R9 - 16 Contested Membership: Black Gay Identities and the...

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Unformatted text preview: 16 Contested Membership: Black Gay Identities and the Politics of AIDS Cat/7y ]. Cohen It has been fairly recently that scholars in the social sciences haye begun to recognize that the concept of group identity in its essentialist core is in crisis. Influenced by postmodern and deconstructive dis- course, historical analyses focusing on marginal groups, and a new emphasis on identity in social—movement theories, researchers are be- ginning to understand that the idea of group identity that many of us now employ is markedly different than the conception of a stable, static, and homogenous group previously assumed in the soc1al sc1en- ces.1 Just as most scholars have finally become accustomed to includ- ing in their analyses simple conceptions of identity coded in binary form.(i.e. white/black; man/woman), we now face the realization that identities of difference (race, class, gender, sexuality) are themselves fragmented, contested, and, of course, socially constructed. Social—constructionist theory provides the framework and the intel— lectual incentive to identify and examine those social, political, and economic processes which lead to the promotion of certain conceptual- izations of group membership and group meaning at particular histori- cal moments.2 Social~constructionist models can also be used to analyze internal debates over membership within marginal com- munities.3 Using this approach, constructionist frameworks help us recognize and understand indigenous definitions of group membership and group meaning encapsulated under the rubric of group identity. While previously, most of the work on the social construction of group identity came from scholars in the humanities, researchers in the social sciences, especially those of us interested in the topics of race, gender, class, and sexuality, must find ways to incorporate such insight into our analyses. Moreover, we are being challenged by a rapidly expanding understanding of group identity to not only recognize and \ theirpwn standar Contested Membership 363 examine the socially constructed character of group identity, but also to investigate the stratification found in groups and the implications of such fragmentation on attempts at group mobilization and political action.4 Thughiynndexarn'ningthgyzaxiig.Whighdpminant groups ' ' ,an change 9r,,al,tcrthfiir masseddefenders.tharsinal ' istor' a1 we must also understand “£9.11, .grgup, membership. ”5 This chapter takes up the topic of indigenous constructions of group membership and its impact on the political attitudes and mobilization of marginal group members. In particular, I am interested in how the concept of “blackness,” as it is defined and refined within black communities, is used to demarcate the boundaries of group member— ship. As a second point of examination, I want to know how these indigenous definitions of blackness influence, shape, and lend legitim— ation to the political attitudes and behavior of community leaders and members. Indigenous definitions of blackness, while of course building on dominant ideas or definitions of who is black, employ a more expan- sive, but at the same time often less inclusive, understanding of black group identity. They center not merely on easily identifiable biologi— cally rooted characteristics, but also use moralistic and character evaluations to appraise membership. Individuals employ a “calculus” of indigenous membership which can include an assessment of per- sonal or moral worth, such as an individual’s contribution to the community, their adherence to community norms and values, or their faithfulness to perceived, rewritten, or in some cases newly created African traditions. Thus, iridiggnwgg constructed definitions of blaiik gLQERtideatitycsr-iekLtq,redefine, s. to th outsf [6 w W mam.” mm World by_ifl§i§s&2£929fi§ii§§3fflh_,_t.s§nhgrsrres§ae .... .39 dominantgsmitpuemblagkneg‘,” And it is through the process pf public policing, where the judgments, evaluations and condemnatioiijs of recognized leaders and institutions of black communities are coria— municated to their constituencies, that the full membership of certai‘iii segments of black communities are contested and challenged. Let me be clear that examples of the indigenous construction blackness and contests over such definitions abound in our ever; day interactions. Whether it be the challenge to the authentic y of those black students who choose not to sit at “the black tabl L,” in the cafeteria or the looks of contempt or concern encountered by black group members seen walking with their white mates, infogi— mal or “hidden transcripts” of blackness guide interactions in bladk \ 364 Cathy ]. Cohen communities, as they undoubtedly do in all communities.6 However, in most cases full—scale wcgntestatipn, black com- munitiss- IB§£§§§ thosewhosspgsnpmthetartarisitxrsshalkaged for years. Only when “grew y matgi ' ' tiyewrneans securingwresgurces, SllCh aswan external Of A a ............... margins..u§igg..h€faéaiit-f Thus, in 313% cases those individuals deemed to be on the outside of “acceptable blackness” — either because of their addiction, their sexual relationships, their gender, their financial status, their relationship with/0r depend- ency on the state, etc — are left with two.choices: either find ways to conform to “community standards” or be left on the margins where individual families and friends are expected to take care of their needs. Again, my concern here is not that these group members will be rejected by dominant groups as not being part of the black community. Most marginal group members know that racism in the dominant society functions with essentialist principles in its assessment ‘of black people. Thus, men and women, who meet basic -d0minant ideas of / what black people look like and “act” like, rarely have their “black- / < \ ness” evaluated, except to have it negated as a reward for assimilation \, into dominant white society (i.e. Michael Jackson, Clarence Thomas, and formerly O. J. Simpson). Instead, my concern is/with/thgpgggss ¢mPIOX§C1_.l?X,.9ths£ gettinal/gtpup 319mb “Efraiugtgms blackness. Will certain group members bei’ii'iejected by other marginal /r\-/ '\ ./ _,/ group members because of their inability to meet indigenous standards K/ \ “‘§\ of “blackness”? Are there processes through which the full “rights” or / empowerment of group members becomes negated or severely limited ~~ within black communities because of a stigmatized black identityPS As stated earlier, the objective of this analysis is not only to under- stand the processes through which indigenous constructions of group membership come about, but also to explore how these definitions impact on the behavior, in particular the political behavior, ,of margi— nal group members. To this end, I have chosen to center this analysis on the black community’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Specifically, I will explore how indigenous contests over black gay male identity ’ ~ have framed and influenced black communities’ conception of and response to AIDS.9 Throughout this chapter I-use examples and quotes from community leaders located in black churches, electoral politics, activist organiza- tions, and the academy to examine the relationship between indigen- ous definitions of blackness, a public black gay identity, and the political response to AIDS in black communities. Has the emergence of Contested Membership 365 a public, empowered black gay identity, perceived and defined by many community leaders, activists, and members as standing outside the bounds of generally recognized standards of blackness, been used by these leaders to justify their lack of an aggressive response to this disease? Do community leaders interpret a public black gay identity as a direct,threatloihf;raCAQCPFlelityor ‘fculturalcapitalfigained by some inflilaqk..ggmmyri.iti,sz§a in partisan bxtheblaskmiddlt class? In the minds of indigenous leaders and activists, does embracing or owning AIDS as a disease significantly impacting on members of black com— munities also mean owning or finally acknowledging that sexual con— tact and intimate relationships between men is something found in, and inherently a part of, black communities?10 My central claim is that emigrating. .QVfillingiIitY,.iflrthis cage indigflfllsracialideantr,,.h.as.tangiblc,ct slinfluencingt distribu- tion of res r servicesaggssaandlegitimacy,withigtgiiimanitits- ffifié“é’§§é’ ofAIDS, Without the support of established leaders and organizations in black communities, underfunded community—based education programs encounter limited success, facilitating the conti— nued infection and death of black men, women, and children. Further, in the absence of political pressure from leaders, organizations, activ- ists, and mobilized members of the black community the federal gov— ernment is allowed to continue its shameful dealings, neglecting to provide the full resources needed to effectively fight this disease in black communities. Thusi thsgnfgilingrtg .mgéttifldigtEEWS. $311519”? d5 gtifligkness ,find their,1ife Ch.%£3£§§wth¥€%t§9?d, not only by d,§ihinant institution p sorbyutheirwlack ,waaccess to, r’é’sBBEE‘e suppgrwt. Therefore, ..scholar,s__.who.,profess.. tombs: .999” War.” .. arcnondititmsmo marginal..,.g£9up ...tne.mb.¢r8.,._.facq. the Hiéfiumtiital .thallttngcv—to.f~r§99a RENE. drxaminiiig-.. lnEliSCHQUSgFOUP dsfinition withoutransitingamp.as cerned with ist and'exclusionarym ategor Furthermore, the importance of disputes over community menilber— ship and the importance of groups should not be understood only an abstract, theoretical level where discussions of identity, authentijtjity, and essentialism are often held. This examination of the intersectidp of AIDS, black gay identity, and indigenous constructions of “blacknligss” provides us with an empirical example of the importance-of gibup membership and group resources for marginal group members‘j as well as the dangers of identity politics. In this case we must be lion— cerned with politics that only recognize'and respond to the needs of those segments of black communities judged by our leaders to lineet indigenous standards of group membership. This issue is of criligical 366 I Cathy ]. Cohen importance because it represents what I believe to be one of the more pressing political challenges currently facing marginal communities in the twenty-first century, namely how to maintain and rebuild a prin— cipled and politically effective group unity. How domrna‘rginal Corry , ‘ ill .struggling-..f9r, . .6633. and p0 ‘ instituti s and roups, maint ' e pseudojuni p‘o g, the, face,.,,of increasing demandsto recognize’andincorporate the needs ,do marginal vulner» _‘ able, and often most stigmatized members of the community, when many of the previous gains of marginal group members have been at, made through a strategy of minimizing the public appearance of dif— ference between the values, behavior, and attitudes of marginal and dominant group members? How do We build a truly radical, liberating *’ politics that does not recreate hierarchies, norms, and standards of I acceptability rooted in dominant systems of power? Theseare the 2 questions that frame this analysis. Deconstruction and the Crisis of Essentialism It seems only appropriate before proceeding that I take up what I consider to be a very important criticism of group analysis. For some scholars attention to the construction of identity, instead of the decon— struction of such bounded categories, seems misplaced. These re— searchers call for the deconstruction of both dominant and indigenous categories which are Viewed as excluding certain marginal group mem— \ bers and reinforcing hierarchies of power. Thus, fictivists anglgaicadem- ic§-§.dhcring-roa.dee _ ' ' In 9.59.311 4,and...transgres.sivej )1.