Fox’s Empire is at the forefront of a significant year for representations of black and LGBT stories in media. The show, which unabashedly confronts homophobia in hip-hop, has become a ratings (and music sales) sensation.
Its success is more than monetary. The musical drama has broken barriers on network television by showing one of its central characters, the gay musician Jamal Lyon (played by out actor Jussie Smollett), kiss and make love to other men of color. The opposite of a stereotype, Jamal is talented, brave, and arguably the most virtuous member of his family.
But in addition to love, Empire also shows the ugliness of homophobia. Jamal’s father, Lucious Lyon, is blinded to his son’s talents by deep-seated bias. This is underscored throughout the season by a heart-wrenching flashback, where Lucious throws a young Jamal into a trashcan after the child walks down the stairs in a pair of heels.
The show’s black and gay co-creator, Lee Daniels, whose real-life experiences with his father inspired the relationship on the show, has said he wanted Empire to “blow the lid” off of the “rampant” homophobia in the black community. The backlash wasn’t pretty. Antigay viewers lashed out at Daniels on social media throughout the first season. They threatened him, as well as his children, Daniels told The Advocate.
The greatest challenge of addressing homophobia, he said, was “shielding myself from the pain of people that are still angry at me for discussing it.”
“If you are in social media, you can’t help but look at what people are saying,” Daniels said at a recent panel for the Hollywood Radio and Television Society. “Though there are many supporters out there that are for the issues that I try to address about homophobia, not only in the African-American community, but in America, there are just as many that are not nice.”
The backlash wasn't limited to antigay viewers. Many members of the black LGBT community and their allies bristle when homophobia is discussed in terms of race. Daniels’ comments had hit a nerve, as they touched on an ugly stereotype of black culture that many had been working to overcome.
Another prominent public figure to hit this nerve was Kerry Washington. In a speech delivered at the 2015 GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles, the Scandal actress, who also holds degrees in anthropology and sociology from George Washington University, stressed the importance of intersectionality in achieving success for minority rights. Those who are not straight white men, she said, "have been pitted against each other and made to feel like there are limited seats at the table." And she singled out antigay voices from the black community as an example.
"So when black people today tell me that they don't believe in gay marriage... the first thing that I say is, 'Please don't let anybody try to get you to vote against your own best interest by feeding you messages of hate,'" she said. "And then I say, 'You know people used to stay that stuff about you and your love. And if we let the government start to legislate love in our lifetime, who do you think is next?'"
The audience, which was comprised of primarily white gay men, burst into a standing ovation. However, Washington's words, and the crowd's reaction, were not universally acclaimed.
“But when did homophobia become a specifically black problem?” wrote The Daily Beast’s Stereo Williams in a response piece to the comments of Washington and Daniels. He noted that “pushback against gay rights isn’t just happening amongst black folks,” pointing out a string of hate crimes like the murders of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena that were committed by white people, as well as right-wing politicians who advocate for anti-LGBT legislation.
“Ignorance and hate are not black-exclusive,” he rightly concludes.
Clearly, hatred toward gay people is not unique to a race or culture. But are there unique factors at play in the black community in regard to attitudes toward LGBT people? Are the causes of black homophobia different? And is it helpful or harmful to consider factors like race when addressing bias in specific communities?
The answers to these questions are complex and vary, depending on whom you ask.
“Fuck, yes,” said Faith Cheltenham, a black bisexual woman and the head of BiNet USA, when asked if black homophobia is different than in other communities.
“The wave of ‘post-racial society’... got rid of this really entrenched approach to inclusion. We’ve seen a lot of slippage,” she said. “I know there’s a lot of black LGBT activists who are really angry that we keep on having the conversation about black homophobia. And I’m like, at the same time, black homophobia has not gone away. So it’s a very careful balance of understanding that.”
“Black homophobia is very different than white homophobia,” she maintained. When white families are homophobic, she said, they are more likely to kick their LGBT children out of their homes. Black families tend to turn to leaders in the church “to get rid of the demon of homosexuality,” she said. And they are much more likely to say, “I love you. I don’t love your sin.”
This particular conflict is captured in Blackbird, a recent film by black gay filmmaker Patrik-Ian Polk. Touching on similar themes to Empire, the film stars Mo’Nique as a parent who struggles to accept her son's sexuality. Like Empire's Lucious Lyon, her character also has a violent reaction to the discovery of her son’s queerness — she takes a baseball bat and shatters a car window. Unlike Lucious, she calls a priest to attempt a kind of gay exorcism.
