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Heterosexism and the African American Community

Message Constance Lavender
According to The Advocate, the nation’s leading gay issue-oriented magazine, hate crimes against gay men and lesbians are becoming more frequent and more violent at precisely the same historical moment when gay Americans are becoming more open, visible, and vocal. In an article appearing in the April 18th edition of The Advocate, entitled “Hate Crimes Get More Violent”, a national study conducted by the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) is cited showing an alarming increase in hate crimes in many of America’s largest metropolitan areas (The Advocate, 1995, p. 9-10). The following statistics illustrate the intensity of the increase in hate crimes against people based solely on their sexual orientation: Boston (+25%), Columbus, OH (+6%), Detroit (+14%), Minneapolis (+24%), New York City (+8%), and Portland, OR (+7%).

Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence calls “...crimes against gays and lesbians...the most violent form of hate crime there is.” (The Advocate, 1995, p. 9-10). Levin goes on to say that “Gays and lesbians are the largest target group for bias homicides in the nation, surpassing every other group.” (The Advocate, 1995, p. 9-10).

Perhaps what is most alarming, however, is that since the gay liberation movement began in 1969, violence against gay men and lesbians has increased proportionately with the growth in gay visibility and the level of gay “out-ness”. This frightening trend calls into question some of the basic principles most fundamental to an open, democratic society such as tolerance, acceptance, mutual respect, and dialogue.

The AVP’s director, Matt Foreman has suggested that “[w]hen gay and lesbian issues are in the news, violence goes up.” (The Advocate , 1995, p.9-10). “Hatred against gays and lesbians is getting more intense,” says Foreman. “We may be making progress in certain areas, but the message of tolerance is not getting through.” (The Advocate , 1995, p.9-10).

As William B. Rubenstein, editor of Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Law, notes in his introduction to the book:

The struggle for equality by lesbians and gay men has moved to the center of American life at the outset of the 1990’s, and during the coming decade lesbian and gay issues will form a greater part of the American political scene and public consciousness than during any other era in American history.

At the same time, lesbians and gay men face stiffer opposition than ever before. A well-organized and well funded religious right has pledged that “gay rights will be the ‘abortion’ issue of the 1990s” --- the message being that its adherents will vehemently challenge advances by gay people. And more and more lesbians and gay men are attacked every year simply for being gay: anti-gay violence rose 31 percent between 1990 and 1991 in five major cities (Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis/St.Paul, New York, and San Francisco) with more than 1800 incidents of anti-gay/lesbian violence reported in these cities alone. (Rubenstein, 1993, p. xv)

The purpose of this paper is to examine how anti-gay violence, heterosexism and homophobia are related to racism and other forms of oppression as they exist and are manifested in the United States. The paper will seek to define what is meant by heterosexism and homophobia, to understand the similarities, differences and connections between heterosexism and racism, and to survey the currently existing research on the relationship of heterosexism and race.

It is important from the outset to note that their is a disturbing lack of information concerning homophobia and heterosexism in general, and heterosexism within the African American community in particular. Therefore, some significant questions such as whether heterosexism is more prevalent in African American communities than in white communities, or the impact and perception of heterosexism by gay blacks, while interesting and vital to a total understanding of heterosexism as a whole phenomenon, receive only cursory treatment because of the lack of research data to support speculations about these questions. Where possible, these speculative conclusions are addressed in the paper, however, to that extent, the need for dramatically more social scientific attention to these areas of concern must be underscored.

For example, a computerized search of the social science and general on-line indices at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey yielded only four articles dealing loosely with heterosexism and race. It might also be pointed out that a computerized search under the keyword “heterosexism” yielded no articles whatsoever. The four articles that were located were found under a cross-search of the keywords “homophobia” and “discrimination”. The four articles that were available under the heading “homophobia and discrimination” were: Lourdes Arguelles and Rich B. Ruby, Homosexuality, Homophobia, and Revolution: Notes Towards an Understanding of the Cuban Lesbian and Gay Male Experience, Parts I, II (1985), Emmanuel Nelson, Critical Deviance : Homophobia and the Reception of James Baldwin’s Fiction (1991), Everett Eberhardt, Edward Peeples, Jr., and Walter W. Turnstall, The Veil of Hurt (1985), and Charles Y. Glock, The Churches and Social Change in Twentieth-Century America (1993).

Arguelles and Ruby’s article deals with the experience of homophobia and heterosexism by Cuban immigrants to the United States. Therefore, the research conclusions it presents may be applied to homophobia and heterosexism experienced by African Americans living in the United States only indirectly and by correlation. Nelson’s article on homophobic interpretations of James Baldwin’s fiction is interesting and speaks to the question of homophobia and heterosexism in the African American community, but only by a somewhat circuitous route. Baldwin, after all, belongs to the “literary elite”, and to apply his experience of heterosexism to gay black masses may very well be suspect and susceptible to severe criticism. Glock’s article about the role of churches in social change would seem to be most applicable to the topic of heterosexism in the African American community given the prominent role of the church in black life in the United States. But, again, while Glock discusses the force of the church in decreasing racial prejudice and discrimination, he does not link heterosexism and other forms of oppression to race. Eberhardt, Peeples, and Turnstall’s article on heterosexism in services and public accomodations in Richmond and other selected cities is the only article that examined discrimination against gay men by race. And, even this study may be questioned because of the difficulties in finding a representative sample of gay men and the disproportionate representation within the sample of white to black gay men. Therefore, the first conclusion to be drawn from preliminary investigations into heterosexism and the African American community suggests that further, more rigorous study is necessary in this area.


