Coming Home

by Conrad R. Pegues
November 1994

With October comes National Coming Out Day. It is a day set aside for closeted lesbians and gays to "come out" by making a public statement about their sexuality. In addition it is a day to disseminate information to the American public about homosexual presence. But the issue of coming out is a complex one in the gay and lesbian community. It is assumed by certain activists that the only good lesbian or gay man is one who will publicly say outright "I'm gay" or "I'm lesbian." Although it is necessary to speak and live the truth of one's life, African-American gays and lesbians have particular issues with which they must deal in coming out. African-American gays and lesbians have particular issues with which they must deal in coming out. Life for African-American lesbians and gays is never as simple as stating their sexual preference publicly. Nor is it simply a matter of maintaining a silence reinforced with the attitude of "ain't nobody's business if I do."

The dilemma for African-American lesbians and gays is one of who am I in relation to the African-American community after I "come out"? White gays and lesbians have to deal with sexuality with the exception of one issue: Race. The issues of race and sexuality make the long road from lack of awareness to self awareness a perilous one. Race being operative institutionally and socially in America, many African-Americans have several key issues which they must face in daily life in relation to their home communities: 1) A sense of self and purpose; 2) A sense of belonging to the whole community; 3) A sense of place within the community.

When whites do have to struggle with establishing a sense of self, place, purpose and being, it is without the crippling effect of racism that can breed a profound anguish and causes one to expend energy daily to fight its effects upon the psyche. White gays and lesbians may get ostracized from their communities or family for "coming out" but they are still part and parcel of the larger support system that is the white Western paradigm of culture. The paradigm gives them a sense of place that can be contextualized by a superiority complex because they are white. The larger culture makes it a luxury African-American lesbian and gays can never afford.

When the whole issue of "coming out" is raised for African-Americans in particular it is not about a lone individual making a public declaration. The issue becomes one where the whole of his or her meaning in relation to the African-American community is at risk. Self and community are always in dialogue to establish meaning for both. If something happens to the one the whole community is liable to take it personally. The Rodney King beating in Los Angeles with its resultant civil unrest is a prime example of this common sensibility. This intimate language of self and community has an African root noted in Dominique Zahan's work The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa:

From this point of view the individual does not constitute a closed system in opposition to the outside world in order to better secure his own substance and limitations. On the contrary, he enters into the surrounding environment, which in turn penetrates him. Between the two realities there exists a constant communication, a sort of osmotic exchange, owing to which man finds himself permanently listening, so to speak, to the pulse of the world. (8-9)

In everything that African-Americans do we carry a sense of past and present within and are constantly trying to establish a dialogue to give ourselves meaning at the present moment. With the presence of racist ideology in American society we are constantly attempting to define ourselves in our own terms outside of the context of the larger society. To do so we find it necessary to maintain a dialectical relationship with the African-American community about who we are in relation to them and in respect to individual needs. And the language, somatic and psychological, that has to be used is always overshadowed with one's sense of self in relation. It is a dialogue of sign and symbol within which whites cannot directly participate. African-American gays and lesbians then find it necessary to "speak" on an intimate level with their own community. The loss of the culture is to lose a certain sense of one's self. The psychic vacuum born of the absence of meaning in the world is a form of death behind which the body often follows.

The sense of self as an African-American person is always under attack in a racist society. One constantly has to rebuild an identity in the face of the most ordinary experiences in everyday life. For example, my nephew who is light skinned with curly hair often comes home from a predominantly white school confused over his own racial identity. The white students often try to identify him as white because he is light complected with curly hair. His physical characteristics are symbols by which they try to appropriate him into their white world. Their Euro-centric educational system reinforces the white students' attitude because it is not multi-cultural. In addition, because he does not see a likeness of himself in the classroom materials, he sometimes thinks he's white too. My sister exposes him to reading materials about African-Americans to counter his school but feels as if she is in a constant battle for her own child's mind. The curriculum does not include the contributions of Africans and African-Americans to the West. It is an early form of indoctrination.

The context of racial identity in America is forever waging a war against the African-American psyche. We have to constantly define ourselves and it is often difficult to do so in a supportive environment. In the case of African-American gays or lesbians there is the issue raised that if I "come out" publicly to whom am I coming out and who am I in relation to my people after the fact? Few of us can see white America as a utopia waiting to embrace us if our home community should reject us.

Some African-American gays and lesbians may not be public with their sexuality in the sense of broadcasting it through the white dominated media yet they are out in their home communities. There are those African-American lesbians and gays who don't necessarily make an issue of their sexuality unless the particular context or community raises the issue. Family, friends, associates, co-workers or church members may know about the person's sexuality by their own admission as it came up in conversation, but it was never an issue of standing in front of a crowd of strangers to explain themselves and their sexual preference.

