“Beyond the Closet: Reinventing African American Gay History, 1963-1988”
October 25, 2013
Dr. Kevin Mumford, Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, delivered a phenomenal lecture to the guests of the Marcus Orr Center for the Humanities on the topic of a new framework for understanding the past of African American gay men. The lecture took place on Thursday evening, October 24, at the University of Memphis University Center Theatre.
Dr. Mumford began by stating that just before the full brunt of the AIDS crisis, a creative and courageous brotherhood of activists, writers, and artists joined together in local organizations, churches, and clubs to make their own history. The subject of black gay men has been shrouded in secrecy or deemed too controversial. Even today, African American history textbooks ignore the contributions of black gay men according to Mumford. The recent push for gay marriage has pushed sexual equality into the center of debate, and yet LGBT scholarship continues to marginalize people of color. How were black gay men viewed, and how did they identify? Where did black gay men find community, and what did they experience? What did black gay men want, and how did they achieve it?
Mumford expertly attempted to hint at possible answers to these questions and many more throughout his lecture. He explained the struggle through which gay black man had to go through in society during times of the civil war. He pointed out how gay black men were forced into hiding their identity since disclosing such information was considered taboo by society. These people were often the subject of humor and were not granted any rights or responsibilities which they would otherwise entail. More often, these men hid their sexuality in order to receive the little rights African Americans had at the time. Dr. Mumford pointed out how an African American author can go as much as getting his work established and even published on giving more rights to gay black men. However, if it was openly found that the author himself was gay, suddenly the audience changed their viewpoint of his works, even though essentially nothing has changed. Just the fact that the author identified with the gay community was enough to shun the viewers’ minds of any positive perceptions. Mumford claimed this is one main reason why gay black men kept their identity hidden.
Mumford’s talk went further into discussing topics of the gay community today and how there is still numerous injustices and prejudices which occur as a result of the sexuality of these men. Dr. Mumford described how conceptions of respectable masculinity influenced the emergence of black gay identities, arguing that the sexual revolution stimulated defensiveness or homophobia, as well as increased erotic freedom in black America. He also looked at the lives of key, understudied activists to explore the intricate intersections among community, politics, and identity.