News And Politics

Gay black men face unique challenges in coming out, says study

Jan. 24, 2013, 12:13 p.m.

The rainbow flag is a well-known symbol of gay pride. A new study says young black men who want to come out face challenges their are unique to their ethnic community. (Violet Blue/Flickr Creative Commons)

For young, gay black men, coming out to their families is fraught with unique challenges – ones that their counterparts of other ethnicities often don't have to consider.

That's the primary point of a new study appearing in the Journal of GLBT Studies, which says gay black men face a "double stigma."

"Most African-American kids know there are special challenges involved with being African-American and being gay," said Michael LaSala, who led the study and is a professor of social work at Rutgers University.

One challenge is meeting what LaSala calls "the rigid expectations of exaggerated masculinity" held by many in the black community.

Quoting one black single mother who participated in his study, LaSala said, "You are told to be a man … and being a man does not mean you sleep with other men. Being a man means you have a woman and you procreate and continue the family name."

LaSala also mentioned the "sense of worry" parents had for their children, highlighting the role racism already plays in the lives of many black people.

"Already they felt like their [sons'] lives were going to be harder," he said. "There are parts of society stacked against them. This was an increased stressor strained on them."

In his research, LaSala found that parents of white gay youth would often respond by saying, "You have everything going for you – and now this?" Black parents, on the other hand, tended toward a different response: "You have everything going against you as a black man – and this is one more strike against you."

"The youth in my study felt as if their families put a burden on them in some ways," said LaSala. "That when they came out, their male relatives often said things like, 'Life is tough enough for the black man. Our image in society is already bad.'"

That, he added, "is very painful."

But LaSala underscored the notion that young people are resilient.

"Youth learn to deal with racism with their families," he said. "So there are already some skills in the family to deal with stigma. I'm saying expanding upon those skills may be something that helps the families and helps these youth."

Approximately 38 percent of South Los Angeles' population is black, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mapping L.A. project. Another 57 percent is Latino. While LaSala's study focused on black youth, he said gay people of other ethnicities, too, face unique challenges when coming out.

"In Latino families, the pressure of machismo is something that they have to deal with, as well as familísmo – putting your family first, acting in a way to carry out your family's wishes," he said.

The study's lead author added that it was "much more difficult" to recruit Latino families to be a part of his research. "That silence may say something," he said.

Some of the Latino youth did indicate the extent of the pressures in their families in conversations with LaSala, though. "Even kids who said they were out to their parents…they never explicitly used the words," he said.

Regardless of ethnicity, LaSala said young people who are considering coming out ought to think about "the potential reactions" their parents might have. It's good to have a place or friends to go to if things get heated, and realize that some parents just need time.

"It takes those of us who are gay time to adjust to our own sexuality," added LaSala. "Many parents need time as well."

Also, he said, it's OK to not come out.

"If you do run the risk of being thrown out of the house or your parents taking away your college money, it's OK not to come out to them until you're in a position where your parents can't hurt you," said LaSala.

Photo by Violet Blue via Flickr Creative Commons.

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