“ In the case of Black Americans, these scholars argue that the variation found in definitions of who qualifies as black and what that is to mean, as well as the variation in the actual life chances and lived experience of those identified through history as black, demands that we abandon the use of race as a category of analysis. Barbara Jeanne Fields, who I doubt would label herself a deconstructionist, writes at the end of her essay “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” k Those who create and re—create race today are not just the mob that killed I a young Afro—American man on the street in Brooklyn or the people who 6 joined the Klan and the White Order. They are also those academic Contested Membership 3 67 writers whose invocation of self-propelling “attitudes” and tragic flaws assigns Africans and their descendants to a special category, placing them in a world exclusively theirs and outside history — a form of intellectual apartheid no less ugly or oppressive, despite its righteous (not to say self—righteous) trappings, than that practiced by the bio- and thee—racists; and for which the victims like slaves of old are expected to be grateful.12 In contrast to Fields, I argue that calls for the deconstruction of categories and groups ignore not only the reality of groups in structur— ing the distribution of resources and the general life chances of those in society, but also ignore the importance of group membership in promoting the survival and progress of marginal group members. If one exists, as many of us do, without the privilege and resources to .» transgress socially erected boundaries or categories, then we learn at an early age to rely on, and contribute to, the collective material resources/power/status of other group members who share our subject position. Thus, to argue that race or blackness is not “real” in some genetic or biological form (which I do), is not to believe that race or blackness, in particular as an ideological construct of grouping and separation, has not massively structured the lives of those designated black, as well as the rest of American society. Omi and Winant, in their book Racial Formation in the United States, write: “the attempt to banish the concept [of race] as an archaism is at best counterintuitive. . . .A more effective starting point is the recognition that despite its uncertainties and contradictions, the concept of race continues to play a fundamental role in structuring and representing the social world.”13 Nonetheless I share some of Fields’ concerns about the recreation and legitimization of categories used primarily to exploit and oppress. Many within black communities, whether they be cultural nationaliSts, religious leaders, politicians, or the average person trying to make it day to day, adhere to some form of a less stigmatized notion of gré‘: 1p essentialism. Scholars ranging from Molefi Kete Asante to Patricia I ' Collins to those of us who use statistical analyses to examine 1 condition and progress of black people invoke some non-biologically based definitions of “the black experience”?4 Undoubtedly, mucl‘iliof our focus on a unified black community stems from the fact tli comfiflhitasgmmanit bla genesis.inwiasrmefii ‘ significant level of political cohe v n ss. _ learly, this observed 1101 to— geneity of black political attitudes, for instance, is forcedin part by Eihe “survey questions that researchers ask, and more forcefully from the Cshared histor f oppression which has framed our worldviews. everrweihave a'EhEd'“a“*point"iin time when the issues faced by blafck l 1 i 368 Cat/7y ]. Cohen communities demand that we look below the unified surface so often referenced by social scientists. Issues which currently frame the politi— cal agenda of black communities are often rooted in those points of social cleavage — class, gender, sexuality, language, country of origin — which problematize, at the very least, any conception of a unified, essential core of blackness as well as any assumption of shared lived experience. v Thus, it seems that this examination and others like it must be understood as an attempt to walk the thin line between two important constraints. First, a recognition that essentialist theories of the black community have at best limited relevance to understanding the struc— ture and condition of black communities. Second, we must'also pro— ceed with an understanding that strict adherence to deconstructive approaches, which call for the complete negation of groups as a unit of analysis, risks ignoring the importance of indigenous group structure to the living conditions of marginal groups. > ‘ Emergence of a Visible Black Gay/Identity The perceived existence of a unifying group identity cannot be over— stated when trying to explain the structured politics of black com— munities. Systems of oppression from slavery to redemption, to legal and informal Jim Crow segregation, and other more recent forms of 3 KS3 segregation and deprivation have dictated that most African Ameri— cans share a history and current existence framed by oppression and marginalization. However, even as a unifier, blackness, or what qualifies as indigenously constructed blackness, has always been medi— ated or contested by other identities that group members hold. And at no time did boththe primacy and the fragility of a unified group identity become more evident than in the/liberation politics and social movements of the late 19605 and early 19703. Whether it be civil- rights institutions, black liberation organizations or even electoral . campaigns of black candidates, one primary identity — “blackness” — was understood to be the underlying factor joining all these struggles. Each organization espoused in their own way a commitment to the liberation of black people and anything thought to detract from this goal was dismissed and in some cases denounced. However, the unifor- mity of such a political worldview can also be challenged during this period. , During the 19603 and 1970s the black community experienced in~ creasing stratification. Whether that stratification was based in the l ‘ ThgsLif one was willing not to “flaunt: theirnsewxual orientatio‘h in front offifamilyfl m mbm SU§R§£L£11£L ,,.y.0u were Contested Membership 369 deindustrialization experienced in urban centers or the politicized nature of the times, which helped to promote consciousness of mem— \_ bers’ multiple identities, a segregated and seemingly unified black ' . community had to deal openly with fragmentation. All across the / country we witnessed the beginning of extreme bifurcation in black communities, with an expanding middle. class and an expanding seg- ment of poor black people. However, beyond economigsegmentatipn, OMEEQEQgrmgiallegatiqnsbecfie blejndefiningthe.lived experieyggngJan eqple- 11.1,.hlflElS.-QQmmunities,. as..wel.1__,,a§, in the politlcjl_§§992§_9.,. 'me, individuals increasingly beganvto teqqg- fig? and acknowledge ngWlflllllLlplL 3 ' 9n..whi£li.,their oppression was based. Unfortunately, it was the inability of many of the race— ased organizations to recognize and act on perceived tears in l “unit}17”'that led in part to the dismantling of many of these organizan \ . 5 . . . . . \ _ trons. However, it was also. in thlS changing envrronment that the- , visibility of lesbian and gay people, including black lesbian and gay people, began to take shape in the community. It is important to recognize that black gay men and lesbians have always existed and worked'in black communities, but these individuals had largely been made invisible, silent contributors to the com- . V . M ,P tapering» . , P ,tcsti,0q...9f . $311213 commgmtyindi-mpgimportantly, the support and gccepgtancgfl ofpirnmmgdiate, __farn' pmberE‘BEII'HdakEEf“HE} wBook Talking Back discusses the dilemma that many black lesbians and gay men confronted: The gay people We knew did not live in separate subcultures, not in the small, segregated black community where work was difficult to find, M where many of us were poor. Poverty was important; it created a social context in which structures of dependence were important for everyday survival. Sheer economic necessity and fierce white racism, as well-as tlie joy of being there with the black folks known and loved, compelled ma {iv gay blacks to live close to home and family. That meant however that gay people created a way to live out sexual preferences within the boundaries of circumstances that were rarely ideal no matter how affirming.17 '3 ls H In sandineighbors (althgugh . X, W “thatwyvmayflwtheyprimarily verbal abuse —— ike Fe 370 Cathy [. Cohen I ‘ Again, I do not want to minimize the importance of even such condi— ‘ tional support on the part of family, friends, and community. The prospth ofwfacingrcpntinuous,-residentia1,, QCCQRQFignaI and sggial ,,.asmanifeflafiiflflrpf “491351”. . i shite lesbian . and. gay: cemmaeitiss, f ingness and ability of black lesbians and gay men to remain quiet and invisible has radically changed. These changes have resulted in part from many of the factors which have spurred new identities as well as politicized identities of old. One major factor has 3733 £95,?“ been the proliferation of liberation and social movements demanding " access and control for groups long pushed out of dominant society. Cornel West speaks of this situation when he argues that, During the late ’50s, ’605 and early ’705 in the USA, these decolonizedr sensibilities fanned and fueled the Civil Rights and Black Power..m0ve- ments, as well as the student anti-war, feminist, gray,.hbrown, gay, and lesbian movements. In this period we witnessed the shattering of male WASP cultural homogeneity and the collapse of the short—lived liberal 1 8 consensus. Closely connected to involvement and association with organized ' social movements was the more formal establishment of an institution- alized, socially connected, and in many cases monetarily secure gay community in many of the nation’s urban centers. These “ghettos” provided a space in which ideas of rights and political strategies of empowerment could be generated and discussed. These enclaves, as well as other dominant institutions such as universities, were integral / in creating space for the exploration of independence away from local communities and families.19 In conjunction with the continued development of gay enclaves was \ “a” the emergence of an outspoken and brave black lesbian and gay '\ leadership who openly claimed and wrote about their sexuality (Audre <5 Lorde, Cheryl Clarke, Barbara Smith, Pat ParkerJoseph Beam, Essex \qs Hemphill . . .). These individuals were intent on creating new cultural in?” (in, voices- Wlfiflhexflfifl’: ..s179ni¢.