ArticlePDF AvailableLiterature Review

Homophobia, hypermasculinity, and the US Black Church

Authors:
  • Elijah Glenn Ward Family Foundation

Abstract

Black churches in the USA constitute a significant source of the homophobia that pervades black communities. This theologically-driven homophobia is reinforced by the anti-homosexual rhetoric of black nationalism. Drawing on a variety of sources, this paper discusses the sources of homophobia within black communities, and its impact upon self-esteem, social relationships and physical health. Religion-based homophobia and black nationalism point to wider structures which have influenced their emergence, including racism, patriarchy and capitalism. It is vital for US black churches and communities to understand and transcend their longstanding resistance to openly addressing complex, painful issues of sexuality and embrace healthier definitions of black manhood.
SHORT REPORT
Homophobia, hypermasculinity and the US black church
ELIJAH G. WARD
Institute for Health Research and Policy, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago,
USA
Abstract
Black churches in the USA constitute a significant source of the homophobia that pervades black
communities. This theologically-driven homophobia is reinforced by the anti-homosexual
rhetoric of black nationalism. Drawing on a variety of sources, this paper discusses the sources of
homophobia within black communities, and its impact upon self-esteem, social relationships
and physical health. Religion-based homophobia and black nationalism point to wider structures
which have influenced their emergence, including racism, patriarchy and capitalism. It is vital for US
black churches and communities to understand and transcend their longstanding resistance to openly
addressing complex, painful issues of sexuality and embrace healthier definitions of black manhood.
Re´sume´
Aux USA, les e´glises noires repre´sentent une source significative de l’homophobie qui impre`gne les
communaute´s noires. Cette homophobie base´e sur la the´ologie est renforce´e par la rhe´torique anti-
homosexuelle du nationalisme noir. En exploitant diverses sources, cet article examine l’origine de
l’homophobie au sein des communaute´s noires, et son impact sur l’estime de soi, les relations sociales
et la sante´ physique.
L’homophobie base´e sur la religion et le nationalisme noir semblent indiquer que ce sont des
structures sociales plus larges qui ont favorise´ leur e´mergence, parmi lesquelles le racisme, le
patriarcat et le capitalisme. Pour les e´glises et les communaute´s noires ame´ricaines, il est vital de
comprendre et de transcender leurs vieilles re´sistances afin d’aborder ouvertement les questions
complexes et douloureuses de la sexualite´, et d’adopter des de´finitions plus saines de la virilite´ noire.
Resumen
Las iglesias negras de los Estados Unidos son una fuente de homofobia importante y dominante en las
comunidades negras. Esta homofobia impulsada teolo´ gicamente esta´ reforzada por la reto´rica
antihomosexual del nacionalismo negro. Basa´ndonos en toda una serie de fuentes, en este documento
mostramos las fuentes de homofobia dentro de las comunidades negras y sus repercusiones en la
autoestima, las relaciones sociales y la salud ´sica. La homofobia basada en la religio´n y el
nacionalismo negro esta´n estrechamente vinculadas a estructuras ma´s amplias que han influenciado
su aparicio´n, como son el racismo, el patriarcado y el capitalismo. Es de vital importancia que las
iglesias y comunidades negras de los Estados Unidos comprendan y superen su tradicional resistencia
a tratar abiertamente problemas complejos y difı´ciles de la sexualidad y adopten definiciones ma´s
saludables sobre la masculinidad negra.
