History of LGBT: African-Americans

Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 1. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004.

African-American LGBT cultures have developed in dialogue with the larger African-American cultures and LGBT cultures of which they are a part, simultaneously engaging in internal dialogues across boundaries of class, color, gender, gender identity, language, religion, and sexuality. Forced to confront the racism and class oppression of Euro-American society and Euro-American LGBT cultures, African-American LGBT people have also struggled against homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism in African-American communities. But African-American LGBT life has been about more than just confrontation and struggle; it has also been about desires, pleasures, joys, and triumphs.

Early History

Most Africans and African-Americans who lived in North America before the 1860s had themselves been enslaved in Africa or were the descendants of those who had been enslaved. Free populations of blacks existed within the United States and its predecessor colonies and some blacks lived within Native American cultures. But until emancipation in the 1860s the vast majority lived as slaves in the American South.

Research on diverse sexual and gender traditions in Africa (for example, by Cary Alan Johnson and Gloria Wekker in Constantine-Simms) suggests that many Africans may have brought with them to the “new world” ideas, both positive and negative, about same-sex sexualities and cross-gender behaviors. But little research has been conducted on what happened to these ideas and their associated practices in the context of enslavement and slavery in North America. From Jonathan Ned Katz’s work, we know that in 1646 Dutch authorities in the New Netherland Colony (which later became New York) convicted Jan Creoli, “a negro,” of sodomy with Manuel Congo, a ten-year-old boy (whose name suggests that he was also black). This apparently was Creoli’s second offense; he was sentenced to death and Congo was flogged (1976; pp. 35-36). (A second black man, “Mingo, alias Cocke Negro,” may have been executed for “forcible buggery” in Massachusetts in 1712; see Katz, 1983; pp. 127-128.) We also know from Katz’s work that Pennsylvania’s 1700 sodomy law made sodomy a capital crime for blacks but not whites and that Virginia’s 1800 sodomy law removed the death penalty for free persons but not slaves. Same-sex sexual behaviors among African-Americans have been documented for other slave societies in the Americas, and there is no reason to think that they did not occur in the colonies that eventually became the United States. In these colonies, high male-to-female sex ratios among slaves in the early decades of slavery (and in local contexts later) may have created conditions conducive to what has been described as situational homosexuality.

In the search for evidence of same-sex sexual acts and cross-gender behaviors in the era of slavery, some have found suggestive a passage in Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 autobiography that refers to a white slave owner who committed on his black male slave the “strangest freaks of despotism” that were “of a nature too filthy to be repeated” (p. 192). There are also countless examples, in fictional texts, nonfictional texts, and visual images, of white males gazing homoerotically at black male bodies and white females gazing homoerotically at black female bodies. These may reveal less about the sexual cultures of Africans and African-Americans than about the deployment of sexuality in systems of racial control and racial violence. Yet the work of Charles Clifton (in Constantine-Simms) on slave narratives by Henry Bibb, Frederick Douglass, and Olaudah Equiano demonstrates that these texts can be explored in pursuit of knowledge about African and African-American same-sex sexualities as well.

Evidence of female same-sex sexual and cross-gender behaviors in the era of slavery is perhaps even more scarce than it is for men, especially for the early years, though Cheryl Clarke provides a helpful analytic framework for pursuing this topic (in Moraga and Anzaldúa). Historical research on slave runaways suggests that some women cross-dressed as men as part of their strategies for escaping slavery; dressing as boys or men functioned not only as a disguise but also as a means of escaping notice in contexts where it was more rare for black women than for black men to be on the road. John Weiss has uncovered evidence from 1828 of a slave woman named Minty who had two last names, Gurry from her husband and Caden from the “negro woman” with whom she had “formed an intimacy” (cited in Rupp, p. 42). Karen Hansen discusses the case of two free black women, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus, who wrote affectionate, loving, romantic, and erotic letters to one another in the 1850s and 1860s. Bonds of sisterhood among black women and brotherhood among black men have been documented for the era of slavery, as have practices that transgressed normative gender roles. But greater knowledge about the extent to which sisterhood and brotherhood were sexualized and the extent to which gender-crossing reflected desires to live as the “other” sex awaits further research.

From Emancipation to the Twentieth Century

African-American slaves freed themselves and were freed by the Union Army and the U.S. government in the crucible of the Civil War (1861-65). Most scholars now agree that the Reconstruction period (1863-1877) was one of great promise, hope, and advance for African-Americans but that the so-called Redemption of southern state governments by white supremacists, a process that culminated in 1877, was profoundly destructive. In the late nineteenth century, the vast majority of blacks lived as sharecroppers in the American South, vulnerable to racist violence, economic exploitation, and Jim Crow segregation. Though many have explored African-American family and gender developments in these years, these are rarely examined in relation to LGBT phenomena.