In her excellent study, Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism (1988), Suzanne Pharr defines homophobia as “...the irrational fear and hatred of those who love and sexually desire those of the same sex.” (Pharr, 1988, p.1). She proceeds to say that “[i]t was from listening especially to battered women, women of color, and lesbians that I drew the connection between homophobia and violence against women and finally the overall connection to economics and sexism.” (Pharr, 1988, p.xii). Based on Pharr’s observations, homophobia, for the purposes of this study, is: an expression, manifestation, or function of a larger system of sexual oppression connecting violence against homosexuals and women to economics and sexism; the systematic and uncritical objectification of homosexuals and women and their internalization of such dehumanizing projections.

The problem with using homophobia as a term to describe discrimination against gay men and lesbians (i.e. anti-gay violence) is that homophobia describes a mental state; that is, a fear of homosexuality. This is problematic for several reasons. First, if homophobia is a fear of homosexuality, then homophobia implies that there is, in fact, something about homosexuals that is fearful. This study, following Lynda Hart’s lead in Karen Finley’s Dirty Work: Censorship, Homophobia, and the NEA (1992), presumes that, in reality, there is nothing inherently abhorrent about homosexuals or homosexuality. In speaking of the recent controversy at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) over public grants for gay-oriented art works, Hart, referring to Holly Hughes and David Leavitt, notes:

While there is some obvious validity to Leavitt’s emphasis on the overt targeting of gays and lesbians, as well as Holly Hughes’ claim that the “scapegoats today are gay people and feminists,” the limits and dangers of isolating a group based on identity alone are apparent in both of these writers’ comments. Hughes claims that the hostility once directed at people of color has shifted onto gays, lesbians, and feminists; Leavitt implies that situating the word “homoeroticism” next to “a taboo extreme of sexual behavior few would be willing to argue in favor of” (sadomasochism) detracts from the defense of homoeroticism.This division of groups according to identities reinscribes the same system that has brought us to this historical conjuncture.

Hughes suggests that people of color are distinct from gays, lesbians, and feminists; Leavitt reveals his desire to dissociate homosexuals from sadomasochists. Leavitt writes: “Female in a world of men, Jewish in a world of gentiles, black in a world of whites: it’s the same difference.” But of course it is not the same difference. These comments demonstrate how homogenization always reduces by excluding. Gender, race, and various expressions of sexuality are not discretely constructed by a hegemonic discourse. the “identities” of these groups are not only fluid across and between the categories but are indeed unstable and shifting within the categories themselves. It is not one “group” that is attacked at different moments of history, nor is there a limited supply of hostility to be directed at first one then another target. On the contrary, in the kind of censorship efforts we are now observing, it is precisely the anxious effort to demarcate one group from another that fuels their efforts. And it is those performers who in a variety of ways slip out of naturalized categorizations and explode the seamless body of humanist discourse who constitute the greatest threat. Lesbian and gay content does not have to enter the specular field in culturally recognizable ways in order for us to read the efforts to silence these representations as homophobic. In fact, when lesbians and gays enter into the visible, from the dominant spectator’s position it is on terms that practically guarantee a homophobic reaction. Indeed, homophobia becomes nearly synonymous with homosexuality, a realization that has spurred recent efforts to discard the term homophobia in favor of heterosexism, a political move that favors the materialist account over the psychoanalytic one. (emphasis added). Joseph Neisen, for example, puts forward the argument that substituting heterosexism for homophobia shifts emphasis from the latter’s suggestion of something inherently abhorrent about homosexuality to the former’s stress on discrimination against gays and lesbians. Neisen also points out that homophobia is not a “true phobia,” for a “phobic reaction is one in which the object that provokes anxiety is avoided.” Neisen’s point is well taken, and it strengthens my argument that the term homophobia serves our purpose well when we are witnessing a displaced response, when precisely the object under attack is not lesbian or gay. Displacement is the primary mechanism in a phobic reaction, so homophobia may be a term better used to desribe a performer like Finley than to the other three defunded artists.

Although Hart’s distinction between homophobia and heterosexism is in reference to the defunding of artists by the NEA and is somewhat convoluted and technical, her overall impressions are relevant to the definition and meaning of these two terms. This brings up the second problematic aspect of using the term homophobia to describe violent or prejudicial action towards someone perceived to be gay or who does not conform to cultural expectations of sexuality. Heterosexism may be directed against a person who is perceived to be homosexual or gender non-conforming regardless of whether or not in reality that person is in fact not homosexual or does conform to traditional gender roles.What is significant in the term heterosexism is the fact that it describes discrimination and/or violence perpetrated by heterosexuals against those perceived to be in deviation from heterosexual norms. This definition and meaning is not adequately captured by the term homophobia.