Keywords: Homophobia, religion, black men, masculinity, community health
Correspondence: Elijah G. Ward, School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Email:
ELIJAHAL@UIC.EDU
Culture, Health & Sexuality, September–October 2005; 7(5): 493–504
ISSN 1369-1058 print/ISSN 1464-5351 online # 2005 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/13691050500151248
Introduction
Although many of them do not support anti-gay discrimination, evidence from media-
based and empirical surveys indicates that significant numbers of people in the USA,
including black people, see homosexual relationships as unacceptable and morally
wrong (Crawford et al. 2002:179–180). Black churches hold a central and uniquely
influential position within black culture and society in the USA (Lincoln and Mamiya
1990). Both directly and indirectly, black churches have been identified as fostering
homophobia—a fear or contempt for homosexuals and behaviour based upon such
feelings—playing an important role in its genesis, legitimation and weekly reinforcement
in black communities (Dyson 1996). Indeed, theologically-driven homophobia, aided
by black nationalist ideology, supports a strong and exaggerated sense of masculinity
within black communities that, along with homophobia, takes a significant but generally
unexamined psychic and social toll on people’s lives. These forces adversely shape the
lives not only of black gay/bisexual men but also those of black heterosexual males and
females.
Methods
The analysis presented here was developed following a literature review focusing on socio-
cultural analyses within the fields of history, gender studies, politics and theology;
qualitative and quantitative sociological and psychological studies, including surveys or
reviews of sets of surveys; national opinion polls; and other sources of evidence. This
analysis was also informed by conversations with nine black clergy, and speaking/lecture
engagements by five additional black ministers, all of whom were encountered during the
author’s attendance at local and national conferences attended by black clergy, or through
visits to black churches. The author was raised in a black church and has worshipped in
many different black churches over a period of many years.
The influence of black churches
US black churches are diverse in character, spanning vast differences along many
dimensions including theological tradition, style of worship, music, urban/rural location
and socioeconomic status. The black church in the USA is widely recognised as the central,
oldest and most influential institution in the black community (Lincoln and Mamiya
1990). It has been the organisational and cultural matrix from which many black social
institutions and forms of artistic expression emerged and have been sustained over the past
250 years. But even more critically, the black church is the spiritual ark that also preserved
and empowered black people socially, psychologically and physically during and after
slavery (Miller 2001). Surveys indicate that four out of five blacks belong to a faith tradition
(CDC 1999) and that 97% of black people in the USA claim some religious affiliation
(Dawson et al. 1994).
The black church wields a potent influence, on many levels, in the lives of churchgoers
(Lincoln and Mamiya 1990, Douglas 1999). Church affiliation is strong among all
socioeconomic levels of black people, and is often a significant element of the social lives
and networks of blacks. But what is also striking is the influence it wields indirectly in the
lives of those blacks that are not churchgoers. Even if as adults they no longer embrace the
church or religious principles, many blacks have been profoundly influenced by the church
494 E. G. Ward
ideology and imagery with which they were raised, and this continues to influence their
later beliefs and practices (Dyson 2003, Reed 2003).
Sources of the homophobia in black communities and churches
Within many black communities the church plays a significant role in the production of
homophobia, although it is important to recognize that black churches are not the only
source of the homophobia in black communities. Homophobia exists within many cultures,
subcultures and religious groups. But what are the roots and character of homophobia in
black churches within the USA? Three different types of explanation have been put
forward, which privilege respectively (i) religious beliefs, (ii) historical sexual exploitation,
and (iii) race survival consciousness. All are intimately related to the history of black
slavery, underscoring the complex background influence of racism in the genesis of
homophobia.
According to the first of these perspectives, homophobia is related to literalist theological
views. Recent work by theologians and biblical scholars has done much to move Christian
groups toward greater biblical integrity on homophobia as well as other issues (e.g. Spong
1992, Nelson 1993, Helminiak 1994, Douglas 1999). Work of this kind has given
contextual clarity to passages long-adhered to as justifications for homophobia. Yet,
black ministers and congregations have been relatively immune to, or distrustful of,
such generally white-dominated approaches to biblical scholarship and revisionism.
Homophobia in black churches is therefore directly related to the authority given to a
perceived literal interpretation of scripture in these churches (Brown 2002, Fowlkes 2003,
Reed 2003). Douglas (1999:90) argues that ‘[S]cripture is often the cornerstone of
homophobia in the black community’. She explains why black people’s use of the
Bible to condemn homosexuality is understandable in the context of their historical
experience, as enslaved blacks sought refuge and found freedom in the literalness of
Scripture.
