A very public attack on homosexuality by Green Bay Packers star Reggie White has drawn blasts from gay groups and many commentators in the media.
White, speaking before the Wisconsin Legislature, called homosexuality a sin and said, "We've allowed this sin to run rampant in our nation, and because it has run rampant in our nation, our nation is in the condition it's in today."
The truth is White spoke for far too many African-Americans. When I condemned discrimination against gays during a recent interview on a black radio station, the phone lines immediately jammed with irate callers attacking me for defending a "decadent" and "degenerate" lifestyle. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and some black writers and rappers go even further and publicly claim that homosexuality threatens black communities. They ridicule black males who don't act like "real" men, using words like "sissies" and "faggots."
A comprehensive survey of black attitudes toward gays, published in the Journal of Sex Research in 1995, found that blacks -- like many whites -- had an entrenched negative attitude toward gays. While these sentiments were less pronounced in better educated, less religious and more affluent blacks, they were quite widely held. Black men were more negative toward gay men than were black women. That appeared to result primarily from men's greater tendency to regard male homosexuality as unnatural, the study concluded.
Countless blacks have heard black ministers -- and that includes White, an ordained minister -- condemn to fire and brimstone any man who dared think about, yearn for or actually engage in the "godless" and "unnatural act" of having a sexual relationship with another man. If they had any doubts, they could always flip to the oft-cited line in Leviticus that sternly calls men lying down with men, "the abomination." Gospel singers Angie and Debbie Winans drew heavy fire from gay groups in 1997 for their anti-gay single "Not Natural," but there were no major protests from the black communities, and their record sales have jumped.
But chalking up the fear and loathing that many African-Americans feel toward gays to ignorance, apathy or indifference is too easy. From cradle to grave many blacks have absorbed the prevailing male image as white. In a vain attempt to recapture their denied masculinity, many black men are merely mirroring America's traditional fear and hatred of homosexuality. They swallow whole the phony and perverse John Wayne version of manhood -- real men talk and act tough, shed no tears and never show their emotions.
In addition, the exclusion of gays from black life hinges, in part, on the assumption that there are thousands of gay men lying in wait to subvert traditional family values. These are shaky grounds, indeed. Beyond the fact that no one really knows how many black (or non-black) men consider themselves exclusively gay, much of what passes for traditional family values -- white or black -- has long since been turned into shambles.
And even if the American family was exactly like the Ozzie and Harriet version, the list of mighty destabilizers of the black family would remain the same -- poverty, unemployment, lack of education, chronic disease, violence, drugs, alcoholism, imprisonment and early death. Homosexuality is not on that list.
As public attitudes toward gays change, it seems inevitable that more blacks will come out of the closet and more blacks will meet them, get to know them as people -- or in some cases discover that they have known them all along. This will force even more African-Americans to reexamine their defective definitions of manhood and confront their own homophobia.
And that should start with Reggie White.