Dual Identities of Black Gays the Subject of New Book
By Bernard Tarver
ONE MORE RIVER TO CROSS Black & Gay in America
By Keith Boykin
1996, Anchor, 272pp., $23.95
Arguably the "must read" book of late 1996, "One More River to Cross" raises issues fittingly appropriate for the month in which we celebrate the birth of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By examining life in America for those born Black, and gay or lesbian, author Keith Boykin carefully and thoughtfully examines the duality of that existence, for as members of two often oppressed communities, Black lesbians and gays are often overlooked as full partners in either.
In this well-researched yet easily readable text, Boykin painstakingly unravels the dynamics of racial and sexual identification, and shows how the two define us as human beings, divide and unite us as communities, and are deliberately used by common opponents to drive a wedge between Blacks and gays, so as to prevent each group from achieving equality.
He devotes considerable time analyzing homophobia and heterosexism, and dispels any notions that Black homophobia is any worse than White homophobia. By challenging White gays to examine their own prejudices, Boykin also sheds considerable light on racism present in the gay rights movement.
Illustrating the difficulty faced as a Black gay man trying to navigate in two worlds, Boykin draws from his own experiences upon coming out. "I had felt so liberated when I first came out that I began to immerse myself in the so-called gay lifestyle, slowly, unknowingly, destructively and absorbing characteristics of a culture that devalued me because of my color. I later learned how white gays had excluded African Americans, denying them entry to nightclubs, ignoring their contributions to the gay political movement, and reinforcing straight society's stereotypes and prejudices."
The reaction by Blacks however, proved no less disturbing. In what are familiar events for many Black lesbians and gays, he points out the pain he felt when rejected by those closest to him. "At first, some "straight" black men I knew observed me from afar with both curiosity and trepidation, as though they were examining a dangerous animal in the jungle. Others seemed afraid even to talk to me, apparently fearing that they, too, would be labeled gay by their association with me.....Being out, I learned, sometimes meant being marginalized by one's own communities."
Boykin points out the irony of this latter form of rejection, highlighting the tireless and under-appreciated service many Black lesbians and gays give to the Black community, particularly to religious denominations.
Indeed, he claims, "...the black church is alternately cited as the most homo-tolerant and the most homophobic black institution," concluding that strong church ties begin during childhood and these bonds are not easily broken. The church's role as the heart of the Black community, leads many gays and lesbians to embrace the people while overlooking any homophobic preaching. However subjecting one's self to regular verbal gay bashings while remaining silent can heap long-term psychological damage.
As Executive Director of the National Black Gay & Lesbian Leadership Forum, Boykin marched with about two hundred Black gay men and a few lesbians at the Million Man March in 1995. Carrying signs, and chanting, "We're black! We're gay! We wouldn't have it any other way!", their group was met with very little opposition and in fact gained support from passersby. "The lesson of that experience is that when we black lesbians and gays believe in ourselves and come out of the closet about who we are, our community not only accepts us, they respect us more."
In analyzing the strategies employed by White heterosexual male-dominated Christian and Conservative groups, Boykin identifies the similarities between anti-civil rights rhetoric and its anti-gay rights counterpart.
On the issue of gays in the military, Boykin noted, "In the 1990's, Brigadier General Jim Hutchens warns, 'Requiring those whose religious and moral teaching unequivocally opposes homosexuality to serve with practicing homosexuals is to be cynically insensitive.' Likewise, in the 1940's, Representative Carter Manasco of Alabama quoted an article in the Alabama Baptist to show that blacks did not belong with whites in the military because 'purity of race is a gift of God.'"
The title "One More River to Cross" is used here as a metaphor for the many forms of prejudice and bigotry that face all of us. Whether based on race, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation, they are interconnected forms of discrimination. However Boykin does not mean to imply that homophobia is the final barrier to get over, rather it is merely the latest, while the others continue to be serious problems yet unsolved.
Through the skillful utilization of personal anecdotes and countless interviews with both leaders and common folk, Blacks and Whites, gays and straights, this brilliant book will hopefully initiate a much needed dialogue within and between Black, gay, and Black lesbian and gay people who are committed to the cause of equal rights for all.