Lee Daniels is on an epic promotional tour. The filmmaker has been spreading the word about his latest—and most talked about—film, Lee Daniels The Butler, which claimed the number one spot during its opening weekend.
While many have praised the film for highlighting Eugene Allen, who served presidents in the White House from 1952 to 1986, others have criticized the film as being just another “Black servitude” narrative.
Recently, Daniels sat down with Larry King to talk about race, the film, and what it’s like to be Black and gay.
During one point in the interview, Daniels explains why being a gay Black man is sometimes seen as an affront to the Black community. To illustrate his point, Daniels recounts walking into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center while researching the film Precious and finding a room full of Black women. Confused, Daniels told King he thought he’d walked into a welfare office.
“I walked into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) Center and I expected to see a room full of gay men. Well, there are nothing but women there. And the reason why women are there–Black women with kids–I thought I had walked into the welfare office. They service Black women with AIDS. Why? Because Black men can’t come out. Why? Because you simply can’t do it.”
“Your family says it, your church says it, your teachers say it, your parents say it, your friends say it, your work says it. So you’re living on this DL thing and you’re infecting Black women, and so it’s killing us. The Black culture—and the Hispanic culture—have a thing about this.”
Now, I won’t pretend to know what it feels like to be a Black gay man. But as someone who has several close Black gay male friends, Daniels’ assertion that Black men simply cannot come out because Black folks (and apparently Latinos, too) are somehow more homophobic than their White counterparts is problematic.
Not only have scores of Black gay men come out and been supported by their friends, families, and communities, Daniels continue to malign the Black LGBTQ community by furthering the notion that Black women are contracting HIV at alarming rates from scary, “down low,” Black men. While this narrative is popular, research shows it’s just not true.
Being Black and gay is definitely difficult, but it’s not because African Americans are more homophobic than White folks. As a group, we tend to be more religious than Whites (which sometimes leads to strong beliefs about the LGBTQ community), but homophobia does not solely reside in Black neighborhoods. Restrictive anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia, and staunchly gay Republicans (and others) here in the U.S., show that Black folks don’t have a monopoly on homophobia.
Writer and cultural critic, Robert Jones, Jr., who runs the brilliant blog Son of Baldwin sums up my trepidation with Daniels’ comments beautifully:
I could have easily been the type of black gay man who suffered at the hands of black communities and, in ways that might not be entirely conscious, set out to exact a kind of vengeance through my art. And let us not pretend that this is a small thing: The black gay child, indeed, suffers; is pounded to bits under the fist of patriarchy and often has little choice but to collect the shattered pieces and try to puzzle together some semblance of order.
I suppose that instead of anger, I should be feeling sympathy for someone like Daniels, who performs, spectacle-like, before Whiteness as though it is, for him, catharsis. Each time he opens his mouth, I can see the wounds he thinks no one else can see. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the hurt as it bleeds all over his words.
This is the pathology inherent in his art that his supporters claim is not there–no matter how obvious and plain. They say this dysfunction must be ignored in the interest of tribe loyalty. They insist this psychosis must remain undiagnosed at the expense of healing and in the interest of entertainment. Our collective self-esteem, they believe, is tied inextricably to how successful a box office we can manage in a system that used to measure our asses for sale and now measures them profit.
But how long must we keep silent as this representative of black self-loathing takes the stage–because his proud subjugation has been rewarded with access and resources–and indicts entire communities as he gazes at them through the lens of white supremacy and spreads the white supremacist representation of us around the like a plague?