by Latoya Peterson
A while back, I read Beyond the Down Low: Sex, Lies, and Denial in Black America. Written by Keith Boykin, the book is an answer to J.L. King’s On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of “Straight” Black Men Who Sleep with Men. Boykin sets out to debunk a lot of the myths about the down low as put forward in King’s piece, but one part of his argument stands out in my mind.
In analyzing what makes a good black man, he poses multiple scenarios about men, their community contributions and their personal lives. In one synopsis, Boykin seemingly describes the perfect, community involved black man with one catch – he’s gay.
Does his sexual orientation disqualify him from being “a good black man?”
I’ve been puzzling over that question for two years now. While it would make sense that a man’s deeds, not his choice of partner, should determine his standing in the black community, it is obvious that the ideal we would like to get to is far from reality as it stands today.
So, when reader Jafari sent in an article from the LA Times about being gay at Morehouse, I hoped that the article would lead me to some answers.
The piece begins with a tantalizing tagline:
The ‘Morehouse man’ is a paragon of virtue and strength, a leader destined for great things. But can he also be gay?
The article revolves around Michael Brewer, a Morehouse senior who spends his time advocating for gay rights on campus.
“Morehouse is like this enclave where Stonewall never happened,” Brewer said, referring to the 1969 New York protest that galvanized the gay rights movement. “It just doesn’t exist in this realm of reality.”
Brewer, 22, didn’t come to Morehouse with the intent of changing it. But he found that he had no choice. He had arrived here from Oklahoma City pretty comfortable with himself: outspoken, proudly smart and, at 5 foot 9 and 300 pounds, hard to miss.
Early on, he decided he wouldn’t water down his gay identity.
And that, historically, has been a problematic strategy at Morehouse. The 141-year-old college has played a key role in defining black manhood in America. But with a past steeped in religion, tradition and machismo, it has struggled to determine how homosexuality fits within that definition.
The author of the piece, Richard Fausset, takes pains to paint a picture of the expectations of Morehouse College:
Over the years, it became famous for turning out the vaunted “Morehouse man” — a paragon of virtue and strength in a society that once institutionalized the destruction of the black nuclear family.
Traditionally, its students have been expected to follow a well-worn path: They were to choose ambitious wives, preferably from Spelman College next door, a historically black school for women. They were to become captains of industry, leaders of men, saviors of a race.
But now, more than ever, students like Brewer are forcing the school to confront a vexing question: Can the Morehouse man be gay?
Like many African-Americans who head to an HBCU for their higher learning, Brewer initially considered Morehouse for the kind of experiences you cannot have in a white-majority college setting:
In Oklahoma City, Brewer attended an arts-intensive magnet high school, where his best friends were white girls and being gay wasn’t that big of a deal. His senior year, a recruiter persuaded him to apply to Morehouse.
Despite its mystique — as the school that had produced King, filmmaker Spike Lee and NAACP leader Julian Bond — Brewer hadn’t given Morehouse much thought. But the college offered him a full scholarship, and he grew intrigued by the idea of joining a brotherhood.
“I thought it was time that I started to kind of commune with my kinfolk, with guys who look like me,” he said. “And the very second I saw Morehouse and stepped on campus, it was this sense of belonging. . . . I felt that I was home.”
Unfortunately, finding a home that meshes with your culture is not the same as finding a home that accepts or embraces your sexuality:
It was also difficult to ignore the fact that he had stepped into a place that had not come to terms with the presence of gay men on campus. There were the casually cruel statements from some of the straight guys and the tortuous code of silence from the guys on the down low. There were ministers-in-training who tried to convert Brewer’s gay friends with prayer. There were gay seniors who advised him to tone it down.
Brewer soon realized that the campus was in a profound state of soul-searching and flux on the issue of homosexuality. For decades, he learned, Morehouse had lived with a schizophrenic reputation. The school, unfairly or not, was known for harboring a large number of gay men. “Morehouse takes your money and makes you funny,” an old saying went.
Yet throughout the 1990s the Princeton Review regularly listed Morehouse among its top 20 homophobic campuses, based on student surveys. Aaron Parker, a veteran Morehouse religion professor, thinks some of that had to do with straight students being sensitive to the slights about Morehouse being a “gay” school.
Many of these views are still pervasive both in the black community and in mainstream society. And so, the article then explores the darker side of homophobic sentiment. Jafari Sinclaire Allen was a Morehouse student over a decade ago who found himself forced to leave campus after coming out. And in 2002, a Morehouse sophomore resorted to violence, beating another student with a baseball bat because he thought the other student was making a sexual advance.
The College grappled with what to do, with some alumni asking them to “screen out gay applicants.”
Instead, the school held diversity seminars — an odd concept, perhaps, at a school that has only a few students who aren’t black. But some faculty and staff members said the efforts encouraged students to take a more civil tone when discussing gay rights.
Meanwhile, another dynamic was also altering the climate: Students of Brewer’s generation were showing up at Morehouse more comfortable with being openly gay. Parker, the religion professor, has been discussing gay rights issues in his classes for years, but it was only four years ago, he said, that a student spoke up and identified himself as gay. Now, he said, it is a regular occurrence.
The result has been a small groundswell of activity. After the beating, gay students formed a support group, Safe Space, which Brewer joined. The president of Brewer’s freshman class, Jameel Smith, caused a stir when he came out soon after his election. Last year, students at Spelman produced a documentary that took a frank look at the gay and lesbian experiences on the two campuses. And a Morehouse political science major recently chose to do his senior thesis on “queer studies” — hardly a radical move at most campuses but a bit of a shock at Morehouse.
Morehouse is still grappling with how to reconcile black masculinity and homosexuality, much like many other segments of society. However, it is refreshing to note that the conversation has at least started and is becoming more open.