Challenges of African American Gay Men: What Academic Advisers Need to Know

Paul Stevenson Millard, University of South Carolina

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles written by graduate students enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's student affairs administration course at the University of South Carolina for the fall 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publication for consideration.

Campus life for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students can be challenging, but with the right support systems in place, their campus experiences can be positive. However, for GLBT students, these support systems are often “underground, overworked, or nonexistent. And when they do exist, particularly on predominantly European-American campuses, the services and supports often do not meet the additional needs of ethnic-minority students” who additionally identify as GLBT (Wall & Washington, 1991, p. 67). One GLBT ethnic-minority group that is often overlooked on college campuses is that of African American gay men. The purpose of this paper is to present academic advisers information about the issues facing African American gay men and offer resources to help advisers empower members of this specific student population to reach their full potential.

The Church

In the African American community the Christian church plays a crucial role as it is the place “from which African Americans draw strength,” and it can also “be a place of condemnation” for many African American gay men (Evans & D'Augelli, 1996, p. 208). Although many would argue that it would be best for African American gay men to remove themselves from the church, this removal could cause “the absence of important religious affiliations” and leave a “salient void in the lives of these men,” as the church is important in identity development of African Americans (Miller, 2007, p. 51).

For African Americans, “their identity and their family's identity are associated with their church affiliation” (Miller, 2007, p. 55). Miller suggests that for African American gay men, “their intergenerational church affiliation and involvement made them feel like they had 'a large extended family'” (p. 55). This religious participation in the church helped them to “develop salient religious identities which established their personal identities and affiliations as African American and religious” (Miller, 2007, p. 55). In Miller's study, homophobia in the African American church was found to be “painful and demeaning,” and they “described their desire to become heterosexual as a result of the antigay sermons preached by the clergy” (p. 57). One respondent in Miller's study recalled hearing anti-gay sermons that were also reinforced in the home. The respondent recalls hearing, “We ain't hatching no faggots up in here. And the whole church, including my mother, would scream 'Amen!' I knew what a faggot was because my brothers called me that” (Miller, 2007, p. 57). Because of these sermons and homophobic reverberations in the home, it is common that many African American gay men have “difficulty integrating their sexual identity with their religious identity” (Miller, 2007, p. 57).

Even though many church leaders cite many Bible verses to denounce homosexuality, there are biblical scholars who disagree with how these verses are being interpreted, “neither the old nor the New Testaments provide an indisputable position on homosexuality” (Miller, 2007, p. 52). Yet, many African Americans and African American clergy “maintain that homophobia and heterosexism as scripturally normative” (Miller, 2007, p. 52).

Although most Christian churches denounce homosexuality, many African American gay men still attend church, and some men even have a special status because they provide “the creative energy necessary for the transcendent religious experiences” (Miller, 2007, pp. 52–53). Miller found that this role of gay men is openly known in the church but remains largely unaddressed. The idea of an “open closet” at the center of the church illustrates that African American gay men are allowed to participate in worship, but are still devalued because their sexuality is denounced (Miller, 2007, p. 53).

The Community

For many African American gay men, deciding which community to identify with—the Black or the gay community—can be difficult, because racism and anti-homosexual attitudes in these two communities contribute to tension between the two (Icard, 1986). The Black community provides “coping techniques as well as helping the individual to maintain positive self-identity” (Icard, 1986, p. 83). For gays, “the gay community serves an equally important function by providing a network of social and psychological supports” (Icard, 1986, p. 84). Icard's (1986) research suggests that the gay community only makes minimal effort to work with African Americans and other underrepresented racial minority groups because of society's underlying ambivalence about these groups.

Because of the White gay community's lack of inclusiveness, Icard (1986) suggests that the Black community views homosexuality as a culturally White phenomenon and believes that the gay community only represents White society. Icard (1986) writes that the Black community believes that the gay community sometimes “poses an economic threat” to them, because when urban and low-income Black communities are uprooted, they are often replaced by thriving White gay communities (p. 86).

