Public Release: 

Historian's new book tells neglected history of black gay men

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Black gay men were largely missing in both black and gay history, so Kevin Mumford, who specializes in both, set out to tell their story.

"I wanted to reclaim a history that had been washed over, that had been overlooked," said Mumford, a University of Illinois history professor. He wanted to show how "black gay lives matter." The result is Not Straight, Not White, being published this month, and the title helps frame the story.

"Black gay men have not led lives that are like white gay lives or that are like black straight lives," Mumford said. At the intersection of race and homosexuality, their challenges have been unique.

Historical racism, notions of black masculinity, concerns raised about the black family, and the "politics of respectability" that African-Americans often employed in response have all played a part, he said.

Fear of interracial sex, for instance, had been central to white resistance to integration and often the cause of black lynchings in the South prior to the civil rights movement. Black men therefore often lived in fear and restrained their sexuality as a result. With the rise of black power in the late 1960s, however, they sought to throw off that restraint and reclaim their masculinity and sexuality, Mumford said.

But black gay men were not part of that picture. "In this definition and redefinition of blackness, this black pride moment, to be gay was to not be black," he said.

In the same way, the 1965 Moynihan Report and the concerns it raised about "pathologies" in the black family also worked against those who were gay, Mumford said.

"One of the things you see in response is this defense of the normality of the black family ... but of course, that normality says we do not have homosexuals in our families," he said.

Other challenges arose within the gay community, where black gay men were often portrayed in a hypersexualized way that was very dehumanizing, Mumford said. Even today, black men are almost nonexistent in gay publications and in popular culture. "Gay men are perceived only as white, and it's very hard to get people to recognize queer people of color in terms of what they're like, and how they're different," he said.

Much of Mumford's book is built around key individuals - black gay men who worked to change attitudes and institutions. Two of those are the prominent writer James Baldwin and the civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin, who was a key figure behind such events as the March on Washington in 1963. As Mumford notes, they were by far the most famous gay men in America in the 1960s.

Others include Joseph Beam, a Philadelphia writer and activist who sought to build a black gay community and give black gay men their own voice; Brother Grant-Michael Fitzgerald, who worked unsuccessfully for the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Catholic Church; and James Tinney, a prominent expert on black Pentecostalism at Howard University, who was almost denied tenure and excommunicated from his church after coming out, and would go on to found his own church.

Fitzgerald and Tinney are important for Mumford's history because religion is one of the major themes of the book. "Faith happened to be very important for the people that I discovered," he said, and seeking acceptance in their churches was a key part of many of their stories.

The focus on faith was not something he expected to find, but also not surprising given the centrality of the church in the black community and black history, and in the context of some oral histories, he said.

Isolation was also a common theme in many of these individuals' lives, and it's one reason Mumford was impressed by their stories and what they sought to accomplish. "They were often alone. There was nobody like them in the room. I see them as very courageous."

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