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Research Spotlight: For some Black gay and bisexual men, Black identity ranks first

Study highlights the experiences, challenges, and benefits of intersectionality

A qualitative study authored by Team Represent Principal Investigator Lisa Bowleg found that a majority of Black gay and bisexual men ranked their Black and/or Black male identity above their other social identities, and perceive both challenges and benefits of being Black, gay or bisexual males. The study, titled “Once you’ve blended the cake, you can’t take the parts back to the main ingredients” and published in Sex Roles, examines the narratives of 12 Black gay and bisexual men in the U.S. who describe the ways in which they experience the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identity.

The study is a departure from the majority of intersectionality research, which historically has focused on Black women and the intersection between race and women’s gender. Intersectionality examines how multiple social identities—race, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, and disability, for example—intersect on a personal level to reveal interlocking social-structural inequalities, such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism.

Bowleg and two interviewers individually interviewed the men about how they experience the intersections of being Black, male, and gay or bisexual, and how their lives are challenged and enriched as a result. The participants, mostly highly educated and middle income, were Washington, D.C. residents, ranged in age from 21 to 44 years old, and were recruited from ads placed in the Washington Blade and the City Paper.

Being Black and bisexual: “Definitely a strike against you in our society”

Interviewees described their racial, gender, and sexual identities not as independent and additive, but as multiple, intersecting, and mutually constitutive—an assertion also made in intersectionality research. Many described simultaneously having advantaged and disadvantaged identities that intersect one another. Jay, a 32 year old bisexual man said that his marginalized identities as Black and bisexual outweighed his privileged status as a man:

“...[Being a Black bisexual man is a life] filled with pressure,” he observed. “It sort of seems like you got the short end of the stick in many ways. There are advantages in our society to being a man. In some cases men are paid more or maybe taken more seriously or whatever. But being Black is definitely a strike against you in our society. Being bisexual is also.”

"Although Black gay and bisexual men are socially privileged as men, they risk social penalty as a consequence of the intersection of their race and sexual identities with their gender," said Bowleg, Professor of Applied Social Psychology at the George Washington University. "Penalty and privilege ebb and flow in the lives of this sample of Black gay and bisexual men."

How social processes shape identities: “Definitely Black first”

Ten of the 12 interviewees, or 83%, said that they ranked being Black and/or Black men as their most salient identity above their other social identities—a finding that, at first glance, seemed to contradict intersectionality’s posit that social identities cannot be separated and therefore cannot be ranked. But further analyses underscore how social processes may have shaped the social identities of the interviewees, said Bowleg. "For most of the men in the sample, the awareness of their visible 'race' as Black is shaped and reinforced by the historical legacy of what it means to be Black in the U.S.," she said. 

Such factors as the social construction of race based on visible physical traits, the visibility of “race” compared to normative Whiteness, and social-structural factors such as racial prejudice and discrimination against Blacks in the U.S. may have also prompted an awareness of being Black from an early age among most participants, she noted. And it may also explain why many of them prioritized their visible identity of being Black, versus their nonvisible identity as gay or bisexual.

Perry, a 42 year old gay man, described how racial prejudice and discrimination has shaped his social identities this way:

“[I’m] Definitely Black first. Definitely Black first. There’s no doubt that every day, in every way, especially living here in this country you can never forget that you are Black. Not ever can you forget it. Not for a minute can I ever forget that I am Black. I don’t think about being gay for long stretches of the day, but I can never forget about being Black in this country.”

Challenges of being Black Gay or Bisexual men

All but one of the 12 interviewees, or 92%, perceived that it was challenging to be Black men in general, and Black gay or bisexual men in particular. The disadvantages that the majority of respondents said that they have faced as Black gay or bisexual men revolved around the following themes:

1.     Negative stereotypes about Black men or Black gay men. Participants described being stereotyped as dangerous, thugs, unintelligent, or hypersexual by White people and, at times, Black women. They shared instances of others fearing them in everyday situations—when walking down the street or entering an elevator, for example—and as a result, feeling pressured to continuously monitor their own behavior.

2.     Racism and racial microaggressions in mainstream and White LGB communities. Interviewees described several racist experiences, including being denied promotions or jobs, police harassment, and being pulled over for “driving while Black.” But more common were racial microaggressions, such as strangers clutching their belongings when they passed by, having difficulty catching a cab, or being followed in stores. Moreover, 5 of the 12 participants (or 42%) discussed their perceptions of racism within White LGB communities and shared the consensus that many White LGBs were uncomfortable with their Black identity and would not accept Black LGBs unless they assimilated.

3.     Heterosexism in Black communities. Seven of the 12 participants (or 58%) said that heterosexism in Black communities was particularly challenging. Many perceived that Black communities disapproved of gay and bisexual people and chose to remain closeted, for fear that they would be shunned by families, friends, or coworkers if they “came out.”