African-American and gay mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Ken Reeves speaks to the issue of race and coming out in a BLK article "Do They Know That The Mayor Of Cambridge Is Gay?":

The notion that all gay people have to come out a particular way is a white thing....I have always felt oppressed by the notion that, in order to be politically 'out,' you must do it a certain way.... I don't believe I've ever been, in any way, closeted. I literally will not do anything, to speak of, differently, because I wasn't then, and am still not, terribly concerned with other people's definitions. (8)

Reeves, who garnered the attention of the Advocate, was asked by a reporter to give the names of ten friends who knew he was gay so that he could check to see if Reeves had lied about not being closeted about his sexuality. Reeves' home community's knowledge of his sexuality was insignificant in the face of the white media working under the definition that "out" is a press conference where they get to officialize one's sexuality. The white press often has a hard time believing that the African-American community has a system of norms and values of its own and apart from white cultural values. Reeves implies that the whole issue of coming out is different for African-Americans because of the perception of white-defined notions of what "out" is and maintaining the right to self-determination as a black man. Reeves is not dancing around the issue of sexuality. Rather, he would understand the reasons and context for sharing this information with strangers: Who are "they" in relation to me? Confession calls for a personal context.

In the African-American community the realm of the personal is very important in maintaining the sense of self. How the individual feels about what he or she is doing takes precedence over what an indifferent and hostile mass of strangers might demand (including those gays and lesbians who demand public disclosure of one's sexuality). Reeves borrows from the philosophy of dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones: "'Bill says, "I don't plan a dance, I do what's in my heart.' Well, what happened was an expression of what's in my heart.'" (8). Reeves is making reference to the fact that he did announce his sexuality during an acceptance speech at the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance Awards ceremony. He felt that the "public" announcement was more to keep himself from looking hypocritical as a "friend of the gay and lesbian community" than to simply make a public statement about his homosexuality. Reeves found it necessary to remain true to his sense of self by letting the audience know that he was not just an open-minded heterosexual. He followed his heart to properly define himself before the audience which brought the award under the auspices of his personal identity. In so doing he brought the award back from a purely public sphere to one where it had personal value to him as an individual subverting the whole idea of "coming out" for the sake of coming out as a public political statement. The public announcement had to have a deeper meaning for him as Ken Reeves and not simply as a gay man.

Defining "coming out" as one where the individual is delivered from his or her own oppression is overly simplistic in the lives of African-American gays and lesbians. In another BLK article entitled "Barbara Smith" the African-American lesbian feminist defines the dilemma for lesbian and gay men in her cultural community:

We need to have many more people who are willing to be out, in all aspects of their lives, not just in their social and personal love lives....We need people who are willing to be out across the board. It's hard to do by yourself. The more we do it, the more allies we'll have. (22)

Smith recognizes that there is a need for African-American gays and lesbians to be open about their sexuality wherever they are in public and private life. It's fulfilling the need to make African-Americans in general realize that gays and lesbians exist in every aspect of the community. Survival then becomes a collective issue for all within the community and that survival includes defining the truth of just how diverse African-American sexuality is. In addition redefining our sexuality cuts down on the "black on black" violence against gays and lesbians within the community.

But Smith further defines her sense of coming out for African-American gays and lesbians as one where it is not only an issue of role models, but the quality of models being placed before the public's eye:

I don't need Malcolm Forbes as a role model---he's a class enemy. And I don't need these fascists in the government who are closeted white gay men. What I would like to see, as opposed to the necessity for bringing people out who refuse to identify themselves, is a sufficient level of political sophistication, consciousness, and commitment. (22)

Smith is not in conflict with Reeves in the point she makes. Both see "coming out" as being a sense of establishing personal integrity, so any and every gay or lesbian who is famous or a "leader" is not always satisfactory. As related earlier, Ken Reeves' announcement was more of an attempt to not be misunderstood as being ashamed of his sexuality. Smith is advocating the same level of integrity when she wants to see people "out" who have a commitment to a deeper truth than simply saying "I'm gay." Smith is not concerned with knowing people's sexual preference without knowing how they view the world in which they live.

Smith also makes the issue of coming out a very personal one. She needs to know how the individual will respond to her and others based upon a consciousness in relation to other factors threatening the livelihood of the African-American community, women and all those "isms" which diminish existence. Both Smith and Reeves are very concerned about establishing an identity that gives a wider vision for the African-American community's growth beyond its present crisis of self-destructiveness.