Finally, the third problem with using the term homophobia as opposed to heterosexism is the former term’s historical association with the psychologically clinical descriptive label “homosexuality”. Many gay men and lesbians loathe the name “homosexual” because of its historical classification as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association as well as the American Psychological Association. Placed in this historical context, “homosexual” is a disparaging term that brings up unpleasant memories of so-called “scientists” and “doctors” curing “homosexuality” (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.92-94; Sullivan, 1990, p.218-219, Note 2). The elimination of homosexuality as a mental disorder is a relatively recent development: the American Psychiatric Association deleted homosexuality as a mental illness in 1974; the American Psychological Association followed in 1975 (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.92).

Heterosexism, on the other hand, has been defined by Kevin T. Berrill and Gregory M. Herek in Hate Crimes: Confronting Violence Against Lesbians and Gay Men as: “ ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any nonheterosexual forms of behavior, identity, relationship, or community. Like racism, sexism, and other ideologies of oppression, heterosexism is manifested both in societal customs and institutions, such as religion and the legal system (referred to here as cultural heterosexism), and in individual attitudes and behaviors (referred to here as psychological heterosexism...).” Cultural heterosexism refers to social customs and practices as well as institutions that seek to oppress homosexuals by constructing cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality that exclude same-sex relations and gay identities, and through creating an atmosphere and/or environment within which anti-gay violence is tolerated and often encouraged. Psychological heterosexism, by contrast, is individual attitudes and behaviors that promote violence against homosexuals, those who are perceived to be homosexual, and those who do not conform to traditional gender and/or sexual roles (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.89-104).



Heterosexism occurs within a broader cultural context that is defined by the dominant social group that constructs and controls the power structure within American civilization. This power structure is best described as WHITE - MALE - HETEROSEXUAL. This power structure has sexualized society through the construction of cultural institutions that stigmatize and devalue identities that fail to conform, or are perceived as failing to conform, to the dominant, traditional western social equation: white + male + heterosexual = power. From this perspective, homosexuality is viewed as being in violation of gender and erotic norms, and is, therefore, socially condemned. The effect of this social condemnation is that homosexuals are denied an identity and being, perpetuating invisibility and silence concerning homosexuality and pressuring homosexuals to live a closeted existence out of the public eye and consciousness. The cultural effect of the white-male-heterosexual power structure touches and influences heterosexual behavior too. Because of the stigmatization of gays in American society, heterosexual hostility towards and violence against homosexuals is culturally reinforced and sometimes even encouraged. As a result society offers few safespaces where gay men and lesbians can interact openly without fear of violence, hatred, and discrimination directed towards them (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 97).

Berrill and Herek have identified the sexual norms that have been constructed by the power structure to the point where they have become so entrenched and naturalized that deviations from these norms are usually not tolerated leading to heterosexim. These sexual norms are: heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, non-commercial, coupled, relational, same generational, and private (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 96). Since gay people are defined solely in terms of their sexuality, unlike heterosexuals, homosexuality has been relegated to a sphere of invisibility and silence that is stifling, oppressive, and violent (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 94 -96). Consequently, the metaphor of the closet is invented to house gay men and lesbians in their fear, invisibility, and silence. Afraid of the violence that may greet them if they dare to publicly profess their true identity, the vast majority of gays in American society have lived their lives in silence without historical acknowledgement of their contributions to American civilization. Public identity --- coming out, calls for social and legal acceptance, breaking the silence and stigma surrounding AIDS which has disproportionately affected the gay community, and criticism of negative media portrayals of homosexuality --- has been an evolutionary process for gay men and lesbians since World War II and the Stonewall rebellion of 1969 heralded the rudimentary formation of the gay urban community and the move towards gay liberation respectively (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 2, 94, 98).

Despite the acute intensity and rising tide of violence that has accompanied the gay liberation movement in recent years, “the private world of homosexuality” has increasingly become a matter of public conversation since the liberationist movement of the 1970’s (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.98). The status of homosexuals as a minority constituency struggling for civil rights and equality has led to the formation of a public identity based on community membership, a growing gay and lesbian middle-class, and the tragedy of AIDS as well as individual sexual conduct (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 98).

Although modest, limited gains in recognition and legitimatization have been made by gay men and lesbians against the backdrop of American heterosexual culture, anti-gay attitudes and beliefs continue to prevail. One of the most striking inequalities is the double standard applied to homosexuals in terms of public expressions of affection and love. Heterosexuality is so pervasive in American society due to its naturalization at the expense of other forms of sexuality, that few heterosexuals think of the political consequences of an act as simple as a man and a woman holding hands in public. Even two women publicly holding hands has been and may still be acceptable. But, if two men were to be caught in public holding hands the immediate assumption by the vast majority of straight men and women is that the men are , first, gay, and second, should express their “unnatural” affections only in the privacy of their own homes, if at all.

