The anti-Blackness of believing there’s no support for queerness in the hood
The myth of Black homophobia is always a form of erasing the innumerable trans and queer people that are part of every Black community.
By Benji Hart
The block on Chicago’s far north side where I stay is majority Black, poor and working class. It’s also gay as hell.
The matriarch of the street is a Black cis queer woman in her 50s named Ce. She lives with her wife, a Black woman in her 30s, her daughter from a previous partnership, and a grandson.
Everything on the block goes through her. She deescalates conflicts, cusses out the younger boys for gang-banging, and deals with police so other residents don’t have to. (We are on the border between Chicago and Evanston, and officers from both departments are ever-present.) Her crew is comprised of all the other Black queer people in the neighborhood—mostly younger gay men and trans women—who take up just as much space on the street as the straight cis dudes hustling and hanging out.
It’s largely because of Ce’s presence that I can safely wander the hyper-masculine space that our block can sometimes be, and I know countless others of a range of identities who feel the same.
If you have lived in a Black community, you can recognize that this setup, while heartwarming, is anything but rare. Almost every Black community boasts visibly queer people in prominent places, be it the church, the street, the mosque, and, yes, even the barbershop. While the dance between masculinity and femininity, respectability and resistance, can be a complicated one, I have never been in any Black space where trans and queer people hadn’t taken up indispensable roles.
So while I know my experience isn’t universal, I am still surprised at the nagging notion expressed so often by those both within and outside of Black communities that we traffic in a particularly toxic strain of homophobia and transphobia.
In his classic essay Late Victorians on the rise of HIV in 1970s San Francisco, academic Richard Rodriguez talks about the violent confrontations between white gay men in the Mission District and the neighborhood’s Mexican immigrant residents. Rarely, he notes, were these acts viewed as responses to gentrification, attempts to defend the neighborhood from displacement, but inevitably as attacks on white gay people by intolerant people of color—who were never understood to have their own relationship to queerness.
His astute example, while painful, is a telling one: When oppressed communities in general, but Black ones in particular, are cast as inherently homophobic and transphobic, it is often done without any recognition of the larger power dynamics simultaneously impacting the oppressed. Homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of violence are viewed not as responses to structural harm, but ingrained characteristics of the individuals and communities practicing them.
The portrayal of Black people as inherently homophobic is always a form of purposeful erasure. Of course, it automatically makes invisible the innumerable trans and queer people that are part of every Black community. At the same time, by focusing on Black spaces as the epicenter of homophobia and transphobia, attention is drawn away not just from how homophobia and transphobia target Black communities (e.g. the forced displacement and incarceration of Black trans and queer people), but also from how they are just as present in non-Black communities.
Not enough of us are familiar with the case of Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin, a Black queer Muslim man originally charged in 2015 with a hate crime after fighting with a white, gay couple in a Manhattan restaurant. Following an altercation in which a member of the couple called him a racial slur, El-Amin hit the man with a chair. Media immediately described the violence as a homophobic attack against a race-less gay man by a homophobic Black/Muslim man—with no mention of El-Amin’s queer identity. El-Amin is currently incarcerated, and still faces up to 15 years.
This case perfectly illustrates not just the impotence of hate crime laws, but also how our racialized understanding of homophobia and transphobia always imagines white people as its victims and Black people as its perpetrators. In keeping with the ongoing racism of our larger society, white people who inflict harm are still seen as in greater need of defense than the people of color who are its recipients. El-Amin’s crime was a response to the condoned violence of white gay racism with his own prohibited violence as a queer Black Muslim.
Black people must still contend with the rhetoric of “Black-on-Black crime,” even though it’s been definitively demonstrated that in a segregated society, statistics for white-on-white, Asian-on-Asian, and other forms of intra-racial violence are virtually identical. We must still battle the image of Black communities as criminal and drug-addicted, even though studies have shown again and again that white communities both sell and consume illicit drugs at higher rates.
It’s time we understood the notion of Black communities as inherently homophobic and transphobic as yet another anti-Black falsehood, constructed only to aid in the dehumanization of Black people.
