Race in Nashville's LGBT Community

Just a few years ago, some people were bold enough to declare that, with the election of Barack Obama, America had entered a post-racial era. I think that most of us knew then that this claim was premature, and within a few years the truth reared its ugly head: race in America is an issue that continues to bubble beneath the surface, waiting to boil over. Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston … the very naming of these cities now stands as evidence that race is a continuing problem in America.

We all hesitate to face race, because many people who enjoy privilege are uncomfortable speaking frankly with the oppressed about their experience of our privilege. It is hard for us to simply listen to the voices of those who speak about inequities we don’t suffer, especially when we may be wittingly or unwittingly participating in the system that causes those inequities. Immediately our minds begin working to exonerate us at all costs. We would rather deny the phenomena, often, than admit that fate and history have unfairly favored us.

But specters like racism dwell in the people’s hearts and minds, and listening and talking with a frank openness is just about the only way to confront them. If we ignore them, deny them, or explain them away, these phenomena entrench themselves and ultimately grow stronger. The only solution is to begin to open a dialogue, and to that end O&AN is providing a forum to discuss race issues within our own community.

This article focuses narrowly on the experience of race among gay black men, in their interactions with white gay men, in Nashville. In the future, other aspects of race in the LGBT community will be highlighted. This month I interviewed four young, professional black men who live, or have lived, in Nashville about their experiences: Sheldon Diggs (featured on our cover), Eddie Charlton, Broderick Disroe, and a man we will call Simon (because of the nature of his work, Simon requested that his comments be anonymous).

Some may be taken aback by how these men feel and experience our community. But by listening to how they carefully describe their experiences, as much as possible in their own voices, perhaps we can better understand how and why they feel the way they do.


Racism Under the Rainbow?

Many in the LGBT community excuse themselves from the conversation about race, claiming that we are above racism due to our minority experience. But many of us who are a minority in one respect may be part of the majority in others: for instance, as a gay male I may be a sexual minority, but as a white male in America I enjoy certain privileges not shared by other gay man and other sexual minorities. So we shouldn’t let our LGBT status lead us to ignore the fact that racism may yet plague our community: we do that at our own peril.

“I’ve explicitly been told, ‘I’m not a racist, I’m gay,’” Charlton recalled, “as if the process of identifying oneself as LGBT is an inoculation of some sort against the race-poisoning we receive from the time we’re born. This is a structural problem, and it’s systemic, which means that it crosses boundaries of class, gender, sexuality, etc.” In short, there are no walls impermeable to the threats of racism, not the rainbow and not even race itself.

Charlton recalled another incident when he was having a conversation about race with a Puerto Rican bartender in Nashville. “We were talking about the way being black or brown is strange sometimes, how it can be weird in the gay community. The guy next to me—a young white man—turns and snaps in my face, and says, ‘I don’t think it’s right for you to talk about this! I don’t need to hear that! I don’t see race, and I don’t have race in my life.’ And we both looked at him and laughed. I said, ‘Dude, chill! The brown people have this. You don’t have to contribute, and no one is forcing you to listen. Calm down!’”

Most striking for Charlton was the violent assertion that race was not an issue, in this particular context. “The fact that he felt oppressed by someone even talking about race in his presence pointed up to me a few things. He feels entitled to be kept comfortable at all times, which I think is true of a lot of white people, especially men, be they gay or straight. Worse though, he also felt entitled to tell people who are not white when they can speak and about what.” These sorts of behaviors silence conversations about race that are not controlled by members of the majority.

“People assume that if you’re a gay, because you’re already a minority, that the community is more open and is accepting and diversity is better,” Simon said. “The heartbreaking thing for a lot of gay men—black, Asian, any minority man—is realizing that it is not. At the end of the day, if you look at our gay publications at images of what a beautiful gay man looks like, what do they look like? Young white muscle or twinky guys.”

And while racism certainly isn’t unique to the LGBT community, the nature of our community may make its expression in everyday social situations even more obvious. “Tacit and unacknowledged racism is part of the wider community,” Charlton argued, “and anything present in the macrocosm is going to be magnified in the microcosm. We are a small community and so it makes the impact of the issue more obvious.” Within a relatively small community, it is harder to fully participate and insulate oneself from the racist tendencies of some of its members than it may be in society at large.


