Oxford AASC: Gay Men

Gay Men

By: Charles I. Nero
 The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature What is This?

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Gay Men

The image of gay men in black writing is complicated by homophobic values in society that make homosexuality unspeakable and gays invisible. Contributors to black gay anthologies such as In the Life (1986) and Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men (1991) both challenge and document homophobic images of gays in black literature, social theory, and popular culture. In the most virulent homophobic works gays are effeminate, sarcastic males who lead meaningless lives; they disrupt families, are misogynists, and are marginal to black communities and institutions. Sometimes such works also offer homophobic explanations for the origins of homosexuality among black men. They argue erroneously that homosexuality originates in decadent European cultures, to which black men are then exposed, or that it is an unfortunate condition caused by racial oppression, such as imprisonment or psychological obstacles created by whites to prevent black males from becoming men.

Fortunately, in black writing gays are not always figures for debased or wasted masculinity. Writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance sometimes depicted homosexuality as an exhilarating component of human nature. Writings by black gays since the 1950s debunk homophobic images by ending the silence about homosexuality and presenting a variety of gay experiences. For instance, James Baldwin made men's sexuality a central issue in American literature through his depictions of homosexual lovers and bisexual menalthough he did not always avoid the old stereotypes, he nevertheless presented complex characters in a positive light. Since the 1980s black gay writers have been presenting gays in a variety of literary genres and media. Images of gay life involve AIDS, racism, interracial and intraracial love and sex, feminism and sexism, activism, the negotiating of identity in the American mainstream, coming out, the Christian church, bisexuality, and a marked preoccupation with the well-being of black families and communities.


  • Joseph F. Beam, ed., In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, 1986.
  • Essex Hemphill, ed., Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, 1991.
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