In the African American community, being a male comes with many gender-related responsibilities. African American men earn high status in African American communities through having children and via the “arts and entertainment field, through positions offering some outstanding contributions to the image of the community, through positions attached to substantial economic accomplishments, or through positions involving leadership in the church” (Icard, 1986, p. 87). Many African American gay men have trouble complying with these expectations, because there few positive African American gay male role models to show them how. This dilemma forces the African American gay male to choose between denying his sexuality and adapting to these expectations of his race and gender, or accepting his sexuality fully, thus risking rejection from the African American community (Icard, 1986, p. 88). This choice puts pressure on his development and can leave him “confused, alienated, and put [him] in the position of making painful choices” (Icard, 1986, p. 88).

If African American gay men decide to reject their racial communities and accept their sexuality, they might still find themselves lost and searching for connections. This is because African American gay men have received harsher treatment in the media and in society than White gays for being gay (Icard, 1986). As early as 1903, “the names of [B]lack gays, their feminine aliases, and addresses appeared in the press, while the names of the [W]hite consorts with them were not given” (Icard, 1986, p. 88). Because of this, Icard suggests that it is important for African American gay men to develop “their sexual identity in close harmony with their racial identity through positive experiences with the gay community” (p. 88). Unfortunately, African American gay men are not well received in the larger gay community because their sex role stereotypes are often linked to racial stereotypes (Icard, 1986). Also, African American gay men are viewed as “inferior members,” which limits the positive psychological benefits that are accorded to White gays who are a part of the larger gay community (Icard, 1986, p. 89).

Specific Advice for Academic Advisers of African American Gay Men

When working with the African American gay male population, it is important for academic advisers to know what resources are available to these students. This section will provide information about religious organizations and campus-based resources that are welcoming to African American gay men.

Gay-Affirming Churches

One such resource is the multitude of gay-affirming churches that are ethnically and racially inclusive. These churches can help fill that salient void for African American gay men rejected by their church. One of the more popular gay-affirming churches is the United Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). The MCC was founded in 1968 when Troy Perry invited twelve gay men to worship in his home (MCC, 2005a). Since then the MCC has grown to include churches in the United States and in twenty-four countries. Almost 86,000 people visit the church's website every month and almost 20,000 people give financial support and attend worship gatherings every week (MCC, 2005a). The MCC practices a theology that affirms God's love in all people no matter their sexual, ethnic, or racial identities (MCC, 2005b). The MCC is also unique because it offers many programs in social justice and HIV/AIDS prevention (MCC, 2005a).

One African American church that was founded by and primarily serves GLBT African Americans is the Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFCM). The UFCM was established in 1982 by African American Reverend Carl Bean, and, like the MCC, it began out of the founder's home (UFCM, 2008–2009a). Now, UFCM has churches located in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, California, New York, and Michigan (UFCM, 2008–2009a). UFCM attempts to implement a theology that does not have a male-dominated hierarchy within its church and is accepting of female leadership within the church, is relatable to people of color and from various cultural backgrounds, and is not oppressive to GLBT people (UFCM, 2008-2009b).

The United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC) is a gay-affirming church for all people of color. The UMOC is a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), which is “a national movement of United Methodist churches, individuals and other communities, which address Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender concerns and society” (RMN, 2007, ¶ 20). The UMOC was founded in 2000 and “is dedicated to bridging the movements to eradicate all forms of oppression and discrimination in the church” (RMN, 2007). The UMOC has established churches and communities in forty-three states, including Alaska, Idaho, South Carolina, and West Virginia (RMN, 2009).

Another religious-affiliated organization, similar to the UMOC, is composed of the Rainbow Baptists. The Rainbow Baptists, or the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, include “churches, organizations, and individuals who are willing to go on record as welcoming and affirming all persons without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity” (AWAB, 2009, ¶1). As of right now, churches in twenty-five states are members of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB, n.d.).

