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Charles Stephens

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Expanding Black Masculinity to End 'Black on Black' Anti-LGBT Violence

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 8:57 pm

If we've learned nothing else over the past month, we've learned that we as black Americans need to have an open and honest dialogue around the meaning of "manhood." At the beginning of February, Deoni Jones, a 23-year-old African-American transgender woman, was stabbed to death at a Washington, D.C. bus stop -- the suspect, a 55-year-old black man. Later that month in Atlanta, 20-year-old Brandon White was viciously attacked and called a "fa**ot" by three gang members, because he didn't fit their idea of what a man is. And just days after that, Roland Martin, a famed CNN commentator, commented that a New England Patriots player, seen wearing an all pink outfit, "needed a visit from #teamwhipdatass."

I grew up in southwest Atlanta. I had friends that lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Brandon's brutal attack took place. While I watched the video I could not help but think that the victim could just as easily have been me, or one of my childhood friends. All of these incidents put a very real face to jarring reality that gay and transgender people of color are far more susceptible to acts of violence. Last year a report released by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs showed that the number of hate crimes against members of the LGBT community rose 13 percent in 2010, and that people of color and transgender women were most likely to be targets of violence. The report also found that of the victims murdered in 2010, 70 percent were people of color and 44 percent were transgender women.

"Communities of color and transgender communities are particularly impacted by murder because they face multiple forms of discrimination based upon their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression," the report indicates. Both transgender people and people of color were also the groups least likely to receive medical attention for their injuries. And who knows how many more attacks against LGBT people of color go unreported, due to fear of being outed, being mistreated by law enforcement, or both.

As our communities rally together to support these victims and take steps to ensure the safety of local LGBT residents, it is almost expected that some people will want to assign blame. Likely targets include the supposed intolerance of the African-Americans, hip hop music or poverty. But we must resist the convenience of misdirected answers. At the end of the day, we are all accountable because we've failed our Black boys.

Conversation around African-American men and boys have centered on economic distress, employment instability, health disparities, and an unfair criminal justice system, and rightfully so. Unfortunately, what doesn't get attention is how stigma and structural anti-gay attitudes create an environment in which they are particularly vulnerable as both attackers and as victims. For instance, telling our young boys not to cry or to "man up" only shames them. They then grow up to "police" their brothers, male friends and sons in those same ways.

This can partly be prevented by challenging ourselves to imagine broader definitions of African-American manhood. Narrow notions of masculinity that privilege a particular kind of maleness are often part of the implicit and explicit anti-LGBT sentiment that shoots like an electric current through many of our communities. Certainly, what we call "hate crimes" and "gay bashing" is about targeting LGBT people. But there is a kind of "gender profiling" that happens as a way to penalize those among us who do not exhibit traditional notions of gender.

Blackness, and certainly black masculinity, is not, nor has it ever been a monolith. Or as New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote, "[I]t's about understanding that masculinity is wide enough and deep enough for all of us to fit in it." The richness of the diversity of gender expression in our communities adds to the possibilities of who we are and can become. Gender diversity, quite simply put, is an asset. And any attempt to homogenize ourselves is destructive.

Our schools are especially valuable in renegotiating our construct of masculinity given the large role educational institutions play in how we think about gender. We need peer education programs, where young straight African-American men can talk to each other about how anti-gay harassment and violence in our communities works against us all. Members of the LGBT community often shoulder the responsibility of educating straight people about LGBT issues, but the voices of allies are just as powerful and important.

There have been courageous members of the hip-hop community, Kanye West perhaps being the most prominent, to speak out about anti-gay attitudes. We have to identify ways to create platforms for other African-American men, particularly regular everyday members of our communities, to speak out not only against anti-LGBT sentiment, but in favor of the value of expanding our definitions of masculinity and gender non-conformity.

African-American manhood has too often been articulated as that of "lack." As something that has been partially taken away from us and that we need to protect at all costs. We've been taught that the institution of slavery "stripped us" of our manhood, and we have to maintain what's left. I would offer that slavery wasn't just about the "taking away" of manhood, but the "taking away" of freedom. So as black men, let us fight for freedom instead -- for people to be free to express themselves and move through the world in the way that feels most comfortable for them.