Excerpted From: Scott G. Thompson, Big, Bad, Black and Gay? Overcoming the Shackles of the Socially Constructed Black Masculine, 1 Georgetown Journal of Law & Modern Critical Race Perspectives 297 (Fall, 2009) (Footnotes) (Full Document)


President Barack Obama's success in the 2008 election is one of America's historymaking and history-defying moments. Certainly there are many explanations for why President Obama did so well and how he garnered support from so many Americans with such divergent backgrounds. One partial explanation for Obama's success may be found in his ability to transcend and challenge the unfair and inaccurate social construction of “blackness” in America. President Obama notwithstanding, when the average American thinks of a “Black man,” they do not imagine a man who is eloquent, well-educated, compassionate, sensitive, handsome, or conservatively dressed because when the average American turns on the television and sees a Black man, those are not the depictions they see. Instead, they are flooded with images of Black men that convey violence against women, crime, anger, “ill-fitting” clothes, big penises, virility, foul language, and misogynism--hardly a flattering picture. As a result of these socially pervasive images and the associations they imprint, many White Americans are often uncomfortable around Black men; so uncomfortable that they are often unwilling to sit next to them on the subway or get nervous when they see a Black man walking towards them on the street. President Obama fits none of these associations; indeed, he shatters them. As a result, many White Americans are more comfortable with him; and consequently, were willing, and even eager, to see him as President.

Is it because he is not acting like a “man”?

Probably not.

Is it because he is acting “White”?


Is it because he is not acting like the stereotypical “Black man”?

In part, yes.

The Obama campaign's efforts to make the campaign and the candidate “beyond race” are well-known. But in conjunction with their efforts to, in a sense, distance President Obama from his race, they also took strides to distance him from his gender--his masculinity. The goal was to separate Obama from the pervasive and negative conceptions of Black masculinity and help redefine those conceptions. As demonstrated by interviews and articles focusing on his wife, Michelle Obama, President Obama was, at times, portrayed as somewhat emasculated and Michelle as the more traditionally “masculine.” For instance, in a New York times exposé, Michelle was described as “[o]utspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy,” “sarcastic,” “less generous [than Barack],” “forthright, comfortable in the trenches, and often more blunt than Mr. Obama.” She “relishes a good fight, the competition of [the election].” The article went so far as describing her as a “fierce protector” of President Obama. She is an organizer, “task master,” and can have quite the “temper.” Even her physical appearance receives comment: the New York Times article notes that she is “almost six feet tall in heels” and “cuts an athletic and authoritative figure.” Evidently her campaign nickname was “The Closer.” These are remarkable descriptions that put the gentle, collaborative image of her husband in even sharper relief. This imagery made President Obama appear non-threatening and almost the diametrical opposite of the widely accepted angry Black man image. The campaign distanced President Obama from his blackness and his maleness, the combined effect being that as he was distanced from Black maleness, so was he distanced from the negative and unfair associations that that intersection conjures.

This opening discussion regarding President Obama demonstrates that the intersection of race and gender matters significantly in how individuals are perceived, and hence, how they are able to achieve success both in their professional and personal lives. And it matters for more than just presidential candidates. The idea of intersectionality is not a new one, but this article seeks to problematize the intersection of sex and race further by adding the element of sexual orientation. What individual and collective impact do each of the elements of being Black, being male, and being gay have on society's perceptions of Black homosexual men? How do those perceptions negatively, or in some cases positively, impact Black gay men's self-esteem, social acceptance, and professional development?

After examination, it appears that for many gay men, their defiance of the ““Black male” stereotype, in as much as they may not appear as masculine, virile, or threatening, allows them to garner greater acceptance in White ““mainstream” communities, which are often professional communities. But the perceived loss of masculinity also creates divides between them and their Black families, churches, and “brothas” because they are no longer living up to the masculine norms that have been entrenched there. And though they are sufficiently emasculated to no longer be as big of a threat to the White world, particularly White women, they are often not fully embraced by the White gay community because they are perceived to have lost the virility and masculinity that made them attractive, unique, desirable, and exotic for so long.

Part II of this article will flesh out in greater detail the socially constructed stereotype of Black masculinity. Part III will analyze what impact the dissonance between stereotype and Black gay men's personal realities has on their ability to function and be accepted in different subsets of society. And finally, part IV will move to possible solutions. Certainly, if President Obama has been so widely accepted precisely because he reshapes or at least defies our racist and exoticized vision of a Black man, then Black gay men, many of whom also challenge the stereotype, should be able to find acceptance across a wide spectrum of society as well. The question is if they can do so by crafting individual identities without being pigeonholed into new, equally as limiting and equally as unfair stereotypes.

[. . .]

The gendered and racialized roles that this article outlines limit society and are particularly devastating for Black gay men. It is important to break out and break down the socially created roles that limit and hurt everyone. As Toni Cade Bambara put it, “[Y]ou find your Self in destroying illusions, smashing myths, laundering the head of whitewash, being responsible to some truth, to the struggle. That entails at the very least cracking through the veneer of this sick society's definition of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.”’ It is time to destroy these myths. And though slaying these dragons, developing personal identities, and individually rising up is important and a crucial first step, it is also necessary to recognize the interconnectedness of gay and straight Black males' struggles and plights. Both are trapped, albeit in different ways and with differing severity, by the socially constructed identities that endure: Black gay men need to find common ground with White gay men. Gay men need to find common ground with Black women. White women need to find common ground with Black women. And so forth.

In other words, though the crafting of identities is and needs to become even more individualized, collective solidarity and consciousness will enable society to break through the enslaving construct. Without question, the task is daunting and a “feeling of despair threatens to snuff out our collective will to create positive intervention.” So this article will close with the person it started: Barack Obama. Though the temptation to recite his platitude of hope is present, the reason it circles back to President Obama is because his story, not his slogan, offers the hope, inspiration, and, to an extent, a model. Recognizing that his public persona is, in part, the subject of deliberate, political calculation, his life, nevertheless, authentically demonstrates how individually we each can craft our own identities and overcome the socially constructed shackles that are enslaving us and preventing us from finding our true selves. This is not to suggest that the way to overcome and demystify the stereotype of the Black masculine is to dawn a suit, talk well, and become a lawyer. That may be a legitimate expression of one's identity. But it is to say that Black gay men, and all of us, need to start writing and owning our lives. We need to do what Obama has done and what Ellis Cose suggested: “Reject the script and endeavor to create our own.” President Obama and his success demonstrate how quickly and powerfully people's eyes can be opened, a conversation begun, and conceptions changed once a group of individuals engages in a self-conscious effort to change society's perceptions and constructions.

© 2009, Scott G. Thompson. Scott G. Thompson received his B.A. from Whitman College in 2005 and his J.D. from Duke University School of Law in 2008 where he also received an LL.M in International & Comparative Law.