Why Is It Easier For White Gay Celebrities To Come Out Of The Closet Than Black Gay & Lesbian Stars?

Entertainment Weekly’s new  issue this week is about celebrities coming out of the closet. The pop culture magazine examines the changing attitudes society has about gay and lesbian stars coming out of the closet. Is this really progress? A quick glance at the cover of Entertainment Weekly and the majority of gay stars on the cover  are white gay males. Only two lesbians are on the cover Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch. The only non white person on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly is comedian Wanda Sykes.

Fifteen years ago, when Ellen Degeneres came out she was on the cover of Time Magazine.  It is true that North American culture is more accepting of celebrities coming out but only if they are white.  Now Ellen Degeneres has a hit talk show and has made millions of dollars after coming out. Can anyone imagine an A list black gay or lesbian celebrity come out of the closet and actually acquire more fame just like Degeneres after coming out?

Degeneres received support from the mainstream white heterosexual and gay media after she decided to come out in 1997. Degeneres white skin privilege allowed her to navigate the terrain of coming out as a lesbian.  Degeneres whiteness was her bargining chip to minimize the collateral damage of coming out.

Since the white image is still viewed as natural in society, Degeneres whiteness made it easier for her to declare she is a lesbian. Degeneres didn’t have to deal with any racial issues when she came out of the closet. Since whiteness is still constructed out of dominance in North America, Degeneres being gay wasn’t seen as  a threat to mainstream white American society.

The paucity of black gay and lesbian stars coming out is because being gay in North American generally means being white not black.

The television shows such as Modern Family, Will & Grace,  movies such as Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right all have the same white image about homosexuality. Entertainment Weekly’s cover about coming out reinforces the white gay image.

Hollywood just like mainstream society is still racially stratified.  Heterosexual black actors complain about not obtaining decent film roles like their white counterparts. The entertainment industry does not have a level playing field for people of colour. Black gay actors probably fear coming out will destroy their careers.

It is easier for a white gay celebrity to come out than a black gay and lesbian star. There is a paucity of African American stars coming out of the closet.

Although the mainstream media promotes coming out as a magical, wonderful, moment in a gay person’s life this is not always the case.

In the black community, black gay stars fear criticism by the black media and their fans if they come out.

The black media also has a propensity to ignore queer black stars for a number of reasons. There is an attitude in the black community  that homosexuality is a white issue and not a concern to blacks. There is also a don’t ask don’t tell attitude in the black community  about homosexuality. Of course, black people already are cognizant Wanda Sykes is a lesbian but homosexuality is considered a private matter. Homosexuality is still a taboo topic to discuss in the African Diaspora.

Sykes was courageous in coming out because she is one of the few black celebrities to declare she is a lesbian.  However, the mainstream white culture reinforces the  subliminal message is gay people are generally white not black, Asian, Native American, or Hispanic. Of course, there are people of colour who are gay the question is why are most lesbian and gay stars of colour still in the closet?

Gay people of colour are marginalized not just because they are gay but also due to race and identity politics. Last year, the only high profile black celebrity to come out of the closet was CNN journalist Don Lemon. However, most black people yawned and didn’t care that Lemon came out because he’s not a real star he’s a journalist.

The black media only briefly mentioned Don Lemon’s decision to come out but he was generally ignored. The real big black gay and lesbian celebrities are unwilling to come out because they have already built their brand and audiences.  If or when a higher profile black queer star comes out of the closet then the black press will pay attention.

There is a reason Queen Latifah, Tyler Perry, Tracy Chapman, Missy Elliott and the rest of the   high profile black gay and lesbian stars are not out. Tracy Chapman is a multi platinum and Grammy award winning artist she chooses to not announce she is a lesbian because she believes it is a private matter. Chapman probably wants the general public to focus on her music and not on her sexual orientation.

Queen Latifah has high profile endorsements with Cover Girl cosmetics, Tyler Perry has a huge following in the African American Christian community, and Missy Elliott is a well respected rapper. Tyler Perry’s new movie Madea Witness Protection comes out this week Friday. Perry’s core audience are black Christians he can’t just come out of the closet and declare he is a gay black man. Perry is fearful if he does come out he will lose the audience he has worked so hard to reach.

For an A list black star to come out as gay and lesbian is still considered a form of career suicide. After coming out of the closet who will support the openly gay or lesbian black star?

One of the dilemmas some queers of colour experience is the struggle between coming out of the closet and losing respect from their race and cultural community. It might be difficult for a person that is not of colour to truly understand this point. We live in a white centered world despite the progress of the civil rights, feminist, and gay movements. The mainstream white culture is the dominant culture, but for people of colour there is a private sphere beyond the public realm.

Another issue that tends to be ignored is the fact that the gay media in North America is controlled by white people. Remember four years ago the controversy over proposition 8 in the state of California? Dan Savage the white gay activist blamed the black community for voting in favour of banning gay marriage. Even though, blacks account for about 4% of California’s total population.

Dan Savage’s racism and anger towards blacks underscored the racial tension and friction between white gays and blacks. Savage was condemned by black gay activists for his anti black racism.

On this blog, I have discussed numerous times the issue of racism within the gay and lesbian community. In North America there are even separate gay pride events for blacks and whites. In major American cities such as Washington DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City, black gay pride is popular among black gays and lesbians. The reason African Americans decided to create black gay pride is due to the fact blacks wanted to claim their own space. Black gays and lesbians were aware that the mainstream gay community did not provide a safe space for them.

Across North American the lesbian communities have created their own Dyke March because they are cognizant of the sexism of gay men. Lesbians realized they needed their own space separate from male homosexuals to celebrate being lesbian.

Some black gay stars are reticent to come out to the  gay media because they don’t trust the mainstream white gay media.

Some black gay stars don’t  see any benefit in coming out. The mainstream white gay publications Out Magazine, Instinct,  and Advocate, are geared towards a white queer audience. The white gay media’s attention is focused on white queer culture not black queer culture.

More must be done in the mainstream society and queer communities so that real progress can take place and that black gay stars can come out and be successful.

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About orvillelloyddouglas

I am a gay black Canadian male.

2 responses to “Why Is It Easier For White Gay Celebrities To Come Out Of The Closet Than Black Gay & Lesbian Stars?”

  1. Robert Hulshof-Schmidt says :

    Thanks for a great post. You do a wonderful job of pointing out the intersections of oppression. It’s always harder for a member of a marginalized population to actively assume another marginalized identity. As hard as it can be for me as a gay man, I do recognized the privilege I have by being white and middle class (and living in a progressive city).
    I’m curious about your inclusion of Tracy Chapman. I know she is quite reserved about her personal life, but she has had (at least) two relatively well-publicized relationships. I’ve always put her in the “strong boundaries” category rather than the “active denier” like Queen Latifah. Chapman also puts a fair amount of her activist energy into the LGBT and HIV communities.

  2. orvillelloyddouglas says :

    Hello Robert, thanks for your comment. I included Tracy Chapman because although she does live in the glass closet she hasn’t officially declared she is a lesbian. Also, Chapman isn’t universally accepted in the black community as she is by the mainstream.

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