Homosexuality and the Black Freedom Struggle

A review of The Politics of Homosexuality in the Twentieth Century Black Freedom Struggle, by Glenda Elizabeth Sherouse.

In The Politics of Homosexuality in the Twentieth Century Black Freedom Struggle, Glenda Elizabeth Sherouse looks at the history of queer African Americans from the 1920s through the 1970s. The Harlem Renaissance and the onset of the AIDS crisis bookend this study of the way African Americans responded to queer sexuality over time and the role of queers in black communities. In the broadest sense, Sherouse traces the development of a politic based on racial solidarity to one organized around black queer identities. Documenting this history in five chronologically organized chapters, Sherouse hopes to challenge the notion that black communities are uniquely homophobic and shed more light on the role of queer African Americans in the recent past.

Sherouse’s work both draws from, builds on, and brings together the existing historiography on the periods she covers: George Chauncey and A.B. Christa Schwarz on the Harlem Renaissance; Allan Berube on World War II; David K. Johnson on the early Cold War; and John D’Emilio and Thaddeus Russell on the civil rights era, to name a few. Sherouse also draws on the work of important scholars of law and the state like William Eskridge and Margot Canaday, studies of southern queer life by John Howard and James T. Sears, and surveys of lesbian and gay history by Lillian Faderman and John D’Emilio. While drawing from the existing historiography, Sherouse provides a more focused analysis of homosexuality in black communities and contributes new pieces from archives and periodicals.

In Chapter 1, Sherouse examines the role of queer blacks in the Harlem Renaissance and the rise of anti-homosexual attitudes in black communities. She acknowledges the complexity of the Harlem Renaissance. On one hand, queer blacks ranging from Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey to Richard Bruce Nugent and Claude McKay were major figures in the literary and musical outpouring of the era. On the other, a politics of middle-class respectability drove this cultural movement and white patronage often funded it, which necessitated an embrace of conventions of gender and sexuality, at least in the public eye. While some artists challenged middle-class respectability, most queer blacks accepted it in the name of racial uplift. The end of the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression saw a rise in homophobia as many turned against the more open sexuality of the Roaring Twenties. A key piece of Sherouse’s research in this chapter and throughout her dissertation is an examination of how queer sexuality was covered in the black press. Here, she documents favorable coverage of drag balls through most of the 1920s with a rise in the coverage of homosexual criminality at the end of the decade.

Chapter 2 turns to World War II and the lives of queer blacks in the military and defense industries. Like other African Americans, the wartime “Double V” campaign inspired them to fight for racial justice. Likewise, the Second Great Migration, which took place in this period, brought more queer blacks together in urban areas as did military service. At the same time, queer blacks were targeted for undesirable, or blue, discharges and middle-class African Americans continued to emphasize a politics of respectability while increasingly believing the common notion that homosexuality was a mental illness. A unique piece of Sherouse’s examination of this era is the use of letters circulated among queer blacks in the military, which showed they often created their own social networks within the service.

The early Cold War saw a rising emphasis on gays as security risks, queer criminality and an increased focus on the possibility of curing homosexuality, which Sherouse covers in Chapter 3. The politics of respectability now combined with hardline anti-communism which linked homosexuality with political subversion. Following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision, attacks on the civil rights movement increased and, in a number of instances, blended accusations of communism and homosexuality. Moreover, Sherouse adds that sodomy laws were increasingly used against African Americans. Though homosexuals faced increased scrutiny in this period, Sherouse points out that not all discussions of homosexuality in the black press were negative. Instead, she argues, “The variety of articles and responses from readers reveal African Americans to be varied in their attitudes towards homosexuality” (pp. 116). While the early Cold War also saw the formation of the first homophile organizations, these groups were often racially exclusive.

The height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s is the subject of the fourth chapter in which Sherouse argues that queer blacks gave the quest for racial justice precedence over LGBT equality. Middle-class blacks continued to use the strategy of respectability in the quest for civil rights. However, even when the movement was faced with homophobic attack, they often failed to resonate with African Americans and queer blacks played important roles in the black freedom struggle. Moreover, a generational shift began to take place and young people in the movement embraced a more accepting attitude towards sexual variance. While some black newspapers continued to present homosexuals as diseased or criminal, the civil rights movement offered new opportunities for same-sex desire and served as a the seedbed for identity politics that would flower in subsequent decades.

In the final chapter, Sherouse analyzes the identity politics of queer blacks in the 1970s, contending, “…queer African Americans actively pushed back against attempts to deny their existence or the significance of their layered racial and sexual identities” (pp. 165). She examines the complicated relationship between queer blacks and gay liberation groups as well as queer blacks and black power groups. Furthermore, she continues to examine the black press and shows the reduction in coverage of queer deviance and disease in black papers and its replacement with stories about gay liberation demonstrations and pride marches. Sherouse closes with the onset of the AIDS crisis, which fundamentally changed the social and political landscape.

Though Sherouse seeks to challenge the notion of hyperhomophobia in black communities, she does not discount homophobia entirely. Instead, she finds a rather consistent acceptance of closeted queers, emphasizing the importance of community and racial solidarity while acknowledging the way that outness was often opposed. Moreover, rather than charting a progressive history, she identifies the periods of worsening homophobia during the early Cold War and the onset of the AIDS crisis and increasing acceptance of queer sexuality during the 1920s and the 1970s. Sherouse’s work is an important synthesis of black queer history from the 1920s to the 1980s, which traces the shifting historical context and varying attitudes towards queer sexuality in black communities while emphasizing the role of black queers as agents of change.

Jared Leighton
Department of History
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
jaredleighton@gmail.com

Primary Sources

African American Newspapers and Periodicals
Davis Library and Southern Oral History Program Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Lesbian Herstory Archives of the Lesbian Historical Educational Foundation
Rare Books and Manuscript Division and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

Dissertation Information

University of South Carolina, Columbia. 2013. 209pp. Primary Advisor: Patricia Sullivan.

Image: Photograph, Early 1930s. Florida International University African Diaspora Identities. Public Domain.

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