A second line of thought holds that, among blacks, homophobia may well be at least in
part the expression of a more general fear of sexuality. Some black thinkers and scholars
locate this wider fear of sexuality, and of homosexuality in particular, in a psycho-cultural
response to the history of white exploitation of black sexuality during slavery and
afterwards. Douglas (1999) has offered the most complete explanation of this thesis.
Beyond their adaptive sense of humour in response to debilitating stereotypes, black people
in the USA have been profoundly affected by the persistent efforts of whites to demonise
them and their sexuality. In the social construction of standards of beauty, measures of
intelligence and assessments of moral character, elements of racism have been used to
effectively privilege whiteness and denigrate blackness. Much of this has been accomplished
through the institution of slavery and its aftermath.
US media stereotypes developed during slavery such as that of the mammy, the jezebel,
and the wild and hypersexual buck have their latter-day incarnations in the domineering
matriarch, the ‘welfare queen’ and the violent and sexually promiscuous black man. The
old images of blacks as bestial, lustful, wanton, lascivious, and promiscuous persist in the
US psyche today. Douglas (1999) says that Cornel West speaks for many others when he
noted that institutions in the black community families, schools, churches have
historically and assiduously avoided addressing the fundamental issue of sexuality. This
reticence on the part of blacks to speak about sexuality in public grows out of a fear that it
will confirm the stereotypes that whites have long held.
Homophobia, hypermasculinity and the US Black church 495
A third approach to explaining contemporary patterns of homophobia can be found in
the work of Crichlow (2004), who emphasizes notions of race survival consciousness.
In his treatment of Crichlow’s work, Lemelle (2004) notes that black homophobia in
North America is rooted in the moralisms about homosexuality produced in the melding –
within the context of colonialism and imperialism of both Western and traditional
African religious beliefs. These homophobic religious moralisms have dovetailed with the
urgency of a racial consciousness of survival and preservation among blacks, that sought to
construct black masculinity as the struggle against white domination. Crichlow refers to
this racial consciousness as bionationalism. The fallout from this ideological joining
together of religion-driven homophobia and bionationalism has been that whiteness and
homosexuality are both understood to connote weakness and femininity; conversely, black
masculinity has been constructed in hypermasculine terms.
Whereas many black churches are perhaps easy to identify as visible founts of
homophobic rhetoric, the overarching influence of racism that has given rise to such
homophobia has also nurtured it in secular settings as well. Black men’s conceptions of
what it is to be a man have been inextricably shaped by enduring racial stereotypes of black
men as athletes, criminals and sexual predators racial stereotypes not merely peculiar to
the USA, but also pertaining to black males globally (Pieterse 1992).
Homophobia: a pillar of hegemonic constructions of masculinity
Beyond sources of homophobia related to experiences of slavery and racism, black people
and churches have also been influenced by the homophobia prevalent in the larger US
society, and by related US notions of masculinity. Current dominant US construction of
masculinity include the following characteristics: a degree of mastery over one’s
environment, the display of avid interest in sports, competitiveness, independence, being
strong/tough, suppressing feelings, and aggressive/dominant control of relationships
(Staples 1982:2, Jakupcak 2003, Seal and Ehrhardt 2003:315).
Hypermasculinity, an exaggeration and distortion of traditionally masculine traits, has
been studied by psychologists since the 1920s (Glass 1984). Mosher and Sirkin (1984)
have viewed, for example, hypermasculinity, or machismo, as a trait associated with the
assertion of power and dominance often through physically and sexually aggressive
behaviours. Benson (2001) has argued that hypermasculinity is a value system extolling
male physical strength, aggression, violence, competition and dominance that despises the
dearth of these characteristics as weak and feminine. Hypermasculine symbols and
characters suffuse many arenas of US life, including sports (Burstyn 1999), big business
(West 1994:10), television (Scharrer 2001), the military and foreign policy (Ehrenreich
2002). Indeed, the normative construction of masculinity in US society is heavily
influenced by hypermasculine symbols and ideals.
