What Lee Daniels Means to Black Gay America

A look at being Black and LGBT in our rapidly changing world.

Posted: 08/16/2013 12:16 PM EDT
What Lee Daniels Means to Black Gay America

As Lee Daniels' The Butler opens in theaters this weekend, audiences across the country will be watching to see a slice of history as told through the eyes of African-Americans who were both participants and front-row witnesses. But the audiences will also be making history themselves as they lend their support to Black openly gay filmmaker Lee Daniels.

Daniels's new film opens just one day after WWE wrestler Darren Young casually told a reporter for TMZ that he's gay. And it comes just one week after the White House announced that President Obama will award the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously to legendary civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a Black gay man who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and organized the historic 1963 March on Washington.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, Republicans were trying to convince African-American voters to abandon Obama's re-election campaign by complaining of his recent support for same-sex marriage. This year, African-Americans have been coming out of the closet and coming out in support of marriage equality like never before.

Young's announcement Thursday, ironically made in the baggage claim area of Los Angeles International Airport, was his own simple gesture of disposing of the baggage of homophobia. His coming out drew widespread praise from fellow wrestlers and fans, and the WWE immediately applauded his decision.

It's a familiar routine now. We saw it a few weeks ago when Raven Symoné casually announced she was gay in a post on Twitter. And it happened when NBA player Jason Collins came out on the front cover of Sports Illustrated. And again when Frank Ocean came out in a blog post that talked about a past love but never even mentioned the word gay.

It's becoming harder and harder to make the clichéd argument that Black people are more homophobic than whites. It's an argument that never held much water in the first place when Black history has long heralded the voices of African-American LGBT icons like James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Alvin Ailey, Audre Lorde, Billy Strayhorn, Alice Walker, E. Lynn Harris, Josephine Baker, Angela Davis and many others.

The denial continued even as new voices have emerged in the form of RuPaul, Wanda Sykes, Don Lemon, Sheryl Swoopes, John Amaechi and Meshell Ndegeocello. Perhaps the clearest but most unusual sign of change occurred when the media reported recently that fashion icon André Leon Talley says he is not gay. Yes, these days people are more shocked when certain famous people are not gay than when they are. And these days we're hearing a lot more from the supporters of equality than from the homophobic and sometimes hypocritical Black preachers against it who stole the attention of the media just a few years ago.

When President Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony at Morehouse College in May, he openly acknowledged Black gay men in his speech. And when boxer Emile Griffith passed away last month, many of the newspaper obituaries mentioned his sexual orientation.

Look around. The world is changing rapidly. We're now living in a much different time and place than the world we inhabited just a few years ago. Laverne Cox, who plays transgender prison inmate Sophia Burset in the TV series Orange Is the New Black, is blazing new ground in the media. A gun-toting, anti-abortion Black gay Republican recently announced his candidacy for office in Texas. And even the pope now says he's not in a position to judge gays and lesbians.

That's not to say the world is perfect for Black LGBT people. Far from it. Just a few months ago, a Black gay man named Mark Carson was shot and killed on the supposedly gay-friendly streets of New York's Greenwich Village. Last month, 16-year-old cross-dressing Dwayne Jones was stabbed, shot, and killed in Jamaica. And just last week, a gay couple in Haiti were attacked by a mob wielding petrol bombs and rocks.

Even in Washington, President Obama's historic judicial nomination of Black gay judge William Thomas has been held up for months by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is eyeing a 2016 GOP presidential bid by playing to the basest instincts of right-wing Tea Party supporters. The difference is that many people are fighting back. The Congressional Black Caucus has condemned Rubio for stalling Thomas' nomination to the federal bench. And some Black LGBT activists in D.C. are fighting back against the inclusion of anti-gay voices at the upcoming 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Fifty years ago, Bayard Rustin was banned from the top leadership role in the March on Washington because Sen. Strom Thurmond and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell were outraged about his sexual orientation. This year, gospel singer Donnie McClurkin was booted from a pre-March on Washington event because of outrage about his history of anti-gay comments. That move was controversial, but it did reveal how the center of power in the debate has shifted.

The mainstream media may not have caught up, but the Black community is making history on LGBT issues every day. Every time we see a Lee Daniels film, watch a Darren Young match or vote for a Black candidate who supports marriage equality, we're quietly sending a message that challenges the persistent meme of our community's homophobia. And every time we watch The Color Purple or attend an Alvin Ailey dance performance, we're publicly recognizing the Black LGBT icons in our cultural traditions.

Black America is not just witnessing this changing history. We're making it.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

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