This raises the question of how sociosexual identity is approved and affirmed by society at large. The problem with gay identity is that it is assumed by many to be based purely on sexuality and American sexual mores demand that sex and sexuality be privatized: to openly publicize sexual identity, unless it is heterosexual, is to beg to be stigmatized. Yet another problem facing gay identity is the mainstream attitude that homosexuality is inconsequential because it only concerns sexual identity. Moreover, the socio-cultural impetus to conform to heterosexuality increases the likelihood that anti-gay violence will occur. It is within the context of heterosexual culture, one must constantly remember, that heterosexism takes root and grows (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 99-101).

Anti-gay violence is predictable and is played out within a larger culture of violence and denial. To that extent, there are specific steps that could be taken to alleviate suffering and eliminate the violence. Education, religious tolerance, passage of laws designed to insure gay rights, and stricter enforcement of currently existing hate crimes law are but a few measures society could easily adopt to stem the rising tide of hatred, viciousness, and violence directed at gay men and lesbians.

Berrill and Herek have documented the setting within which anti-gay violence occurs and the demographic portrait of the typical gay basher. They have also recorded those phenomenon which appear to be constant in heterosexist strategy: denial, stigmatization, invisibility/silence, and hostility (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.93).The surface reasons behind heterosexist activity appears to be to assert the legitimacy of heterosexuality over different sexual forms, to keep homosexuals in their place, and to psychologically reinforce social norms that are contradicted by emergent gay identities.

Anti-gay violence occurs most frequently in gay-defined neighborhoods or communities where the visibility of the victim is heightened and the level of out-ness is higher. The victim must conform to the heterosexist’s preconceived image of homosexuality regardless of the truth value of their image when compared to reality as judged by actual experience. The heterosexist’s warped mind considers all effeminate men to be gay and all “butch” women to be lesbian. The fallacy of these beliefs is obvious. In addition, heterosexism occurs within a larger cultural context of violence (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p. 118-120).

The demographic portrait of the perpetrators of hate crimes against gay men and lesbians show a number of empirical characteristics that are typical of gay bashers. The average person who commits hate motivated crimes towards homosexuals is a male in his late teens to early twenties. Gay bashers normally do not know their victim or are only a distant acquaintance. The crime is most often committed by more than one person with the typical ratio of perpetrator to victim being 2:1. Attacks against gay men and lesbians usually occurs outside of the residence on weekends and at night. There are normally no other crimes associated with the attack (e.g. robbery) which leads to the conclusion that such crimes are motivated by pure hatred alone (Berrill and Herek, 1992, p.131).

In summary, heterosexism is discrimination directed against any form of nonheterosexual behavior, identity, relationship, or community as well as the ideological system that supports such action. Cultural institutions such as religion, law, media, politics, government, and education promote heterosexism and encourage psychological heterosexism, or individual behaviors and attitudes that encourage, promote, and and act violently or hatefully against persons who are nonheterosexual. Finally, anti-gay violence occurs within a typical context following predictable patterns that conform to a generalized portrait of gay bashers that has been documented using social scientific data.



As has been previously noted, the extant data concerning heterosexism within the African American community is sparse and lacking. Nevertheless, it is possible to draw a somewhat balanced picture of heterosexism as it affects African American gay men and lesbians by utilizing what little evidence that does exist and generalizing conclusions based on that research.

One of the most striking studies to compare the perceived effects of heterosexism on gay males varied by race was conducted in Richmond, Virginia in 1984 by Everett Eberhardt, Edward Peeples, Jr., and Walter W. Tunstall. This study captured the opinions of a sample of 508 respondents who classified themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. All of the respondents either lived or worked in Richmond. The study instrument was a questionnaire that included a range of questions from personal data and level of out-ness to personal experiences of heterosexism in services and public accommodations. Eighty-two percent of the respondents were white, while just 18 percent were presumably non-white. The survey was conducted in conjunction with the Richmond City Commission on Human Relations (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.25).

The following tables are reproduced from Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s article, “The Veil of Hurt”, which appeared in the journal Southern Exposure , 15, (1985).

Table 1. Percent Reporting Discrimination in
Selected Community Spheres

Total Race
White Black

Private Rental32 3425
Renting w/Same-Sex Partner232413
Restaurant Services232418
Employment Services212319
Routine Healthcare 181817
Hotel/Motel Accommodations181815
Buying a Home151901
Religious Counseling171904
Mental Health Services141512
Public Housing110511
Transportation (taxi, plane, bus, train, etc.)101007
Emergency Health Services060506
Banks/Savings and Loan060605
Funeral/Burial Arrangements050504
Food Stamps04**
Rape Counseling03**
Welfare/Public Assistance03**
Credit Card Companies04**
Mortgage Companies and Private Lending Institutions03**
* Percent of respondents reporting discrimination is less than 5%


Table 2. Perception of Treatment by Local Government


Gay/Lesbian Issues Never or Rarely Adequately Addressed by City Government878880
Receive Less Than Equal Protection Under Current Law848773
Receive Less Than Equal Treatment From City Police787876


