Between Two Worlds: Black LGBT Youth Seek Acceptance

News & Politics

On a sunny July afternoon, Antoinne Hines is standing outside the SMAAC Youth Center in Oakland, Calif. He looks like the average 21-year-old male: he's tall and chocolate-toned and is wearing jeans and Adidas. But if you were to look a little closer, you might notice he is wearing a diamond earring and lip gloss. People think that he's a basketball player, but he says he's "more academic." Because he is from Richmond, a predominately black area, people expect him to act like a "thug"-- but he's the opposite.

As Antoinne walks into the center, a boy greets him by jumping up on him then wraps his legs around him. The boy feels comfortable enough to openly show his affection for him without stopping to care what anyone else will think.

SMAAC, or the Sexual Minority Alliance of Alameda County, is an Oakland, Calif.-based youth organization that describes itself as "a safe haven for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth of color." It is the only place of its kind in the nation. SMAAC provides youth job training, employment, and helps with housing and health care. It is also a place where youth can go to be themselves. They can participate in support groups, dance classes, parties, open-mic sessions and much more.

Antoinne has been involved with SMAAC for a year and a half, and currently serves as president of their Youth Advisory Council. But this is nothing new, he was actively involved in school activities in high school, too.

"I had girlfriends, I was homecoming king -- you know a model student," he says. Antoinne says he first became aware of his sexuality at an early age. In high school, people assumed that he was gay, and would joke about it.

"I was very reserved and quiet," he says. "If they don't see you talking to a girl, or trying to spit game at a girl, they'll be like 'oh you must be gay.'"

When he did figure out that he was attracted to men, it caught him by surprise.

"I am not saying that you should hide your [feelings] until that day comes. I am just saying be careful, about what you do and what you say and who you say it to. [Because] you don't wanna make the wrong decision too soon." --Antoinne

"I was just talking with someone, and they were flirting with me and I really didn't know it. And I fed into it. I felt more comfortable flirting with another male than I did flirting with a female," he says. Antoinne has known that he was gay since he was 15, but he waited until he was 19 to come out to his family. He is still not out to everybody.

"Some people know, but not everybody knows," he says. "I have a defense mechanism-- I can talk to someone and within five to 10 minutes, I can choose whether or not I feel comfortable with [telling] that person or not."

In general, Antoinne thinks that it's a good idea for people to wait to come out until they feel comfortable with themselves.

"I am not saying that you should hide your [feelings] until that day comes. I am just saying be careful, about what you do and what you say and who you say it to. [Because] you don't wanna make the wrong decision too soon," he says.

In many ways, Antoinne's experience is typical for young, black gays and lesbians today. Across the nation, lesbian, gay and bisexual teens are coming out to themselves and their families and friends at much younger ages than ever before. The average lesbian, gay and bisexual teenager reports becoming aware of his or her sexual orientation by age 10, according to the American Journal of Community Psychology. Our society as a whole has become more accepting of homosexuality and it's not uncommon for white teens to come out in high school, especially in urban areas. But many black teens wait longer to come out, and face larger challenges when they do.

Imagine being young, black and gay (YBG). Can't put yourself in those shoes? Most people probably wouldn't want to. Gay and bisexual young men have a higher risk of contracting HIV and other STDs. LGBT youth are more likely to be the victims of hate crimes and physical threats. In one recent study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 69% of LBGT reported experiencing some form of harassment or violence in school. LGBT youth also have a higher rate of homelessness-- almost twice as high as other youth. Then you add the facts about African Americans in this country: black youth have experienced much higher rates of criminalization and incarceration, racial profiling and difficulty in finding jobs.

On top of it all, YBGs have it hard because they get heat from both sides-- black communities because they are gay and from society because they are black. When our society acknowledges these challenges and their roots, it will make it easier for young black LGBT youth to find the strength to come out and be proud of who they are.

Keith Boykin, author of "One More River to Cross: Black & Gay in America," believes that times and society have changed drastically since he was young and questioning his sexuality. He agrees that it can be difficult growing up black and gay- but he also sheds positive light on the issue.

"Some people have said that being black and gay is like a double curse, but I see it as a double blessing," he says in an e-mail interview. "Being black already makes you unique. Being gay on top of that makes you more unique. It makes it easier for you to understand the experiences of other minorities."

Coming Out
Not all young people made it to that level. Some of them feel pulled in two directions because they are trying to be both black and gay.

Devonte, a 16-year-old bisexual Oakland native, is a good example. He says that he doesn't plan to come out until he gets out of the house in two years. He says "right now, I think that people won't be able to deal with a young black man being gay."

Perhaps Devonte feels that way because he hasn't fully accepted himself. He has the added challenge of questioning his gender as well. "There is a little lady in me who wants to come out," he says. And Devonte's non-acceptance is also what is keeping him from letting his parents know. "They probably know, but I haven't told them," he says.

But coming out is only half the battle. Shaune Freeman says that it hasn't always felt easy for him since he first came out to his grandparents, with whom he was living, when he was 15. They seemed to take the news okay, but Shaune noticed that their relationship changed and that they began watching his every move. When he came out to his mother she was very supportive and accepting of his decision, but she also told him that she thought it was a stage that he would soon get over.