In a recent interview with The Advocate, Mo’Nique stressed that the homophobia that affects her character and her character’s community, a small Southern town heavily influenced by the black church, is “strictly” religion and not related to race. She said congregations preaching hate are behind the real-world bias, a revelation she received from the young gay men from all backgrounds who told her they identified with the film.
“We’re just one big community... still faced with this issue of acceptance,” Mo’Nique said of humanity. She said thinking about issues like hatred and bias as community-specific can even be detrimental to addressing them.
“We keep putting these titles and labels that make separation,” she said. “As a human race, we need to work together.”
However, Larry Duplechan, a black gay man who wrote the novel on which Blackbird is based, said it may not be so easy to divorce the issues of race and religion. They have become so intertwined that defying one is the same as leaving the other, he said.
“The center of the black community is the black church, and that changes everything. So coming out in the black community is like trying to come out as an Orthodox Jew. You’ll lose your family. You’ll lose your culture. You’ll lose your community, because usually, you are ejected. Even now, that’s true,” said the 58-year-old writer.
Although he wrote the book about 30 years ago, Duplechan said he hasn't seen much change regarding the African American community’s attitudes toward gay people. One of these reasons is that “manhood, with a capital M, is terribly, terribly important for so many reasons to black men. So black gay men can be seen as the problem to other black men.”
Does he think it has become taboo to speak about homophobia as it relates specifically to the black community?
“Recently, I’ve noticed it,” he said. “It’s very much looked down on to say that anymore. And I think mostly because we get so much from outside the community. We get so much that the last thing you want is to be perceived as attacking your own community. So I understand to a certain extent. But it’s also much easier to deny and deflect and defend than it is to face the homophobia that is clearly within the community.”
“So — I’m going to get in trouble for this — but we need to get over it, and not deflect, and face it, and talk about it,” he concluded.
The difficulty of broaching the topic of homophobia in the black community was also raised by Tavis Smiley, a PBS talk show host, in his interview with another Blackbird star, Isaiah Washington. The actor had come under fire a few years ago for allegedly using a gay slur against his Grey’s Anatomy costar T.R. Knight, and his role on Blackbird was deemed a move of “redemption” by the Washington Post (though Washington denied such motives, when asked).
“Why do you think this conversation has been so difficult to have in black America?” Smiley asked Washington. “It’s not that it’s easy anywhere, per se, but in our community, it’s a tough conversation to have.”
In response, Washington raised a constellation of factors that contribute to homophobia, ranging from institutional racism that places all young black men in a perilous position (“All of our young boys are dying,” he stressed) to colonialism in Africa that upended “thousands and thousands of years” of acceptance toward people who loved others of the same sex.
He says an understanding of this origin of homophobia will help reframe conversations about the place for LGBT people in black culture, which will in turn tap into a deeper, historic root of acceptance.
“The question is, in terms of the African-American community... how do we coexist? How do we have tolerance? How do we have acceptance for our people who want to love the way they want to love? That’s who we’ve been. That’s the DNA that we share,” Washington said.
“Gay people are not going anywhere,” he continued. “They’re not going to change for us... so why can’t we figure out a way to accept one another, and have this real conversation in our churches, in particular our black church?”
Although it sounds far-reaching, this tracing of LGBT acceptance to Africa’s past was echoed by Cheltenham, who spoke enthusiastically about this “hidden history” and the importance of teaching it in present day.
“Homophobia did not exist on the continent before colonialism,” she said. “There were over 500 words for same-sex behavior across five different regions of Africa, like ‘boy wife’ or ‘woman warrior.’”
“After colonialism came a system of systemic surveillance and oppression,” she continued. “It wasn’t just that people were being burned or killed for being gay, it was that community leadership was told by colonialist suppressors ... that anybody who participated in this same-sex behavior was evil, dirty, [and] that they needed to be eradicated. That did not come from African culture.”
“So African-American people, who have then been taken and brought to America, then they go through 400 or so years of slavery, then 150 years of Jim Crow — because I think Jim Crow didn’t really end. What do you end up with? You end up with a group of people who are very unaware of their history of homosexualities, of their support of LGBT identities, of their creation of multiple gender identities.”
Even today, antigay religious leaders, frustrated by the progress of LGBT rights groups in the United States, have taken their crusade to African countries like Uganda. There, they have used religion to stoke hatred and influence the passing of oppressive laws.
"Homophobia is the real import to Uganda," said Ugandan LGBTI advocate Pepe Onziema, after an antigay rally was held on the gravesite of the murdered activist David Kato in April 2013.