Exemplifying some of the dynamics of Reconstruction and Redemption, Frances Thompson, a black freed-woman raped by white men during the Memphis riot of 1866 testified about that rape in a congressional investigation later that year; but in 1876 she found herself discredited, excoriated, arrested, and put on a chain gang when she was revealed to be biologically male. As Hannah Rosen’s account documents, she died a short time later. Lynching, like rape, functioned as a tool of racial and sexual control, and many scholars have been struck by the homoerotic sadism that is evident in accounts of the lynching of black men by white men. Sexualized racial control also operated through more conventional legal channels: Katz reports that of the 63 prisoners reported incarcerated for crimes against nature in the 1880 U.S. Census, 32 were men of color in the South. In 1890, of the 224 incarcerated for crimes against nature, 76 were black. And referencing an episode that hints at white fascination with black sexual crime, Lisa Duggan shares an 1892 Memphis newspaper account of the stabbing of 17-year-old Eleanora Richardson, a “mulatto, “by Emma Williams, a 23-year-old “black” woman who was described as having a “paroxysm of jealousy resulting from an unnatural passion” (cited in Duggan, p. 139).

As Duggan has argued, media stories like this one became sexological case studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and these stories and studies were invariably racialized. Havelock Ellis’s 1915 edition of Sexual Inversion, for example, included an account supplied by a Chicago doctor of the “Tiller sisters,” two “quintroons.” According to Ellis, one was an “invert” who was “sexually attracted to the other” and shot dead the latter’s beau (cited in Duggan, p. 174). Siobhan Somerville argues that the very creation of new sexological categories (which attempted to classify bodies as homosexuals, inverteds, and heterosexuals) was influenced by projects of scientific racism, which attempted to draw strict lines and establish rigid hierarchies between black and white bodies. As Somerville points out, discourses of race perversion and sexual perversion came together in scientific work such as Margaret Otis’s 1913 study, which analyzed interracial relationships between black and white girls in reform schools and schools for delinquents and argued that “the difference in color … takes the place of difference in sex” (cited in Somerville, p. 34). Estelle Freedman’s work shows that this was just the beginning of a long tradition of criminological, psychological, and administrative interest in (and condemnation of) sex between “masculine” and “aggressive” black women and “feminine” and “normal” white women (p. 424). Jennifer Terry’s work demonstrates that racist and racialized sexological projects continued to focus attention on black queer bodies through much of the twentieth century.

Many studies have now shown that police narratives, media stories, and sexological studies in this period were responding to the growth of LGBT cultures. Even when the voices of black LGBT people cannot be accessed directly in these types of texts (and sometimes, as Terry shows, they can be), they can be reclaimed by reading dominant cultural texts against the grain. When this is done, it becomes clear that something dramatic occurred in African-American LGBT history in the late nineteenth century. Instead of isolated accounts of individuals and couples, we now find abundant evidence of collective cultures, African-American and interracial. And as many scholars have argued, the context for this transformation among blacks was not just the general developments associated with capitalism, industrialization, and immigration but also the specific circumstances of the Great Migration, in which millions of African-Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North. These circumstances culminated in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the best-documented period in black LGBT history.

Evidence of the emergence of collective black LGBT cultures can be found as early as the late nineteenth century. In 1892, Dr. Irving Rosse published work about a “band of negro men” who were “androgynous” and engaged in “phallic worship” in Washington, D.C. Rosse also mentioned the arrests of eighteen “moral hermaphrodites” in Lafayette Square; a majority, he claimed, were black (in Katz, 1983, pp. 233-234). In 1893, Dr. Charles Hughes wrote about “an organization of colored erotopaths” in Washington, D.C. According to Hughes, at “an annual convocation of negro men called the drag dance,” men “deport[ed] themselves as women” and a “lecherous gang of sexual perverts and phallic fornicators” gazed upon a “naked queen.” A “similar organization,” he claimed, had been “suppressed” by the New York City police (in Katz, 1976, p. 77). In 1907 Hughes expressed concern about “male Negroes masquerading in women’s garb and carousing and dancing with white men” in St. Louis (in Katz, 1976, pp. 75). Such accounts, hostile though they might be, make one thing abundantly clear: in cities across the country, black LGBT people were coming together.

