Code Red Homophobia: Homelessness, HIV and Black Religiosity

Published: January 17, 2013

For the past several months, Crenshaw Boulevard in predominantly black South Los Angeles has featured a series of striking billboards condemning homophobia and its role in the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  The billboards are the work of the black gay activist group In the Meantime Men, headed by Jeffrey King.  Sounding a “code red alarm” on the raging HIV/AIDS epidemic amongst African Americans King said, “The staggering rates of increased teen suicides in the last five years, and the uncontrollable increase of teen homelessness in America have awakened our senses to the damaging effects of homophobia in the Black community.  Every year, thousands of Black LGBT people are displaced from their homes, families, churches, and communities due to their sexuality, gender, gender identity, and gender expression. This has resulted in a mass influx of homeless youth on the streets of Los Angeles and other cities throughout the nation.”  [King will be a panelist at the upcoming “Confronting Homophobia in the Black Church” roundtable hosted by Black Skeptics Los Angeles at Zion Hill Baptist Church on February 27th]  With African Americans comprising the majority of new HIV cases in the U.S., the epidemic has devastated black communities nationwide.  Yet the refusal of mainstream black America to seriously confront how homophobia and black religiosity drive homelessness and HIV only deepens the killing fields.

In her book Invisible Families Mignon Moore notes that “some in the Black gay community use religion to validate their identities as same-gender loving people.”[i]  Rejecting the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, gay African American Christians focus instead on what they believe to be the loving, compassionate, universalist message of Jesus.  As one respondent in Mignon’s book says, “I do believe God loves me and even though they may not agree with what I am I think that this is between me and God.”[ii]  For many African American LGBT folk, faith is intimately tied to cultural identity and is not easily shorn even in light of the social conservatism and heterosexism of mainstream black America.  Indeed, according to a study by UCLA’s Williams Institute, when compared with their white counterparts, African American LGBT folk are more likely “to attend religious services, to engage in prayer, and to self-identify with a religious affiliation.”[iii]  Straight, gay, bi and trans African Americans live together in segregated communities where racism, white supremacy, and criminalization shape their shared lived experiences.  Save for the drumbeat of white normalcy portrayed in TV, film, and advertising, our worlds are overwhelmingly black and brown.  Thus, it is not surprising that gay African Americans are invested in the same religious cultural traditions that prop up straight normalcy yet may afford them with a sense of community.  Despite the overall increase in secular Americans people of color have not embraced secularism in significant numbers.

Yet, countering the homophobic dogma of organized religion is only one aspect of LGBTQ enfranchisement.  And it is for this reason that existing Humanist organizations are inadequate for queer youth of color.  The needs of LGBTQ youth of color can’t be adequately addressed by culturally homogeneous or colorblind approaches that don’t acknowledge the intersection of heterosexism, white supremacy, and racism.  For example, queer youth of color are especially vulnerable to becoming homeless.  Family economic instability, sexual abuse, religious dogma, discrimination at school and in local neighborhoods often precipitate homelessness amongst African American queer youth.  The nexus of foster care and mass incarceration has also dramatically increased homelessness amongst youth of color.  Youth who age out of foster care have few resources to fall back on, putting them at risk of becoming homeless.[iv]  Youth who come out of the juvenile or adult prison systems may be unable to find jobs or housing due to employment applications that require criminal felony disclosures.

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