The need isn’t just to dispel an old, racist myth, but to protect Black communities from further structural violence—and from homophobia and transphobia in particular. For example, Uptown is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, due largely to the rare concentration of social services—shelters, halfway houses, single occupancy hotels, rehab clinics—located there. An aggressive gentrification effort, led by the neighborhood’s white, gay alderman James Cappleman, has shut-down many of these services, replacing them with luxury housing, often subsidized by the city.
This week, police finally cleared out the site known as Uptown Tent City, a collection of temporary shelters built under a viaduct, which sprung up after many of Uptown’s residents were forced from affordable housing, but refused to leave their neighborhood.
This removal wasn’t reported as a homophobic or transphobic raid, but it should have been. Trans people in particular are overly-represented in the homeless community, and have been longtime residents of Tent City. Luxury construction in the neighborhood has meant the removal of countless trans and queer immigrants and people of color, and replacing them with wealthy, white queer communities.
This type of shift is occurring on a global scale, and is reinforced by the myth of Black and Brown homophobia and transphobia. From pinkwashing in Palestine to the dispossession of indigenous people on Turtle Island, the narrative that Black and Brown people are barbaric and backwards is used to justify violence against them, imagining that the wealthy and white communities committing that violence are actually doing something just.
Settler colonialism, luxury housing, gay clubs and expensive shopping centers, are made into symbols of progress, the construction of queer safe spaces in homophobic dead zones. In reality they are capitalist projects intended to remove the oppressed—including trans and queer people—all under the guise of trans and queer acceptance. Not only are the classism and racism in this displacement left unnamed, but so is the inherent anti-queer and anti-trans harm.
How is it that trans and queer people of color continue to be saddled with the role of the aggressor, even while white cis gays and lesbians unceasingly enact economic violence on us? If Black trans and queer people can be homophobic for defending themselves from racism and displacement, aren’t white trans and queer people homophobic for evicting, policing, deporting, and incarcerating trans and queer people of color?
Whenever someone implies Black people are particularly homophobic or transphobic, I know they are not someone who is fighting for me. They are propping up a false narrative that does far more to endanger me as a Black person than it does to protect me as a queer one. Like the trope of the “oppressed Muslim woman” in Western media, there is no real concern for the individual who may be experiencing cruelty, only their misrepresentation for the purpose of galvanizing the very violence—militarization, surveillance, austerity—that will ultimately target them.
There have been 20 known trans murders in the US this year, and the vast majority of them have been Black, trans people. Of that subset, it appears that a majority of those murders were carried out by other Black people. This is proof of a crisis in Black communities—one that Black, trans people have repeatedly demanded we address.
What it does not prove is that there are not similar crises happening in non-Black communities. What it does not prove is that Black, trans people are safer in white spaces than they are in Black ones—nothing could be further from the truth. What it does not account for are the ways poverty, racism and state violence exacerbate all other forms of violence, including transphobia. What it does not imply is that further anti-Black measures, like gentrification and policing—which will disproportionately target Black, trans people—are the answer to addressing transphobia.
Transformation, by definition, requires shifts from within. The only people prepared to lead conversations about combating homophobia and transphobia within Black communities are the queer and trans members of those communities ourselves. Any other assertions should be automatically viewed with suspicion. When this violence is called out by non-Black people especially, it is almost always with the goal of future subjugation in mind.
Transphobia and homophobia occur on my block. There is also strong, centralized, respected queer leadership there to address it when it does. As an elder, Ce has stories of violence she’s experienced in our neighborhood, but she doesn’t need anyone’s help (including mine) to confront and transform it.
Our street would be a wreck without her guidance. Her forced removal, and that of any one of the other trans and queer people in our neighborhood, is what would make it a less welcoming place. And it’s precisely the anti-trans, anti-queer, and anti-Black myth that communities like ours don’t exist that allows policing, militarization and gentrification to keep targeting them.
Benji Hart is a Black, queer, femme artist and educator currently living in Chicago. They are the writer behind the blog Radical Faggot, and have essays featured in the anthologies Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief (2017) and Taking Sides: Radical Solidarity and the Poverty of Liberalism (2015), both from AK Press. Their writing has also been published in Truthout, Salon Magazine, Socialist Worker, and other feminist and abolitionist media.