Black Masculinity, Sexuality and Hypermasculinity: A Toxic History

It’s unexplainable. I think that being black and gay allows us to express ourselves differently. Whether you’re masculine or feminine, black gay men have a flare,” said Adrian Price, an openly gay sergeant in the U.S. Army and activist for Black LGBT rights.

As a gay man in the military, Price said he’s received only understanding and acceptance from those he’s served with. Although he recognizes not everyone has his experience, he said that the people who push for anti-LGBT policies in the military, particularly those who support the trans ban, usually never served.

“If I’m in a combat zone I don’t care if you’re a man, woman, trans or somewhere in between, I care that if I get shot will you pull me out and have my back,” Price said.

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According to PBS, it is theorized that there are around nine million LGBT Americans. In recent years progress in sexual and gender equality has allowed for a lot of queer people to proudly express their identities. Yet many individuals facing the intersectionality of race and sexuality experience a rockier road to equality.

“To be a black queer man in America is the fact to fight racism and homophobia,” said Christopher Coles, a queer black activist that freelances as a deaf sign language interpreter, a spoken word poet and a boxer. Coles recalls not too long ago where the fear of being outed as gay was much more intense and many black men lived in hiding.

“Growing up in the 80s there wasn’t any black gay role models. You were straight or a f****t. At 18 and 19 I had a couple of girlfriends. I could have continued to lead them on even though I knew it wasn’t a phase. I could’ve been married with a family but I decided to be myself,” Coles said.

Although the myth that the black community is more homophobic than other racial groups has been debunked in previous studies, there is an unique emphasis on hypermasculinity of black men. Hypermasculinity is a psychological term to describe stereotypical or exaggerated male behaviors such as aggression, fitness/physical strength and sexuality. Let’s be very clear: hypermasculinity is inherently toxic to everyone in all forms. In an article by Richey Collazo for Affinity magazine he criticizes hypermasculinity for contributing to “rape culture, low self esteem and body dysmorphia in men, violence against women and the gay community, and the murders of trans women.”

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“I have straight male friends,” Price said. “Let’s just say that if they go to a gay club with me then they don’t want anybody to touch them or think they’re gay. A lot of black men see being gay as less than. Then in the gay community you want a more masculine man.”

Black and Brown LGBT have always faced a different road to equality. Credit: Taylor Goethe

Black and Brown LGBT have always faced a different road to equality. Credit: Taylor Goethe

Collazo explains that attitudes encouraging the hypermasculinity of black men originated from slavery when slave auctioneers wanted black male slaves to look more masculine so buyers would think they’re a harder worker. Black men that were seen as weak or feminine were beaten, raped and murdered unless they assumed more masculine qualities. Once slavery was abolished the same views that propagated the raw masculine appeal of black men also fueled racist fears of black men being more violent and unlawful. Stereotypes that have stuck with black male Americans to this day. Since hypermasculinity is so limiting of social behaviors, many black men feel the need to constantly validate their masculinity.

“Even among our community you’re more dominant. You’re on top of the food chain if you’re masculine. You’re gay but it’s okay because you’re not flamboyant or flaming. The attitude is it’s okay if you’re gay if we can’t tell,” Price said.

Coles as a large, strong black man fits well into the masculine image. Most people assume he’s straight because of his masculine attributes, or at the very least are deterred from harassing him because of his size. Coles believe that people’s association of masculinity to heterosexuality is a cultural standard taught from a very young age.

“Look at all the superheroes presented to young boys… They are the pinnacle of masculinity and those attributes get defined in our culture. Once you’ve identified yourself as the ‘other’ you then compare yourself to Superman. You hold onto those values then seek a partner who is masculine. Those ideals are ingrained in our culture,” Coles said.

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“First you’re gay, then you’re black, you’re also feminine and you want to be a girl too. It’s all those ‘strikes’ against you” – Coles

Heteronormative standards bleed into the LGBT community by idealizing masculine gay men as more desirable. It’s formed an unspoken philosophy anti-femininity lingers over social and dating interactions. These strongly held beliefs are destructive and often discriminatory to more feminine men or trans women of any sexuality.

“When we in the gay and black communities separate ourselves into groups of masculine and feminine and decry anyone who doesn’t fit the heteronormative definition of a ‘man’ we create barriers for addressing the real problems we face and we buoy the hazardous and hurtful stereotypes the very segments we’ve created are trying to combat. It happens in microaggressions like “No Fats. No Fems.” and “Masc Only” on online dating sites. It happens when you make a determination on a person’s worth or value when you ask him if he’s masculine or feminine,” contributor to the Huffington Post, David Butler-Sims wrote.

As Coles so eloquently puts it: “Hypermasculinity results in the death of us.”

Lately trans people have gained more publicity in the political rhetoric but unfortunately as the latest victims of hate speech and misguided fear mongering. Although transphobic comments implying violence against trans women is nothing new these harmful attitudes are slow to change. It seems every other week another comedian makes a joke about killing a trans woman without much thought or concern for countless murdered for the that very reason.

“According to Mic’s numbers, the murder rate for the general population is 1 out of every 19,000. For young people, that number becomes 1 in every 12,000 murdered, but when it comes to black transgender women, 1 in every 2,600 is killed,” statistics published in Teen Vogue.

Coles blames toxic hypermasculinity for the murders of trans women. Men who find themselves attracted to trans women feel this attraction challenges their conformity to hyper-masculine representations of heterosexuality. They blame trans women for seducing them without revealing their identity and lash out violently to validate their masculinity once more; black trans women as the most susceptible to these attacks. In this year alone 17 black trans women have been murdered but since hate crimes for trans women is often underreported or misgendered the number might be higher.

“First you’re gay, then you’re black, you’re also feminine and you want to be a girl too. It’s all those ‘strikes’ against you… People are out there actively targeting those groups and targeting you,” Price said.

Stopping toxic hypermasculinity and homo- or transphobia starts at home. Young black men need to be brought up with the confidence that they don’t need to prove their manliness and having a few feminine qualities is a perfectly fine. People within the LGBT and straight community need to stop putting masculine men on a pedestal. Masculinity and femininity qualities are apart of a larger spectrum of human behaviors and interests. It’s unrealistic to polarize these behaviors based on gender or ostracize groups for being non-conforming to these tired archetypes. Black and LGBT leaders also need to squash racism and homophobia within their ranks and cooperate to address the increased murders of so many Black LGBT.

“You can’t say I’m here for Black Lives only or Gay Rights only then ignore violence against gay black men…There’s always someone with their hand in the pot. Someone’s profiting from us being divisive among each other,” Coles said.

Coles and Price wants to encourage the next generation of black queer people to lead the cause for black queer rights. Of course allies are always valuable but representation should come from the source so the work to enact change within targeted communities must be prompted by the people themselves.

“I believe in having spaces to celebrate who we are. Being gay in America is a very different experience than being black and gay. We’re harrowing the fact of being black in America while queer or trans. We’re galvanizing ourselves to face these challenges,” Coles said.