Homophobia operates as a linchpin of the prevailing hegemonic construction of
masculinity in the USA. Normative conceptions of masculinity in US society are inherently
heterosexist and homophobic (Kimmel 1994). Because of the conflation of gender
and sexuality, to be seen as masculine requires being heterosexual, prompting the
hypermasculinisation of behaviour among males in order to avoid being labelled a ‘fag’ or
‘queer’ (Kimmel and Mahler 2003). According to Jabir (2004), ideologies of hetero-
normativity require the performance of homophobia – the pathologisation and demonisation
of the homosexual in order to legitimate, consolidate and essentialise their cultural
ascendancy.
496 E. G. Ward
As in wider US society, homophobia shores up versions of hegemonic masculinity
prevalent in black communities. Black masculinity in the USA is in a state of crisis. hooks
(2004:xii), reminds us that the core imagery with which the black male is constructed is
that of the murderous, rapacious brute – ‘untamed, uncivilised, unthinking, and unfeeling’.
Racist, capitalist patriarchy, she says, will never allow the full empowerment of black men.
Hypermasculinity is a living force within black communities. For Saddik (2003), hard-
core ‘gangsta’ rappers are dramatising the essence of black hypermasculinity, which in
many ways is an intensified, black male cultural reflection of the patriarchy, sexism,
heterosexism, and ‘gangster-style’ market materialism of wider US society. Wolfe’s
(2003:848) review of several studies indicates the prevalence of patterns of hypermasculine
behaviour among US black males, especially the tendency to relate to black women with
manipulative and exploitative attitudes, and the ‘quest for sexual prowess, with babies as
proof’. Intimately related to this is the ‘cool pose’ of so many US black males (Majors and
Billson 1992), a complex, ritualised form of masculinity emphasising strength, toughness,
pride, control, poise and emotionlessness. Being cool is expressed in highly stylised yet
individualised manners of walking, talking and dressing, and is the key to fitting in with
other black males, especially among youth. For Majors and Billson (1992), it is a coping
strategy black men use to allay and triumph over the anxieties and stresses of racism and
related blocked social opportunities, as well as a means to express bitterness, contempt and
rage toward the dominant society.
As Majors and Billson (1992:10) indicate, cool pose may well be related to the many self-
destructive and other-destructive behaviours that plague black men and communities, from
adolescent deviance and substance abuse to domestic violence, gang behaviour and
homicide. Qualities such as being ‘socially incompetent, disabled, or crippled—a sissy’ are
considered the opposite of being cool (ibid:83). hooks (2004) has pointed to some of the
contradictions, vulnerabilities and insecurities of black male identity in contemporary US
society. She notes that lack of intimacy ultimately erodes the self-respect of black men, an
untenable situation whose source she locates, interestingly, not only in patriarchy and
narrow constructions of black manhood, but also in conservative religious traditions. These
sources are also intimately related to the production of homophobia.
In effect, homophobia is used as a strategy of domination by various individuals and
groups both in US society and within its black subculture to define not only who or
what a homosexual is, but even more importantly, who or what amanis not. For as
Thomas (1996:59) has argued, ‘The jargon of racial authenticity [i.e. in the black
community] insists, as the gangsta-rapper Ice Cube has put it, that ‘‘true niggers ain’t gay’’’.
Homophobic constructions of masculinity in the black church
Black churches vary widely in their approach to homosexuality. However, the responses of
the majority of black churches range from verbalised hostility toward homosexuals to, at
best, silence on the issue. Only in a small contingent of US black churches that typically
identify as black gay churches – usually pastored by black lesbian or gay ministers – is there
an active and explicit embrace of gay/bisexual persons. Non-denominational Christian
churches that actively embrace black lesbians and gays do in fact exist, but are typically
multi-racial churches of which blacks comprise a minority.