4.     Gender role pressures to act “masculine.”  Six of the interviewees, or 50%, cited pressures to act masculine to avoid suspicions of being gay or bisexual. Closeted men, in particular, discussed the need to emphasize their masculinity and to internalize stereotypes of gays or bisexuals as “flamboyant” or “sissies.”

Benefits of being Black gay or bisexual men

Bowleg’s study also examined the advantages of being Black gay or bisexual men. Eight of the 12 interviewees (67%) reported that their intersecting identities had provided them with unique benefits, a finding that supports previous research showing greater resilience among Black LGBs because of—not in spite of—their intersectionality. The benefits described by the interviewees centered on the following themes:

1.     Introspection and psychological growth. Five of the 12 participants (42%) said their experiences of encountering prejudice and discrimination based on their identities as Black gay or bisexual men compelled them to reflect more deeply on life and social justice and to grow psychologically. Rodney, a 37-year old gay man, said he believes that he could overcome the challenges facing Black men:

“Even though I identify as Black primarily, I don’t let that limit me. A lot of people think that it can be a hindrance or that things in life don’t come as easy, but I don’t have that sort of mindset. ... When I think of who I am or what I am, I think of myself as a Black man, but I don’t let that control my destiny or where I want to go in life.”

2.     Freedom from traditional gender role and heteronormative expectations. Four participants (33%) said being a Black gay or bisexual man meant being free from having to marry a woman, having children, following gender role norms, or other societal conventions and expectations. Kareem, a 30-year old gay man, said that being gay freed him from societal pressure to adhere to gender role norms:

“I would say I don’t operate within the same boundaries that some of my heterosexual friends operate with because I accept both my feminine and my masculine side. So there’s no conflict there for me. And so I like the freedom to be able to just be.”

3.     Freedom of not being “comfortable.” Some participants said that their intersectional identities had inspired them to seize new opportunities and experiences they may not have otherwise, such as living in a new city or graduating from college. Charles, a 43-year old gay man, said he sought out new opportunities not taken by members of his working class family, like earning a college degree and living outside of his hometown. He said this expansion came out of a desire “to find my own place and of never being comfortable. I remember always feeling that there was something that would not allow me to blend in completely, made me look elsewhere for other things.” “Being Black or being gay is kind of like my ... key, my connection to the rest of the world. It is not a limiting thing,” he added.

Implications for research and interventions

Bowleg said that the narratives of these men suggest that liberation for Black gay and bisexual men, as well as all historically oppressed groups, can only be realized if we embrace intersectional identities on the individual level and simultaneously resist interlocking social-structural inequities. She highlights four implications for intersectionality scholars and researchers, as well as community interventions:

1.     More research is needed about the strengths and resilience of Black gay and bisexual men despite intersectional prejudice and discrimination, namely in the areas of qualitative, mixed methods, and quantitative studies, especially population-level research.

“Obviously, the take home message here is not to sanction prejudice and discrimination to prompt psychological growth, but rather to imply that there are avenues for clinicians and organizations that work with Black gay and bisexual men to encourage and foster the positive side of intersectionality: the freedom to grow and expand,” Bowleg writes in the study’s conclusion. “The narratives in this study attest that there is room to incorporate the strengths and assets of intersectionality, along with the deficits of interlocking marginalized identities.”

2.     Incorporate the intersectionality framework within multiple academic disciplines. To effectively address the complex inequities faced by historically marginalized groups, scholars and researchers must acknowledge the existence of multiple intersecting identities and interlocking social-structural inequities.

3.     Develop language that describes Black men’s experiences at the intersection of race and gender. Although the health status of Black men is “in many respects the poorest of any large population group in the United States,” (Bonhomme & Young, 2009), behavioral research rarely focuses on the lives of Black men, with the exception of HIV/AIDS research on Black MSM. This dearth of research leaves Black men invisible in social and behavioral research, theory, and interventions.

4.     Black communities, like Americans in general, must address their heterosexism. While a number of anecdotes and studies have addressed heterosexism in U.S. Black communities, Bowleg points out that this does not mean that heterosexism is more of a problem in Black communities than in the U.S. in general; rather, all Americans can evolve and become less heterosexist.

With the exception of heterosexism, Bowleg said the study’s findings suggest that Black gay and bisexual men and heterosexual men share more common experiences and challenges that some people would think. “This topic could initiate community dialogue about how Black men, regardless of sexual identity, can coalesce as allies to improve life for Black men and their communities,” she said.

The study, “‘Once you’ve blended the cake, you can’t take the parts back to the main ingredients’: Black gay and bisexual men’s descriptions and experiences of intersectionality” is available online here

David Malebranche, MD, MPH





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