§1,.th£ right to, Speak openly. through \ traditionalavenu blac communities thesemcultural leaders, found Efiiiiélféated eniié's" 0' attitm,.th¢i.r R§§§§E£¢e and. sonnsstionro black,‘gérnrrifinities.WPuincrations like This Bridge” Called My Back, Home Girls, Brother to Brother, In the Life, and more recently videos such as Tongues Untied all sought to detail from various perspectives \ publicly as black and gay. Thgchgige, 371 Contested Membership the struggle to consistently flesh one’s black and gay identitie these factors helped create an environment in whichmthe’ silehce that had structured the lives of many black lesbian and gay men seemed unacceptable. The conditions listed above, however, did not lead to a massive coming—out process in black communities. In fact, the level of silence ,amgngblacklesbian.and.gay,.meui§_still an immfi; ,,.ahiidrfihriéssihg concern for those organizingmin the gggmr‘nunitymtoday. However, the environment that developed through the 1960s ahdh1970s created a situation in which some black women and men choose to identify or inflrnany cases, the perceived “Edit embracepubliclv. a black. g. .Yr 2.9:..blagkilgsbian identity 11,11,499.,tedly.,,.escalfl£§$i,with, the emergence. 9f...AIDS,...an is us: which demands feithermrecognition"and .emp owermenfit, or, ThusL after spendingyearsfiaffirfiming themselves, building consciousness, and con— tributingto 1229.15.59... ‘ s theirrarticular needfitsaxtbtgthsrs.,ansilcsbiansiststsmfacs:c1,an issue, ihngth‘ewcasepfyAIDS, that threatened to blackhgays and 1}: magenta, aweakgytanclne It would be this political, social, and economic environment that would heighten the contestation over anggpelbnlackgaymmaleidentity. This social context, where black gay men in particftiar were experien— cing the destruction of AIDS, produced many of the early pioneers who saw it as their responsibility to provide the first level of response to AIDS in the black community. Ernest Quimby and Samuel Friedman, in their article “Dynamics of Black Mobilization against AIDS in New York City,” document much of the early organized activity around AIDS in People of~Color communities.21 The authors note that, In the epidemic’s early days, media reports that AIDS was a disease of white gay men reduced the attention blacks paid to it. . . By 1985;; however, some leaders of the minority gay and lesbian community began: to challenge this denial, and helped set up some of the first minority? f0cused AIDS events.22 r If Two of the earliest national conferences on AIDS in People of Cdlor communities were organized by lesbians and gay men. The Third World Advisory Task Force, a primarily gay group out of San Frafici— sco, organized a western regional conference in the ‘early partfiof 1986.23 The National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, a pro- gressive national membership organization structured around 1 cal \ .243 372 Cathy ]. Cohen chapters, organized the “National Conference on AIDS in the Black Community” in Washington DC in 1986. This conference, which was co-sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council and the Na— tional Conference of Black Mayors, was funded in part from a grant from the United States Public Health Service.24 Further, black gay men across the country, from Washington DC to New York to Oakland to San Francisco to Los Angeles were instrumental in helping to establish some of the first AIDS service organizations explicitly identifying minority communities as their target population. Additionally, black gay organizations such as Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) of New York City have been and continue to be essential in educational efforts seeking to reach large numbers of black men.“ “ A number of factors were helpful in laying the groundwork for the response from black gay men and lesbians. The information this group received from white gay activists was extremely helpful. The realiz- ation that some black gay men and lesbians also possessed limited access and economic privilege was useful in developing contacts and pooling resources. Further, the personal experiences of loss which brought together and raised the awareness of blacki‘lesbians and gay men were undoubtedly instrumental in motivating some response. Finally, “out” black gays and lesbians were in the position of being less vulnerable to the moral judgments of traditional institutions in the black community. Becausenftheinpublieidentity.asahlflfifiififibiéfl 0r gauges these individuals. sregdrsaslmsz.Challssgs the marginalizing LCIEQILEYA s9 I1. IDS- ThasasthexatflféfiiEéEEEfiihe eastern 1:, m -thesiarigsts,,,9,t,.£hj§.gr Vtng snidssliCa themsiwlence and oncewbeen a ,gfutlieflsurvival cont, ‘ngerfleggist if lives -lesiiiaaeaséisét a. .. AIDS and Policing Black Sexuality While I have just noted some of the activities initiated by black lesbian and gay men in response to this epidemic, the devastation incurred from AIDS in black communities is clearly represented in the numbers. In New York City, as in other major metropolitan areas, AIDS is now the number one killer of black men ages 25—44 and women ages 18—44. Nationally, 114,868 Black Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS, accounting for 32 percent of all AIDS cases, nearly three times our 12—percent representation in the general population. Black women comprise 54 percent of all women with AIDS nationally, with Contested Membership _ 3 73 black children constituting 55 percent of all children with AIDS, and black men accounting for 28 percent of men with AIDS. If these numbers were not sobering enough, the trend of increasing repre- sentation of those with AIDS from People of Color communities suggest that these numbers will only continue to increase in the fu- ture.26 Thus, in the face of such substantial and increasing devastation being visited upon the black community through the AIDS epidemic, one might reasonably expect members or at least leaders of black com— munities to actively mobilize community support around demands for more resources, attention, and action in response to this disease. However, the evidence suggests that the response from black com— munity leaders and activists has been much less public, confronta- tional, collective, and consistent than the statistics might dictate. Further, any cursory comparative examination of the political re~ sponse emanating from predominately white lesbian and gay activists to this disease suggests that black organizations and institutions have been less active around this crisis. Over the years, members of gay and lesbian communities have found old and new ways to make officials, institutions, and at times the general public answer some of their demands.27 Gay activists have developed sophisticated political tactics to respond to the indifference and hostility that the government and other institutions display toward People with AIDS. Rallies, sit—ins, lobbying, private meetings, civil disobedience, “phone zaps,” few things seem too far out-of—bounds to make people listen and respond. And while the gay community has mounted a coordinated effort of traditional politics and public collective action to the AIDS epidemic, the response in the black community has been much less pervasive, public, and effective. Again, through the work of primarily black gay activists, important conferences and forums have been sponsoreds to educate members of black communities on the dangers of AIDS. @r- ganizations like the Minority Task Force on AIDS and the Black Leadership Commission on AIDS have been established to provide services and develop educational programs for members of black crim- munities. National leaders have even on occasion made mentioriiof AIDS in their speeches to black constituents. However, generally tljhre has been nosubstantial and sustained mobilization around this ctiisis in African-American communities. There have been few, if any, ralliiies, sit-ins, or petitions in black communities to bring attention to {the devastation created by AIDS. There has been no sustained lobbying effort on the part of national black organizations like the NAAC . or the Urban League. Instead, many in the black community continue to 374 Cat/9y ]. Cohen see AIDS as a horrible disease, believing that we should extend sym— pathy and compassion to its “victims,” but claim no ownership as a community. AIDS is generally not understood as an internal political crisis that necessitates the mobilization of black communities. Even when AIDS is seen as ,a conspiracy against black communities, by the government or some other entity, no mobilization accompanies such suspicion.28 For most in black communities, AIDS is still a disease of individuals, usually “irresponsible, immoral, and deviant” individuals, some of whom happen to be Black. Quite often, when trying to explain the response to AIDS in black communities, authors retreat to the familiar and substantively import— ant list of barriers preventing a more active response from community leaders and organizations. Regularly topping this list is the claim that because black communities have fewer resources than most other groups they cannot be expected to respond to AIDS in a manner similar to “privileged” lesbians and gay men. And while there is_truth to the claim that most black people operate with limited atcess to resources, this explanation is based on a very narrOW conception of resources and a very limited understanding of the history of the black community. Most of the cities hardest hit by this disease (New York, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta) have been or are currently headed by black mayors. Thus, while black individuals suffer from limited resources, black elected officials control, or at least have significant input into, decisions about how resources will be allocated in their cities. Further, while individuals in the black com— munity still suffer from marginalization and oppression, organizations like the NAACP, the SCLC, and the Urban League have been able to gain access to national agencies and policy debates. Thus the claim that black people have fewer resources than other groups, while accur— ate at the individual level, does not appropriately account for the institutional resources controlled or accessed by black elected officials and traditional organizations. A second explanation that is sometimes offered focuses on the numerous crises plaguing black communities. Proponents of this View argue that members of the black community suffer from so many ailments and structural difficulties, such as sickle—cell anemia, high blood pressure, sugar diabetes, homelessness, persistent poverty, drugs, crime, discrimination . . . that no one should expect community leaders to turn over their political agenda to the issue of AIDS. Again, this position has merit, for in fact we know that black communities do suffer disproportionately from