Because African-Americans as individuals come from a community background that demands a certain degree of accountability to the whole group there is the necessity to reconcile the personal with the public. To "come out" in a white context where the predominantly white media designate a valid "coming out" as one so documented by its tabloid tactics can diminish the African-American's personal identity.

Some African-Americans who are not trying to hide their sexuality are constantly trying to establish where exactly they belong in the community or whether they should even try to establish such meaning for themselves. Always overshadowed by race, African-American gays and lesbians have come to argue the point of how they should define their sexuality.

First, the matter of race in America has created a problem of identity. Second, the matter of coming out leaves African-American lesbians and gays with the problem of where to establish racial identity in conjunction with sexual identity even if they should "come out."

One of the biggest results of the race and sexuality issue is played out in the debate of whether one is black/gay or gay/black. The idea is one where an individual must choose which aspect of identity is primary: Black or Gay. Depending on which side of the argument one might fall accusations of self hatred or that one has an inordinate attention for whites and their cultural values fly back and forth.

In 1981 Oakland psychologist Julius Johnson did a survey of African-American gay men to find out how they identified themselves culturally. His sample was very small (60 men) and limited to the San Francisco/Oakland area, but it raised important issues in identifying the conflict African-American males in particular have around racial identity as it relates to sexual identity. L. Lloyd Jordan writes about the controversy in his BLK commentary Black Gay vs. Gay Black. The gay/black man was identified as more likely to be "out" of to "come out," interacts more with non-black gays, probably has a white lover and is more likely to be concerned with activist issues more aligned with being gay than issues of race. Black/gays could be defined as black men who refused to identify with their sexual desires, or were most likely closeted to protect a career or image, or is "out" and active but distrusts white institutions of power. Of course the definitions are extremely limited and many people probably do not fall solely into one category or the other. But in the survey one can see the whole issue of what to do with one's racial identity: Suppress it or utilize it as a tool to define one's place in the homosexual world. In his commentary, Jordan does make an important observation when he says, "who are gay blacks and black gays? Halves of a whole. Brothers" (30).

Black women are absent from the argument and Johnson's survey. Although it might be said that it was a sexist dismissal of their opinion, this writer would put forth another observation. Historically the issue of racial consciousness for African-American women has always been intertwined with a larger sense of protest and uplift that included gender, yet always extended beyond it to include men's issues as well. To women, race and sexual politics were so interconnected that one automatically incited an awareness of the other.

The black gay vs. gay black argument amongst African-American men may be one born out of a burgeoning political awareness. More and more African-American men are realizing the need for self-definition in a system that even though patriarchal does not provide a healthy definition of African-American male identity and sexual politics. The black/gay or gay/black argument is based upon a false assumption: Who says that being one necessarily negated the presence of the other in one's life? The language and perception that the debate is build upon is itself colonized when people are meant to choose one aspect of themselves over another. Further, the argument is faulty to not realize that regardless of sexual preference one's racial identity is a constant in American society to designate the quality of one's life. In addition to race, the sexual preference can also be used as a means for the general society to reduce the quality of one's life as both are considered negatives.

African-Americans are always trying to establish where they belong in conjunction with one another and other racial and ethnic groups. African-American gays and lesbians have to constantly deal with the question of belonging. One may in actuality be "out" but what's the sense of belonging like? If African-Americans come from a communal base that says everyone is a part of the larger whole only to be denied that upon admission of homosexuality then the ability to love in general is inhibited or wounded beyond ever being healed.

Melvin Dixon in his address "I'll Be Somewhere Listening for My Name" speaks to the struggle for identity with which African-Americans must deal if they are lesbian and gay:

Few men of color will ever be found on the covers of the Advocate or New York Native. As white gays deny multiculturalism among gays, so too do black communities deny multisexualism among its members. Against this double cremation, we must leave the legacy of our writing and our perspective on gay and straight experiences. (203)

The feeling of being an outcast from all quarters from white gays and lesbians to African-American people in general utterly "cremates" most attempts for African-American lesbian and gays to find peace of mind as belonging to their home communities and those communities outside of it. As a writer Dixon wants to see us creating our image and context through the written word as one means of public definition and voicing our perspective on another. He also realizes that it is not a task the white press considers to be its own; nor should it be.

But to establish a sense of ourselves as belonging to the African-American community we reveal the various threads of our own contributions to the collective tapestry of our cultural identity. Therefore we make the community realize that we have always been here and belonged but now would break the bond of silence that came about due to the community's larger struggle for racial justice.

