Rev Irene Monroe

Robin Roberts Loosens the Grip of Black Homophobia

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | January 11, 2014 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Barack Obama, black homophobia, coming out, Michelle Obama, Robin Roberts

robin-roberts.jpgWhile I will continue to argue that the African-American community doesn't have a monopoly on homophobia, it does, however, have a problem with it. Homophobia still has a deadly hold on African-American life. And while I would like to say its oppressive grip only impacts lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people of African descent, in truth, black homophobia maims the entire community.

For example, to date more than a quarter of a million African-Americans have died of AIDS -- both straight and gay. There are many persistent social and economic factors contributing to the high rates of the epidemic in the African-American community -- racism, poverty, health care disparity, violence, to name just a few -- but the biggest attitudinal factor still contributing (and showing no sign of abating) is homophobia.

However, like many of us who have grown up in communities of African descent, both here and abroad, we cannot escape the cultural, personal, interpersonal, and institutional indoctrinations in which homophobia is constructed in our very makeup of being defined as black.

The community's expression of its intolerance of LGBTQ people is easily seen along gender lines. For example, sisters mouth off about us while brothers get violent -- both verbally and physically -- with us. "My son better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I'll pull out a knife and stab that little n-gger to death," Tracy Morgan, comedian and former actor on NBC's 30 Rock, told his audience at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in 2011. ?
When CNN's Don Lemon came out, he told Joy Behar on her HLN show, "In the black community they think you can pray the gay away."

So whenever there's an opportunity to applaud and/or celebrate a person's coming-out moment -- especially a high-profile celebrity, athlete, or megastar -- it helps loosen black homophobia's persistent hold on the community, its sharp teeth buried in our collective flesh. The high-profile comings-out of black celebrities correct and heal, if not for only a moment, a community's irrational and persistent fear, shame, taboo, and ignorance about the wide spectrum of human sexuality.

And we had one such moment with one of America's most beloved newscasters.

"Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts just recently came out of her (open) closet, using a Facebook post to publicly announce what we all knew. Both Barack and Michelle Obama congratulated Roberts, with Michelle gleefully tweeting, "I am so happy for you and Amber! You continue to make us all proud."

While many Americans across the country felt the way the Obamas did about Roberts' admission, some felt a personal congratulation to Roberts -- especially coming from President Obama -- was not warranted and highlighted "divisiveness" rather than inclusion.

"That message of inclusion is missing in this country, as demonstrated by the President's odd decision to make a news event out of a person being gay. Such solicitous affection is creepy and divisive. It's like gushing over someone with a deformity. Most people don't want to be patronized; they just want to be treated like everyone else," Wendy Murphy wrote in a Patriot Ledger op-ed titled "It's fine to be gay, but is it great?"

Murphy, an ex-prosecutor and an adjunct professor at New England Law|Boston, is a local legal pundit celeb. She's also white and heterosexual, and has at least one LGBTQ friend or acquaintance. (I know this because Murphy told me, before we suited up to appear on Boston's local TV show "Greater Boston" to discuss our opposing views, that perhaps she should have run her op-ed by someone gay before submitting it.)

Murphy continued:

"If the President and his wife want to use their bully pulpit to influence social norms, they should be congratulating people not because they're gay, but because they did something meaningful for society, without regard for personal risk or gain. Robin Roberts may well deserve that kind of attention, but we'll never know because the Obamas were thinking more about politics than humanity when Roberts got a presidential salute."

Oddly, Murphy isn't alone in this view. There were also many LGBTQs who felt similar to Murphy, especially since we now accept LGBTQ people in news broadcasting like CNN's Anderson Cooper, ABC's Good Morning America former weather anchor Sam Champion, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and her colleague Thomas Roberts, to name a few. Murphy, like so many, are befuddled about the President's brouhaha over Roberts's coming out, since he has used his bully pulpit for that very purpose by legislating on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights like DADT repeal, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the repeal of DOMA, to name a few.

And let's not forget Roberts got the coveted interview when the White House specifically chose her for President Obama's May 2012 announcement of his unequivocal support for marriage equality.

Roberts has overcome a lot: in 2007, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 2012 with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a disease of the bone marrow. And now, she's overcome black homophobia's grip on her.

What Murphy and others also miss in their condemnation of the Obamas' applauding Roberts is how the intersectionality of white queer racism, elitism and sexism not only framed the legislation Obama signed on behalf of LGBTQ civil rights, but how it also shaped which LGBTQ demographic group would most benefit. Consequently, this is another factor feeding and fueling black homophobia that doesn't exempt Roberts because of her statute or interracial relationship.

Sue O'Connell, a white lesbian and editor and publisher of Bay Windows, understands why Roberts' coming-out moment warranted high praise. In her spot-on op-ed, "The harsh lesson of Robin Roberts' coming out," O'Connell understands how the intersectionality of not only white queer racism, elitism, and sexism play in Roberts difficult struggle to come out, but how the complexities of African-American community, religion, and culture also make Roberts' coming-out moment a herculean feat most definitely worthy of personal shout-outs from the Obamas.

"Challenges of class -- of race and gender -- are deeply entrenched obstacles to living an open life," O'Connell writes. "Each coming out process is unique, yet African Americans face a path entwined with family, religion, racism and more. Robin Roberts should be congratulated, again, for her bravery. Let's not let our growing marriage equality success blind us to the very real challenges many still find to living an open and honest life."

It's my hope that Murphy takes a long, hard look at O'Connell's op-ed.

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