Excerpted From: Angela Gilmore, They're Just Funny That Way: Lesbians, Gay Men and African-American Communities as Viewed Through the Privacy Prism, 38 Howard Law Journal 231 (Fall, 1994) (82 Footnotes) (Full Document Requested)


AngelaGilmoreThe relationships between lesbians and gay men of African descent and African American communities are complex, complicated, and confusing. To illustrate this point consider recent comments from two leaders in their respective African American communities, one national and one local. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former Executive Director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”), has said: “[w]e must be against all forms of injustice. We must be against treating all people unfairly because of their race, their class, or their sexual orientation.” Dr. Chavis's position is contrasted by the extreme viewpoint taken by Rev. James Sykes, minister of the St. James African Episcopal Church in Tampa, Florida. Rev. Sykes has said that he would march with the Ku Klux Klan if he knew the only reason the Klan was marching was to oppose gay rights.

Concerned Citizens for Traditional Family Values (“Concerned Citizens”) holds a view similar to Rev. Sykes's perspective. In 1993, Concerned Citizens picketed the annual convention of the NAACP, because of Dr. Chavis's intent to include lesbians and gay men under the umbrella of civil rights protection. One of the organizers of the opposing group, Rev. Damon Roach of the First Christian Ministry Baptist Church of Indianapolis, stated: “Lord knows our grandmothers don't want us to stand against the NAACP but it is necessary to stand up against homosexuality because it is sinful.”

A number of reasons have been offered to explain the view held by Rev. Sykes, Concerned Citizens, and others: (1) the significance of religion in African American communities; (2) the belief that homosexuality will destroy African American communities by emasculating black men and masculating black women; (3) the perception that homosexuality is about sex and the reluctance of African American communities to talk about sex; and (4) the perception that the lesbian and gay community, which is almost always perceived as being white and male, is attempting to ride on the coattails of the black civil rights movement to achieve civil rights for lesbians and gay men.

This paper explores the relationships between lesbians and gay men of African descent and African American communities. Part I discusses the four reasons listed above in an attempt to shed some light on the issues. Part II discusses the doctrine of constitutional privacy as articulated by the Supreme Court. In addition, Part II analyzes the doctrine of privacy as both a right that allows citizens to make certain decisions without intrusion or interference by the government and as a right that affirms and validates those decisions. Finally, Part III uses the doctrine of privacy to explore the relationships between lesbians and gay men of African descent and African American communities. This doctrine serves aptly as the vehicle because the protections provided and denied under it are analogous to the positions taken by lesbians and gay men of African descent and African American communities with respect to the roles that lesbians and gay men of African descent should play in African American communities.

[. . .]

The major difficulty with using privacy as the vehicle through which to explore the relationships between lesbians and gay men of African descent and African American communities is that privacy seems to imply secrecy, both in terms of its articulation as a legal doctrine and as privacy is understood by some African American communities. Professor Thomas has observed the following about the constitutional doctrine of privacy:

For heterosexuals, the concept of privacy serves to carve out a safe haven for human flourishing . . . privacy is the place where individuals come to understand and express their understanding of the meaning of intimacy. For gays and lesbians, however, the language of privacy has never represented such an unqualified good. To be sure, the rhetoric of privacy has made it possible for gay men and lesbians to argue that what individuals do with other individuals in their bedroom is no one else's business, and certainly not the state's . . . . For [gays and lesbians] the claim of privacy always also structurally implies a claim to secrecy.

Similarly, Bell Hooks has noted that privacy, defined as “keeping private,” is a value to be cherished in some African American communities:

One of the jokes we used to have about the “got everything” white people is how they just tell all their business, just put their stuff right out there. One point of blackness then became -- like how you keep your stuff to yourself, how private you could be about your business.

As a result, using the doctrine of privacy to describe the relationship between groups of people, who have been resistant to the notion of privacy as something that can be affirming and not secretive, is perhaps problematic. If lesbians and gay men understand privacy to mean that individuals' activities in their bedrooms are “no one else's business” and African Americans understand privacy to mean “keeping private,” it is ironic to describe the relationship between the two groups as a privacy relationship where secrecy is not present. If privacy, however, is understood as both a positive and a negative right, if both prongs of the privacy right are recognized -- “privacy from” intrusion and interference and “privacy to” affirmation and validation -- the difficulty can be avoided.

I use the word “communities” instead of the word “community” because I believe that there are many African American communities that differ along many lines, for example, location, religion, and socio-economic class. See Bell Hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black 121 (1989). I also do not wish to imply that lesbians and gay men of African descent are a monolithic group. They are as diverse as any other group of people in many instances sharing only a racial identification and a sexual orientation.

Assistant Professor of Law, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad Law Center; J.D. 1988, University of Pittsburgh; B.A. 1985, Houghton College.