most social, medical, economic, and political ills. It is, however, specifically because of the inordinate Contested Membership 3 75 amount of suffering found in black communities that we might expect more attention to this disease. Because AIDS touches on, or is related to, so many other issues facing, in particular poor black communities — healthcare, poverty, drug use, homelessness, etc. — we might reason- ably expect black leaders to “use” the devastation of this disease to develop and reinforce an understanding of the enormity of the crisis facing black communities. Rarely does an issue so readily embody the life and death choices facing a community and rarely is an issue so neglected by the leadership of that community. Still others have suggested that, along with the lack of resources and the encompassing social problems of the black community, there exist numerous other issues which discourage black communities from tak- ing any active ownership regarding this epidemic. For example, the portrayal of AIDS as a disease of white gay men in dominant media sources as well as in many community papers communicates that this epidemic does not threaten and need not interest the majority of black people. Further, the fact that when coverage around AIDS and black communities is provided it often continues the historical practice of framing or associating black" people/Africa with disease (i.e. discussion of the origin of AIDS in Africa) helps reinforce a look-the—other—way attitude by indigenous leaders and organizations.29 Again while both of these factors clearly play a part in understanding the community’s response, I contend they still leave vacant a centralw'component in this puzzle over black communities’ lack of mobilization around AIDS. Recently, scholars who study AIDS and black communities have begun to point to the issue of homophobia in the black community as the missing piece in our puzzle.30 In this context their concern is not just with homophobia among individuals, but more importantly with the homophobia 10cated and rooted in indigenous institutions like ithe black church, fraternal and social organizations, as well as some national political organizations. Different variants of this arguingent suggest that it is the black community’s homophobia that significantly structures its response, or lack thereof, to AIDS in black com— munities .31 1» While we must pay attention to homophobia in the black commuiiity ‘ as one source of disinformation about AIDS, I do not believe thatithe concept or‘explanation of homophobia adequately captures the com— pleXity of sexuality, in particular lesbian and gay sexuality, in black communities. This is not to say that homophobia, as a general progess of socialization that we all endure, is not a part of black communities. However, homophobia as the fear or even hatred of gay and leslivfian people does not represent the intricate role that sexuality has played in 5% ii i F: 376 Cathy ]. Cohen defining “blackness” throughout the years. Sexuality, or what has been defined by the dominant society as the abnormal sexuality of both black men and women — with men being oversexed and in search of white women, while black women were and are represented as promiscuous baby producers when they are not the direct and indirect property of white men — has been used historically and Currently in this country to support and justify the marginal and exploited position of black people. Scholars such as Takaki, Steinberg, Davis, Lewis, and Omi and Winant have all attempted, through various approaches, to detail the waysin which dominant groups, often with state sanctioning, have defined and redefined racial classification for their benefit and profit.32 Whether it be the one-drop rule, one’s maternal racial lineage, simplis— tic evaluations of skin color, or some other combination of biological, cultural, or behavioral attributes, ideas of who is to be classified as black have had a long and varied history in this country. However, beyond the mere designation of who belongs in a particular group, dominant groups have also engaged in the proceSsjrof defining racial group meaning. Those characteristics or stereotypes propagated as representing the “essence” of black people have been constructedand informed by particular historical needs. Ideas about the laziness, infe- riority, and in particular the sexual or abnormal sexual activity of black people have been advanced to justify any number of economic, political, and social arrangements. This systematic degradation, stereotyping, and stigmatization of Black Americans has all but dictated that attempts at incorporation, integration, and assimilation on the part of black peopleygenerally include some degree of proving ourselves to be “just as nice as those white folks.” Thus, leaders, organizations, and institutions have con- sistently attempted. to redefine and indigenously construct a new public image or understanding of what blackness would mean. This process of reconstructing or [im]proving blackness involves not only a reliance on the self-regulation of individual black people, but also includes significant “indigenous policing” of black people. Consistently, in the writings of black academics we hear reference to the role of the black middle class as examples and regulators of appropriate behavior for the black masses. Drake and Cayton, in their 1945 classic Black Metropolis, discuss the attitude of the black upper class toward the behavior of black lower classes. The attitude of the upper class toward the lower is ambivalent. As people Whose standards of behavior approximate those of the white middle n75 Contested Membership . 377 class, the members of Bronzeville’s upper class resent the tendency of outsiders to “judge us all by what ignorant Negroes do.” They emphasize their differentness. . . . The whole orientation of the Negro upper class thus becomes one of trying to speed up the process by which the lower class can be transformed from a poverty—stricken group, isolated from the general stream of American life, into a counterpart of middle’class Ameri— ca. [emphasis from original text]33 Regulation of the black masses was often pursued not only by individuals, but also by an extensive network of community groups and organizations. James R. Grossman details how the Urban League in conjunction with black and white institutions worked to help black migrants “adjust” to urban standards of behavior. : The Urban League and the Defender, assisted by the YMCA, the larger churches, and a corps of volunteers, fashioned a variety of initiatives designed to help — and pressure — the new comers to adjust not only to industrial work, but to urban life, northern racial patterns, and behavior that would enhance the reputation of blacks in the larger (white) com— munity . . . The Urban League, through such activities as “Stranger Meet— I ings,” leafleting, and door—to—door visits, advised newcomers on their duties as citizens: cleanliness, sobriety, thrift, efficiency, and respectable, restrained behavior in public places . . . Under the tutelage of the respect— able citizens of black Chicago, migrants were to become urbanized, northernized, and indistinguishable from others of their race. At the very least, they would learn to be as inconspicuous as possible.34 It is important to remember that a substantial amount of indigenous policing focused on what would be represented publicly as the sexual behavior of black people. Community leaders’and organizations, fight— ing for equal rights, equal access, and full recognition as citizens, struggled to “clean up” the image of sexuality in black communities. Cornel West, in Race Matters, discusses the unwillingness of ifiost black institutions to engage in open discussions of sexuality in hijack r . communities. j, But these grand yet flawed black institutions refused to engage on: i: s fundamental issue: black sexuality. . , . Why was this so? Primarily because these black institutions putz premium on black survival in America. And black survival requirdél accommodation with and acceptance from white America. Accommod‘i} tion avoids any sustained association with the subversive and tranlri— gressive — be it communisms or miscegenation . . . And acceptance meaiit that only “good” negroes would thrive — especially those who left bladgk \ C 5 it my? 378 Cathy ]. Cohen sexuality at the door when they “entered” and “arrived.” In short, struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with white America: avoid any substantive engagement with black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is, at least, possible.” Thus, individuals who were thought to fulfill stereotypes of black sexuality as something deviant or other often had their morality ques— tioned by leading institutions in black communities. For instance, sexuality thought to stand outside the Christian mores as set down by the black church was constructed and interpreted as an indication of the moral character of that individual and their family as well as an embarrassment to the collective consciousness and cultural capital" of the black community. Hazel Carby discusses the moral panic and threat to the collective respectability of black communities attributed to uncontrolled migrating black women in her article “Policing the Black Woman’s Body.” The need to police and discipline the behavior of blacknwomen in cities, however, was not only a premise of white agencies and institutions but also a perception of black institutions and organizations, and the black middle class. The moral panic about the urban presence of apparently uncontrolled black women was symptomatic of and referenced aspects of the more general crises of social displacement and dislocation that were caused by migration. White and black intellectuals used and elaborated this discourse so that when they referred to the association between black women and vice, or immoral behavior, their references carried connota— tions of other crises of the black urban environment. Thus the migrating black woman could be variously situated as a threat to the progress of the race; as a threat to the establishment of a respectable urban black middle class; as a threat to congenial black and white middle—class relations; and as a threat to the formation of black masculinity in an urban environ— 36 ment. While these examples may seem dated, we need only look around today to see the great efforts many black leaders and academics engage in to distance themselves from those perceived to participate in “inap- propriate immoral sexual behavior.” Examples of such distancing efforts are evident not only in the absence of any sustained writing on black lesbians and gay men by black authors and academics, but are also found in the counter—experience of unending writing and policy attacks on the “inappropriate” and “carefree” sexuality of those label3e7d the “underclass” and more generally black women on wel- fare. ' A Contested Membership 379 I want to be clear that contests or opposition to the public repre— sentation of black gay male sexuality in particular and non—normative sexuality in general is significantly motivated by a