Table 3. Percent Reporting Selected Types of
Discrimination in the Workplace

Total Race

Not treated as equal among heterosexual co-workers313417
Harassed by co-workers282828
Harassed by supervisors or superiors252525
Didn’t get a job you were qualified for242523
Difficulty maintaining job security221723
Didn’t get a promotion you deserved212121
Fear for your physical safety181721
Fired or asked to resign141414
Lost customers or clients 141412
Received poor work performance evaluations141411
Received unfavorable job references131312
Difficulty getting desired job transfer110912
Barred from practicing your trade or profession070609


Table 4. Percent Reporting Being Attacked or Abused


Ever Been Attacked3335283330

The detailed findings of Ebehardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s joint study with the Richmond City Commission on Human Relations clearly indicates that gay men and lesbians living in Richmond are confronted with heterosexism in nearly all aspects of their lives. What is even more disturbing is that heterosexism is experienced in the two most fundamental areas of life: shelter and food. Table 1 shows that slightly less than one-third (32 %) of the respondents experienced discrimination in private rentals, while just under a quarter (23%) believed they were the targets of heterosexist bias in renting with a partner of the same-sex. Twenty-three percent of the total sample claimed they experienced discrimination because of their sexual orientation in restaurant services. Nearly one-fifth (18%) reported heterosexist treatment in healthcare services, educational services and schooling, and in hotel or motel accomodations. Clearly overall, gays living in Richmond experienced pervasive, entrenched heterosexism in the most basic areas of living (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.25).

Yet another remarkable finding of this study, and, perhaps, more significant to the thrust of this paper, is the differences in heterosexism reported when tabulated by race. Overall, white gays scored higher percentages of heterosexism than did black gays. Only in two community spheres --- public housing and emergency health services --- did black gays have a higher incidence of discrimination because of sexual orientation (see Table 1). Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s analysis of this finding focuses on three factors that may help explain these statistical differences.

First, African American gay men and lesbians may believe that race rather than sexual orientation is the primary cause of discrimination against them (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.26). As James Baldwin noted in an interview with Richard Goldstein, “‘Go The Way Your Blood Beats’: An Interview With James Baldwin” (1989) :

A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live. I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. (Rubenstein, ed., 1993, p.43)

As Baldwin’s comments indicate, race is a much more obvious difference than is sexual orientation. Since race and ethnicity is marked and recognized earlier in the process of human development than is sexual orientation, black gay men and lesbians may be desensitized to discrimination earlier on in their development and, thus, be unable to distinguish with certainty whether discrimination towards them is caused by race/ethnicity, sexual orientation , or both.

In addition, as Baldwin’s explanation of racial differences in gays states, white gay men and lesbians may feel a greater sense of entitlement than do black homosexuals because of white racial privilege. Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s analysis suggests a similar conclusion: “...whites may be more aware of discriminatory acts based on their homosexuality because they have higher expectations of democratic pluralism in the community.” (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.26).

Finally, in the “Veil of Hurt”, Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall speculate that “...the white community as a whole may be less tolerant of homosexuality and therefore more prone to engage in or permit discrimination.” (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.26). While this conclusion may be supported by research data, the authors offer no evidence that, in reality, this may, or may not, be the case. This researcher has been privy to other peoples’ hypotheses that the converse of this statement is true: that heterosexism is more prevalent in the African American community than it is in the white community. At best, all of these statements are merely speculative until research is conducted to test the validity of such generalizations. This debate, however, again points out the need to further investigate heterosexism and how it plays out across racial, ethnic, religious, class, and other variables.

Significantly, however, the percent reporting heterosexism in the workplace found an equalization of reported discrimination among whites and blacks. Out of thirteen aspects of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, African Americans reported scores either greater than or equal to whites when asked to rate heterosexism in the workplace on eight of the thirteen aspects rated. This represents almost two-thirds (61.5%) of the questions asked concerning heterosexism in employment. Also significantly, Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall do not offer any analysis of these findings (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p.24-27).

Four of the thirteen aspects dealing with heterosexism in the workplace received equal percentages of black and white reports of employment discrimination based on homosexuality. Moreover, blacks scored higher percentages of heterosexism in the workplace on four additional aspects related to employment (see Table 3). One possible explanation for the higher rates of discrimination in employment reported by black gay men and lesbians may be related to differing racial perceptions of “passing”. One of the key differences between racism and heterosexism is that sexual identity and orientation is easier to hide than is a person’s race and/or ethnicity. Perhaps white gay men and lesbians, who are presumably more aware of and sensitive to discrimination based on sexual orientation, are more careful to hide their homosexuality in the workplace. Black lesbians and gay men, however, being more desensitized to heterosexism because of race, and due to the fact that race is nearly impossible, in most cases, to hide, do not recognize the benefits of passing for the sake of maintaining employment. Since race can not be easily hidden, blacks may be less cognizant of hiding other components of identity like sexual orientation.

