Gay Marriage: A Conversation For Black America
Over the last several weeks there has been a significant increase in the media attention being paid to the issue of gay marriage. America has long debated the legal underpinnings and implications of same sex relationships and, unfortunately, there have been casualties on both sides. This hot button topic poses a peculiar dilemma for many African Americans and a quite spirited conversation has emerged because our Black heterosexual president, Barack Obama, has endorsed gay marriage.
In our Black families, Black churches, Black barber/beauty shops, Black schools, Black businesses, and Black neighborhoods each and every one of us has friends, family, and colleagues who are gay. Unfortunately, large segments of Black America continue to ignore, minimize, deflect, and negate the humanity of our own gay brothers and sisters. While there certainly has been some support in the Black community when it comes to same-sex relationships, in general many of our gay family members and friends remain invisible and unheard. Sometimes those closest to us lie because we place them in circumstances where we don’t give everyone a chance to just “be who they are.”
Could Barack Obama’s support of gay marriage be the beginning of a paradigm shift in the attitude towards same sex relationships in the Black community? Maybe. However, to have this national/cultural conversation, many of us would need to change our attitudes and not make the assumption that everyone is, or should be, heterosexual. Many of us would have to suspend our homophobic beliefs and address all people with kindness, respect, and equity. Those of us who are insensitive or have anger management issues would have to reconsider how we speak to others when we become irritated, disappointed, or in some cases are even joking around. We would also have to relinquish our narcissistic belief that all gay people who are the same sex as us are erotically attracted to us or want to have a sexual relationship with us. This belief is not only inaccurate, but also egotistical.
Since President Obama gave his support to gay marriage, I have had students at my historically Black college/university where I teach – as well as a number of families – come into my office to talk with me about how they might manage themselves emotionally and socially when a family member or friend “comes out.” While obviously each case is different, here are a few of the things that I tell these individuals:
I first make it clear that I am a “welcoming and affirming” professional and that it is my belief that everyone deserves an opportunity to be happy with whoever they want to be with romantically. I let them know that there may be other educators, therapists, psychologists, life coaches, and human service professionals who will try to convince, manipulate, or “save” GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender) people – but that I am not one of them.
Maintaining a dialogue about healthy and responsible sexual expression should take precedence over who someone is sleeping with. Anyone – heterosexual or gay – can give a sexually transmitted infection (STI) to his/her partner if they do not engage in safe sexual practices. It is therefore imperative that all individuals talk about their sexual history with potential and currents partners, and that all sexually active individuals take proper precautions regardless of the type of relationship they are involved in.
Some of us may need to mentally reframe the types of relationships that we have with family members or friends. Do we want our loved ones to be who we want them to be, or do we want them to be themselves? This rhetorical question may be at the root of why we have so many brothers on the “down low”. Is it the responsibility of our brothers to reveal who they are attracted to or in a relationship with, or is it our responsibility to treat everyone with respect and make sure that our partners, friends, and family feel comfortable and safe enough to say whatever is on their minds?
If a person judges or ridicules a friend or family member about who he/she has an intimate relationship with, then he/she probably won’t say anything on the subject to that person again and this loss of contact can have devastating consequences. There are an astronomical number of people (e.g., black gay youth) who have committed suicide because they did not feel like they had anyone to talk with about their situation, or because they were ashamed or fearful about coming out. There are people out there who are unable to just “be” due to heterosexist and homophobic sentiments in Black America.
It is also important to remember that many of the relational challenges that exist for heterosexual couples also exist in exactly the same way for gay couples. Trust, communication, money management, parenting styles, and intimacy are the major components of a healthy relationship shared by all couples. Healthy couples – whether heterosexual or homosexual – are able to talk constructively about their wants and needs. A person’s sexual orientation does not determine who one is, his/her worth, or his/her potential contribution to society.
So thank you President Obama for stepping out of your comfort zone to embrace everyone’s experience. Thank you for being a strong Black leader and saying the things that have needed to be said about including everyone – regardless of who they love.