September 02, 2007

Gays, White Women, Controversy and Acceptance in the Black Family

Cross-posted at the Political Fleshfeast.

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Someone asked me pointedly in comments at Political Fleshfeast whether whites or Blacks are more homophobic. I think I can offer some insight into this question by discussing my own family's historical experience, comparing our reaction to a bichromatic marriage to our reaction to having a gay family member.

My father's family was from South Carolina and my mother's family was from West Virginia, but their parents moved to New York, where my mother and father met, went to college, and married in New York, back in the 1940's.

When my mother got a job as the first Black city planner in New Bedford, Massachusetts, my family moved there and I was born there shortly later. Since my father's two sisters and his parents remained in New York, as did my mother's parents and her four brothers and sisters, my mother and father often took us back to New York, where all of our extended family played out the drama which I will now recount.

My mother had four siblings, include my Uncle Joe and my aunt "Bertha." Around the year 1969, my uncle Joe married a white Russian woman, named Anna, who eventually came to own a big Black dog named Bimm, (which isn't relevant.)

When Uncle Joe was dating white Anna four decades ago, and then was engaged to marry white Anna, and then married white Anna, there was tremendous angst and deep recriminations within my family at every step of the way. At every family gathering there were deep political discussions about this bichromatic marriage, my uncles marriage to Anna. Didn't he love and respect Black women? Why was he slapping them in the face? This was an outrage, but nothing could be done about it, because my uncle Joe loved my aunt Anna, and my aunt Anna loved my Uncle Joe. They lived together in Jamaica, New York, a ten minute walk from Flushing Meadow Park. Since nothing could be done to compel them to separate, my family eventually accepted Anna as a family member.

Members of my family had color-aroused ideation (a Black man shouldn't marry a white woman) and color-aroused emotion (initially anger, hurt, sadness, jealousy), as well as color-aroused behavior (rejection, criticism, arguing). But, due to the courage, determination and perseverance of my uncle Joe and his white wife Anna, and our family's drive to love and accept one another even when we do not agree with one another, our family eventually overcame these symptoms of color-aroused disorder and Aunt Anna was accepted as a member of our family.

Later, as a young adult, when I went to visit family in New York, I often visited my uncle Joe and his wife Anna, playing game after game of chess with my uncle while he and Anna sipped Scotch. We had long conversations, and they contributed money and uncle Joe drove me to the airport when I went to Chile at the age of 18. (A couple of years later, when I married a woman from Chile, Anna's enormous Russian dog Bimm tore the pocket off of my wife's winter coat.) Anna was a member of the family. I accepted her and so did everyone else eventually, like it or not.

Compare that, however, to the case of my cousin Dennis, whom I eventually learned was gay: Nobody told me Dennis was gay when I was a child. Much older than me, Dennis must have been at least twenty years old when I was seven years old. From the first time my twin brother and I visited him in Jamaica, NY, after he moved out of his mother's house, he lived with an older Black man, whose name I cannot remember now. My cousin Dennis and his housemate, "Jessie," slept in the same room, ate together, and maintained their household together. They obviously had a deeply interdependent and committed friendship. Everyone knew them and their living arrangement was treated as utterly unremarkable.

When my mother and father took me, my twin, and the rest of our siblings to family reunions in New York, there were seven us of traveling from Massachusetts to New York, so my twin brother and I slept at one relative's house while my sister and older brothers and parents slept with other relatives, depending on beds available and whom they wanted to see the most.

I remember quite well the time when my twin brother and I stayed at the house of my cousin Dennis and the man whom I now suspect must have been his lover. Dennis was very kind to us and his housemate was very kind as well. I do remember that the bacon they had in the refrigerator smelled terrible when we cook it, and we had to throw it away. Aside from that, our stay at their house was warm and pleasant, and I would happily have visited them again.

Everyone in my family loved my cousin Dennis. He went to college, got a responsible job, supported himself and -- in a family with considerable drama -- his life was the least remarkable, really, of anyone's.

Eventually, I learned that Dennis was gay and that he was dying of AIDS. I went and spent a couple of days at his house as did my mother and, surely many relatives. I remember my mother telling me that Dennis had AIDS with the same sadness she had in her voice when she told that my uncles wife was dying of cancer. The death of loved ones is inherently sad. But, Dennis had a very close relationship with his mother and he lived with her throughout the last days of his life.

Like most American families, my family has had its share of drama, but the fact that my cousin Dennis was gay actually never rated at all on the drama scale. But, my Uncle Joe's marriage to his white wife Anna (who was eventually accepted and loved by most everyone until he died of stroke and she of cancer many years later) was an event that engendered considerable and sustained debate in my family. Compared to that, if my cousin Dennis's homosexuality and the fact that he lived with a man were ever debated, I was never aware of it.

So, based on my personal experience, I would say that marrying a white woman is much more likely to engender intra-family strife than being gay, living with another man in a committed relationship, and eventually dying of AIDS.

16 comments:

African American Political Pundit said...

"So, based on my personal experience, I would say that marrying a white woman is much more likely to engender intra-family strife than being gay, living with another man in a committed relationship, and eventually dying of AIDS."

AAPP: I agree with you, although there are many African American bloggers who would rather place their collective heads in the sand on this issue. I guess it's like many American black church's. It's something that we don't discuss. Thank you for posting your observations and opinions on this issue on your blog. At least I know there are a few progressive African American bloggers out there that are willing to address the issue of race, white women, white men, and being gay in the black community openly.

AAPP

Anne said...

