Kerry Washington’s GLAAD Speech and the Problem of Black Homophobia

Kerry Washington gave a rousing speech at the GLAAD Media Awards addressing the issue of black homophobia. But when did homophobia become a specifically black problem?

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for GLAAD

“On Monday morning, people are going to click a link to hear what that woman from Scandal said at that awards show, and so, I think some stuff needs to be said…”

With those words, Scandal star Kerry Washington announced that she was going to use the occasion, in this case the GLAAD Media Awards and her acceptance of The Vanguard award Saturday night, to address issues that were both pertinent to the award and dear to her heart. The actress, who’s played LGBT characters in films such as She Hate Me and Life Is Hot In Cracktown, spoke about the ongoing marginalization of the LGBT community and others in Hollywood that sit outside of the standard white, straight, Christian, male narrative. “Women, poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, intersex people…have been pitted against each other and made to feel like there are limited seats at the table for those of us who fall into the category of other,” the Emmy-nominated star stated, to rounds of applause.

But she also spoke directly to her own community, specifically. Washington addressed the hypocrisy she sees in black people who don’t support marriage equality. “So when black people today tell me that they don't believe in gay marriage… So, the first thing that I say is, ‘Please don't let anybody try to get you to vote against your own best interest by feeding you messages of hate.’ And then I say, ‘You know people used to stay that stuff about you and your love and if we let the government start to legislate love in our lifetime, who do you think is next?’”

Washington’s words seem to echo sentiments expressed by Lee Daniels, Oscar-nominated director and creator of FOX’s hit series Empire. During the Television Critics Association winter press tour, Daniels revealed that he wanted to address homophobia in the black community on his hit show (a prominent storyline deals with the protagonist’s estrangement from his gay son.) Daniels, who is openly gay, explained that he feels that anti-gay sentiments are particularly common amongst black folks.

“Homophobia is rampant in the African American community, and men are on the DL,” he said. “They don’t come out, because your priest says, your pastor says, mama says, your next-door neighbor says, your homie says, your brother says, your boss says [that homosexuality is wrong]. And they are killing African American women. They are killing our women. So I wanted to blow the lid off more on homophobia in my community.”

But when did homophobia become a specifically black problem?

Homophobia and transphobia in the black community are very real issues that should be addressed; but there is a disturbing tendency to frame black people as uniquely homophobic. In February, Washington Post entertainment reporter Cecelia Kang claimed the initial response to a same-sex kissing scene on Empire was negative backlash from the test audience, and many news outlets reported that the test ratings took a dive after audiences saw the scene. “The test audiences they showed this to...the ratings plummeted,” she said. “They did not like that scene at all.”

But when the scene actually was broadcast, there was no significant outcry. Social media was not flooded with expressions of disgust and anger, and, as has been well-documented, Empire’s ratings continued to thrive well up until last week’s season finale. So who exactly was in this test audience? This idea that black culture is monolithic leads to broad generalizations about African Americans that don’t take into account things like cultural and regional backgrounds. Whereas white people who express bigotry towards the LGBT community are typically framed through specifics (“fundamentalist,” “religious,” etc.), black people who express similar bigotry are just viewed as representing the “typical” mentality expected of blacks.

In 2013, Washington expressed enthusiasm for the positive reaction black fans have had to gay characters on Scandal. During an interview with The Advocate, she was asked if she’s witnessed homophobia in the black community. “I have. In fact, something that brings me great joy is knowing what Scandal’s audience looks like in terms of African American households and knowing that so many African American people and families are being introduced to our characters James and Cyrus,” she said at the time. “It’s really exciting that millions of viewers each week are living life with this amazing, complex couple, stepping into their gay marriage and adoption experience, which is such a vital storyline in our show.”

The black people that fear coming out seem to bear a similar cultural burden as their white counterparts—at least as it pertains to societal pressures. Is coming out easier for white people—regardless of where they live or the religious and socio-economic standing of their families and friends? It seems like these factors are important considerations across the board. The ongoing conversation about homophobia has to address the entirety of American culture, because the pushback against gay rights isn’t just happening amongst black folks.

The American Family Association, a fundamentalist Christian group, released a statement last year voicing their disgust with a proposed Harvey Milk postage stamp. Honoring Milk, one of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials, was seen as a way to celebrate behavior the AFA considered degenerate. “This is not diversity; this is perversity,” the statement read. This past fall, a group of people described as “men and women, white and well-dressed” by CBS Philadelphia attacked two gay men, brutally beating them and severely hospitalizing one. In the spring of 2013, Mark Carson was murdered in New York City’s Greenwich Village by a Latino man screaming gay slurs in an incident that was one of several high-profile anti-gay crimes in New York City.

In 2015, in states including Missouri, North and South Carolina and Texas, more than 85 anti-LGBT bills have been filed in 26 state legislatures across the country, according to a report from the Human Rights Campaign. The homophobia in the black community is a reflection of the homophobia that still dominates American society; as evidenced by hate crime patterns and hateful legislation. White people can exhibit homophobia—and criminal behavior—without the behavior being used to brand an entire “community” as hateful. Despite the fates of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena, liberal Americans seem to want to believe that white homophobia is limited to the fringes; while framing black homophobia as alarmingly standard.

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There is undoubtedly a constant fight for gay, bi, trans, and the entirety of the LGBT community to be allotted the same legal freedoms and societal privileges as all citizens. And progress has been made. But addressing that fight shouldn’t lead to stereotyping specific minorities as “the problem” or as anything more than micro examples of a macro issue. Black homophobia is real and has to be rooted out if we are going to move forward as a society and as a people. We can’t champion the rights of only straight black people as if they are all that matter or are the only voice that should be given a platform. Either all of us are free or none of us are free. But in addressing that homophobia, those who consider themselves opponents of homophobia and racism should be mindful of how easily one can be used to galvanize the other, and it’s not in the best interest of progress to allow a room full of entitled white liberals to believe that the only bigots are the ones who don’t look like them.

Ignorance and hate are not black-exclusive.