A palpable silence around homosexuality exists in many black churches. There are, in
fact, predominantly black congregations that are socially and theologically progressive. Yet
these black congregations typically exist within predominantly white denominations (e.g.
Homophobia, hypermasculinity and the US Black church 497
the Episcopal and United Methodist churches), and their influence within black
communities is overshadowed by the much larger number of congregations within the
eight historically black Protestant denominations, many of which have traditions with
homophobic elements.
In many other black faith communities, unmistakably homophobic rhetoric is an
everyday part of the communal life (Griffin 2000). The pastor or senior minister often sets
the tone through sermons of condemnation from the pulpit, as well as through informal
conversations with church members. It is not uncommon for some black ministers to
regularly use derisive terms such as ‘fags’, ‘punks’, ‘sissies’, and ‘bulldaggers’ to refer to
gays and lesbians. Furthermore, ministers critical of homosexuality are rarely challenged or
criticised by church members. Reed (2003:5) notes, ‘I’ve been in churches where the
preacher’s gay, much of the choir is gay, and much of the congregation is gay, and the
preacher’s condemning homosexuality as an abomination, and nobody [in the church]
thinks there’s anything wrong with it’.
All black churches, however, do not espouse homophobic views. The Trinity United
Church of Christ is a black mega-church in Chicago that has taken a leadership role both
locally and nationally in confronting homophobia and HIV/AIDS stigma, spurring other
black churches to follow. The Balm in Gilead, an organisation based in New York City,
has worked with thousands of black churches nationally and overseas during the past
two decades, championing HIV/AIDS awareness and intervention with an implicitly
counter-homophobic approach. The Regional AIDS Interfaith Network assists black (and
other) congregations in North Carolina with developing HIV/AIDS prevention education
and compassionate teams to support the HIV/AIDS-affected. One example of the
emerging, predominantly black lesbian and gay churches is the association of Unity
Fellowship Churches, which began in Los Angeles and Detroit in 1991 and has since
seeded churches in several US metropolitan areas (Cohen 1999:288). Thus, although it is
still in its infancy, there is a loosely-knit but emerging movement afoot among positive
faith-based organisations to counter the homophobia common to many black faith
communities by communicating affirming stances on same-sex relationships – a movement
spurred in great part by the need to address HIV/AIDS in black communities. Yet, such
forward movement is also countered by processes such as that exemplified in the stances
against gay marriage adopted and publicly proclaimed by various associations of black
ministers throughout the USA during and after the 2004 US presidential election, whose
fears were cleverly inflamed and exploited by political networks of white evangelical
Christians supporting the Republican candidate (Wallsten and Hamburger 2005).
The impact of theologically-driven homophobia on black men and masculinity
Church-related homophobia influences conceptions of what it is to be a black man, thereby
influencing the behaviour and lives of black males, both straight and gay. Heterosexual men
who might not normally express a hypermasculinity may feel pressure to do so as a result of
repeated, impassioned church-inspired homophobic messages. The attitudes of black men
are likely to be shaped by these communications. Lemelle and Battle (2004), for example,
found that among black men, regular church attendance was significantly associated with
more homophobic attitudes toward gay males. Expressing hypermasculinity is socially
popular in many black male circles. It seizes upon opportunities for projecting male
dominance, possibly functioning as a means to vent the extra frustrations that black men
experience in a racist society, while also shoring up a sense of identity in an uncertain social
498 E. G. Ward
world. Expressing hypermasculinity also serves the added purpose of precluding
questioning about one’s sexual orientation, through a generous and decisive clarification
of any potential ambiguity about the matter.
One effect of religion-inspired homophobic messages is that heterosexual men who are
already homophobic or vulnerable (through their associations, upbringing, insecurities,
social frustrations and anger) feel thereby vindicated in their beliefs and fears. If they are
already expressing a hypermasculine persona, such messages reinforce their extreme and
narrow understanding of what masculinity is. In this way, males who already have a
tendency to believe that being a real man means or entitles them to engage in bullying,
misogyny and gay-bashing find additional socio-cultural, ideological and spiritual
legitimation for such a view of masculinity.