Shaune came out to his friends when he was 17 in his English class. In a research paper that he did on homosexuality, he admitted that "it's hard being gay-- I know because I am gay," and then had to deal with shock from his classmates.

After graduating from high school, Shaune moved to New York for college. He went there to make a place for himself in the gay community and started working as a junior project associate at Gay Men of African Descent, where he educates others about HIV and AIDS prevention.

"I wanted some type of freedom. I wanted to really get to know myself. And just really go out there and see," he says.

In New York, Shaune didn't exactly find the acceptance he thought he would. Now he says he sometimes regrets leaving home. In school, he roomed with a straight black guy who found out that he was gay. Shaune's roommate told all of his friends, who then terrorized him. Shaune says that he was still expected to conform to the norms of young black men, meaning he was supposed to act, speak and dress in certain ways.

To hear more about what its like to a Lesbian, Gay Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) young person of color today, check out these articles:

"I Need a Girl" --New Youth Connections

"Ma, I Like Girls" --Harlem Overheard

"To Be Gay and Young in LA: Coming Out Stories" --LA Weekly

Some additional places on the web to go:

-- The Lavendar Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC)

-- National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC)

--The Gay Straight Alliance Network

-- Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States

-- The Hetrick-Martin Institute

"If I didn't have baggy pants on, dress thuggish, if I was very laid back, calm, conservative then [ I was] assumed to be gay. If [they] see a black man in fitted jeans or [if he] might talk standard English, even they question that guy," he says. "I think that people of color, especially in the urban community, think that if you're not urban- if you're not hip-hop, it's like 'what?' They want that edge." As a result, Shaune says that he tends to date guys who do fulfill the black stereotype. "I don't really like clean cut guys, I want that rough guy who's definitely aggressive and assertive," he says.

Gender Roles
In liberal cities like San Francisco, the gay community is so large and vocal that many black gay youth can find a place for themselves. It's in the black community where they face the most difficulty. Erica Brown, a 19-year-old lesbian, has been taught to believe certain things about men and women. "When you grow up, black people are taught to be strong, period-- men and women. It's one of those things that we have to have in order to survive," she says. "Men are supposed to be the forefront of the family-- the forefront of the community. You can't hold up a community if you can't hold up yourself."

The idea of strength leads men to feel that they have to be overly masculine to be accepted. "Masculinity is key in our community," she says. "It's easier for a black woman to be a lesbian than it is for a black man to be gay. Shit-- it's one thing to be gay, but it's another thing to have your manhood stripped from you. Most men feel like when you're gay, your manhood has been stripped." These thoughts and ideas didn't stop Erica, who was raised in Oakland, because she was also exposed to people being open to different things, including homosexuality. "I've grown up in such a diverse community that everyone I've known has been like 'oh, she's gay, so what' or 'who cares,'" she says.

Erica says she's happy with herself and her choice, she doesn't come out to everyone that she meets. She chooses not to see herself first and foremost as a lesbian. She says that's only part of who she is. "If my sexuality is my first foot into the door, that's ridiculous. And that means that you really don't know me as a person, all you know is that 'she's a lesbian and she's black,'" she says. Erica seems to have a healthy acceptance of her sexuality. But she doesn't connect it with her identity. "Because what I do in my bedroom has nothing to do with what I do on a everyday basis, who I deal with and what I talk about- it's a separate thing," she says.

Antoinne echoes this way of seeing things. He feels that identifying as gay in the black community might make him seem abnormal. "[Being] gay or lesbian is all about who you're sleeping with. That doesn't have anything to do with you as a person," he says. "I could be just like the same as those dudes on the corner, I'm [just] sleeping with other dudes."

Maybe this is because Antoinne feels like he has to choose between being a 'strong black man' and being gay. He feels like there is no common ground to stand on as a black gay person. Why can't he choose to be a strong, black gay man?

Jaylen, 16, another SMAAC participant, says that when you're young it's easy to see being gay as a "white thing." "In the white community you see it on TV all the time, and it's something normal," he says. "White people want to be all out and have rainbow flags. Black people don't do all that ." Some of it is about the term "gay." A lot of young black men refuse to use that word. Shaune is very familiar with this issue.

"I would say that I am a gay man, but a lot of other guys that I know and that I have messed with don't identify with gay because they consider that as being white. They would consider themselves as 'DL' (down low) [or] non-identifiers," he says.

Boykin also sees that the term "gay" is a "white thing." Because he doesn't relate to mainstream gay culture, he says, "I choose to identify myself as 'gay' on my own terms. I also believe that... no one single term will ever make everybody happy. Some have latched onto the term 'same-gender-loving' or 'SGL' for short. Most people have never heard of it, and it's not as simple to say." Boykin also points out that historically blacks are more supportive of gay rights.

"Every major poll that's been conducted in the past 15 years shows that blacks support civil rights for gays and lesbians in greater percentages than whites do," he says.