Experiencing Race in Nashville’s Gay Community

So how do black men experience the gay scene in Nashville? Simon said one of the first things he noticed when he first moved here was the small presence of black men on Church Street, both among customers and the more visible bar staffs. “There are a few black guys there, but it’s nowhere near representative of how many black gay men there are in Nashville. If you go to Church Street, how many bartenders are there at Tribe and Play, at Canvas, and how many of them are black? The first thing I wondered was, Where are the black clubs? because the black guys weren’t at the big clubs in the numbers you’d expect. In and of itself, that shows that Nashville is not the ‘it city’ for being gay.”

“Being single and trying to date in Nashville,” Simon added, “I started to realize that there are all these things you can be. A bear, an otter, a twink, etc. But when you’re black they expect you to be one of two things: either super feminine and pretty, or the thug or Mandingo or whatever. Sure that’s not just in Nashville, but I see it here much more clearly than in other places.”

Disroe talked about how, as a student at Western Kentucky, gay Nashville made him feel unaccepted, rather than welcome. “Nashville was the closest big city and my introduction to the gay lifestyle. I just wanted to have the same experiences that everyone else was having as a young gay male, and I would just go out and try to meet people, but it was so challenging. A lot of people wouldn’t even give me the time of day, showed no interest in me as a person. Growing up in Illinois, it was different. People were more receptive.”


Some Welcomes Are Racist

The ways in which black men find themselves accepted by a mostly white gay social scene are as racially troubling as the way they are turned away. “I’ve been told, ‘You’re not like other black people!’” Charlton said, relating an experience similar to one shared by Disroe. “That’s not a compliment. It implies that you have a very narrow and screwed up idea of what black people are…. Don’t welcome me into the fold and demand that I put away everything that makes me black…. But lots of men do accept the bribe, the promise of, ‘Give up everything you are and be like me, and reject everything and everyone that’s like you, and I’ll make you feel special.’”

Charlton experienced a related phenomenon in dating. “I actually had a man attempt to flirt with me and tell me, ‘You look exactly like someone I used to date, except black. It’s like they just turned him black.’” What made this feel similar to Charlton was that the attraction was allowable because it minimized his ‘blackness.’ “The similarity to something white that he already knew made it okay that I was black.”

On the other hand, there are troubling ways in which white men “fetishize” black men. Disroe recalled a blind date with a young white guy he was supposed to meet at Canvas. “I’ve always prided myself on having good taste. When I showed up, he was very forthcoming that I was not his type. He didn’t like the way I looked, and he didn’t like the way I dressed.” The fact is that many guys who are “into black guys” are actually more caught up in the narrow image of black men they have constructed in their minds than they are interesting in actual African American men.

“I was chatting with a guy online,” Charlton said, “who asked me, ‘Do you wear Tims? Do you let your pants sag? Do you wear your hat backwards?’ When I said I didn’t, he told me he needed a gangbanger type of dude. He knew that wasn’t me but there was this desire for me not to be a fully realized human being—he wanted me to be a one-dimensional character who dressed, acted, and spoke one way. Who does that to anyone?”

But there is a broad, tacit assumption that only those fixated on black guys will date black guys. “There’s this perception,” Simon stated, “that if a white guy dates a black guy that he must be ‘into black guys’ which is insulting. It’s basically saying that he couldn’t possibly find me personally interesting—it must be because I’m black.” Indeed it’s insulting to both members of the couple, because it implies that race was the only determining factor of the white man’s interest.

After a breakup, Simon saw one friend-group confront one member of the former couple. They weren’t concerned about the breakup as much as they were about who the man was dating. “‘So, you’re into black guys now?’ they asked him. You take away the quality and take away what the black man has to offer that he might love, in order to say ‘Oh, he’s taking a walk on the dark side’ or ‘Oh, you’re into chocolate now?’ Why not think, ‘Oh, maybe they have a love story?’ But nearly no one ever thinks that, do they?”

The choice between being fetishized or rejected can be disheartening. “I’ve been here for five years,” Simon reported, “and you get tired of having to seek out guys who are specifically ‘into black guys.’ Or hoping someone will move in from a state where they don’t care if their buddies find out they have a black boyfriend.”