genuine threat to the cultural capital acquired by some in black communities, where cultural capital symbolizes the acceptance, access, and privilege of primarily black middle— and upper-class people.38 Thus, for many black leaders and activists, visible/public black homosexuality is understood to threaten that “cultural capital” acquired by both assimilation and protest. From such a perspective the policing or regulation of black gay and lesbian behavior/visibility is seen as the responsibility not only of dominant institutions, but also leaders of indigenous institutions who can claim that they are protecting the image and progress of “the race/community. ” And it is through the fulfillment of these communal duties that internal ideas and definitions of blackness, thought to help with the task of regulation, emerge. These definitions set the rules that to be a “good” or “true” black person you must adhere to some religious standards of appropriate sexual behavior. To be a true black man is antithetical to being gay, for part of your duty as a black man is to produce “little black Warriors in the interest of the Black nation.” The rules continue suggesting that to be gay is to be a pawn of a white genocidal plot, intent on destroying the black community. To be gay is to want to be white anyway, since we all know that there is no tradition of homosexuality in our African historyil‘Thus, to be gay is stand outside the norms, values, and practices of the community, putting your “true” blackness into question. In his article “Some Thoughts on the Challenges Facing Black'Gay Intellectuals,” Ron Simmons details just some of the arguments made by national (and nationalist) Black leaders such as Nathan Hare, Jawanza Kunjufu', Molefi Asante, Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Barakaand Yosuf Ben-Jochannan which seek to undermine claims of an 3‘ powered, fully recognized black gay identity.” Specifically, Sim outlines what he considers to be the four major categories orre provided by these scholars for the development of homosexua the Black community. In reviewing African American literature, one finds that black horn phobic and heterosexist scholars believe homosexuality in the African American community is the result of: (1) the emasculation of black by white oppression (e.g., Staples, Madhubuti, Asante, Farrakhan, Baraka); (2) the breakdown of the family structure and the loss of m' le role models (e.g. Kunjufu, Madhubuti, Farrakhan, and Hare); (3) la sinister plot perpetuated by diabolical racists who want to destroy t ie l i i .wvnj. awn...“ . a . 380 Cat/7y ]. Cohen black race (e.g. Hare); and (4) immorality as defined in biblical scriptures, Koranic suras, or Egyptian “Books of the Dead” (e.g. Farrakhan and Ben-Jochannan).40 It is important to recognize that while these authors all see homosex— uality as something devised and infiltrated from outside the black community, none or very few are advocating directly that black gay men and women be fully rejected and excluded from the community; And that is not the claim I seek to make with regards to the contested nature of black gay identities. Instead, many of the scholars in Sim- mons’ analysis argue that homosexuality must be understood as a threat to the survival of the black community. Thus, they ask that black lesbians and gay men suppress their sexuality, keep quite, remain undemanding, and make their needs subservient to the “collective” needs of the community. Simmons cites Molefi Asante as directly promoting such a subservient position in his book Afrocentricity: Afrocentric relationships are based upon . . . what is' best for the collec- tive imperative of the people . . . All brothers who are homosexuals should know that they too can become committed to the collective will. It mefinflthe submergence of their own wills into the collective will of our peop e. Simmons identifies similar ideas of inclusion without empowerment for black gay men and lesbians in Nathan and Julia Hare’s book The Endangered Black Family. They write, On the other hand —- and this is crucial —- we will refuse to embark on one more tangent of displaced contempt and misdirected scorn for the homo- sexualized [sic] black brothers or sisters and drive them over to the camp of white liberal—radical-moderate—establishment coalition. What we must do is offer the homosexual brother or sister a proper compassion and acceptance without advocacy . . . Some of them may yet be saved. And yet, we must declare open warfare upon the sources of [their] confusion [emphasis added].42 Again, the proscription these authors offer is not the complete rejec— tion of black lesbian and gay men. Instead, they suggest a quiet acceptance “without advocacy.” It is within this analysis that we again see the conflictual nature of black gay identity as it has been repeatedly defined in the black community. It is an identity that allows inclusion, but only under certain restrictions — denying any attempt 'at the em- powerment of this segment of the black community. For these leaders Contested Membership 3 8 1 homophobia or the hatred of black gays and lesbians does not fully explain their position of silent inclusion. Thus, the “sin” that black lesbians and gay men commit is not just rooted in the inherent wrong~ ness of their sexual behavior, but instead or just as importantly in. their perceived weakness and cost to black communities. We can now understand why homophobia, as a simple makeshift explanation to represent the complexity of sexuality in black com— munities, is inadequate. Instead, to analyze black communities’ re— sponse to AIDS we must address a whole set of issues, including dominant representations of black sexuality, how these ideas/stereo— types have been used against black communities, and the perceived need to regulate black sexuality through indigenous definitions of blackness. From this starting point we may be better able to under— stand, although never accept, the range of opposition black gay men encounter as stemming not only from people’s repudiation of the idea of sex between men, but also from the use of sexuality by dominant groups to stigmatize and marginalize further a community already under siege. 7 Again, it is important to note that what is at stake here is the question of membership, full empowered membership in black com— munities. Thus, visibility, access to indigenous resources, participation and acknowledgement in the structuring of black political agendas all are put into question when one’s blackness is contested. And un- doubtedly, there exist many factors that contribute to the black com— munity’s response to AIDS, including a real deficiency in community resources as well as a real mistrust of government—sponsored informa- tion on health care and disease in black communities.43 However, I believe that a significant part of the explanation for the lack of forceful action around AIDS is directly tied to ideas and definitions of “black identity” put forth by indigenous leaders, institutions and organiza— tions. These definitions of “blackness” stand in direct contrast t" the images and ideas associated with those living with AIDS 0 ‘3 (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) in black communities. In particifllar, these indigenous constructions of “blackness” define behavior lijjked to the transmission of HIV as immoral and an embarrassnjijent, threatening to the status and survival of community members. a ' Having laid out this argument concerning the contestation of [flack gay identity and its impact on political responses to AIDS in Black communities, it is important to provide, even briefly, a conézfijrete example of the way an indigenous institution such as the black ch[xj1rch defines and responds to the needs of black gay men in the era of AjIDS. I will also try to highlight a few of the ways black gay men have [ 382 Cat/2y ]. Cohen responded to the secondary marginalization they have experienced through black churches. Again, I use the church merely as an illustra— tion of the process of marginalization and identity contestation in which numerous indigenous institutions engage. “The Black Church” Activists and scholars often have focused on the activity of the black church to understand and explain the political behavior of members of the black community, since traditionally the church has been perceived as the glue and motor of the community. If any activity was to touch every segment of the community it was believed that such efforts must be based in the black church. The work of Aldon Morris linking the black church to the civil—rights movement is a classic example of the role the black church is thought to play in struggles for liberation and rights.44 However, even prior to the civil—rights movement the 'black church was used to build movements of freedomflglt was the black church that acted as meeting space, school, healthcare facility, and distributor of food, from slavery to Reconstruction, through the years of northern migration and the decades of Jim Crow segregation. In her article on the new social role of black churches Hollie I. West com— ments, “African American churches have traditionally served as a refuge from a hostile white world, beehives of both social and political activity. ”45 However, with the advent of AIDS, drug epidemics, and the increas— ing poverty and stratification of black communities, some organizers and activists are beginning to question the central authority given to the church. West suggests in her article that AIDS is a problem that pulls the church in two directions. “Some clergymen privately acknow- ledge the dilemma. They recognize the need to confront AIDS and drugs, but conservative factions in their congregations discourage involvement?“ It has been a conservative ideology, based on strict norms of “moral” behavior, that has often framed the church’s re- sponse to many of the controversial social issues facing black com— munities. Gail Walker briefly delineates the contradictory nature of the black church: The dual — and contradictory — legacy of the African—American church is that it has been among the most important instruments of African—Ameri— can liberation and at the same time one of the most conservative institu- tions in the African-American community.