Black Press, Queer Lives

Stemming from the incidents of violence like Gemmel Moore, Jussie Smollett, countless Black trans women, and other LGBTQ+ individuals, recent online discourse has sparked conversation concerning the coverage, or lack thereof, of LGBTQ+ related events. Particularly, in the Black press. Many Black LGBTQ+ individuals are discontented with how Black media outlets are choosing to cover stories concerning Black queer lives. Murdered Black boys, such as Gemmel Moore and Giovanni Melton, received little to no coverage from the Black press. And in Gemmel’s case, when it was covered, it seemed to more about him being a sex worker (why there is nothing wrong with, #SupportSexWorkers) instead of the circumstances of his death (#ArrestEdBuck). In Jussie’s case, the reporting on it was polarizing. Because of his fame and visibility, It was widely reported, but the Black publications refused to acknowledge the homophobia of the attack and gay publications refused to acknowledge the racism of the attack. On both ends, each undermined his identity to fit whatever narrative they were attempting to disseminate. The overall lack of coverage concerning the violence against Black trans women, the silence is deafening and disheartening. It seems that only Black LGBTQ+ folks (and publications) care about Black LGBTQ+ issues, and that is reflective in the coverage of Black media outlets.

But, this is not a new phenomenon. There is a compelling (and ongoing) history of the Black press in relation to Black queer lives and stories. Particularly, Ebony and Jet were the two most popular and accessible magazines for Black folks as early as the 1950s. As a result, both publications played a significant role in constructing communal concern. For all intents and purposes, Ebony and Jet for the voices of the Black community – the “for us, by us” model that is so prevalent in contemporary culture.

Following The Second World War, the nation experienced a queer sexual awakening. This is not to say that non-heterosexual identities and behaviors did not exist before the war, but a significant number of men and women were forced (drafted or enlisted) outside of their strict heterosexual, patriarchal expectations of living. Put in single-sex, close quarters living arrangements, they were able, many for the first time, to discover new sexualities that they had not previously thought about or experienced, or gave them the opportunity to explore and/or pursue desires they have always had (although this is very white-middle class-centric narrative because many scholars and historians have reported that many working-class Black communities were open to non-heteronormative behaviors and relationships, but that’s another topic for another time). As John D. Emilio delineates, the war “created a new erotic situation conducive to homosexual expression (Capitalism and Gay Identity, 52).” Nevertheless, the war queered the American landscape and there was no turning back. Ebony and Jet were at the forefront of covering postwar LGBTQ+ happenings, while white publications refused to acknowledge or report on or about the community.

Ebony and Jet would publish stories, in a rather positive and celebratory fashion, about drag balls, queer, transgender, and gender non-conforming identities, and other Black queer happenings of the time. Kevin J. Mumford reports that the publications “pushed the boundaries of respectability” in the 50s with their queer reporting (as well as their reporting on miscegenation, racial passing and sex scandals). Ebony reported on Georgia Black, “a man who had passed for a woman for 30 years (Mumford 43).” Similarly, Jet frequently ran stories of drag queens (mainly cis men impersonating cis women such as Josephine Baker, Mae West, and Lena Horne) and transgender folks, following their journey of gender reassignment surgery. Among the queer reporting was also Gladys Bentley, a popular “bull dagger” performer. Although there was debate of the Black press’ intentions, whether they were fulfilling their audience’s desire for queer scandal and sentimentalism or if they were genuinely concerned with queer lives and news, Black publications such as Ebony and Jet “rebell[ed] against the constraints of both white repression and Black respectability (44).”

Moving into mid-1960s, a shift from gender and sexual inclusive reporting to respectable appeasement occurred in the Black press. A combination of the Civil Right Movements (and its adherence to respectability politics – no shade, just facts), the struggle of Black masculinity, and the popularity of the (homophobic ass) Moynihan Report, discouraged (some) Black press away from queer causes, identities, and events. Mumford writes, “by the mid-1960s, Jet ran noticeably fewer stories dealing with queer themes, such as female impersonation and sexology, than it had in its first years (56).” He adds that reports on gays declined as well,

“Perhaps the most important reason for the fewer stories publicizing the queer mix of miscegenation, scandal, and homosexuality had to do with history itself. By the 1960s, black politics was a pervasive concern, civil rights demonstrations dominated the news, and stories on progress and setbacks in race relations took up more and more space (56).”

It became apparent the “voices of the Black community” grew less concerned with Black queer happenings and more with Black civil rights concerns – as if they were not one in the same. It was apparent that there was a hierarchy of concern and Black queer lives were at the bottom.

It’s reflective of “Black first” politics of today, which is reflective of “Black citizenship” politics of the 20th century. Both subvert the importance, authenticity, and validity of Black queer lives for the primary advancement of Black cishet, male lives. Which is not about racial liberation, but about proximity to whiteness through the cis-patriarchal oppression of Black queer folks, women, and children.

I know that Black History Month is a joyous time to celebrate our Blackness, but I also think it’s important to tell full histories. Especially ones that are important to the current cultural climate. Additionally, this is not a sad story. Where other Black press dropped the ball, Black queer press picked it up and scored. A publications like BLK and Black/Out provided critical and much needed approach to Black queer happenings of the 80s and 90s. And today, we have publications like (the newly reconstructed) Out Magazine, Them, Black Youth Project, Slay TV, EFNIKS and others that I’m sure I’m forgetting (charge it to my head not my heart), that are giving us quality news on Black queer lives, issues, happenings, and events that should be appreciated and supported.

I say all of this to say, the relationship between the Black press and Black queer lives is complicated and layered. When we write and report on Black queer lives halfheartedly, ambiguously, or neglectfully, we cheapen and erase history and that is unacceptable. We, Black queer folk, deserve the respect of full and accurate histories.

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