A Foot Halfway in the Door

Sometimes the social acceptance comes, but it is partial. Each man interviewed reported that, in various contexts, many white men were comfortable with black men in private contexts but not in public. “This is one thing I definitely experienced more in Nashville than elsewhere,” Disroe reported. “We had a couple of good friends that we hung out with socially pretty regularly. But outside of our private brunches and things of that nature we had very little contact. If we were out and about they mostly didn’t associate with us.”

In the context of dating, however, this is much more acute. Diggs reported, “This one guy I know in particular, he comes around, he calls me up—he likes me, I know he likes me—but I always ask if he wants to hang out with him and his friends, because I always see him hanging out with his friends and things like that. He just says that his friends are boring … but then why does he still hang out with them? I know there is an issue. I think he’s embarrassed about what they might say about me, or about him for entertaining the idea of dating me.”

This seems to be a common experience. “If you had to take me to a dinner party as your date, just in terms of my resume going in, I’m not a bad date,” Simon said. “And the guys I know aren’t either—they’re professionals. I’ve met guys who tell me I’m great, but when it comes to dinner parties and house parties, they’re skittish. And they always put it back on me, saying I just want to make sure you’re comfortable or my friends are a tough group. Really it comes across loud and clear—you’re worried they’re going to have an issue with you dating a black person.”

Charlton unflinchingly attributes these behaviors and fears to an underlying system of entrenched white supremacy. “I think it’s one of the mechanisms by which white supremacy perpetuates itself… Since you are the center of everything, you are the point of reference, but you aren’t critical of your own perspective. People cringe when I say the words white supremacy because they view it as a personal attack, but it isn’t. It’s a problem with the whole system.”


Preference, or Racism?

It’s a short leap from dating a black man covertly because you are worried about what your friends will think to an all-out refusal to consider black men as potential partners because of their race. Indeed, many men who may not consciously believe racists ideology do enact racist behaviors because of their own fears regarding acceptance by their own social groups.

Anyone who has been on gay dating and social apps will have seen numerous profiles bearing the notice, “No Blacks!” Often enough this is accompanied by some caveat declaring that the person making the notice is not a racist, but merely is expressing personal preference.

Simon offered the following example of why the “personal preference defense” is bogus: “For example, I may not be ‘into Asian guys’—in the sense of fetishizing the group—but that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested occasionally in a particular Asian guy. Thus I wouldn’t say ‘No Asians.’ The difference between saying ‘No blacks, it’s just a preference,’ and a positive statement of preference is simple. The first completely discounts you as an individual person based on something incidental, while the other remains open to the possibilities an individual might bring to the table.”

With his characteristic boldness, Charlton offered, “The ‘it’s just a preference’ defense at excluding this or that race is—pardon the indelicacy—horsesh*t. First, you haven’t even been talking about what you prefer, you’ve said I exclude this or that…. There’s something purposeful about blanket exclusion, even if it’s unconscious. Even our unconscious drives have purpose, and if we acknowledge those purposes we can explore them and, maybe, work on them.”

By hiding behind the notion of personal preference, Charlton said “We’re also not dealing with the issue of what shapes your personal preferences. Again whiteness renders itself invisible because it stands at the center. So white people tend to think of their will as free and untrammeled…. They ignore the role the society they grew up in played in shaping those preferences…. That gets in the way of people exploring and understanding how their preferences came to be and maybe even expanding them.”


Facing Race

From the perspective these men offer, it becomes clear that at least a significant group of young, professional black men in Nashville experience the gay culture around them as implicitly, and systematically racist. None of them is saying that all of gay Nashville is racist, but rather that our community, like others, has been permeated by a system that perpetuates divisive attitudes and stereotypes.

People tend to become defensive when they here words like these—they feel accused, they feel it is unfair to paint them with the same brush as the intolerant society around them. But does our discomfort with the race issue invalidate it?

The fact remains that this is how at least a segment of gay black men in Nashville feel about their experience in our community in 2015, and if we ignore that we divide our community against itself at a critical time in our own history. Standing in the position of privileged insiders, we can afford to sit in discomfort and just listen to how others experience us. And maybe, just maybe, if we take it seriously and control our defensiveness, we will find that we do have some work to do.





Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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