Historically speaking, blacks have also focused on the church as the center of their community. The Bible is often brought up as evidence to prove (in God's eyes) that homosexuality is wrong. People who are uncomfortable with gays and lesbians turn to the church for an explanation. But many young gays and lesbians are looking for a way to hold on to their faith and to their sexuality.

Shaune was raised going to church, and now describes himself as "spiritual." He was raised to believe that religion and family are the backbone of the African American community. He often feels like he is juggling internalized homophobia, racism, the reality of his sexuality and mixed messages from society. Through all this, Shaune says he manages to maintain a relationship with God.

"I think that it's a major component, especially living in this life, [to] have some type of spirituality, because it gets me through the day," he says.

Shaune says he prays daily, and he believes that God loves and accepts him for who he is.

"I know He knows my heart, and I am trying the best that I can. I think that is all that He wants us to do is to try," he says.

"I do eventually want to have kids. And I don't know. That's why I don't give myself a label. I don't know where I'll be in 15 years, I may like men in 15 years. I may decide, maybe this lesbian thing ain't for me." --Erica

Erica's spirituality is so important to her that she seems to feel guilty for living a lifestyle that goes against the Bible's instructions.

"In the Bible, it's stated very clearly that we were created to keep Him company and to procreate," Erica says. "But men can't lay down with men and make a baby. And women can't lay down with women and make a baby. Which means that we can't keep creating."

As a result, others lash out at Erica for being a lesbian.

"People are like 'what are you doing? We are supposed to be building our community, but you can't build if you can't create,'" she says.

Because of Erica's religion, she feels like she may need to be with a man in order to have kids and raise a family.

"I do eventually want to have kids. And I don't know. That's why I don't give myself a label. I don't know where I'll be in 15 years, I may like men in 15 years. I may decide, maybe this lesbian thing ain't for me," she says.

Boykin, who is a Christian, believes that most of the negative feelings toward black LGBT come from the black church. He says that black people, even those who don't go to church, think that homosexuality is wrong because "the church says it is."

"The truth is that the black church is actually the most homophobic and the most homo-tolerant institution in the black community," he says.

Boykin thinks that it's homophobic because "the official message is often the 'fire and brimstone' damnation sermon" and homo-tolerant because of the inclusions of homosexuals in "the choir, leading the choir and playing the piano." He even says "many of the ushers, the deacons, and sometimes the ministers themselves are often, obviously, gay and nobody ever says a thing about it."

Boykin points out that homosexuality is never mentioned or condemned in the Bible or in the Ten Commandments.

"If it had been such a big deal," he says. "I'm sure it would have been said somewhere. Instead, in Matthew 22:35, Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love."

He believes that many of the homophobic messages in America originated in the white Christian church.

"The white church used the same Bible to justify slavery and racism. They quoted the passage from Ephesians 6:5-9 that slaves should be obedient to their masters," he says. "So we, of all people, should know the dangers of using religion as a weapon of hate instead of a tool for love."

Moving Forward

The black gay community faces many problems as its members try to openly express their sexuality.

Boykin thinks that acceptance and AIDS are the two biggest issues that plague young black LGBT.

"All young people need acceptance to feel that they belong. They need to feel that they're a part of a community, or a group, or something that validates them," he said. "A lot of young black gays, lesbians, and bisexuals are still searching for that acceptance. Unfortunately, they don't always find it in their homes or their churches or their schools, so they look elsewhere," he says.

When acceptance isn't achieved, HIV can become an ever greater risk.

"When people aren't validated and accepted, they look down on themselves and don't value their lives. This can lead to risky behavior including unprotected sex, illegal drug use, over-consumption of alcohol and addiction," Boykin says. "All of this is a problem, particularly for young black gay men, because they are being exposed to HIV at alarming rates in our major cities."

Shaune agrees with the AIDS issue. He wants to inform people about the young DL (down low) community, which consists of men who have sex with men (MSM), but don't consider themselves to be gay.

"The virus is hitting them at a high rate, because the guys are the same ones going home to their girlfriends," he says.

The gap between homosexuality and the black community needs to be bridged. The fear and hatred of homosexuality is learned, and can be unlearned. This generation has the opportunity to try to understand it and let the negative feelings go. It's up to the friends and families of YBGs to change things by accepting homosexuality first.

In the meantime, one of the best ways for young gay and lesbians to find acceptance is to seek out adults in their lives who have been through what their dealing with and can offer support.

Boykin has this advice: "First, love yourself. Second, take your time to grow. Third, find a supportive community that validates and uplifts you instead of tearing you down. Fourth, try to find a good mentor who can help you navigate your way through your youth. Fifth, once you make it past your youth, help somebody else make it too."

"Don't think just because you're this way that you're not like everyone else-- because you are, " Antoinne says. "Don't drop out of school because you're uncomfortable. You can still maintain what you're doing, and still be who you are," he adds.

"People don't realize that homosexuality is not about sex, it's about love. It's about the heart.," Erica says. "Your heart is always true to you. Love comes in many different colors, shapes and sizes."

When summer fellow Tamara Crockett wrote a short article about black gay youth for the campus magazine at Florida A and M University, she thought twice about going very in-depth. This summer, she was excited to get to re-examine the topic for WireTap.

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