Another possible explanation for the higher overall incidence of heterosexism reported by blacks in the workplace may be attributable to the types of jobs available to individuals because of race. If white gay men and lesbians are initially hired to positions of greater authority and responsibility because of racial privilege, they may be associated with more highly educated co-workers than are blacks. Assuming this hypothesis to be true, one would expect greater levels of tolerance among those with higher levels of educational attainment than one would expect among less educated, working-class persons. This is not to say that African Americans who are gay or lesbian are less educated, or even less qualified for or deserving of positions of greater authority in the workplace; it is, rather, a recognition of the benefits of racial privilege and the class differences between blacks and whites grounded in race and reflective of the larger society as a whole.

The most frightening finding in Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s study is the high percentage of gay men and lesbians who reported being victimized by hate crimes (see Table 4 ). The numbers here are high and relatively constant across race and sex. Nearly one-third of the total respondents (31%) reported being the targets of heterosexist violence. Exactly one-third of white respondents (33%) and nearly the same percentage of African Americans (30%) reported being the victims of hate crimes attributable solely to sexual orientation. Moreover, just over one-third (35%) of male respondents and 28 percent of females reported being the victims of physical violence perpetrated by heterosexuals (Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall, 1985, p. 25).

As the authors of this study point out, considering the pervasive, almost mundane nature of heterosexism and violence directed towards gay persons in Richmond, protection afforded by law enforcement officials and attention to gay issues by local governmental authorities becomes all the more important; taking on added significance to those who view themselves as being discriminated against or targeted for hate motivated violence. According to the respondents, however, the response of local government officials and city law enforcement agents may best be characterized as disappointing and disinterested at best, if not plainly complicitous at worst. Fully seven-eighths (87%) of all respondents --- both black and white --- said gay and/or lesbian issues are either never or rarely adequately addressed by city government. More than four-fifths (84%) of the total sample believed they received less than equal protection under current law. Over three-quarters (78%) of the total respondents claimed to be treated unequally by the city police. Black gay men and lesbians again scored consistently lower on reported treatment by local government authorities and law enforcement personnel than did whites, and probably for the same reasons cited earlier.

In conclusion, Eberhardt, Peeples, and Tunstall’s study indicates the entrenched nature of heterosexist attitudes, beliefs, action, and violence in American society. Although their study is localized and particular to discrimination based on sexual orientation in Richmond , Virginia in the mid-1980s; considering the rise of heterosexist violence nationally, as well as the increasing intensity and viciousness of such hateful attacks, there is little reason not to assume that the conclusions of this study may be applied to American civilization as a whole. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that law enforcement and local government responsiveness to heterosexism is inadequate and lacking despite the fact that this form of discrimination, hate, and violence is prevalent in the most fundamental areas of life. Finally, differences in perceived heterosexism as tabulated by race indicates that blacks are less likely than are whites to recognize heterosexism or to attribute such activity to discrimination based solely on sexual orientation. This important finding illustrates racial differences in perceived social outcomes between white and black gay Americans. It also underscores the significance race and sexual orientation play in self-concept, sexual identity, socialization, and human developmental processes. It presents an interesting account of how the intersection of race and sexual orientation affects the life experiences of different groups of persons.


As mentioned earlier, race plays an important role in perceptions and self-concept among gay Americans. How the gay child is socialized and develops in family units varied by race is vital to a total understanding of gayness in the United States today. Unfortunately, as has also already been pointed out, few researchers in the social sciences have attempted to break through the barriers, invisibility, and silence surrounding differences in black and white gay men and lesbians. This too would seem to be a result of heterosexist cultural bias in American institutions of higher learning. It is sad to think that “liberal” social institutions committed to the dispassionate study of social phenomena would be susceptible to such bias and prejudice. However, the reality of the situation --- the lack of data, studies, and support for such research --- implies that heterosexism is as entrenched in American educational institutions as it is in other areas of society and culture. This brutal fact calls into question whether or not the academy really is a safespace for the objective, scientific study of social phenomena. One may suspect that too often it is not.

This notion of heterosexism in education and schools of higher learning may be glimpsed by the downplaying of sexual orientation in the interpretation of James Baldwin’s fiction --- particularly among black critics --- as well as in the intellectual and interpretive skirting of the issue of gayness in the Harlem Renaissance.

In his article “Critical Deviance: Homophobia and the Reception of James Baldwin’s Fiction”, Emmanuel Nelson writes:

Any attempt to understand the enormous cultural significance of Baldwin’s life and work must honestly and perceptively confront the complexities of his racial, sexual and literary inheritances, most notably/particularly his peculiar predicament as a Black homosexual writer in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century. While numerous books and articles have made his life and art the subjects of critical discourse, none has yet explored in close detail the impact of Baldwin’s racial awareness and his homosexual consciousness on his literary imagination. (Nelson, 1991, p.91)

It seems incredulous that, even today, few if any literary critics have found Baldwin’s sexual orientation to have any significant impact on his writing as well as on their interpretation of his works. This “critical deviance” would seem unexplainable and might confound truly honest researchers with no understanding of the phenomenon of heterosexism in contemporary American civilization. But, today’s scholars do have the benefit of a working knowledge of cultural heterosexism available to them if their own pyschological heterosexism does not impede their ability to critically examine the body of works produced by gay African American authors. Whether literary critics can summon the intellectual courage and moral integrity to overcome the barriers laid out by cultural heterosexism is, however, another matter.

