When I speak at universities about the intersections of race, queerness, class and gender, there’s always at least one young queer person of color who asks, “When did you know you were queer?” and “Is your family supportive of your queer identity?”
My answer to the first question is always: in the womb.
My answer to the second question is just as certain: yes, they are.
I’ve heard that Black people are more homophobic than other folks. That the Black community, more than any other, is unsupportive of its LGBTQ members.
Perceived homophobia in the Black community was blamed for the success of Proposition 8, the law that overturned same-sex marriage rights in California (before it was eventually overturned itself). According to the media, Black voters had single-handedly destroyed gay marriage in California, even though black voters were just seven percent of the electorate.
Black homophobia fits the narrative of us being “backward” and “uncivilized” and “behind the times”—a narrative that the media eagerly reenforces. It’s never the wrong time to blame the blacks.
Recently, Lee Daniels said that his new show, Empire, is an opportunity for him to “expose homophobia in the black community.” He shows the patriarch, Lucious, putting his son in a trash can after the little boy enters the room wearing his mother’s high-heels. It’s adapted from Daniels’ own childhood trauma. He was beaten by his father for being “a sissy”. But Lucious is one of few openly homophobic Black people on the show. Nearly everyone else seems cool with it. Even if Daniels has set out to “expose homophobia in the Black community,” he’s actually showing a more realistic version of the Black community’s relationship to its queer members. Some Black people are hella homophobic. Other Black people are not.
There are, in fact, many Black queer people who have the love and support of their families. I’m one of them.
I was raised going to church. Every Sunday, I was forced to sit on a hard pew in a dress and lace-trimmed socks while preachers droned on and on about things I didn’t really care about, all the time wishing I was outside playing with my friends or at home with my toys and TV, until I was finally old enough to refuse to go anymore. In church, I heard all sorts of homophobic things. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah—the go-to anti-homo Bible story—was read aloud to me and a bunch of other seven year-olds at church camp. It mostly just confused me because I couldn’t figure out how two men could have “unnatural” sex with each other. Like, where could they possibly stick their wee-wees??? (‘in the butt’ never occurred to me. lol.)
My mother’s side of the family, with only a few exceptions, has always been heavy into church. It’s not just their religion; it’s their entire social universe. They love them some Jesus. And you know who else they love? Me. Queer, queer, super-queer me.
I came out to my mother when I was twenty-two. I was in love for the first time and could no longer contain it. “You know I like girls, not boys, right?” I asked her, over the phone one day.
She said, “I know. I love you no matter what.”
I have family members who are queer-identified, family members who are straight but pro-queer, and family members who really don’t understand queerness at all and believe that Jesus is not on board with this. Still, they all love and support me. I suspect that deep down some of the really churchy ones think I’m probably going to hell. Since I’m still here on this earth, though, they’re happy to just love me as best they can.
My eighty-something-year-old grandmother, born and raised in the Deep South, who reads her Bible every single solitary morning and prays to sweet Jesus every single night, asks about my partner whenever she calls.
My older sister, who doesn’t even like me that much, has, in my honor, shut down people who use the word “gay” pejoratively.
My Afrocentric uncle once asked me who I was dating and was more than cool with it being a woman. He just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a White woman!
When I brought my partner home for Christmas this year, for the second time, she was invited into smiling photos by my younger sister and aunts and told, “You’re family now.” She also received $25 cash from my grandmother, which is what she gave “all the kids” this year.
This is love.
Is there more homophobia in the black community than outside of it? I don’t think so. I do know that Black parents have always had a lot to worry about when sending their children out into the world. Racism can be deadly. A kid who is Black and also queer is at even greater risk of discrimination, dehumanization and violence. A Black parent trying to protect their child often sees that child’s queerness as making that job much harder.
There are other reasons for homophobia in the Black community, of course. Queer Black women and trans men, especially those who do not conform in their gender presentation, are seen as a threat to insecure black masculinity. While misogyny—hatred of all things deemed feminine—fuels the marginalization of, and violence against, trans women and gay men. But none of this is unique to the Black community. Insecure masculinity and misogyny are both worldwide phenomena.
The truth is that homophobia in the Black community is like everything else in the black community. It’s complicated and nuanced, it shifts and opens up and changes. We get stuck sometimes; we move forward other times. We aren’t a monolith. We’re individual people and families and communities, each as unique as we are connected.
There are many, many Black folks who love each other through difference, through what we may not understand. There many Black folks who do understand that queerness is totally fine and who embrace their queer loved ones.
I’m fortunate to have a family that’s supportive of me and my happiness. It feels wonderful to know you are loved, no matter what.
Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. She speaks about race, queerness, class, gender, media and social justice at universities across the country.