Coming out is extremely complex because we are often put in the position to suspend cultural identification to be a part of the larger white identified gay and lesbian community. Or we are constantly trying to define who we are in a sea of white gays and lesbians when there is only one of us on a particular board or two of us attending a public gay and lesbian function (which cannot always be blamed on racism and can sometime be blamed on internalized homophobia amongst African-American lesbians and gays). Historically establishing identity and a sense of how to belong has been perpetual in America when around whites. But African-American gays and lesbians have to establish identity based upon sexual politics as well leading to the need for a protean state of mind to deal with the multitude of differences inherent in our presence within and without the community.

On the whole, the African-American community could not have survived in America if we did not collectively learn how white people thought in their perception of themselves and us. Thus African-Americans have always been multicultural. The problem at the present moment in history is that many younger African-Americans are questioning the inherited survival tactics which caused the community to be constantly aware of how white people perceived it. Historical reaction to white presence is being exposed in an attempt to define African-American presence and the resultant problems that come with living in a racist society. Inevitably the tradition of survival will be challenged by the necessity of posterity to create its own vision questioning the fundamental notions of the community mind. African-American gays and lesbians will be a part of that redefining process with our multi-sexual perspective. Lacking vision to see the necessary changes the African-American community will collapse in on itself in a maelstrom of unprecedented violence because the reality of truth (which includes multi-sexuality) and the expectations of tradition are at odds.

Dixon along with Smith and Reeves all establish their vision or purpose as a larger goal of liberation and redefinition of not only the African-American community, but the world that impacts and influences it. This expanded consciousness can never be boxed into a lone gay politic of "coming out" simply as a matter of sexual preference. When African-Americans come out they bring the whole community with them and its history of resistance and protest against oppression. Personal consciousness becomes the ground for one's own redemption. The personal moves into the collective sphere by redeeming the African-American community of its own homophobia. On a related note the violence in the community is often propagated through the hub of the African-American community in the church, which itself was born out of protest. It is a deadly irony.

African-American choreographer Bill T. Jones, mentioned earlier by Ken Reeves, relates in POZ that his instinct for survival as a gay man is one rooted in the African-American community's resistance to racism in America:

"My survival instinct and my racial history are inseparable. I inherited from my people a sense of the world being a place of adversity, a valley of sorrow, but the redemption is possible.... The black community is the most virulently homophobic and it bothers me deeply.... I want to be loved by my folks, but I've spent a good part of my adult life being disappointed." (69)

Jones sees the African-American community as "most virulently homophobic" which I can't say I totally agree with. The African-American community is very homophobic but the reasons behind that homophobia are due in part to racism.

Many African-Americans believe that the presence of homosexuals in the community reveals to white people that we are lacking in "moral fiber" and satisfying white conclusions that we have no self control over our sexuality. Some heterosexual African-American women find homosexual men detestable because of the shortage of male partners for marriage in the community. Rarely do they evaluate the racist system that channels so many African-American men into prisons, causes others to commit suicide at phenomenal rates, and still others to murder one another in the streets with guns or turn to drugs. Homosexuals are not responsible for this tragic state of affairs; white supremacy is the offender along with African-American resistance to redefining the traditional roles of male and female behavior as inherited from a male supremacist system. But Jones' pain and disappointment as it relates to the African-American community's homophobia are still very valid.

Being gay, Jones knows that the desire to survive and stand up under the harsh scrutiny of homophobia from one's own community can be overwhelming. But Jones' resilience comes through in his art, defying homophobia from his own people and racism from the larger society. His art no doubt is his vision and his resistance to erasure instead of turning in on himself destructively like so many other African-American males in the community in their response to racism. Jones' art is his "coming out" as it is an expression of all the forces that make him who he is as an African-American, a dancer/choreographer, a gay man, a PWA, the many facades of his humanity.

Coming out is perpetual growth into understanding who one is and the possibilities of the life we live. Coming out for African-Americans is then a process of coming home and taking responsibility for the issues that sap the vitality out of life, ourselves and our communities. We attempt to move to a more symbiotic relationship to the African-American community first and then to others.

Smith says, "Even if white lesbians and gays were committed to dealing with homophobia within the black community, they're not the appropriate people to bring those issues up" (22). Reeves says that, "We must continue to be ourselves and find our own way of acting up, whether we call people on their homophobic remarks or we insist on connecting civil rights to gay rights, both of which are unfinished struggles (12).

Both place the responsibility on African-American gays and lesbians of defining themselves by their own experiences of race and sexuality as a means of protest within the community. And redefining ourselves in the context of our own communities is our "coming out" which I choose to call coming home.

