Sexual Difference and Black Communities

Editor’s Note: Also a Rockefeller Fellow in the Humanities at CLAGS, Barbara Smith continued work on her current project, “Family Ties: Exploring the Histories of African American Lesbians and Cay Men Within Black Communities.” She too was instrumental in the planning of Local Politics/Global Change, and she was a panelist on one of the plenaries. The following is a description of Smith’s findings so far.

During my fellowship year I have had the opportunity to deepen my understanding of Black lesbians and gays’ historical relationship to large Black communities through interviews with a variety of informants. I have especially made progress in my research concerning Black lesbians and gays in Cleveland, Ohio (which was the focus of my CLAGS colloquium) and in my documentation of Black educational institutions as identifiable locations of lesbian and gay I if e. Interviews with a former Cleveland resident confirm that there was an active Black gay social network in the city as early as the 1930s and that particular sites including Karamu Theater, prominent black churches, and even a well-known funeral home, as well as bars and cruising areas, were places where people could find each other. Because of racial segregation, Black lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender persons shared the same neighborhoods, frequented the same businesses, and participated in the same institutions as others in the Black community. The larger Black community frequently seemed to accommodate its non-heterosexual members by simply not acknowledging their sexual ity differences. Closeting and the prevalence of sham marriages aided this silence. This pattern of ignoring or at least downplaying lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender existence also applies to Black academic settings. A variety of factors made Black schools, colleges, and universities places where both men and women were able to negotiate same-gender professional, social, and sexual lives. On the whole, my research reveals a more complex reality than the current, popularly held perception that African Americans are less tolerant of homosexuality than other groups.

Barbara Smith
Independent Scholar