The Harlem Renaissance

By the Roaring Twenties, black LGBT urban cultures had become extraordinarily complex, dynamic, and vibrant. From the works of Hazel Carby, George Chauncey, Angela Davis, Ann DuCille, Eric Garber, Gloria Hull, Kevin Mumford, and Siobhan Somerville, among others, a portrait has emerged of what Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes famously called “a spectacle in color” (in Garber, p. 324). According to Garber, during the Renaissance, “black lesbians and gay men were meeting each other on street corners, socializing in cabarets and rent parties, and worshiping in church on Sundays, creating a language, a social structure, and a complex network of institution. Some were discreet about their sexual identities; others openly expressed their personal feelings. The community they built attracted white homosexuals as well as black, creating friendships between people of disparate ethnic and economic backgrounds and building alliances for progressive social change” (pp. 318-319). Among the African-American LGBT cast of Harlem Renaissance characters were artists Richmond Barthe and Richard Bruce Nugent; blues singers Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Ethel Waters; dancers Josephine Baker and Mabel Hampton; social hosts Alexander Gumby and A’Lelia Walker; and writers and editors Countee Cullen, Angelina Weld Grimké, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Blair Niles, and Wallace Thurman. This collection of leading lights made its mark on black culture, on LGBT culture, and on American culture. As Garber’s comment indicates, however, the Harlem Renaissance consisted of more than just the triumphs of a set of notable African-American LGBT cultural figures. Garber’s, Chauncey’s, and Mumford’s work explores the geography of everyday black LGBT life during the 1920s, taking readers through extraordinarily popular drag balls (including the famous Hamilton Lodge Ball), rent parties, cabarets, saloons, speakeasies, nightclubs, black-and-tan clubs, parks, streets, and brothels.

There remains much more work to do on the black LGBT dimensions of the Jazz Age. Much of the scholarship thus far has concentrated on New York and Chicago; even the name given to the Harlem Renaissance era seems to discourage research on anything other than New York and so we know little about black LGBT developments in other cities, much less in non-urban areas, during the 1920s. There are many hints about the state of relationships between lesbians and gay men in this context, but thus far this subject has not been examined in depth. Nor do we know much about the similarities and differences between the gendered sexual systems of whites and the gendered sexual systems of blacks. One topic of significant debate has been the level of general black community acceptance of LGBT sexualities and genders and the integration of black LGBT and black straight cultures. While some have pointed to the sexual and gender conservatism of black communities, others have pointed to their liberalism on LGBT matters. Closely related to this discussion has been another one that focuses on class relations and class differences within African-American communities. Carby, Chauncey, and others have pointed to the sexual and gender conservatism of many middle class black writers, church leaders, and journalists, which perhaps culminated in Reverend Adam Clayton Powell’s sensational 1929 attack on homosexuality in African-American religious and secular worlds. Given the centrality of the black church in black communities, further research will be necessary to more fully explore the links between black religious history and the history of black LGBT cultures. And more research of the sort done by David Serlin on Gladys Bentley will be necessary before we understand what happened to the LGBT protagonists of the Harlem Renaissance after it collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

From the 1930s through the 1960s

The period from the 1930s through the 1960s was marked by major transformations in African-American life, yet the United States remained a society of marked by racial, class, gender, and sexual inequality. Historians of the period generally emphasize the economic hard times experienced by blacks during the Great Depression; the mixed record of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal on race matters; the role of blacks in segregated military and industrial contexts during the Second World War; the ongoing experiences of disenfranchisement, segregation, and housing and employment discrimination after the war; and the civil rights and black power movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

Historians of black LGBT life have explored various social, cultural, and political developments during these years. In the realm of social history, Brett Beemyn’s work on Washington, D.C., Allen Drexel’s on Chicago (in Beemyn), John Howard’s on Mississippi, Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis’s on Buffalo, Marc Stein’s on Philadelphia, and Rochella Thorpe’s on Detroit have traced the conceptual and physical geographies of African-American LGBT worlds. From their research we know that distinct black LGBT bars, clubs, and restaurants were established in this period; black LGBT people socialized in straight-dominated black and white-dominated LGBT spaces as well; they confronted homophobia and transphobia in the former and racism in the latter; drag balls, drag parades, and house parties, and femme/butch roles were important elements of black LGBT social life; and black LGBT people lived in both white-dominated LGBT neighborhoods and in straight-dominated black neighborhoods. Tim Retzloff’s work on Detroit’s flamboyant Prophet Jones, John D’Emilio’s on civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, Howard’s on Mississippi, and Stein’s on Philadelphia provide insights about homophobia and homophilia in black church and religious life. Allan Bérubé’s and Leisa Meyer’s books contain evidence of black LGBT experiences during World War II, and Jennifer Terry’s analysis of racialized sexological discourse allows constrained access to the voices of ordinary black LGBT people in this period. In certain respects LGBT social life may have challenged racial boundaries and hierarchies in this era, but for the most part it did not, and African-American LGBT enclaves developed primarily in relation to the problems and possibilities of African-American worlds.

In the realm of cultural history, many Harlem Renaissance figures remained active in this period, negotiating their changing circumstances in complex and divergent ways. Along with these figures, dancer Alvin Ailey and writers James Baldwin, Samuel Delaney, Lorraine Hansberry, and Audre Lorde are among the black LGBT cultural workers who have received the most scholarly attention for this period. Recent works by Dwight McBride and Robert Reid-Pharr on Baldwin are particularly helpful in this area.