As Nelson notes:

While no systematic study of homophobia among African-Americans yet exists, there is ample evidence that it is at least as pervasive among them as it is among other Americans. It is manifest in black popular culture; for example, Eddie Murphy’s jokes, or the lyrics of many rap musicians. One hears it from some African-American cultural heroes. Muhammad Ali, for example, says in response to a female reporter’s question on his attitude towards the Equal Rights Amendment, “...some professions shouldn’t be open to women because they can’t handle certain jobs, like construction work. Lesbians, maybe, but not women” (Qtd, in Shockley 85). Billie Holiday, in her celebrated autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, talks about her disgust for a young white woman who has an obvious crush on her and provides a curiously crude theory of lesbianism: “These poor bitches grow up hating their mothers and having the hots for their fathers. And since being in love with our father is taboo, they grow up unable to get any kicks out of anything unless it’s taboo too.” In addition homophobia is evident in Toni Brown’s smug dismissal of Blacks who are enthusiastic about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple as “closeted homosexual men [and] closeted lesbians. (Nelson, 1991, p. 91-92)

Nelson goes on to document heterosexist statements in literature produced by the Black Liberation Movement (1981):

Revolutionary nationalists and genuine communists cannot uphold homosexuality in the leadership of the Black Liberation Front nor uphold it as a correct practice. Homosexuality is a genocidal practice...[It] does not produce children...[It] does not birth new warriors for liberation...homosexuality cannot be upheld as correct or revolutionary practice...The practice of homosexuality is an accelerating threat to our survival as a people and as a nation. (Qtd. in Clark 198) (Nelson, 1991, p.92)

Nelson goes on to document repeated instances of black academics demonstrating blatantly heterosexist remarks, commentary, criticism, and studies that support the contention that black scholars, too, show a disturbing propensity towards psychological heterosexism in their interpretation and research concerning gay African Americans. He is particularly offended by black academic reconstructions of the Harlem Renaissance that ignore the overwhelming gay presence of such literary giants as Alain Locke, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay. Nelson , in his indictment of black scholarly heterosexism, implies and comes close to charging outright fraud in the historical and literary construction of the substance, meaning, and significance of the Harlem Renaissance as falsely represented by contemporary African American researchers (Nelson, 1991, p.92).

He goes on to say:

It is precisely this reticence in the cultural commentaries of otherwise enlightened, outspoken Black feminists, such as Michelle Wallace. It is precisely this homophobia that sometimes erupts into unscholarly abuse, as when a Black male critic, in his review of Ann Allen Shockley’s Loving Her --- the first major novel to examine the Black lesbian experience --- declares, “Such bullshit should not be encouraged” (Phillips 90). (Nelson, 1991, p.92)

Lillian Faderman, in her book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America, provides a counterweight to such heterosexist interpretations of Harlem in the 1920s. In one chapter, entitled “Lesbian Chic: Experimentation and Repression in the 1920s”, she provides a balanced, intellectually honest portrait of homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual identities, meanings, and orientations among blacks and whites who participated in the diversity that was the Harlem Renaissance. Subchapters in “Lesbian Chic...” include “White ‘Slumming’ in Harlem” followed by yet another subchapter , “Black Lesbians in Harlem” (Faderman, 1991, p.62-92). Serious intellectual inquiry into the cultural significance of this period should, undoubtedly, consult Faderman as an excellent source for further investigation.

In spite of such heterosexist attitudes and beliefs, and in view of the subjective, unsubstantiated, and unjustified heterosexist attacks by both black and white scholars concerning gayness in the African American community, limited information and data is available in a few instances that avoids the logical pitfalls of ad hominems, red herrings, and, perhaps most significantly, silence, on all matters gay or lesbian. Relying on this information, and recognizing its limitations, the question of the prevalence of heterosexism in the African American family will now be examined. It should be cautioned, however, again that there is no social scientific studies that this researcher had access to that examined the role and function of heterosexism in African American families. Therefore, yet again, the evidence for conclusions drawn here remains anecdotal.