The stigma of homophobia creates tremendous psycho-social pressures for black gay/
bisexual men (Cohen 1999, Fullilove and Fullilove 1999, Kennamer et al. 2000). Evidence
suggests that internalised homophobia may lead to lower self-esteem and psychological
distress in some black gay/bisexual men, possibly contributing to sexual behaviours that
put them at risk for HIV (Stokes and Peterson 1998). However, still stronger findings
indicate that black gay and bisexual men who strongly identify as gay or generally disclose
their sexual orientation to others have also been linked to higher levels of sexual risk-taking
activity (Crawford et al. 2002) and HIV infection (CDC 2003:83) than those who are
more closeted.
For some black males, hypermasculinity although driven by deeper social structures
also operates as a mask for their hidden need and desire to be sexually intimate with
another man, which they nevertheless secretly pursue parallel to their relationships with
their families, girlfriends and wives (Crichlow 2004), a situation now commonly being
referred to in the US black media as ‘the down-low’. Research by Woodyard et al. (2000)
has found that participation in some black churches encourages sexual secrecy among
young black men who have sex with men.
Although church-projected homophobia drives some black gay men from the black
church, other black gay men for various reasons remain in traditional black churches that
are unabashedly homophobic, and endure the oppression. Many find or create their own
niches in traditional churches, perhaps involved in or responsible for some aspect of the
music programme, either as choir member, choir director or musician. Some gay men may
be ministers within churches, thus having a clerical or pastoral incentive for remaining.
Some stay in order to protect younger gays and lesbians from hostile forces within the
church against which these youth might otherwise have little or no protection or psycho-
spiritual support. Yet others may remain in vocally homophobic churches because they
have significant supportive ties to members or networks within the church that do not
espouse or endorse the dominant homophobic theological rhetoric.
The impact of theologically-driven homophobia on black communities
Although several sources of evidence suggest the possibility that US blacks may be more
homophobic than Americans in general, other data present a more ambiguous picture.
Lewis’ (2003) review of several surveys conducted since 1973 also found greater
disapproval of homosexuality among black adults than among whites, a finding that
persisted when religious and educational differences were controlled. However, his review
also indicates that blacks were moderately more supportive of gay civil rights and
significantly more opposed to anti-gay employment discrimination than whites.
Homophobia, hypermasculinity and the US Black church 499
Homophobia is not evenly distributed throughout black communities. Hill (2002) found
that religiosity and homophobia were predicted by social class status, defined in
educational terms. Similarly, Lemelle and Battle (2004) found that among black women,
income, education, urban residence, and age were significantly related to holding more
positive attitudes toward gay men. Nonetheless, Fullilove and Fullilove (1999) found that
homophobia is common across various segments of the black community.
Because black hypermasculinity, and its attendant homophobia, prevents many black men
from engaging in much more than an appearance of intimacy (in part, for fear of appearing
‘weak’ and unmanly), black heterosexual women are often denied the experience of
emotional intimacy with their male partners. In addition, their female mates and mothers
often share the sole responsibility, and psychic burden, of knowing who these men are and
what they are actually dealing with in their lives. One important effect of homophobia among
black heterosexual males in general, whether church-sanctioned or deriving from extra-
church sources, is that it stifles expressions of affection, vulnerability and intimacy between
men that many quietly yearn for, but learned to deny for fear of being labeled homosexual.
Black hypermasculine ideals are having a devastating impact upon the self-esteem, well-
being and health of young, low-income black young people, and young black women in
particular. Davis (2004) has recently called attention to the pervasiveness of a ‘play or
get played’ mentality characterising both young black inner-city males’ and females’
approaches to sexual relationships. Her article also reveals widespread patterns of abuse,
disrespect and devaluation of black women on the part of women as well as men.
