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Black, Gay and Out in L.A.
By: Kevin Herrera
WAVE Community Newspapers
Originally posted 7/16/2003

As attitudes slowly change, many black gay men and lesbian women in Los Angeles find it a little easier to be open about their sexuality, despite religious issues and an enduring sense of homophobia.

LOS ANGELES — It was a beautiful day — clear skies, 80 degrees and a soft breeze — perfect weather for a stroll on the beach.

Minerva and Joanie Patterson walked along Point Dume in Malibu hand in hand, kissing long and softly as the waves crashed behind them, enjoying the serenity of the ocean and a sunny Saturday afternoon with friends.

It was perfect, the married couple said. Normally they would not be able to show that level of affection in public although they have been married almost a year and live in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world with a strong gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.

“I am concerned sometimes when I kiss her,” said Minerva, a native New Yorker who moved here to marry Joanie because California has a few laws protecting gays and lesbians in the workplace and at home. “It’s not how I feel about her, it’s about how others interpret it. Some people think we’re nasty or something just because we want to show affection.”

Joanie is African American, Minerva is Puerto Rican. Because they are lesbians and women of color, on any given day they are subjected to multiple forms of discrimination, from homophobia to racism and sexism. Triple jeopardy, as some call it.

But this wasn’t just any day. Not when more than 30,000 same-gender-loving (SGL) African Americans were expressing themselves openly, in the face of a common perception that the black community is not accepting of SGL people.
To celebrate openly, African American gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgenders must create their own events, like the annual Los Angeles Black Pride At The Beach, a four-day festival in July created by SGL African Americans for themselves as an outlet of expression, a forum to spread knowledge and just an excuse to kick back and have fun.

“I love it here, the freedom of expression and the loving company are great,” said South Bay resident William Calloway, who was dressed in a bright red outfit with a multicolored umbrella to shade him from the sun. “People come here from all over the country to celebrate, have a good time and just hang out with friends.”

According to the International Federation of Black Prides in Washington, D.C., there are 27 black pride events celebrating SLG people worldwide.

“Living in Los Angeles is a plus because you can be more open about your sexuality. But in North Carolina — where I was from — you could not be as free to do what you wanted no matter how comfortable you are with yourself, just because there were not many places to go and not as many people comfortable with coming out,” said Joanie.

Spending time with attendees at the festival might create the impression that talk about homophobia in the black community is exaggerated, and that perhaps being black and SGL in Los Angeles is not as difficult as some think. But At The Beach only takes place once a year and homophobia can exist at many levels, leaving some to feel more comfortable and free while others are still afraid to tell their best friends that they are attracted to the same sex.

“When these people said they are comfortable with being SGL, you have to look at the forum in which you were asking questions,” said Jeffrey King, founder of In The Meantime Men’s Group, Inc., a group of black gay and bisexual men who talk about serious issues facing their community, from the war in Iraq and the budget crisis to homophobia and gay rights. The group meets at least once a week in Leimert Park, the heart of the African-American community in Los Angeles.

“You caught these people in the midst of something that represented them in a positive light and a venue that had ‘black gay’ on it, on a private beach,” King continued. “Now go to the middle of Leimert Park or be a part of a gay pride parade down Crenshaw and I guarantee a lot of those people at the beach would not be there.”

Jasmyne Cannick, a publicist, writer and filmmaker who is an African-American lesbian, said it all depends on who you talk to. During the course of her work — she’s currently filming two documentaries on homophobia — she has met hundreds who say it was extremely difficult to come out to their families.

“I have many friends who are from the islands like Jamaica, and over there if you are gay you are treated as if you were a child molester. People are still being killed in the streets,” she said.

However, those who see the fight for gay and lesbian rights as a social justice issue and who feel discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, expect black communities in America, long familiar with the evils of discrimination, to be more understanding.

Many say the significant influence of the church in the community and the family, coupled with machismo, creates a greater sense of guilt and self-hatred among people of color who are SGL. The fear of rejection may also be more prevalent in the black community, leading many to hide from the truth or refuse to accept it.

“In communities of color, the church is probably the strongest influence, not only in the community, but in the family,” said Elder Claude Bowen, director of Human Resources for the Minority Aids Project and pastor of Unity Fellowship Church in Riverside, a congregation that originated in South Los Angeles by Archbishop Carl Bean. Bowen is black and gay.

“The negative message about homosexuality among the church is repeated and carried into the home so same gender loving people are condemned by the pulpit and the family, leading them down a road of destruction. But mothers and fathers, too, head down that road,” he said. “Mothers feel isolated because they are afraid to tell their church families because they do not want to be rejected.”

The church is often reluctant to talk about not only homosexuality, but sexuality in general, according to Dr. Sylvia Rhue, a black lesbian who studies sexuality and is the director of Equal Partners in Faith, a faith-based organization that deals with social issues.

“Americans have a very warped sense of sexuality, no matter the race,” she said. “Because sex is such a taboo that is not supposed to be discussed in church, homosexuality and homophobia also cannot be discussed openly and in a healthy manner.”

Rhue is working with churches to spread awareness that gay rights is a civil rights issue much like the fight for equal protection for African Americans.
“We explore our sexuality in dark places and with people that know less than we do or with a person who is older and experienced and doesn’t have respect for the sex act as they should,” said Bowen.

If a church does decide to take up this issue, the clergy are often ostracized by a core group of fundamentalists, according to Pastor Andrew Robinson-Gaither, a minister at the United Methodist Church. He has to constantly remind people that his is not a gay church, simply a congregation open to everyone.

“We are a justice ministry, fighting against all abuse,” he said. “Most of my colleagues do not embrace my beliefs because they are homophobic or because of their fundamentalist interpretation of scripture. I am often excluded because of my outreach,” said Robinson-Gaither, who declined to state his sexuality because “it is sacred and very personal.”

A vicious pattern often develops among many homosexuals who are isolated and unable to discuss their sexual orientation. According to several who spoke with the Wave, when told they are worth nothing, that they are God’s mistake, they often begin to hate themselves.

Sometimes, they exhibit identical symptoms associated with the effects of racism and the phenomenon known as “black nihilism,” a state that noted scholar Dr. Cornel West described as “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.”

“It becomes a very destructive force that can cause someone to get involved with drugs or risky sexual behavior,” said Rev. Gerald Green, a former pastor at First A.M.E. and the current reverend at Unity Fellowship on Jefferson Boulevard. Green is bisexual, something he was aware of while growing up, as were others around him.

Because of his sexual orientation, many in his family cut ties with him, but Green found solace in the church, the very place that told him he was an abomination.
“I stayed in church and it was the only thing that kept me away from the dangers of the ’hood,” he said. “But there came a time when I didn’t want to hide anymore but I wanted to still work with the gospel, so I left First A.M.E and went to Unity.”

The good news is that many are not hiding anymore. Awareness through television programs, festivals and parades has increased tremendously.
According to MacArthur Flournoy, editor and publisher of Arise Magazine, the largest magazine for black SGL people, his publications along with others have helped break down barriers, and there is only better things to come.

“My partner and I have three children and that is a testament to how things have changed,” he said. “People are more accepting and we are able to live happy lives.”

Next week: How Los Angeles’ gay black community and others are coping with the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Source:  Black Gay & Out In L.A. (Wave)
Reprinted from Wave Community Newspapers

FemmeNoir (c) 2004