Home is all the experiences and feelings about the place and people I grew up with. The monster oak tree at the corner which shades those going to work and drug boys alike. The neighbors' houses where I played, laughed, got mad and was mischievous. Various friends' and cousins' homes where I eat Sunday dinner when my mother cooks chitterlings. The neighbor across the street reading aloud out of her Bible and reminding you what is it to "act ugly". Learning about life and living after church on the front porch as the sun sets. The attitudes of the haves, the have-nots and the holier-than-thous. My mother and father's fifty-year-old arguments about who is right. Learning about politics and "sold out" black folks during fiery conversations between neighbors over plates of fried chicken, greens, cornbread and buttermilk pound cake. And I have always been in their midst; black and gay (and deep down they have always known what I was). All of these things are me and vivify my definition of community. And it is what I look forward to when I have been immersed too long in a white world full of strangers whose politics do not include my folks; their pains, their joys and their contradictions.

To return home speaking our sexual truth pushes black homosexuals and the community to face our own needs and to realize the traumas that leave so many of us open to the self-destructiveness inherent in a white and male supremacist system. So being and living our own lesbian and gay truth automatically pushes the whole of the African-American community to redefine itself and its own racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and heterosexist assumptions. The media will not come running to see this happen because it does not fit the accepted form of "coming out" and most of us are not celebrities behind whom the rumor mills have been running overtime. Many of us are just every day people trying to make a living and hopefully find some peace and love. As Gil Scott Heron says, "The revolution will not be televised."

And what actually happens when we come home?

My responsibility to the African-American community can be cultivated with the most common tool of human experience in our everyday social lives. As noted earlier in Zahan, human interactions lead to the perpetual re-creation of our common world giving it meaning. Because gays and lesbians have the sphere of consciousness where we do not fear the human potential to touch another same sex person then we alter the space around us. Sharing our deepest fears and needs with one another without worrying whether or not the sudden warmth that springs from such affirmation with someone of the same sex cause one to realize that emotional bonds are ambiguous and can be very healing. Homophobia often interjects fear into the sphere of meaning for self and other to destroy relationship not enhance it.

When the African-American community can move beyond the imprisoning walls of homophobia it is freed to explore a larger definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. Roles can no longer be exiguous based only upon gender as people are pushed to seek meaning for themselves instead of depending on the heterosexist script to establish meaning for them.

Potential as expressed through vision becomes just as important as tradition. Power systems shift. Sex and sexuality are revisioned as the human body comes to be seen in the light of play and pleasure as well as work that avows its presence as a multidimensional tool for affirmation. A new sexual politic is born. Men can no longer define themselves in the singular context of penetrative sex, but with the whole body as a point of affection and affirmation. The penis does not always have to be the point through which affection has to be expressed.

In a new sexual politic women are given greater options in exploring who they are beyond the single role of mother. So many women make the mistake of assuming that womanhood and motherhood/wife are necessarily synonymous. Women are women whether or not they are mothers or somebody's wife.

The ability to bond deeply with people of the same gender (which does not necessarily imply sexual activity) collapses the cultural absolutes of nurturing being a female function limited to her "man" or children in the domestic sphere. Male nurture collapses the cultural expectations of competition with other males for dominance in their relationships as the quality of emotional needs are given greater focus. Emotional nurture and its resultant bonding is a threat to established heterosexist notions of relationship. The nuclear family transforms into the extended family system where members are grafted in based upon spiritual, physical, and emotional needs as well as blood ties. the nature of the community is transformed as the truth of our gay and lesbian lives is acknowledged on its many levels.

We are not a scourge on the African-American community. We are not pawns sent in by that mythical anonymous being "the white man" to destroy "family values" within our home communities. We simply bear witness to another truth in redefining what it means to be parents, friends and lovers. When the African-American community comes to the expanded consciousness that gays and lesbians are not the enemy, then our "other-sexual" truth may possibly set us all free.


Dixon, Melvin. "I'll Be Somewhere Listening For My Name." Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS. Ed. B. Michael Hunter. New York: Other Countries, 1993. 199-203.

Hinds, Shawn. "Do They Know That The Mayor Of Cambridge Is Gay?" BLK January 1994: 7-8. {continued in the February 1994 issue. p. 12}.

Jordan, L. Lloyd. "Black Gay vs. Gay Black." BLK June 1990: 25-30.

Kaplan, Larry. "Bill T. Jones On Top." POZ June July 1994: 40-44, 69.

Lane, Alycee J. "Barbara Smith." BLK June 1990: 17-23.

Zahan, Dominique. The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional African. Trans. Kate Ezra Martin and Lawrence M. Martin. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979.

[QRD main page] Last updated: 25 May 1995 by Chuck Tarver