Countless black LGBT people, including some of the cultural figures discussed above also participated in some of the most important political movements of the 1950s and 1960s, and some had leadership roles. D’Emilio’s biography of Rustin explores not only Rustin’s centrality to the civil rights movement and not only the uses of gender and sexuality by both proponents and opponents of civil rights, but also larger intersections between sexuality and politics in the post-World War II era. Howard’s book on Mississippi investigates links, real and imagined, between sexual dissidence and racial dissidence in the Deep South during the civil rights era. New work on Pauli Murray focuses attention on her activities in the civil rights, women’s, and other movements (as well as her lesbianism and transgenderism). Anita Cornwell’s and Audre Lorde’s autobiographical writings provide uniquely helpful perspectives on the experiences of black LGBT people in black, women’s, and LGBT movements. While Reid-Pharr analyzes the gender and sexual politics of black nationalists such as Eldridge Cleaver, Stein provides an in-depth look at how those politics played out at the Black Panther Party’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in 1970. Much of this work documents the struggles faced by black LGBT activists in civil rights and black nationalist movements. While working to secure racial justice, these activists were forced to confront the gender and sexual conservatism of white and black movements and communities.

Meanwhile, although the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s is often seen as a white movement (and it certainly was dominated by whites), recent scholarship has highlighted the activities of black homophile activists, including Hansberry (who had work published in the lesbian periodical the Ladder), Cleo Glenn (who served as the president of the national lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis), and Ernestine Eckstein (who marched in homophile demonstrations and was featured on the cover of the Ladder). There has also been significant work exploring the influences of the civil rights movement on the homophile movement, which appropriated its rhetoric and tactics and which analogized sexual and racial experiences in ways that often offended African-Americans and ignored ongoing problems of racism in American society.

Much of this work not only documents the important roles that black LGBT people played in black, feminist, and LGBT movements in the 1950s and 1960s, but, in highlighting the failures of these movements to address the specific needs and concerns of black LGBT people, also helps set the context for the emergence of black LGBT movements in the late twentieth century.
Developments since the 1960s

The extraordinary complexity of African-American LGBT cultures in the post-1960s era makes it difficult to choose which elements to highlight. Three of the most notable developments have been the emergence and growth of autonomous African-American LGBT organizations, institutions, and periodicals; the emergence and growth of new black queer intellectual traditions; and the emergence and growth of a new wave of black LGBT writers, artists, filmmakers, and cultural icons. In each of these areas, African-American LGBT people have taken the lead in arguing and demonstrating that race, class, gender, sexuality, and other axes of difference and power in the United States are inextricably intertwined; that they intersect and overlap in ways that make it impossible to prioritize one over the others; and that intellectual work, creative art, and political action will suffer to the extent that these insights are ignored.

In the post-1960s era, African-American LGBT bodies, desires, acts, identities, and cultures continue to be used by others in projects of race, class, gender, and sexual definition, differentiation, and control. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photographs of black men and Jennie Livingston’s film Paris is Burning exemplify some of the dynamics of the interracial gaze. Public debates about the sexualities and genders of musical performer Little Richard, television newscaster Max Robinson, basketball player Dennis Rodman, celebrity singer RuPaul, and disco singer Sylvester make evident that dominant norms and values (in straight black, straight white, and LGBT white communities) are often defined in relation to queer black bodies. The appropriation of black gay disco culture by whites and straights illustrates larger processes associated with racialized and sexualized post-industrial capitalism. Debates about the misogyny and homophobia of some elements of black rap and hip-hop cultures reveal much about constructions of black masculinity and femininity. Ongoing discussions about the pathologies and the powers of the black family imagine black LGBT people as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

While black LGBT people have continued to experience racism, class oppression, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the various communities in which they live, they have also confronted a major new scourge in the last twenty years. HIV/AIDS has devastated black LGBT communities in particularly intense ways. In response, black, LGBT, and black LGBT communities have marshaled tremendous resources in struggles against government indifference, scientific neglect, and corporate profiteering. At the same time, the dynamics of HIV/AIDS in black communities have contributed to significant new discussions about distinctions between sexual cultures, sexual identities, and sexual acts, —discussions that have the potential for queering the United States in new ways. When HIV/AIDS educators target “men who have sex with men” rather than “gay men,” they signal their understanding that there are communities, including black communities, that are not organized on the basis of the dominant U.S. models of sexual and gender identities (LGBT or straight). Recent discussions of black “down low” cultures also signal this understanding. As these discussions continue and link up with related conversations about distinctive gender and sexual cultures among Latinos/as, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, working class people, people with disabilities, and youth, African-Americans are once again contributing to the growth of sexual and gender possibilities in the United States.