Eric Marcus in his book, Making History: The Struggle For Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945 - 1990, An Oral History, recounts the story of Carolyn Mobley, an assistant pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in Houston, Texas, and the first female co-chairperson of the African-American Lesbian/Gay Alliance (AALGA). In a chapter entitled “The Christian Educator - Carolyn Mobley”, Marcus relates Mobley’s coming out to her mother in the early 1970s. Writes Marcus of Mobley’s outing herself to her mother:

When I told my mother that I was a lesbian, she didn’t say a whole lot. She kind of got teary eyed and then said, “Maybe you should see a psychiatrist.” Then she said, “Maybe you ought to take birth control pills. Then you’d feel freer to experiment with men and you might discover you’re not this way after all.” I said, “I really can’t knock it until I’ve tried it.” I thought I owed it to her or the universe to try. So I got on birth control pills and decided I would have sex with a man. I really thought that I would try this several times and see if it made a difference. I tried it once...It was like, this is a joke. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. It was totally unsatisfying. I thought, Well, so much for that. I don’t think I need to do this again. That was not a way to solve this “problem” at all. I gave up on having sex with men and I got off the pill. I also began to reinterpret further that whole Roman scripture about giving up what was natural for what was unnatural. A light went off in my head. Paul had a point. His argument about doing what was natural really did make sense, but you had to know what was natural for you. It was unnatural for me to screw a man, so I decided that I wouldn’t do that again. the only natural thing was for me to do what I’d been feeling since day one in the world. Why would I try to change that? How foolish I’d been. I thought to my- self, Thank you, Paul. I got your message, brother. We’re okay. When that light went on in my head, I knew it was from God, that it was my deliverance. God didn’t deliver me from my sexuality. God delivered me from guilt and shame and gave me a sense of pride and wholeness that I really needed. My sexuality was a gift from God, and so is everyone’s sexuality, no matter how it’s oriented. It’s a gift to be able to love. (Marcus, 1992, p.323-324)

Mobley’s experience of coming out to her family, as well as her mother’s response; namely, disbelief, denial, and silence, is hardly unique to African American culture. Just as Mobley’s mother’s desire to “fix” her daughter by a “magical pill” was culturally reinforced by the contemporaneous “scientific” opinions of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, both of which labeled homosexuality, or, more specifically, in this particular case, lesbianism, as a mental illness or disorder at that time in the 1970s, so too does one find example after example of cultural barriers that erect heterosexuality over gayness in a malicious attempt to culturally suppress diverse and varied expressions of sexuality and sexual identity.

Other case histories of African American gay men and lesbians indicate similar parental and familial responses to children’s expressions of love and affection which is “coming out”. An oral history conducted by this author confirms like patterns. In March of 1995 an oral history of a 62 year old gay black man living in Washington, D.C. found identical patterns of silence and refusal to acknowledge sexual orientation (Carson, 1995, p.4, 7). However, as pointed out above, there are no discernable patterns of difference in familial or parental response to coming out between white and black gays that may be elucidated from the case histories cited here. Once again, further social scientific research is required to test hypotheses claiming that such differences may, in fact, exist. Until such time as that research is conducted, any speculations concerning generalizations regarding variations in responses to coming out to parents and family regarding homosexuality remain unsubstantiated.

Heterosexism no doubt exists in the African American community just as it exists in the white community and in the larger American civilization in which both of these communities are located. That should come as little surprise to readers. From educational institutions to families, from churches to local governments, heterosexism is an entrenched, pervasive, and alarming phenomenon in a civilization that rhetorically prides itself on being open, democratic, tolerant, and free. Unfortunately, too few scholars have found the social, cultural, or even ethical imperative to thoroughly investigate how heterosexism intersects with race and functions as a larger interconnected system of white, male, heterosexual power. The hopeful promise that future scholars, those being educated today, will summon the moral courage, intellectual discipline, and sharpness of mind to focus their attention and efforts in destroying the barriers --- racial, sexual, class, physical, cultural, religious, educational, and so forth --- that keep American civilization collectively bound in the silence, invisibility, violence, and danger of oppression continues to be this nation’s faith and grace.


Berrill, K.T. and Herek, G. M., eds. (1992). Hate crimes: confronting violence against lesbians and gay men. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Carson, K. (1995). Oral history project: African American seminar. unpublished.

Eberhardt, E., Peeples, Jr., E., and Tunstall, W. (1985). “The veil of hurt”. Southern Exposure, 13. p.24-27.

Faderman, L. (1992). Odd girls and twilight lovers: a history of lesbian life in twentieth-cetury America.

New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc.

Hart, L. (1992). “Karen Finley’s dirty work: censorship, homophobia, and the NEA”. Genders, 14. p.1-15.

“Hate crimes get more violent”. (1995, April 18). The Advocate, 679. p. 9-10.

Marcus, E. (1992). Making history: the struggle for gay and lesbian equal rights, 1945-1990, an oral history. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Nelson, E. (1991). “Critical deviance: homophobia and the reception of James Baldwin’s fiction”. Journal of American Culture, 14. p. 91-96.

Pharr, S. (1988). Homophobia: a weapon of sexism. Little Rock, AR: Chardon Press.

Rubenstein, W., ed. (1993). Lesbians, gay men, and the law. New York: The New Press.

Sullivan, G. (1990). “Discrimination and self-concept of homosexuals before the gay liberation movement: a biographical analysis examining social context and identity”. Biography, 13. p.203-221.

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Constance Lavender is an HIV-Positive pseudonymous freelance e-journalist from a little isle off the coast of Jersey; New Jersey, that is...

In the Best spirit of Silence Dogood and Benj. Franklin, Ms. Lavender believes that a free (more...)
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