartmentalizing, de-emphasizing, or de-prioritizing a gay identity.10 Others echoed John’s contentions with a Black-then-gay paradigm. For example, Ahmed, a 28-year-old flight attendant, stated: “We don’t get anywhere because some dudes can’t admit that they are gay…that they like men…so I see myself as pushing that when I tell people that I think of myself as gay before Black.” Additionally, Leon, a 30-year-old graduate student, asserted:

The problem with stuff is that everyone is trying not to talk about gay people and lesbians. I am gay and a lot of people try to pretend like they are not. I think that has a lot to do with why I would say I am gay and then Black, so other people will feel better about being gay instead of pretending that all they feel like they are is Black.…A lot of that has to do with what they think people will think about them.…I don’t really care. I know for sure I didn’t learn about some people and it wasn’t because they were Black but because they were gay, like Rustin or James Baldwin.

Just as Tyrone believed he was perceived as Black first, John conversely believed he was seen as gay first. Therefore, the ways in which they centered their identities corresponded with the ways that they believe they were primarily perceived. Kane, a 25-year-old secretary, highlighted this process:

Sometimes I feel like my identity is decided before I even make up my mind. It’s not that I don’t relate to Black, but when I’m around other Black guys and they start saying shit like “Look at that faggot” or “That was so gay”…it makes me cringe, and I think how can I not be gay first. I’m around all Black people and that’s what makes me different, and that’s where they make me feel different.

Essentially, among Black-then-gay and gay-then-Black men, self is produced through a process in which racial and sexual identities are placed in a hierarchy of importance. These respondents incorporated a level of performativity that was integral to their conception of self, whether racial or sexual. How respondents believed others perceive them is the singular most important factor in how they understood themselves along racial and sexual lines. In other words, the saliency of a racial or sexual identity was based on the evaluation of each man’s presentation of self, as well as the societal constraints on a particular presentation.

Although individuals looked to larger structures as explanation for their beliefs about a racial or sexual identity, the ordering of their identity was by no means predictable. Instead, respondents’ ideas about larger societal structures were relative to their beliefs about their self-presentation. Black-then-gay and gay-then-Black men, then, are another example of how Black gay men understand themselves, other Black gay men, and both the Black and the gay communities.

In sum, the up-down model highlights the ways in which many respondents played up one identity while downplaying another. Important to underscore is that with the downplaying of a particular identity was a de-emphasizing of that identity. Whereas some believed that their racial identity was important, others argued that their gay identity best captured their social realities.

Public–Private Identities

Unlike the previous two identity models, the narratives of men who fell within the public-private model highlighted a process that involved an articulation of a racial and sexual identity that is related to the individuals’ understanding of space. Furthermore, these narratives employed an understanding of space, in particular this idea that there are public and private social spaces, as a means for understanding and navigating a marginalized racial and sexual identity. Respondents falling into the public-private model articulated a racial and sexual self under two premises: (a) Black articulates a public perception, as well as a public social stigma that is identifiable on sight, and (b) gay articulates an identity that is private but, equally important, in that gay can capture private struggles, such as those with family and potential and past partners. It is also important to note that although individuals articulated a racial identity before sexuality, when asked about this ordering, respondents contended that the order was irrelevant.

To this point, respondents noted that experiences as a gay person were romantic ones and were therefore private, whereas experiences as a Black person were predicated on the conspicuous nature of skin color and were therefore public; hence respondents articulating this understanding of self-identified themselves as “Black and gay.”11 The sense of mutual exclusivity regarding racial and sexual identity, characterizing respondents within the up-down model were not present among respondents within the public-private model. Respondents saw both Black and gay as being equally identifiable in the public, but contended that conspicuousness does not then render an identity a public-social stigma. To illustrate this point, consider the assertions of Mark, a 30-year-old retail employee:

Of course for some people gay and Black are equally identified in public. But I believe that gay becomes a lifestyle in a way. Because it dictates the life you may see for yourself, whom you may date, and the ways in which you look at and seek love. Black, on the other hand, is not a way of life. I think of it as a fact of life. Just because I am Black doesn’t mean there is a similar manner of living across classes. Therefore, I believe that Black best articulates what people see outside, and gay articulates a more private sense of yourself.

Mark’s articulations represent a general sentiment among men in this model. Mark asserts an idea of identity that contends that a holistic identity is one that attempts to account for private and public life and draws a conception of self from that understanding. Respondents in the public-private model believed that in accounting for space, and understanding space as public and private neither race or sexuality is privileged, but instead used to provide a larger understanding of self. James, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, furthered this point:

I don’t know how people choose one or the other, or even try to say the two are kind of together, you know.…I think it’s better to say you are this and that, not either or, and not just one thing.…I like to think that everyone acknowledges that they are “Black and gay” but just feel forced to choose between the two to seem more Black or more gay, either way trying to seem like they have accepted either part of themselves. There are different things you run up against for being gay; things that I think have more to do with your personal life like mortgages or clubbing. Being Black is something that affects your ability to get treated fairly from everyone bus drivers to politicians.