Campus Resources

To adequately support this underrepresented population on campus, academic advisers also need to be aware of on-campus resources that are available to African American gay men. Fortunately, for the past two decades, there has been a movement across the country to develop specific programs, services, and offices that focus on the difficulties GLBT students face. For the most part, these offices “assist students in filing harassment charges, provide counseling, work with students who are having trouble negotiating the system, and offer a safe place for students to gather and find support” (Evans & D'Augelli, 1996, p. 219). These offices are also active in producing “programming to combat homophobia and heterosexism in the university community” (Evans & D'Augelli, 1996, p. 219). Academic advisers who interact with this population should become familiar with the website of the GLBT office on campus, consider setting up a meeting with a staff member in the GLBT office to learn firsthand about services they have available, and possibly consider attending programs developed by this office. All of this homework will help advisers better understand and empathize with these students as well as help advisers effectively refer students to this office.

Many GLBT offices sponsor Safe Zone training for all members of the campus community. Safe Zone training usually lasts two to three hours and allows participants to learn about the developmental issues and stigmas that GLBT individuals face. Once individuals complete this training, they receive stickers that indicate their offices are Safe Zones, meaning they are free from hate and are familiar with the issues and stigmas that GLBT students face before, during, and after their college careers. One shortcoming of this training is that the focus is on White GLBT populations instead of also on Asian, Latino, and African American gays.

Conclusion

Being a member of any minority group on a college campus can be challenging. However, it is exponentially more difficult for populations, in this case specifically African American gay men, to be members of two or more minority groups. Academic advisers may believe that the issues facing this population impact students' performances in the classroom. Therefore, it is important for advisers to be aware of the issues facing African American gay men as well as some of the resources that are available to help them.

References

The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB). (n.d.). Welcoming & affirming churches. Retrieved from http://www.wabaptists.org/wachurches.htm

The Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists (AWAB). (2009). Who we are. Retrieved from http://rainbowbaptists.org

Evans, N. J., & D'Augelli, A. R. (1996). Lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people in college. In R. C. Savin-Williams & K. M. Cohen (Eds.), The lives of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals: Children to adults (pp. 201–226). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace.

Icard, L. (1986). Black gay men and conflicting social identities: Sexual orientation versus racial identity. In J. Gripton & M. Valentich (Eds.), Social work in practice in sexual problems (pp. 83–93). New York, NY: Haworth.

Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). (2005a). CC programs and initiatives. Retrieved from http://www.mccchurch.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Programs_and_Initiatives

Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC). (2005b). MCC's statement of faith. Retrieved from http://www.mccchurch.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=About_Us&Template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&
ContentID=695

Miller, R. L., Jr. (2007). Legacy denied: African American gay men, AIDS, and the black church. Social Work, 52(1), 51–61.

Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). (2007, March). United methodists of color for a fully inclusive church [Brochure]. Retrieved from http://www.rmnetwork.org/storage/RMNETWORK//files/UMOC%20brochure.pdf

Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN). (2009). 2008 Annual Report. Retrieved from http://www.rmnetwork.org/storage/RMNETWORK//files/annualReport2009-communities.pdf

Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFCM). (2008–2009a). History of UFCM. Retrieved from http://www.unityfellowshipchurch.org/site2009/?page_id=20

Unity Fellowship Church Movement (UFCM). (2008–2009b). What we believe. Retrieved from http://www.unityfellowshipchurch.org/site2009/?page_id=7

Wall, V. A., & Washington, J. (1991). Understanding gay and lesbian students of color. In N. J. Evans & V.A. Wall (Eds.), Beyond tolerance: Gays, lesbians, and bisexuals on campus (pp. 67–78). Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association.

About the Author

Paul S. Millard is a graduate student in the University of South Carolina's Higher Education and Student Affairs program. He is also a graduate assistant for the university's Resident Student Learning office. He can be reached at millardp@mailbox.sc.edu.

Published in The Mentor on February 17, 2010, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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