When the video of Robert Brown and Nathanael Gay’s wedding went viral last week, Kappa Alpha Psi, a historically black fraternity, found itself amid “spirited” controversy.
Gay, a member of the organization, was pictured throwing up the fraternity’s hand sign with other men present at the crimson-and-cream themed ceremony (the organization’s colors). It wasn’t much longer before “gay Kappa wedding” became a social media trending topic.
This is one of many recent examples of black gay men publicly emerging from hyper-masculine social arenas. This summer, Wade Davis spoke openly for the first time about being gay in the NFL, and Frank Ocean brought homosexuality to the forefront of the hip-hop community by disclosing his bisexuality. While an R&B singer, Ocean’s musical ties to rappers like Jay-Z and Kanye West have given him a unique footing within hip-hop culture.
Gay, Davis and Ocean used wide-reaching social media platforms to amplify their stories and carve out a safe space for their sexuality to emerge. Their public disclosure served to remind us that there’s a lot at stake for black men who break the code of silence about homosexuality. Through their social defiance, our conceptions of black masculinity have inevitably been challenged.
Describing his lifelong, “robot”-like desire to conform and be accepted by others, Wade Davis’s open letter to young, gay athletes offers troubling insight into the 11 years he lived a “carefully crafted heterosexual life.” He describes his sexuality as “my ‘scarlet letter’ or the invisible badge of shame that I wore daily.” The threat of rejection loomed not only over his family’s reaction but also over those of his fellow athletes, who had grounded so much of his identity.
Davis’s decision to come out was tied to the realization that his love for sports couldn’t overpower his self-love. Frank Ocean must have faced a similar dilemma about risking his artistic success, as Kappa Alpha Psi member Nathanael Gay probably did about brotherhood within his fraternal order.
These men were continuing in a tradition of self-described “pioneers” who came before them. Tim’m T. West, for example, is a gay writer, emcee and intellectual who has been challenging hip-hop’s homophobic landscape through poetry, scholarship and documentaries for decades. When I asked West about his own story, he emphasized the difficulty of coming out to his father, “a man as devoted to his pulpit-preaching, coach-yelling, military-drilling hyper-masculinity as to his God.”
West didn’t view his coming out as an act of defiance against a man who “aimed to raise strong, virile, athletic, conscious heterosexual men” but instead “speaking [his] truth to power.” Through the years, he has regained his father’s love and respect by standing his ground. Today, West serves as associate director of Youth Programs at the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center in Chicago.
“The recent challenges to black hetero-normativity are much about the shaming of black men,” he says, “who dare to stand in the truth of their desire, despite the fear of being considered weak in our communities, rather than warriors for our communities. It is thought that black man who can pass for straight should, lest they risk being shamed and outcast, [but] we aren’t dirty secrets.”
Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and host of “Our World with Black Enterprise,” believes there is significance in black men coming out in hyper-masculine arenas such as fraternities, hip-hop culture and sports.
According to Hill, these are men whose masculinity was previously affirmed via a pledge process or other standard, which complicates our understanding of them.
“In our culture, we have scripts for who we think people are,” he says. “The script for ‘real black men’ is to be aggressive, to be strong, to be fearless and to be straight. When people don’t fit the script anymore, we have to either reject the old claim or rewrite the script of black masculinity to fit this new identity of gay.”
By becoming the first sitting president to declare his support for same-sex-marriage after having repealed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Barack Obama has inevitably engaged in the process of rewriting the script — whether intentionally or unintentionally. He has challenged the black church, the hip-hop generation and the black community as a whole to rethink its conceptions of masculinity, love and marriage.
Perhaps Obama, as a biracial man raised in a single parent home, knows all to well how hard it is to be embraced within old boys’ networks with narrow perspectives on belonging. He understands what it feels like to be an outcast and to be shamed by one’s difference from others. The freedoms that he is experiencing today come with the heavy burden of knowing that a lot of people remain outside the margins of inclusion.
While we, as black Americans, rejoice in the newfound freedoms afforded to us today, will we also take the time to consider those who still do not have a seat at the table? It is a communal imperative that we leave ample room for those brothers (and of course sisters) whom we have long treated as our family’s “dirty secrets.”
As West says, they may be the very secrets that, when released, help uplift and free our communities.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post and The RootDC. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .
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