Although respondents in the public-private model articulated oppression in ways similar to men in the interlocking model, they differed however in their willingness to acknowledge distinctions between race and sexuality. Acknowledging such differences, respondents within the public-private model asserted that a combined identity, such as the one expressed in the interlocking model, displaced or dismissed the important differences of being both Black and gay. Dion, a 32-year-old retail manager, shed further light on this point:

The powers that be make it so that it’s OK for people to treat you differently. I think that both gay and Black have their consequences, but Black is something that people always see and is always there. It’s more out there, you know. And gay is something that you can keep closer to you, only let people know if you want to.

As the quotes from James and Dion demonstrate, respondents saw race and sexuality as having very different implications for social interaction. Adding to Mark and James’s points, Anthony, a 26-year-old teacher, asserted:

If I had a sense of myself that just said I was one thing, or something else first, or just a whole string of things I would not feel like I was really saying anything about myself…saying something about how I live and work…so I say that I am Black and gay.

Robert, a 27-year-old real estate agent, added:

Since I see my sexuality as private, I see the way Black people being treated as something important when I am with strangers…when I’m, like, in public, you know. Because being gay may not exactly mean I experience any obstacles because it is private…unless I tell someone…then I think that when you have made your intimacy public, and not even straight people do things like that.

Unlike men in the interlocking and up-down models, for respondents falling into the public-private model there was little variation in class status among Black and gay men. Each of the men identifying as “Black and gay” were all gainfully employed, which would explain the clear sense of private and public space that operated for these men. Travis, a 30-year-old lawyer, made assertions about space and class that best capture the larger sentiment on this issue for those within the public–private model:

When you are at work, you are there to do a job. What you come in with is what you work with. When I come in the people I work with and work for see a Black employee, not necessarily a gay one. At work and in other public settings expectations are being set based upon what people can see. This is just like how gay works in my personal life. When I am out on a date with another man, or at a small gathering of gay men, that space makes my sexuality work like how my race works when I am at the office. By being on that date or in the small gathering of gay people my sexuality is visible. My ability to have the life that I want and have those materialistic things that show success, I recognize that both my identities matter, but I think are best captured if you are aware of the spaces in which they are made to matter.

Ultimately, respondents within the public-private model expressed a negotiation of race and sexuality, and also an articulation of self through an understanding of space. Pointing out the spatial dynamics of identity, respondents within the public-private model asserted racial and sexual identity as being best understood as encompassing either their public or private lives. Because these men considered race as always self-evident, the existence of race was inevitably a public one, whereas gay was seen as specific to personal matters, and was therefore envisioned as a private identity.

Discussion and Conclusion

By examining the narratives of Black gay men, this research has shown that there is no singular Black gay man. This point is instructive in thinking about the ways in which discourse regarding Black people and Proposition 8 has played out thus far. Although it may be the case that Black voters in California overwhelming supported Proposition 8, this research reveals that it is important to also consider and understand the ways in which Black LGBT individuals may position and negotiate sexual identity and relate to the larger gay community.

As this research reveals, all Black gay men do not identify directly with a gay identity. Such an observation requires that an adjustment in praxis and the rhetoric surrounding LGBT and civil rights if these efforts are to include men who identify in this way; thus requiring a different approach and dialogue than conventional practices, especially if groups are going to be able to garner their support for activist efforts. From a policy standpoint such a realization and change may help to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the range of people who are included within both the Black and the gay communities, as well as the way those individuals see themselves as a part of those communities; such an understanding can help determine the lasting effects of changes in such policies as gay marriage and “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” as well as how groups within both the Black and the gay communities may respond to or understand the politics underlying these issues.

Although a seemingly commonplace suggestion, as Cohen (2005) has pointed out in her critique of queer politics, often in efforts to liberate groups differences are dismissed, much to the detriment of the political agenda or movement. Recognizing that Black gay men have significant variations in their racial and sexual identities is consequential in that these understandings of self surely inform political practices and alliances. Whether conceptualizing being Black and gay as interlocking, in opposition with one above the other, or as spatially significant, the narratives provided by the Black gay men here reveal that each characterization had implications for the relationship these men felt they shared with other Blacks, gays and the larger Black and gay communities. These narratives challenge the notion that certain issues labeled as gay or Black issues will resonate just because one is gay or Black.

