Homophobia, racism, and queer people of color

by guest contributor sbkang, originally published at geekstew

A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times discussed the benefits and consequences that Black churches face when they make their congregations more open to LGBT folk. The article explores tensions in Black communities about the presence of gay men, lesbians, and transgender people in their churches and posits that pastors who openly accept LGBT people risk alienating more traditional congregants, to the extent that they will leave the church.

The piece hit some familiar nerves. As a queer person of color, I’m always sensitive to implied criticism in mainstream (usually White-dominated) media about the “problem” of homophobia in communities of color. The subtext of a lot of this coverage is that people of color routinely express anti-gay hatred or exclusion more than White people do, thus positioning homophobia as a problem for “them” as opposed to “us.”

The NYT article, despite some attempt to portray the issue’s complexity, pretty much reinforces this view. The piece implies a causal relationship between pastors supporting gay congregants and reduced church memberships, and even suggests, by its exclusive coverage of Black churches, that this is an issue restricted to Black folk.

This kind of coverage sets of all kinds of bells in my mind. There’s something self-satisfied about the way mainstream media generally talks about homophobia in communities of color, as if White communities all over the country don’t bear responsibility for their fair share of anti-gay bullshit. Unfortunately, this type of perspective also informs the ways some of the more prominent LGBT rights organizations work in communities of color, understandably provoking anger in those same communities.

An article in AfterElton discusses some of these issues from the viewpoint of Black gay men working in entertainment and media. The piece is fairly wide-ranging, and only skims the surface in some areas, but it raises some interesting points. It discusses the resentment Black folk feel when LGBT activists compare Black racial justice struggles with their own movement’s fights, without regard to historical context or sensitivity to the significance of the civil rights movement in Black communities. Some of the interviewees posit that the “problem” of Black homophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon, spurred by the waxing strength of White-led conservatism. They also mention racism in queer communities as a problem that’s as prevalent, if not more so, than homophobia among their Black peers and family.

Whatever their insights and flaws, the articles definitely resonated with me in a few ways. I’m not Black, obviously, but the intersections of organized religion, ethnic identity, and queer experience are very much at play in Korean American communities, where culture and politics are so strongly dominated by evangelical, conservative Christian churches. And addressing racism in mainstream LGBT communities is something I’ve worked on in various ways in the Asian American context.

Like many queer activists of color, I’m not keen to hear about how our communities are supposed hotbeds of homophobic organizing and activity, without any acknowledgement that homophobia is a problem facing all communities, and without deeper analysis of the complex lived experience of queerness in communities of color.

At the same time, I find it hard to balance that concern against the very real homophobia I see in Korean American communities. I struggle with how to speak out against it without playing into the hands of those who would portray anti-gay rhetoric and behavior as endemic among non-White people. I feel some responsibility, whether well-grounded or not, to avoid highlighting issues in ways that would leave Korean American communities open to misrepresentation by people and institutions, well-intentioned or not, that don’t really understand their complexities.

At this point, I haven’t gotten far beyond the (admittedly not very sophisticated) idea that I don’t need mainstream media to tell me what’s wrong with my community, but I’m still gonna reserve that right for myself.

Any thoughts, folks?