“ Contested Membership 3 83 The position of the black church on the issue of homosexuality has seemed fairly straightforward, but in fact it has both public and private dimensions. Holding with the teaching of most organized religions, members of black churches assert that homosexual behavior is immo— ral and in direct contrast to the word of God. Black ministers have consistently spoken out and preached against the immorality and threat posed to the community by gays and lesbians. Recently, black ministers from numerous denominations in Cleveland, Ohio organized in opposition to federal legislation to include gay men and lesbians under the protection of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. These ministers, representing themselves as “true leaders” of the black church, wrote in the local black newspaper, the Call and Post: We as members and representatives of African American protestant congregations reaffirm our identity as THE BLACK CHURCH. . . . We View HOMOSEXUALI'IY (including bisexual, as well as gay or lesbian sexual activity) as a lifestyle that is contrary to the teaching of the Bible. Such sexual activity and involvement is contrary to the pattern estab— lished during creation. Homosexual behavior in the Bible is forbidden and described as unnatural and perverted. . . . Our attitude toward any individuals that are involved in/with a HOMO- SEXUAL LIFESTYLE is expressed through tolerance and compassion. The church’s mission is to bring about RESTORATION . . .48” However, at the same time that condemnation of gay and lesbian sexual behavior is a staple of the black church, it is also a well-known fact that black gay men, in particular, can be found in prominent positions throughout the church. Thus, black gay men involved in the activities of black churches are faced with ‘a familiar dilemma: they have the choice of being quietly accepted as they sing in the cliurch choir, teach Sunday School, and in some cases even preach from? the pulpit, or they can be expelled from the church for participating in blasphemous behavior. Nowhere in this choice does the idea of ificlu— sion as fully recognized and empowered members exist. Thus, acdbrd- ing to religious doctrine, black lesbian and gay members the community are to be embraced and taken care of in a time of rifeed. However, their gay identity places them outside the indigenously icon; structed boundaries of both Christian and black identification asllrec— ognized by the church. AIDS activists argue that a moral framework rooted‘in middle—glass values of assimilation and dominant ideas of Christianity has been used to justify the church’s moral condemnation of black gay menliand 384 Cat/7y Cohen injection drug users. And it is this same moral framework that struc— tures the church’s understanding and reaction to AIDS in the black community. Nowhere recently has this principle of silent acceptance and care at the expense of a public denunciation been more evident than in struggles around the church’s response to AIDS in black communities. It has been the contradictory nature of church actions and rhetoric that continues to frustrate many AIDS activists who looked to it initially for a swift, compassionate, and empowering response. Activists and those providing services claim that the church did little to nothing early in the epidemic to deal with this impending crisis for black communities. Further, when members of the church elite finally did mobilize, it was with negative judgments and pity. Dr. Marjorie Hill, former Director of New York City’s Office of Lesbians and Gay Concerns under Mayor David Dinkins, explains that the church’s history of activism is muted with regards to AIDS because of its insistence on denying public recognition of lesbian and gay com- munity members. Historically, activism in the black community has come from the church. However, the reluctance of the church to respond to AIDS means they are not following the mission of Christ. . . . The church has not dealt with the issue of homosexuality. Many have Gays who sing in the choir and play the organ and that is fine until they need the church’s help and recogni— tion. . . . Denial only works for so long, the reality of gay men and ‘ women will eventually have to be dealt with.” There are others who argue that the church is making progress. For their part, church members point to the numerous AIDS ministries that have been established to deal with AIDS in black communities. They highlight what seems like revolutionary strides in the ability of black ministers to even‘mention AIDS from the pulpit. And while black lesbian and gay leaders commend those who engage in efforts to identify comfortable ways for black ministers and congregations to deal with the devastation of AIDS in their communities, they still contend that there remains an absence of full recognition of the rights and lives of those infected with this disease. The saying “love the sinner, hate the sin,” is paramount in understanding the limited re- sponse of black clergy. Gay men are to be loved and taken care of when they are sick, but their loving relationships are not to be recognized nor respected. Most individuals affected by this disease can tell at least , one story of going to a funeral of a gay man and never having their gay identity recognized as well as neverhearing the word AIDS mentioned. Contested Membership 3 85 Family members and ministers are all too willing to grieve the loss of a son or church member, without ever acknowledging the total identity of that son. Lost to AIDS is not only the son loved so clearly, but the totality of his life which included lovers and gay friends who also grieve for that loss. It is important that we not lose sight off the fundamental obstacle to the church’s whole hearted response to AIDS, and that is its adherence or reliance on a strict middle—class Christian code, which holds that behavior that transmits the virus is immortal, sinful, and just as importantly for the argument presented here, costly to the com— munity’s status and standing. Thus, until church leaders are ready to discuss issues of sexuality, drug use, and homosexuality in an inclusive discourse, their ability to serve the entire community as well as con— front, instead of replicate, dominant ideologies will be severely in— hibited. Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York City has been one of the few black clergy who has openly called on the church to open up its dialogue concerning AIDS. In a keynote address at the 1991 Harlem Week of Prayer, Rev. Forbes declared that until the black church deals with fundamental issues such as sexuality in an inclusive and accepting manner, it will never be able to deal adequately with the AIDS epidemic in the black community. While ministers like Rev. Forbes preach the need for the church to reevaluate its stance on fundamental judgments of human sexuality, others believe that we may have seen the church move about as far as its going to go. Except for those exceptional congregations committed to a liberation theology, the provision of services for those with AIDS may be the extent of the church’s response, because for many clergy there is no way to reconcile behavior that can lead to the transmission of the virus to the. doctrine of the Christian church. Rev. Calvin Butts of Absynnian Baptist Church in Harlem explains, I The response of the church is getting better. At one time the church didrijt respond and when the church did respond it was negative. Ministerlfii thought that a negative response was in keeping with the thinking AIDS was transmitted by homosexual transmission, drugs, you knovti,E But as more thoughtful clergy became involved issues of compassiori entered the discussion and we used Jesus’ refuge in the house of lepers an example. People became more sympathetic when people close to thii church were affected. Also the work of BLCA [Black Leadershi Commission on AIDS] brought clergy together to work on our sponse. Unfortunately, there are still quite a few who see it as God’ik‘, l ‘ . retribution. : WI“. _.. A? 386 Cathy ]. Cohen However, in an environment where their identity is contested and their full rights and connection with black communities is negated, many black lesbian and gay leaders are actively developing ways to ignore the dictates and challenge the power of the church, especially as it affects AIDS organizing. One such strategy has focused on black gay and lesbian leaders as well as AIDS activists identifying other ways to do effective work in the community without the help of the church. There‘are those who suggest that it does not matter whether the church responds because the church no longer touches those parts of the community most at risk for this disease. Colin Robinson, former staff member at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and currently executive director of the organization Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) explains that “the church is still hooked on sin, but compromised by sin. They will take care of you when you get sick, but they won’t talk about it and that is no way to provide effective education.”1 George Bellinger, Jr., a member of GMAD and former Education Director of the Minority Task Force on AIDS in New York, suggests that"‘We put too much status in the church. They aren’t connected to the affected populations and they bring with them all kinds of middle—class values.“2 ' Others in the community have gone beyond developing AIDS education strategies to focus directly on challenging the teaching of the church about homosexuality, especially as black gay identities are offered as a contrast to the indigenous constructed image of “good black Christian folk.” These individuals seek out leaders inside the community, like Rev. James Forbes, who have publicly challenged the representations of more conservative clergy. These ac— tivists seek a leadership that will embrace the idea of an empowered black lesbian and gay community. In the absence of these individ— uals, black gay activists have taken up the task of building their own religious institutions in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, that will put forth a different interpretation of biblical scripture. All of these oppositional strategies contest the stigma of a black gay identity as constructed by the black church. Black gay activists under— stand that to engage the black community on the issue of AIDS as well as lesbian and gay rights they must contest and challenge the church’s declaration and labeling of gay and lesbian lifestyles as immoral. Further, black lesbian and gay activists must take on the task of redefining themselves as integral, connected, and contributing mem- bers of the community, so as to access the community support we most desperately need. Contested Membership 387 Conclusion: A Few Last Comments The goal of this chapter was to explore, in some concrete fashion, the contested nature of identity within marginal communities. For far too long we have let assumptions of a stable, homogeneous group direct our attention to a framework of analysis that focuses on struggles between dominant and marginal groups. Left largely unexplored by social scientists are the internal struggles within marginal communities threatening to severely change the basis and direction of group politics. Throughout this paper I have attempted to explore how identities are constructed and contested and how in this case such disputes in— fluenced the politics of AIDS in black communities. Central to this entire discussion has been the idea that group identity, or at least the way many of us conceptualize it, has changed over the years. We can no longer work from an essentialist position, in which all marginal people, in particular all black people, are assumed to have the same standing within their communities. Instead, we must pay‘ attention to the battles for full inclusion waged within these communities, be~ cause these battles provide important signals to the future political direction of the community. In the case