Furthermore, the variations in identity among the Black gay men presented here, challenge extant literature on racial and sexual identity; because both literatures work within the assumption of either race or sexuality operating as master status, the narratives of the respondents offer a complex contrast wherein neither being Black or being gay is necessarily a master status. These narratives challenge researchers across fields and practices to rethink who is included in their conception of community and to retool efforts to reflect the diversity of experiences and identities encapsulated in the larger Black and gay communities.

This article has revealed that Black gay men negotiate racial and sexual stigma in different yet important ways. In these narratives, Black gay men make clear that interactions with other Blacks, Whites, and other gays profoundly influence the saliency of their racial and sexual identity. Although Black gay men find themselves at the intersection of a marginal racial and sexual status, how they come to understand that intersection and those identities varies in profound ways. It was clear in the interviews that many of the men often felt as if their ability to be seen and heard within both the larger gay and Black communities was a difficult reality.

This research provides an important step in the attention to the social realities of LGBT individuals of color in general, and Black gay men more specifically. Providing a description and examination of the ways in which Black gay men navigate simultaneous racial and sexual stigma, this research offers critical new knowledge. This analysis suggests that community activists, pundits, researchers, and other interested parties develop a more nuanced perspective when understanding the possible ways that Black gay men may identify and understand themselves.

The trends presented here illustrate some of the socially constructed narratives that individuals employ to make sense of themselves, other individuals, and larger societal structures. Indeed, there are specific factors that play a role in this process (e.g., oppression, community, conceptions of public and private, familial influence), but these factors may also speak to trends for other minorities. Furthermore, one can imagine that many of the methods employed by these respondents are similar to those used by other groups in response to issues of gender and class. Just as being Black and being gay seemed to further the respondents’ sense of marginalization (often functioning as the fundamental basis for asserting an identity), other stigmatized identities may operate similarly. This study, then, reveals some of the complex strategies that minorities may generally use to set forth a unified identity.

Despite the importance of the social locations of the individuals represented in this research, particular categories remain under-analyzed or not analyzed at all in the data as presented here. Future research should investigate similar questions as they pertain to the social realities of transgender and lesbian individuals of color. Much of what is presented here is meant to serve as the beginnings of a move toward an inclusion of non-White, nonheterosexual, and subsequently marginal groups into an understanding of race and sexuality at all levels, thus enhancing the policies, practices, and research done with and regarding LGBT individuals of color.

Footnotes
1

It is not my intention to place full authorship of the notion of intersectionality with Collins and Crenshaw. Other texts offer conceptual framing and understandings of intersectionality (see Anzaldua 1987, 1990; Battle and Bennet 2005; Carbado 1999; Cohen 1999; Combahee River Collective 1983; Davis 1981; Glenn 1985; Hull et al. 1982; Hooks 1984; Johnson and Henderson 2005; King 1995; Mohanty 1988; Moraga 1983; Moraga and Anzuldua 1984; Sandoval 1991; Smith 1983; Spelman 1988).

 
2

The names of respondents have been changed to preserve anonymity. In accordance with institutional review board policies, all respondents signed consent forms. These forms provided an outline of the goals of the study and also ensured that the identities of the respondents would remain private.

 
3

The term self-identified Black includes West Indians and multiracial respondents. In this article, such terms as race and racial identity are used to refer to Blackness, and the term Black is used to refer to respondents’ racial identity.

 
4

In this article the terms sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual identity are used interchangeably to reference gay identity, especially when discussing respondents.

 
5

Other notable works in this area include those of Arlene Stein (Bernstein 1997; Butler 1990; Epstein 1994; Foucault 1976; Plummer 1992; Seidman 1994; Stein 1989; Stein and Plummer 1994; Warner 1993; Weeks 1991; Williams and Stein 2002) and Dunne (1997). The discussion here is meant to be not exhaustive but illustrative; for a more detailed discussion of the accomplishments and limitations of the study of sexuality in the social sciences, see query Gamson and Moon (2004).

 
6

The term self-identified refers to men’s willingness to express their gay identity to me when scheduling the interview. Self-identifying as gay should not be confused with being open or out.

 
7

In this study, I use the term Black to refer to the respondents in my sample because I am working with a specific racial framework that acknowledges and demonstrates similarities across nationalities. These men, regardless of national origin, because of their physical location together in the USA, experience the same sort of negotiations of identity because of their shared ascribed Black or racial existence (Waters 1999).

 
8

Men on the down-low have sex with other men but maintain a heterosexual public identity.

 
9

Those who were Black-then-gay accounted for 65% of those within the dominant model, whereas gay-then-Black accounted for 35%.

 
10

In many ways, this process harkens to a process of supplementarity (Derrida 1967)—a process of defining self through defining what it means to be other.

 
11

It is important to note that although individuals articulated themselves as “Black and gay,” for them, “gay and Black” would connote the same meaning. They are only imagining themselves as arranging public and private, wherein public equals Black and private equals gay.

 

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© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2010