In class we have been heavily discussing stereotypes the past couple of weeks and although we have not limited the scope of our discussion to stigmatized groups, it seems those with the most salient stigmatizations inevitable surface in our discussions. This led me to wonder about people who had more than one stigmatized identity, and more specifically, identities that were in conflict with each other. The group I eventually settled on was homosexual black men. This group interested me because they had two stigmatized identities, but one could be hidden while the other was always present and for the majority of black males, clearly in conflict with the other. I was able to find two solid studies to explore my questions about this double stigmatized group, Good Cake by Tiffany Yvette Christian and Racial Differences in Social Support and Mental Health in Men with HIV Infection by D.G. Ostrow.
In her study Christian interviewed three self-identified homosexual black males, all in their early thirties to gain an understanding of how they defined life satisfaction and their levels of life satisfaction. In addition to measuring their life satisfaction, Christian also asked the three men about their homosexuality in relation to their race and the rest of their lives, and about the coming out process. The men in the study were named Scott, John, and Kevin. At the time of the study all were living in the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina, were not in a relationship, and had at least some college education (Yvette, 2005). Their answers shed a lot of light on the differences in black culture which make the black homosexual experience an entirely different animal than the white homosexual experience. Christian describes two important aspects of being a black homosexual male that seem to be unique to the black homosexual male experience that surfaced during her interviews of the three men. She writes in her article that,
“The first indigenous typology was the distinction between being DL and fem. DL, which stands for down low, refers to living a secretive gay life or only being “out” to a select group of other gay men. DL was used among the respondents in the same manner that the term in the closet is used in mainstream vernacular. Peacock (2000) described the difficulties of being “closeted” and the resulting double life and failure to integrate being gay into everyday life. This description is very close to what the respondents in this study describe as DL. DL men pride themselves in their masculine appearance and persona, which enhance their ability to remain DL. For example, Scott explained that his ultimate and ideal plan to stay DL included marriage, preferably to a lesbian, so that they each could comfortably maintain separate intimate relationships (Yvette, 2005).”
From this finding, it is clear that despite their sexual orientation, homosexual black men still place a high value on being masculine, a man’s man so to speak. The conclusion can also be drawn from this statement and the fact that two out of the three of the participants in Christian’s study identified themselves as being on the down low, that homosexuality is not at all considered manly in black culture. Thus, in order for the black masculine identity to be maintained, their homosexual identities must be concealed. Even Kevin, the one person in the study who identified himself as out, admitted in the interview that he does not openly flaunt his homosexuality (Yvette, 2005). In his article, D.G. Ostrow supports this idea of black men being less open about their homosexuality when he states that,
“Black men were less likely to be open about their sexual orientation (‘out’) to their primary support network members than white men, where ‘network’ was defined as boss, mothers best straight woman friend, best straight male friend, regular physician, counselor or therapist, wife and children. Black men also reported that their social support was significantly less self-affirming than did white men (Ostrow, et. al. 1991).”
Further supporting the idea that homosexual black men heavily value their masculinity and masculine image was the negative descriptions the subjects gave for being “fem.” Christian states in the article that being fem is considered the opposite of being on the down low and that “fem describes the stereotype for effeminate gay men, and fem men were also referred to as sissies (Yvette, 2005).” All three men interviewed in Christian’s study agreed that being fem was not only unmanly but also unattractive. Not only did the men in the study pride themselves on maintaining their masculinity despite their homosexuality, which is not considered masculine within black culture, they also admitted to looking for the same qualities when choosing partners.
This distinction between black homosexual men created by black homosexual men themselves serves to paint a much clearer picture as to why many black homosexuals do not come out of the proverbial closet and make considerable efforts to conceal their sexuality from the majority of people they interact with even when they are “out”. Their reasons for not acting feminine/flamboyant do not only stem from the negative social ramifications and prejudice they would receive from outsiders (heterosexuals), but also from the negative treatment and profiling they would be subject to by their own kind. It is clear that there is a distinction within the homosexual black community between being gay and being a feminine/flamboyant gay, with clear preference given to the former. Therefore, it can be assumed that black homosexual men must be careful who they come out to and aware of how they act in certain social situations, in order to preserve their masculinity, masculine image, and in order to attract the partners they desire.