Moreover, Wolfe (2003) has related the hypermasculine behaviours of black men
specifically, higher rates of multiple sex partners than any other male ethnic group and an
aversion to using condoms (because they are viewed as undermining virility and manliness)
– to the extremely high unintended pregnancy rate and the emerging HIV epidemic among
young black women.
Indeed, the risk of HIV/AIDS which disproportionately and overwhelmingly impacts
blacks in the USA is augmented by the silence and denial around homosexuality. Not
only black gay/bisexual men, but increasingly, women and black teenagers are affected.
According to the US Census Bureau, black adults and adolescents in 2001 had an AIDS
case rate ten times higher than whites. Observers, ministers, activists and researchers have
reached the conclusion that homophobia is one of the most significant factors crippling the
willingness of the black church to respond positively to AIDS (Cohen 1999, Fullilove and
Fullilove 1999, Linsk and Warner 1999, Brown 2002, Wright 2003).
Beyond the risk for and reality of AIDS, homophobia projected by the black church
directly damages black gay men through an impact that might best be understood as
spiritual genocide. It takes much inner strength, self-esteem, psychic vigilance and social
support to disown the label spiritual abomination (Miller 2001), and likewise to resist the
overwhelming tide of a culture that continually surrounds the gay male with the subtle
message that he is not a man, and thereby not even a person. Unfortunately, many black
gay men in the USA do not survive this assault. Also, through the silence and denial that
homophobia encourages and enforces among black gay men a potentially significant source
of resistance and change within the black community to these constructions is lost.
Conclusions
A host of social ills currently derive from the fallout around hypermasculinity and the
homophobia that supports it within US black communities (Cohen 1999, Wolfe 2003,
500 E. G. Ward
Lemelle and Battle 2004). Yet, open and honest discussions of black sexuality, as well
as the generation and reinforcement of more grounded and balanced constructions of
masculinity might play a valuable role in wider, multi-pronged efforts to improve the state
of well-being in black communities (also see Collins 2004:306). Beyond the clear need for
more research to explore in greater depth the connections hinted at in this paper, a critical
examination of the effects of current constructions of masculinity, and indeed of patriarchy,
needs to begin in black social and cultural circles. The persistence of racism in the USA is
at least as significant a factor as homophobia in destroying black communities and lives,
and is deeply woven into the machineries of homophobic oppression. Indeed, as stated
earlier, homophobia among blacks directly supports white racism’s history of and tendency
to hypersexualise, pathologise, demonise and mystify black sexuality (Thomas 1996:66).
But black gay men are equally injured by the racism inherent in white gay communities’
tendency to objectify black male bodies and to marginalise black men seeking an
acceptance they are denied in black communities (Kraft et al. 2000).
The dire social and health issues facing many black communities in the USA are complex
and deeply interwoven. Homophobia and the rigid constructions of masculinity it supports
are but one thread among many, including the realities of poverty, high unemployment,
drug trafficking, substance abuse, non-rehabilitative incarceration, depression, domestic
violence, child abuse and fatherless households. Nevertheless, a mutually validating
intimacy between black heterosexual males might normalise and sanction a deeply-needed,
more positive construction of masculinity that might easily incorporate vulnerability and
intimacy, as well as strength. It would have consequences for male health and well-being. In
concert with ongoing community and policy efforts to address these critical problems, a
vocal advocacy for healthy, non-homophobic constructions of manhood in black
communities spearheaded by the spiritual authority of black churches, may contribute
significantly to lessening the problems of violence, as well as closely-related social ills, in
black communities.
In particular, a dialogue must begin over the disadvantages of homophobic approaches
to socialising black males. These approaches are presently generated and legitimated
in great part by black churches, yet are also strongly influenced by the binding nature
of racial stereotypes of black males and by the still persisting need for a counter-
racist bionationalism among blacks. Griffin (2000:114) has argued that blacks realise
collusion with the dominant society in denouncing homosexuals as the despised other, helps
black people deflect the old label of sexual immorality and buys a measure of acceptance
into the larger culture. Reed (2003) and Collins (2004:107–108) have also identified this
motive as an important factor behind the rejection of homosexuals by many black ministers
and church members. For the black church has historically been that one haven where
slaves (and many of their present-day descendants) could find dignity and social honour
where people who were nobody could, at last, become somebody.