I'm happy for your cousin that he was able to love who he wanted without interference. Obviously I don't know your family, but the situation reminds me of how some families just don't like to discuss certain "problems." Certain situations, like your uncle's marriage, are deemed a more socially acceptable topic for debate. But there are other situations that some people are more comfortable pretending don't exist. Black/white relationships must have been a very hot topic back then, and hard not to notice. On the other hand, it may have been more comfortable for people to tell themselves that two gay men were just roommates or buddies. The fact that you weren't completely clear on the nature of their relationship for a long time makes me wonder if that may have been the case.

I hear people say blacks do this and whites do that, but in my personal experience I haven't noticed any real difference in how they react to gays.

James said...

Your post help me understand this topic better, my brother has married white and it is a problem in a way, a gay family member would not be. Family gatherings would not be as tense

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

AAPP: Thanks for your support. After seeing your links over at MyDD, I'm now listening to NPR's interview with E. Lynn Harris, who is among my three favorite contemporary writers.

Anne: Some people are saying that we were in denial because we didn't discuss the sexual nature of my cousin's relationship. Well, how much do people really need to dicuss what others do sexually behind closed doors? Do we really need a clear idea of others' sexual habits or is it enough to just treat them as members of the community and let them be?

If a heterosexual couple DOESN'T have sex, do we need to know that? Are we in denial if we don't know that about them? Or are we just respecting their sexual privacy?

James: I'm glad this has been helpful and that it rings true for others based on your personal experience.

rikyrah said...

Francis,

You're at it again..LOL

The only male in my immediate family is my nephew. I thought long and hard about this question, and I suppose I'd have a much rougher time with him dating Snowflake than him being gay. But, I'd have to say, that even if he was gay, I don't want him bringing home Gay Snowflake either - LOL.

Anne said...

Aw come on, Francis. Many people DO wonder whether possible gay couples are just friends or if they're sleeping together because many people are nosy.
But sex isn't what I was referring to in my comment above. Gay rights/tolerance goes much deeper than that. As one lesbian court commissioner said: How much of our time is really spent having sex, anyway?
Gay couples often don't have what straight couples take for granted - being recognized as a couple even at family gatherings, feeling free to put their spouse's picture on their desk, the ability to walk down the street holding hands without wondering if someone will assault them. Francis, I lived with a woman for four years and not once did I discuss it with my family. Not once was my "wife" considered part of the family the way a husband of any color would have been. Some people (in society in general, not your family specifically) are uncomfortable with the whole concept of gay relationships - not only the actual sex, but even the love and closeness that straight couples are more or less expected to have. It may be a subject that "just isn't talked about" in some families, similar to the way they don't discuss Aunt Bessie's fondness for wine or Uncle Fred's time in prison. Silence doesn't necessarily mean they're o.k. with the relationship, just that they don't want to talk about it.

I'm not sure if you thought I was trying to speak badly of your family or your cousin, but that wasn't my intention at all. I was merely going with your example and pointing out that families in general react differently to different types of relationships. They may not approve of either one, but may be more vocal about one and deceptively quiet about the other.

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

My sister once told me, "Frank, whatever you do, don't be gay and don't marry a white girl!"

I understand what you're saying, Anne, but . . .

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

Your being hilarious, Rikyrah!

Anne said...

Please forgive me for going off topic, Francis, but I'm curious what, if any, effect your sister's words had on your relationship choices.

My mother went through a phase during my late teens when she was always trying to play match-maker for me. Our tastes were totally different and I hated all the boys she thought I should like. She finally gave up one day when I brought home a big hairy biker. Lol. Contrary critter that I am, my first instinct is to rebel against anyone's advice about who I should date.

I blogged about this the other day: my eccentric upstairs neighbor (an older black lady) tried to set me up on a date with a man she knows. She told me he's white, as if that were a selling point. Hmmm... I think some people unintentionally push their personal tastes/values/pathos onto others.

Terra said...

I'd say that the tense discussions are much more accepting than the denial.

Tense discussions can lead to acceptance. Denial does not and never will.

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

Terra: I certainly understand that perspective as well. Is it better to be white and be initially rejected and fight tooth and nail, or to be closeted and gay, and be accepted from the beginning as long as you don't acknoweldge the nature of your relationship?

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

Anne, sometimes it's quite intentional also.

plez... said...

If we all think long and hard, we'll recall that cousin, or uncle, or aunt who had a same-gender "friend" who would accompany them to family functions. But that "friend" was accepted by the family as a friend, not as a lover or spouse of your family member.

On the other hand, we also recall the relative who married a white person and (initially) the unease of that person being around. Black people socialize differently around white people and I'm sure that had a lot to do with it. We also assume that the white spouse was having sex with the relative whereas the same-gender "friendship" was considered platonic (non-sexual), therefore there was nothing to talk about.

I think things would've been very different in your family if your cousin, "Dennis", had decided to flaunt his homosexuality (like your uncle flaunted his heterosexuality with your aunt). I doubt you and your twin would've been spending any nights at his house had your parents known!

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

Thanks, Plez: That's an important analysis and I agree with the distinction that you make between accepting that which is open and obvious and not discussing that which we can can pretend doesn't exist at all.

I think that if my cousin had openly acknowledged a romantic relationship with his lover (if it was so), the result would eventually have been quite the same.

Do Black families definitively abandon and reject openly gay couples? I don't think so.

Bygbaby said...

Great story & dialogue opener! I have a younger cousin & his sexuality was up for question for whatever reason & even his mother knew it. Then one day he began dating a white woman & his mom was so relieved saying "at least he is not gay!"

I am not homophobic whatsoever but I am not 100% for interracial marriage but no matter how you slice it. The Black family is in jeopardy point blank.

Bygbaby

Francis L. Holland Blog said...

Thanks, Byg Baby! I saw a great movie with Redd Foxx back around 1975, "Norman . . . is that you?in which his son in the movie was gay. The last thing in the film was a line going across the screen saying "One in ten people are gay, including a lot of people you know."