As Uganda has shown, homophobia can have disastrous consequences on society. Antigay attitudes influenced the creation of horrific legislation like the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which passed with broad support in the country's parliament in December 2013. Before it was ruled invalid due to international backlash, the act mandated lifelong sentences for many LGBT people. Activists and workers at HIV clinics were jailed, and violence against members of the LGBT community increased ten-fold.
Moreover, stigma and discrimination in both government and society created a health crisis. As of 2012, 7.2 percent of the population was reportedly living with HIV, with homophobia and ignorance of sex education playing key roles.
The consequences of fear and a lack of access to education are not limited to Africa. In the United States, the African-American community is the most at-risk racial group for HIV infection, reports the Centers for Disease Control. Black gay and bisexual men account for a quarter of HIV infections among all Americans, and studies show that 60 percent of this demographic will be HIV-positive by the age of 40. And though numbers among heterosexual African-American women have declined in the past few years, the rate of HIV infection in this group is still 20 times higher than it is for white women.
This plight is keenly articulated in a new play by scholar and performer E. Patrick Johnson. After collecting dozens of oral histories from black gay men in the South, Johnson is staging a one-man show, Sweet Tea, in which he channels the voices of men who have learned to navigate their double identities of black and gay. In one memorable performance, Johnson says that when black men who have either left or been kicked out of their communities return, "they're coming home to die" of HIV-related illnesses.
So how should homophobia in the black community be addressed? The knowledge that centuries of white racism may have contributed to it should extend far beyond the black community, said Cheltenham.
White people, particularly the white LGBT community, need to wake up to intersectionality, and realize that the fight against homophobia requires addressing the specific needs of every community, not just those visible in white spaces. Black LGBT people in particular suffer through a great deal of political, economic, and social disparity, which “the white LGBT community doesn’t really see.”
“I think it’s kind of killing all the black LGBT people out there right now to see people discussing marriage equality... and not talking about folks that are really, really struggling. And that kind of takes the hope away,” Cheltenham said.
Change means supporting underfunded groups in addition to the Human Rights Campaign, which “very rarely” sees black homophobia as a priority, Cheltenham continued. One such group is the National Black Justice Coalition, which intimately understands how working with black families, increasing LGBT visibility, and changing public policies can fight homophobia at every level for all people.
“The state of homophobia within the black community is only a reflection of the broader American culture, which finds itself in a continuous evolution in favor of the demands that define the LGBT equality movement,” Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks, executive director and CEO of the NBJC, told The Advocate in a statement.
She cited issues like “affordable health care, job opportunities, livable wages, protection from employment discrimination, fair housing practices and laws,” as among those policies that must still be fought for in order for progress to occur.
Frank conversations between different segments of the community, and a willingness to talk about those differences, are also key.
“It is imperative that when we have conversations on topics around LGBT equality that we acknowledge the cultural challenges and divides that we face,” Lettman-Hicks added. “Black LGBT people cannot separate their Blackness from their lived experiences. The issues that confront black people — like structural oppression and racism in America — impact black LGBT people even more.”
Indeed, the nearly two million adult LGBT workers of color face lower wages, on-the-job discrimination, and higher levels of unemployment than the general population, reports the Movement Advancement Project. Citing numbers from the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School, MAP shows that LGBT African Americans have the highest unemployment rate in the country (15 percent).
MAP's report, titled "A Broken Bargain for LGBT Workers of Color," notes it "can be hard to identify exactly how the forces of bias and prejudice based on race, sexual orientation and gender identity intersect." But if racism and homophobia are a problem in America, and homophobia still closes doors to employment for black workers within their own communities and networks, then where are LGBT workers of color to turn?
Bell hooks, a noted scholar on black and LGBT issues, acknowledged this paradox in Talking Back, a book tackling homophobia in the African-American community.
"Often black gay folk feel extremely isolated [personally and professionally] because there are tensions in their relationships with the larger, predominantly white gay community created by racism, and tensions within black communities around issues of homophobia," she wrote.
It was issues like these — the struggle of black parents when faced with the possibility of their LGBT child being disadvantaged as a double minority — that were on the mind of Lee Daniels as he created storylines that galvanized so many.
“As it was with my dad, it was difficult enough being an African-American. You go out and you can get shot simply for being a black man. Why do you want to add being gay to that?” he said. “And many people that are heterosexual really feel that this is something that can be cured. People think that, and so, what do you do?”
What does one do? Eric Holder, the former attorney general, spoke about his frustration that the fight against homophobia in the black community has gone on “as long as it has” in his exit interview with The Advocate. The remedy, he proposed, was collaboration.
“It seems to me that there is a need for a greater understanding, a greater unity, and greater struggle — jointly," he concluded. "My hope will be that over time that will happen.”