of AIDS, it is fairly clear that the vulnerable status and contested identities of those most often associated with this disease in the black community, injection ‘drug users and gay men, severely impacts on the community’s response to the epidemic. And while indigenous institutions and leaders have increasingly demon- strated a willingness to fight political battles over AIDS funding and discrimination, there have been few attempts by these same leaders to redefine the community’s battle against AIDS as a political fight for the empowerment of the most marginal sectors of‘the community. However, the battle around AIDS and who has full access togithe resources and consciousness of the community does not stand alone. Similar battles are being waged around other issues, such as jfi'the “underclass.” Those on the outside, those designated as “less tlijan, secondary, bad, or culturally deviant,” are developing new ways; to challenge politically a cohesive group unity that rejects their claimjs; at ft- representation and in many cases ignores thelr needs. These indijzgld5 uals, like the black gay men discussed in this paper, can no lonlfger afford to support a leadership that is content to have them seenl‘f in some cases blamed, but not heard. Thus, if there is one larger implication of this work that needs fur Iher investigation, it is how marginal groups facing increasing stratificajjon and multiple social identities will adjust to build a somewhat unified l j l 388 Cat/9y ]. Cohen identity for the pursuit of political struggles. The importance of groups in our political system cannot be denied. In a pluralistic political system access is usually based on the grouping of individuals with some shared interest, with these individuals pooling resources and influence to impact policy decisions. The role of collective mobiliza- tion becomes especially important for marginal groups with a history of being denied access to dominant political structures. These marginal groups often find themselves excluded and defined out of the political process. Thus, African Americans grouped together by the socially constructed category of race have found their political access re— stricted. Only through coming together to redefine their marginal identity into a new identity which both unifies and empowers the multiple segments of the community could any political battles hope to be won. In black communities the presence of increasing stratification and heterogeneity, as is evident in the community’s mixed response to AIDS, raises the question of the utility of race as a basis upon Which to build political movements. There are some scholarsgtwho suggest that race is of dwindling importance in understanding “the life choices and conditions of most black people, and instead argue that class as it interacts with urban (inner-city) residency should be replaced as the defining explanation of the “black experience” in contemporary United States. While I do not subscribe to the school that race is unimportant, I do believe that African Americans face a crisis in identity. It is true that other social identities, such as gender, class, sexual orientation, and geographic location, are taking on greater significance in determining the experiences of group members. With— out some increased recognition of the broadening of identities through which people exist in and understand the world, black leaders, scho- lars, and activists may end up so out of touch with the experiences of most people that they fill no real function in the community and thus are left to talk to themselves. Thus, as social scientists we must proceed with our study of groups and group identity in new and innovative ways. First and foremost, we must again see the group as a unit of analysis with special attention paid to the internal structure of marginal groups. Second, we must pay attention to and recognize new or newly acknowledged identities. Where once we struggled to include gender, race, and class in our multivariate regressions as well as our classroom discussions, we now have the opportunity to explore group identities such as lesbian and gay identities which were once thought to be outside the realm of importance to “real” political scientists.” And finally, as we focus on Contested Membership 389 the group and include more groups in the picture we must accept the fact that ideas of essentialist, stable identities in which homogenous groups act as one in calculating risk and determining strategy must be dismissed or revised. Gone are the biological and essentialist concep— tions of group formation. They have been replaced with an emphasis on social construction and contextual meaning. Overall, I believe that we must develop a new approach to under— standing identity and its role in structuring politics and political beha— vior. This new approach assumes that identities are not only constructed, they are also challenged and contested. As difficult and reluctant as political scientists often are to incorporate change into our understandings of politics, this new approach to understanding and studying group identity both promises and threatens to reconstruct our social science playing fields. There are new players to identify, there are old groups to redefine, and there are new actions which should be interpreted as political. Undoubtedly, our old favorites of race, class, and gender will remain, but the internal restructuring of those identities may change as common agendas and assumed “unity” are challenged. In the end what all of this may mean is that those of us interested in the group as a unit of analysis, those of us interested in the developing agenda of marginal groups as they struggle for inclusron and/or equality, even those interested primarily in the individual, assessrng the role of group identity through dummy variables representing race, class, and gender in multivariate equations, may have to look a bit closer at what is really happening in these communities and groups. Who is being counted? Who is shaping the political agenda? How are stratification and contests over identity impacting on the internal unity needed to address a dominant system? And finally, how will this affect the politics of these groups as well as the larger society in the twenty-first century.”4 Notes A. ,. 1 For discussions of postmodern and deconstructive approaches e.g. Sylvia Walby, “Post—Post—Modernism? Theorizing Social Compleijfi‘ity,” Destabilizing Theory.- Contemporary Feminist Debates, M. Barrett A. Phillips (eds) (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1992), 31i—52; Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Thepry,” Feminism/Postmodernism, L. J. Nicholson (ed.) '(New York: Routliedge, 1990), 39-62; and Steven Seidman, “Identity and Politics in a ”Poshtriod— ern" Gay Culture: Some Historical and Conceptual Notes," Feargfof a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory, M. Warner (ed.) (Milinea- I polis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 105—42. l .Lr PL”. -_._A.Lc..a.awm..‘m;t; 390 Cathy ]. Cohen 2 First, it is important that we remember that social—constructionist theories come in different forms and different degrees. For such a discussion see Carole S. Vance, “Social Construction Theory: Problems in the History of Sexuality,” Homosexuality, Which Homosexuality? (London: GMP Pub- lishers, 19xx), 13—33. Second, it is also important to recognize that social constr‘uctionist theory is still relatively new to many fields Within the social sciences. So in the field of American Political Science, where quantitative analysis dominates as the methodology of choice, rivaled by formal theory, social—constructionist approaches to the study of groups have at best tangentially made any appearance. Finally, for examples of variants of social—constructionist approacheswto the field of race and black studies see among others Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance,” Sociological The— ories: Race and Colonialism (Paris: UNESCO, 1980), 305—45; Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Cultures (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1993); and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” Signs, 17 (2-), winter 1992: 251—74. I A, _ 3 By marginal communities I mean those groups an ascribed and certainly constructed identity that has historically and institutionally served as the basis for the exclusion, deprivation, and a distinction of other. . a 4 See e.g. Iris Marion Young, “The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference,” Feminism/Postmodernism, L. Nicholson (ed.)' (New York: Routledge, 1990), (30), 300—23; Shane Phelan, “(Be)Coming Out: Lesbian Identity and Politics,” Signs, 19 (30), spring 1994: 765—90;‘Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing‘ the Intersection of Race and Sex”: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989, pp. 139— 67; Lisa Lowe, “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences,” Diaspora, 1 ( 1), spring 1991: 24—44. 5 See e.g. Maria Lugones, “Purity, Impurity, and Separation,” Signs: journal of Women in Culture and Society, 19 (2), 1994: 45 8—79; and E. Frances White, “Africa on my Mind: Gender Counter Discourse and African- American Nationalism,” Journal of Women’s History, 2 (1), spring 1990: 73—97. 6 James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: The Hidden Transcript (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990). 7 For a full discussion of the process of secondary marginalization see Cathy J. Cohen, “Power, Resistance and the Construction of Crisis: Marginalized Communities Respond to AIDS,” unpublished manuscript, Dept. of Politi— cal Science, Yale University, 1993, pp. 72—5. . 8 See Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Two Nations . . . Both Black,” in Forbes, 150, Sept. 14, 1992: 132—5 for a subtle example of the indigenous evaluation 10 11 12 13 14 Contested Membership 391 and separation of members of the community into categories of “good and bad” or “industrious and culturally deficient” black people. 9 While several different segments of the black community have been associ— ated with AIDS, I focus this inquiry on the struggle around black gay male identity because it seems most illustrative of the ways in which contests over indigenously defined identities can impact on the politics of marginal communities. I should be clear that any number of organizations or leaders have con— structed ways to “deal” with AIDS without directly confronting or embrac— ing those stigmatized segments of black communities associated with this disease. Thus, you are much more likely to find “leaders” talking about the innocent children and women who are the victims of this disease in black communities than the gay men and intravenous drug users who suffer disproportionately in our communities. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990); Michael Warner (ed.), Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Teresa de Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities,” Differences, 3, 1991. Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Revieul, 181, May/June 1990: 115—16. