Disidentification in the Contention of Black Masculinity Vs Homosexuality
Munoz (1999) posited that disidentification is a mechanism used by marginalized groups in order to survive in a world into which they do not fit or necessarily desire to conform, and which punishes, ostracizes, derides, or even kills said “fringe members” of the dominant group.
Through disidentification, those who are marginalized engage in a “performance” of sorts that allows for the development of an identity that does not necessarily require them, as a square peg, to fit into a round hole. Munoz also notes that certain identifiers such as “race, sexuality, [and] gender” are rooted in “phobic energies” (Introduction, Dissing Identity, para. 3), because
these deviances, and the associated perceived rebellious behavior, seem to threaten a carefully constructed hegemony wherein those in power enjoy a certain element of privilege, comfort, and authority. Specific to queer people of color (hereafter QPOC), Munoz notes that a “representational contract” is broken when those who fall into the fringe groups make their presence known, “and the social order receives a jolt that may reverberate loudly and widely, or in less dramatic, yet locally indispensable, ways” (Introduction, Dissing Identity, para. 3).
What immediately came to mind with regard to the aforementioned “breach” of the “representational contract” was the issue of Black masculinity and homosexuality. Munoz made a statement that resonated with me regarding this issue: “Minority identifications are often neglectful or antagonistic to other minoritarian positionalities” (Introduction, Dissing Identity, para. 8). While there is increasing general support for LGBTQ rights and quality of life, there are still challenges with acceptance of homosexuality, particularly within the Black community, and more specifically by Black men.
In their study of attitudes toward homosexuality and masculinity by Black MSMs (men who have sex with men), Fields, et. al. (2015) defined masculinity as “as a social construct involving the negotiation of power and authority, in which socially dominant men who adhere to gender role norms subordinate other men, women, and femininity.” Interestingly, Black masculinity is not so cleanly defined by these terms. Rather, because of the Black male’s historical (and contemporary) subjugation and deprivation of access to “power and authority” – elements which Arednt (1986) further qualifies as empowerment and respect – Black masculinity is considered to be a “compensatory” masculinity rooted predominantly in overtly physical displays of hypermasculinity (e.g., athletic, sexual, etc.) such that there can be yielded an analogous sense of authority and power that is felt more tangibly.
Munoz takes particular issue with the term masculinity, accusing those who use and or abide by it of effectively censoring those who dare to defy it by “invalidat[ing], exclude[ing], and extinguish[ing] faggotry, effeminacy, and queerly coated butchness” (Munoz, Part I, Photographies of Mourning, para. 2). Fields, et. al. further suggested that such displays of hypermasculinity by Black men, including Black gay men, are preferred or even aspired to. Thus, many Black gay men disidentify from the stereotypical behaviors of homosexuality and actively obscure or temper their sexual orientation. In so doing, they develop what is known as Gender Role Strain (GRS), which is linked to the impositions of heteronormative ideals and behaviors by which Black men are expected to abide. In many Black families, being gay is fine, as long as you are not gay in public.
A recent challenge to masculine hegemony was the ostentatious fashion display by queer Black Tony Award-winning actor Billy Porter at the Oscars. He wore an outfit created by queer Latino fashion designer Christian Soriano, the top half of which consisted of a tuxedo jacket, starched white shirt and bow tie, and the bottom half of which was a lavish evening gown, while retaining obvious physical characteristics ‘masculinity’ such as a close-cropped haircut and a beard. Porter’s outfit choice was a deliberate act of disidentification in that he sought to obscure the barriers that so rigidly defined (or, rather, are hegemonically defined) as masculine and feminine.
Before February 24, 2019, no man, gay, straight, or other, dared to wear a dress on the Red Carpet (that is, not in a manner that was not meant to be humorous). I personally saw it as a subtle nose-thumbing to Kevin Hart who was initially pegged to host the Oscars but stepped down after old heteronormative and homophobic comments resurfaced. Particular attention was given to Hart’s stand-up routine when he said that his then-toddler son was having a “gay moment” and he “pushed him down” and screamed at him, “HEY! STOP! THAT’S GAY!” (Caputo and Hartman, 2010). While this may have been a benign attempt at humor, it is also dangerous.
Given his position of influence – I would not go so far as to say “power” – in mainstream culture, he unconsciously reinforced the idea that violence against gays (and their allies) is permissible and appropriate, and that any outward display of behavior in direct contrast to the heteronormative paradigm is inappropriate.
Gauging responses on social media, many Black men agree with the latter. They decried Porter’s display as another yet another example of Black emasculation and invalidation. That is, as if being gay was not bad enough, he donned a dress in public. Not only did he “come out of the house lookin’ like that” (as my late Arkansian biracial grandmom would say), he did so within an institution with which many Black people already have contention. Many Blacks feel that Black actors and actresses should not have to seek out validation for their art – and by extension, their existence – by the white-dominated Motion Picture Academy.
But here is the rub of cognitive dissonance: What these very critics conveniently ignored was their own patronage of Tyler Perry movies and plays wherein the main character is portrayed by a 6’5” Black man in drag. Or the binge-watching of reruns of Martin Lawrence’s eponymous mid-90’s sitcom wherein he portrays several stereotypical Black female characters and laugh heartily. Or the viewership of The Flip Wilson Show reruns while the titular performer saunters in as “Geraldine” and labeling that as “classic comedy.” Are these displays acceptable because they are fictional characters? Is it really “just entertainment?” That seems to be the justification whenever I have had this discussion with Black men. This then leads me to question why Kevin Hart’s homophobic stand-up routine can be touted and taken as truth and correctness, even though it, too, is entertainment. Conversely, how is Billy Porter’s fashion statement a threat to Black masculinity, which is itself a hegemonic paradigm to which Black gay men, for the most part, conform (and experience GRS as one of many consequences)?
While Kelly (1994) may suggest that rebellion does not always have to be rooted in the political, for Black people, and especially Black QPOC, nearly everything is political. The very existence of QPOC is challenged every day through measures and actions designed to keep them marginalized, and to survive being Black on top of that is marvel. Through his display of disidentification, Billy Porter challenged the heteronormative expectation of men, even gay men, wearing tuxedos to formal events. By his own words, “My goal is to be a walking piece of political art every time I show up. To challenge expectations” (Allaire, 2019). Those last three words, in this writer’s opinion, sum up Munoz’s call to arms for QPOC.
- Allaire, C. (2019, February 24). Billy Porter on why he wore a gown, not a tuxedo, to the Oscars. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.com/article/billy-porter-oscars-red-carpet-gown- christian-siriano.
- Arendt, H. (1986). Communicative Power. In Steven Lukes (Ed.), Power (59-74). New York, NY: New York University Press.
- Fields, E. L., Bogart, L. M., Smith, K. C., Malebranche, D. J., Ellen, J., & Schuster, M. A. (2015). “I always felt I had to prove my manhood:” Homosexuality, masculinity, gender role strain, and HIV risk among young Black men who have sex with men. American Journal of Public Health, 105(1), 122-131.
- Caputo, M. (Producer). & Hartman, S. (Director). (2010). Kevin Hart: Seriously funny [Motionpicture]. United States: Codeblack Entertainment.
- Kelly, R. (1994). Race rebels: Culture, politics, and the black working class [Kindle version]. Retrieved from https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B001D201QC
- Munoz, J. E. (1999). Disidentifications: Queers of color and the performance of politics [Kindle version]. Retrieved from https://read.amazon.com/?asin=B00IK7WSKA