Michael Henry Adams

The United States has elected its first black president, and yet our struggle for human dignity and mutual respect is hardly over. In the same election, in California, African Americans voted disproportionately to support a ballot imitative meant to curtail the civil rights of fellow citizens.

Last weekend, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, Ecuadorian immigrant brothers, Jose and Romel Sucuzhanay, walking arm in arm, after a night on the town, were viciously attacked by three tall black youths. Hurling a barrage of ethnic and anti-gay abuse, the black men also wielded against their defenseless victims an aluminum bat and a broken beer bottle. As a result of this savage assault, Jose Sucuzhanay was recently declared brain-dead.

As Latinos, women, Asians and others who experience oppression all know so well, both of these recent incidents, the one sensationally violent and the other mundanely political, are but the two sides of the same coin. Like torture and terrorism, the one is always, at least partly, the cause of the other.

Yet these blacks were not motivated solely out of mean spiritedness or hate, no more than the European capitalists of long ago who sold our ancestors into slavery, or Germans who persecuted Jews. Now, as in the past, most people in search of a scapegoat usually feel a large measure of righteously indignant justification.

That was especially true in this case. With blacks long denounced as the locus of laziness and criminality, those voting for Proposition 8 felt moved by virtue. Striking out at a group even more reviled than blacks, they wounded gays and lesbians in a critical way that avoided blood and gore.

We live in a world where a scarcity of jobs and affordable housing pit poor, disproportionately jailed, people of color, one against the other. In such a realm, why wouldn’t black gangs, with little to loose, not feel all but sanctioned, going after the last group in the nation whose discrimination, short of physical injury, remains largely open and mostly legal?

“Gays,” Colin Powell has insisted, for instance, “wrongly try to compare themselves to blacks. Their mistake is that we don’t choose the color of our skin,” he said.

Clergy, like the Reverend Floyd Flake, have denounced the “immorality of homosexuality,” as comparable to the irrationality of “eating out of the toilet bowl.”

With such arguments, often eerily reminiscent of old rationales for black oppression, gays and lesbians are widely under attack, seemingly by all and sundry. This hounding of homosexuals includes many people who ought to know better, such as professing Christians, whose first adherents were also routinely and casually crucified for their unpopular and nonconforming identity.

What many fail to realize is that, in America, we still enjoy freedom of choice. We may dine when, where and how we like, even if it proves distasteful to a majority of others. Like President-elect Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Walter White, in America one needn’t either look or even “act black,” nor have a preponderance of black ancestry, in order to identify as an African American.

Of course it’s ignorance, the fear of difference, that drives this hate. How ironic, then, that not only were these particular victims in New York not gay, but from photographs, it seems likely that they share the same demonized African heritage as their assailants. And as for blacks hating gays, their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, relatives, preachers, employers, heroes and friends, this too stems from not knowing the truth.

Young, black, gay in backward Akron, Ohio … what a lifeline to know from books that the great Langston Hughes was also gay.

If ignorance is the real problem, the solution is a hard one. Just pass by any playground and you’re sure to hear why. How pervasively the taunt of, “faggot” or “gay” is applied, by even the littlest kids, to each other, along with “nigga” as the most contemptuous terms they know.  Moreover, out of fear, not of stupidly, but of “acting white” or appearing effeminate, many boys reject education altogether as a stigmatizing burden.

Should he accomplish nothing else over the next several years, the president-elect, exceedingly smart and admirably heterosexual, is certain to make learning seem cool again. As for the rest, it’s largely up to those of us who are gay or lesbian African Americans to further the cause of educating our country. Coming to better know ourselves, we must each of us come out. Making ourselves and the extraordinary history of all gay people known, as much as it has always been with blacks in general, becomes a key component to our liberation too.
Michael Henry Adams, the author of Harlem, Lost and Found: An Architectural and Social History, 1765-1915, is currently at work on Homo-Harlem: A History of Lesbian and Gay Life in the African American Cultural Capital, 1925-1995.