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 19905, 2nd edn. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 55. See e.g. Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity (Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, Inc., 1988);Patricia Hill Collins, BlackilFeminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Harper—Collins Academic, 1990). See e.g. Cheryl Clarke, “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community,” Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, B. Smith (ed.) (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983), 197—208. I would caution the reader, however, not to discount the role that state—sponsored repression also played in leading to the destruction‘of many of these groups. It is now a well-documented fact that the FBI through the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) helped destiaoy many liberation groups, such as the Black Panther Party. . See Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay alid Lesbian Past, M. Duberman, M. Vicinus and G. Chauncey, Jr. (eds) (Ntiiv York: Meridian Books, 1990), 318—3 1; Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay Americlin History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA (New York: Meridian Books, 1992). i? bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Bostoiii: South End Press, 1989), 120—1. ‘ E" Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Out Therlie: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, R. Ferguson, M. Gever, T. Minh-ha and C. West (eds) (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1990), 25 . l i , \ 392 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 Cathy ]. Cohen John D’Emilio. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940—1970 (Chicago: Univer- sity of Chicago Press, 1983). Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua (eds), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Latham, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981); Barbara Smith (ed.),‘Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (Latham, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983); Esse Hemphill (ed.), Brothervto Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991); Joseph Beam (ed.), In The Life.- A Black Gay Anthology (Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1986). Ernest Quimby and Samuel R. Friedman, Social Problems, 36 (4), Oct. 1989. ' Ibid. 405. Ibid. Guy Weston, “AIDS in the Black Community,” BLACK/OUT, 1 (2), fall 1986: 13—15. There are conflicting views on the effectiveness of GMAD during the AIDS crisis. Some argue that in a crisis of this proportion GMAD's’hould be a leader in this fight, holding programs whenever possible. Other GMAD members suggest, however, that there are moi’e dimensions to the lives of black gay men than just the threat of AIDS. Thus it is the responsibility of GMAD to provide a supportive environment in which black gay men can dialogue and work on the opportunities and obstacles that structure their lives. While this debate will probably not be settled any time soon, I still believe, every time I see 75 black gay men at one of their meetings, that this is an example of the success of struggle. An example that needs work and adjustment, but a success still‘the same. ‘ US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HIV/AIDS Surveillance Re- port,” Year-end Edition, 1993, vol. 5 (no. 4). @NOTESI + = 2.7 Un— doubtedly, the organization most recognized as contributing to the organization of people in lesbian and gay communities is ACT UP (AIDS CoalitiOn To Unleash Power). See e.g. Josh Gamson, “Silence, Death, and the Invisible Enemy: AIDS Activism and Social Movement ‘Newness,’” in Social Problems, 36, (4) (Oct. 1989): 351—67. 28 Responses to a question from the 1993—4 National Black Politics Study on 29 30 the origin of AIDS found that nearly one— quarter (22 per cent) of African- American respondents agreed with the statement that “AIDS is a disease that is a result of an anti-black conspiracy.” Renee Sabatier, Blaming Others: Prejudice, Race and Worldwide AIDS (Washington: The Panos Institute, 1988); Cindy Patton Inventing AIDS (New York: Routledge, 1990). Harlon L. Dalton, “AIDS in Blackface,” The AIDS Reader: Social, Political and Ethical Issues, N. F. McKenzie (ed.) (New York: Meridan, 1991), 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 Contested Membership 3.‘ 122—43; Evelynn Hammonds, “Race, Sex, AIDS: The Construction or ‘Other,’” Radical America, 20 (6), 1987: 328—40; Phillip Brian Harper, “Eloquence and Epitaph: Black Nationalism and the Homophobic In] pulse in Responses to the Death of Max Robinson,” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, H. Abelove, M. A. Barable, and D. M. Halperin (eds) (New York: Routledge, 1993), 159—75. Now, before engaging in any discussion of homophobia in the black community these authors, as I myself do, make their obligatory claim that while we can talk about homophobia in the black community, this is not done to suggest that the black community is ‘more’ homophobic than any other community, in particular white “communities.” In fact, there is a reasonable argument that marginal groups, either because of an understanding of the outsider position or a lack of power to enforce their prejudices, have been more inclusive and accepting of lesbian and gay members relative to other groups rooted in dominant society. See Ronald Takaki, Strangers From a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans (New York: Penguin, 1990); Stephen Steinberg, The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989); F. James Davis, Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition (University Park, Penn: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991); Earl Lewis, “Race, The State, and Social Construction: The Multiple Meanings of Race in the Twentieth Cen— tury,” 1994, unpublished manuscript; Omi and Winant, Racial Formation. St Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 563. James R. Grossman,Land of Hope: Chicago, Black'Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 145—6. Cornel West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 86. Hazel V. Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body,” Critical Inquiry, 18, summer 1992: 741. For such a critique see Adolph L. Reed, Jr., “The ‘Underclass’ as Myth and Symbol: The Poverty of Discourse about Poverty,” Radical America, sum— mer 1991. For an example of such distancing see Gates, “Two Nations.” Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theoryiiand Research for the Sociology of Education, J. G. Richardson (ed.) ((New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 241—58. Ron Simmons, “Some Thoughts onthe Challenge Facing Black Gay Phtel— lectuals,” in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Meiji, E. Hemphill (ed.) (Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991). Ibid. 212. r Molefi Kete Asante, Afrocentricity: The Theory of Social Change (Bufiialo: Amulefi, 1980), 65. As cited in Simmons, “Some Thoughts,” 213. Nathan Hare and Julia Hare, The Endangered Black Family: Coping liaith the Unisexualization and Coming Extinction of the Black Race (San pian- cisco: Black Think Tank, 1984), 65. As cited in Simmons, “f)l)me Thoughts,” 214. ( 394 Cathy ]. Cohen 43 We need only remember the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to understand where such mistrust is rooted. See James H. Jones, Bad Blood: The Tuske— gee Syphilis Experiment — A Tragedy of Race and Medicine (New York: The Free Press, 1981); David McBride, From TB to AIDS: Epidemics Among Urban Blacks Since 1900 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); Evelynn Hammonds, “Race, Sex, AIDS: The Construction of Other,” Radical America, 20 (6), 1987: 28—36. 44 Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Com- munities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984). 45 Hollie 1. West, “Down from the Clouds: Black Churches Battle Earthly Problems,” Emerge, May 1990: 51. 46 West, “The New Cultural Politics,” 51. r 47 Gail Walker, “‘Oh Freedom’: Liberation and the African—American Church,” Guardian, Feb. 26, 1992, p. 10. 48 Rev. C. Jay Matthews, “The Black Church Position Statement on Homo— sexuality,” Call and Post, June 10, 1993, p. 5c. 49 Interview with Dr. Marjorie Hill. 50 Interview with Rev. Calvin Butts. 51 Interview with Colin Robinson. I 52 Interview with George Bellinger, Jr. ‘5‘“ 53 This formal recognition of groups, in particular marginal groups, has led to the inclusion of race, gender, and class into traditional studies of politics. Unfortunately, in many cases those scholars who studied these topics long before they were fashionable, in particular women and people of color, have not found their way into traditional routes of power within political-science organizations and departments. 54 The author would like to thank Franny Nudelman, Joshua Gamson, Debra Minkoff, Gordon Lafer, Vicky Hattam, Ian Shapiro, Rogers Smith, Alex Wendt, and members of the Yale University Ethics, Politics, and Economics Summer Reading Group for their helpful comments. All shortcomings are the full responsibility of the author. 17 Must Identity Movements Self—DestructP: A Queer Dilemma joshua Gamson a Focused passion and vitriol erupt periodically in the letters columns of San Francisco’s lesbian and gay newspapers. When the San Francisco Bay Times announced to “the community” that the 1993 Freedom Day Parade would be called “The Year of the Queer,” missives fired for weeks. The parade was what it always is: a huge empowerment party. But the letters continue to be telling. “Queer” elicits familiar argu— ments: over assimilation, over generational differences, over who is considered “us” and who gets to decide. ,, On this level, it resembles similar arguments in ethnic communities in which “boundaries, identities, and cultures, are negotiated, defined, and produced” (Nagel 1994: 152). Dig deeper into debates over queer- ness, however, and something more interesting and significant emer— ges. Queerness in its most distinctive forms shakes the ground on which gay and lesbian politics have been built, taking apart the ideas of a “sexual minority” and a “gay community,” indeed of “gay” and “lesbian” and even “man” and “woman.”1 It builds on central difficul— ties of identity—based organizing: the instability of identities both infli— Vidual and collective, their made—up yet necessary characterji It exaggerates and explodes these troubles, haphazardly attemptingfto build a politics from the rubble of deconstructed collective categories. This debate, and other related debates in lesbian and gay politics, (are not only over the content of collective identity (whose definitionlfof “gay” counts?), but over the everyday viability and political nsefulriess of sexual identities (is there and should there be such a thing as “galfig,” “lesbian,” “man,” “woman”?). . This paper, using internal debates from lesbian and gay politicsiias illustration, brings to the fore a key dilemma in contemporary idenfity politics, and traces out its implications for social—'movement theory 2 1nd ...
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