It is critical that black churches and communities begin to take responsibility for their
role in producing homophobia. However, while it is vital that conversations about
homosexuality and homophobia begin in black churches, such discussions must be
paralleled by the invitation of more fundamental conversations about sexuality. It is
common knowledge in black communities that black churches are still reticent to genuinely
address issues and pressing problems in the arena of sexuality such as teenage pregnancy,
out-of-wedlock births, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases (Brown 2002,
Dyson 2003, Wright 2003). A de-mythologising of black sexuality is an essential ingredient
of the sexual discourse that needs to take place in the black community.
Homophobia, hypermasculinity and the US Black church 501
Finally, heterosexist and homophobic hegemonic constructions of masculinity are hardly
peculiar to black communities. They exist within white, Latino and other racial/ethnic
communities in the USA and elsewhere, and it is unclear in this respect whether black
churches are any more homophobic than others. Among blacks and black faith
communities, however, these patterns are reinforced by an acute consciousness of race
survival, as well as by racialised stereotypes of masculinity. Indeed, for black communities,
religion-based homophobia and the narrow constructions of masculinity it supports can
never be fully disentangled from the more fundamental, interlocking systems of racism,
patriarchy and capitalism in the context of which they developed.
Acknowledgements
Support for the development of this paper came from Brian R. Flay’s NIH/NIDA Training
Grant: 5 T32 DA07293. Much gratitude is also felt for the assistance and contributions of
Adi Da Samraj, Adelaide F. Ward, Susan C. Scrimshaw, Robert L. Miller, Jr., R., Michelle
Green, Tyrone Fowlkes, Thomas Brown, Juan Y. Reed, Anthony J. Lemelle, Jr., Kevin
Lamarr James, Michael McColly, Johari O. Jabir, Tai Edward Few, Peter Ji and Gerald R.
Butters, Jr.
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¿Está el mundo en el que vivimos tan secularizado como lo creía la sociología de la religión del siglo pasado? ¿qué hace la gente cuando vive eso que llama religión? ¿cómo y qué estudia la sociología de la religión actual? Para la sociología, la religión es una forma de práctica humana que tiene como referencia una dimensión sobrenatural, a veces entendida como sagrada. Sirve para cualquier fin humano, desde la salvación después de la muerte, el fortalecimiento de un matrimonio, o la reconstrucción del sí mismo. Es un fenómeno relevante en cualquier sociedad, con iglesias y asociaciones religiosas que controlan amplios recursos y que proveen servicios sociales de importancia. Pero también es un medio a través del cual la gente puede trabajar y reconstruir su micro-contexto social, incluyendo su propia identidad. Los capítulos de este libro son traducciones de artículos originalmente publicados en la revista académica Qualitative Sociology entre 2011 y 2018, período en el cual David Smilde fue su director. Reflejan las tendencias más recientes en metodología cualitativa y la dirección conceptual en los estudios de la religión que se ha denominado “la religión vivida.”
Chapter
The purpose of this chapter is to shed light on the psychological, interpersonal, and social reality of Black Americans and how they relate to manifestations of psychological distress by situating the lived experiences of Black people in a racial and sociocultural context. In doing so, we advance an understanding of mental health and treatment considerations for Black Americans who are experiencing increasing rates of psychiatric disturbance. We begin with an overview of unique experiences and stressors for Black Americans, highlighting the importance of utilizing an intersectional lens when examining Black mental health. We follow with a discussion of differences in clinical presentation and somatization of mental health disorders for Black Americans, contextualizing the role of racism, cultural worldview, and racial identity development. Finally, we identify barriers to treatment and conclude with opportunities for theory, research, and interventions in order to better meet the mental health needs of Black Americans.