Not Straight, Not White: Untangling Black Pathology

To further celebrate Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA+) Pride Month, the following is an excerpt from Kevin Mumford’s Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS CrisisThis book is one of five titles from a reading list we created in commemoration of Pride Month; view the entire reading list here.

The men that James Baldwin imagined into life—Go Tell It On the Mountain’s John Grimes, David of Giovanni’s Room, and Another Country’s Rufus Scott—together presented a recognizable repertoire of traits and affects, relationships and fates, with which to assemble a black gay identity: ambivalent and deviant, singular and suicidal, confused and tragic, hustling to survive and lost in a sea of forbidden desire. In this period of definitional transition, new etiologies of black homosexuality issued from the overlap of fiction, social science expertise, and public controversies, evolving along a trajectory of multiple sites of exposure and changing locations of production. Between the 1950s and 1960s, familiar signs of the sexual invert (a man performing the role of a woman to signify to others his homosexual desire) or the hustler (a putatively straight man who traded sexual acts for remuneration) intermingled with new theories about the effects of overbearing mothers and absent fathers on the increasing incidence of overt homosexuality.

In the influential 1962 monograph Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, the social psychologist Erving Goffman presented an array of deviant subjects who concealed their stigmatized background—the ex-convict, the alcoholic, the divorcée—and in particular compared the situation of a closeted homosexual with that of an inpatient at a mental institution who “comes out” by admitting his or her status to a visiting outsider. In a footnote Goffman explained that “comparable coming out occurs in the homosexual world, when a person finally comes frankly to present himself to a ‘gay’ gathering,” and he pointed to Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a “good fictionalized treatment” of this process (seemingly in error, since the novel ends in tragedy). Baldwin wrote so powerfully, and voluminously, on a subject that still remained shrouded in secrecy and shame that his novels served as a reference point even for leading academics.1 By the mid-1950s, some experts and moral authorities held a more liberal view of men and women who sought sexual pleasure outside of marriage, but even the most liberal voices rarely exonerated same-sex desire or relationships. A major exception to homosexuality’s invisibility was the sensational reporting by the black newspaper and magazine editors, but these types of stories again left the impression that gay men were deviant, criminal, or crazy. By the mid-1960s, shocks of the urban crisis—northern segregation, deepening income inequality and unemployment, and recurrent race riots—caused a veritable avalanche of social science on ghettos, race problems, and a so-called culture of poverty. In turn, this scholarship introduced (often inadvertently) new ideas about the causes and consequences of homosexuality among black men.

Brag and Drag

Mobilization for World War II had transformed conceptions of not only masculinity but also sexuality across the nation. In this period, many black men signed on for active duty and presented themselves as a new model minority, expecting the rewards of full citizenship in return for proud service, and yet for some their induction into the armed services involved new classification procedures that scrutinized effeminacy in men, queried homosexual tendencies, and assigned racial meanings to sexual difference. As a result, some percentage of black men recognized previously unnamed desires as a homosexual condition that might be shared with large numbers of other men, whether or not they chose to hide their identities. Meanwhile, as a form of recreation, many troops put on musical shows that required female parts, usually played by men in female attire, including black men who later identified themselves as gay. Stateside after the war, black nightlife featured interracial dancing and spectacular cross-dressing or female impersonation balls, as well as bars and clubs that catered to a variety of homosexual tastes. As Allan Bérubé eloquently characterized the impact of mobilization, “The military, ironically, encouraged gay veterans to assume a stronger gay identity when it began to identify and manage so many people as homosexual persons rather than focus narrowly on the act of sodomy.” After the war, historians such as Bérubé, John D’Emilio, and David Johnson documented how gay veterans struggled to make sense of their identity, protested non-honorable, blue discharges for homosexuality, and forged new sexual communities and networks in major U.S. cities.

At the same time, African American protests against wartime discrimination, lobbying to desegregate the armed services, and postwar efforts to overturn legal segregation signaled the beginning of the modern civil rights revolution. In his study of the “unsettled meanings” of black citizenship in postwar black Chicago, Adam Green examines how an emergent middle class engaged in “cultural entrepreneurship” that undergirded its social position while fabricating a “collective racial imagination.” Here Green maps shifts in the politics of respectability by examining middle-class navigation of urban pleasures, working-class consumption, and political mobilization, in particular documenting the extraordinary rise and impact of the Johnson Publishing Company empire that produced both Jet and Ebony magazines. According to Green, “Though Ebony did not seek to dispense entirely with respectability as a cornerstone of reputation, it is clear that the magazine was willing to play up controversy or even disrepute for public notice.” In this new era of the commercialization of racial identification, the black magazines both addressed and constructed a black readership poised to join the postwar landscape of consumption and personal pleasure.

Kevin Mumford is professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.