Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a significant increase in media attention towards gay marriage. America has long debated the legal underpinnings and implications of same-sex relationships and unfortunately, there have been casualties on both sides. For African Americans, this hot button topic poses a peculiar dilemma for us.
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This sensitive conversation for black America has emerged because our black heterosexual president, Barack Obama, has endorsed gay marriages.
In our black families, black churches, black family reunions, black barber/beauty shops, black schools, black businesses, and black neighborhoods, we have friends, family, and colleagues who are gay. While this is not news to anyone, black America continues to ignore, minimize, deflect and negate the humanity of our own brothers and sisters. I should mention that there has been some support in the black community of same-sex relationships, but in general, many of our family and friends remain invisible or unheard. Sometimes those closest to us lie because we place them in circumstances where we don’t give everyone a chance to just “be.”
Could this be a paradigm shift among black folks initiated by Barack Obama? Maybe. To have this national/cultural conversation, many of us would have to be comfortable in our own skin and not make the assumption that everyone is, or should be, heterosexual. Many of us would have to suspend our homophobic beliefs and address all people with kindness, respect, and equity. Those of us who are insensitive or have anger management issues would have to reconsider how we speak to others when we become irritated, disappointed or merely joke around. Inasmuch, we would have to relinquish our narcissistic belief that all gay people who are the same sex as us, are erotically attracted to us or want to get in a relationship with us. REALLY? How arrogant and self-centered is that?
Since Obama offered his support of gay marriages, I have had students at my historically Black college/university and a number of families come into my office to talk with me about how they might manage themselves emotionally and socially when a family member “comes out.” This is what I offer:
- I first tell them that I am a “welcoming and affirming” professional and it is my belief that everyone deserves an opportunity to be happy with whoever they want to be with romantically and platonically. I let them know that there may be other educators, therapists, psychologists, life coaches or human service professionals who may try to convince, manipulate or save GLBT people…but I am not one of them.
- I then share that maintaining a dialogue about healthy and responsible sexual expression should take precedence over which one sleeps with. One reason for this is that a person can be heterosexual or gay and transmit a sexually transmitted infection (STI) to his/her partner. A person would need to either abstain from sexual contact or use condoms in order to be protected from some STIs. Thus, it seems advantageous and imperative that all individuals talk about their sexual history with potential and currents partners. Another reason for maintaining a healthy dialogue is that if a person judges or ridicules a friend or family member about who he/she has an intimate relationship with, then he/she probably won’t say anything to that person again.
- Some of us may need to mentally reframe the types of relationships that we have with partners or friends. Do we want our loved ones to be who we want them to be…or do we want the person to be themselves? This rhetorical question may be at the root of why we have so many brothers on the “down low”. Is it the responsibility of our brothers to reveal who they are attracted to or in a relationship with? Or is it our responsibility to treat everyone with respect and make sure that our partners, friends and family feel comfortable/safe enough to say whatever is on their mind?
- There is an astronomical number of people (e.g., black gay youth) who have committed suicide because they did not feel like they had anyone to talk with because they were ashamed or fearful about coming out. It’s disheartening to know that there are people out there who are unable to just “be” due to heterosexist and homophobic sentiments in black America.
- Finally, I share with my students and clients that many of the relational challenges that exist for heterosexual couples are the same for gay couples. Trust, communication, money management, parenting styles and intimacy are viable components of a healthy relationship shared by ALL couples. Healthy couples (e.g., heterosexual and homosexual) are able to talk constructively about their wants and needs. A person’s sexual orientation does not determine who one is, his/her worth or his/her potential contribution to society.
So, thank you, President Obama, for stepping out of your comfort zone to embrace everyone’s experience. Thank you for being a strong black leader and saying the things that few of us have ever said about including everyone…regardless of who they love.
By Dr. James Wadley, BDO Relationship Expert
Dr. James Wadley is an Associate Professor and Director of the Master of Human Services Program at Lincoln University. He is a licensed professional counselor and marriage, family and sexuality therapist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. His new book, “The Lost and Found Box,” addresses the need for individuals to rediscover happiness. You can learn more about him at drjameswadley.com or follow him on twitter @phdjamesw.