“Before I came to America, I didn’t know I was black.”
June 7, 2014 2:03 PM   Subscribe

To be gay, Christian and black in Harlem West African asylum seekers face a new kind of discrimination in the US
posted by infini (7 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The optimist in me thinks that this part of the world isn't *that* far removed from (say) the U.S. sixty or seventy years ago in terms of prevailing attitudes. These things do change over time, no matter how intransigent they may seem. At this point, though, the issues holding back the march of progress are broader and more structural: that law enforcement is useless for anyone's personal safety, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future; that there's no credible judiciary to lead the way toward recognition of minority rights; that with the pervasive failure of state institutions, people will continue to turn to churches and mosques en masse to provide for basic necessities (and thus, overwhelmingly, for moral leadership).

This makes it particularly frustrating to see American leaders saying things like "places like Togo 'rightly' consider homosexuality a criminal offense." People should have to spend some time here before saying stuff like that.*

*That's by no means a blanket condemnation of West Africa, which is home to many millions of wonderful people and much of which is actually very much worth a visit. But holding up West African states as paragons of moral rectitude compared to American decadence, or whatever, is ignorant at best.
posted by eugenen at 2:35 PM on June 7, 2014

I hate being things. Being something is the worst.
posted by Fizz at 3:01 PM on June 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

One thing that is kind of a problem in this discussion -- and I feel like there was a hint of this in Stephen Fry's recent documentary about homophobia -- is that a lot of immigrant culture relies on enclaves and ethnic communities within the new country.

So, on the one hand, you leave Togo to start a new life in the West, yaaaay! But in order to make your way in the new country, you have to lean on the Togoan/West African immigrant community. Who are just as likely to have the same prejudices you left Togo to get away from. Sure, there's the local gay community, but they're really not set up to find you a job or ESL classes or a bed.

It must feel incredibly lonely.
posted by Sara C. at 3:06 PM on June 7, 2014 [18 favorites]

The optimist in me thinks that this part of the world isn't *that* far removed from (say) the U.S. sixty or seventy years ago in terms of prevailing attitudes.

It's even more complicated than that -- it was almost sixty years ago that newly independent and rhetorically pan-Africanist governments including Ghana and Guinea were serving as refuges for black activists who needed to leave America. Change isn't unilinear or simple, obviously, and the push from some US conservatives to encourage anti gay repression is odious and contrary to how things here are progressing.

I've only been in West Africa very briefly, and a long time ago, but saw some relatively open gayness; I wonder if I would see the same thing in the same places today, or if it has now been pushed out of sight.
posted by Dip Flash at 3:14 PM on June 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

I feel like the writer of this piece can't decide whether this is about being African in the US, or about being gay in a heavily Christian neighborhood, or about gentrification.

I walk past both that yellow church in the header (an SDA church) and the Atlah several times a day. I would say that this writer has fallen prey to the "present both sides like they're equal" problem that bedevils people writing about climate change or vaccination. Far from being a voice of authority, the minister at the Atlah is generally regarded in the neighborhood as a crazed loon. The Baptist church next door to the Atlah has a sign over its door that says "WE ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH THE CHURCH ON THE CORNER." And one local woman just raised a bunch of money for the Ali Forney Center for homeless LBGT Youth from local residents specifically in reaction to the Atlah's stupid sign. They've also apparently lost 4/5 of their congregation in the last few years.

It is true that many of the denominations that are most represented in Harlem (various branches of Baptist, SDA, Jehovah's Witnesses) are not the most welcoming to LBGT people, and that racism is an issue in the US, and indeed that gentrification is resulting in some tension in the neighborhood--not only between white professionals moving in, but between African-Americans who have lived here for decades, some of whom own houses that are now worth millions of dollars, and some of whom are concerned about the growing dearth of affordable rentals. I feel like there could have been a much better article written about all of those things without making the fringiest bigot in all of Harlem seem like the voice of the community.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:08 PM on June 7, 2014 [12 favorites]

Whenever I'm visiting my family in ruralish Georgia, enjoying the people and the voices and the general vibe of that difficult-to-define thing about the South that's so warm and compelling for me, I have to reflect on what my life would have been like if I'd grown up there, and had to be gay in an environment that's sometimes cozy and loving and sometimes as cruel and ugly as the first flecks of sputtering spit on a lip curled by uninformed, compassionless hatred. I suspect, for someone who left the good aspects of their community behind to flee the overwhelming wretchedness of local attitudes, it must be orders of magnitude more sad and complicated.
posted by sonascope at 6:04 AM on June 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've never really got the sense that it's objectively worse to be gay in the South than anywhere else. (Note: I'm queer and grew up in the South.)

I think it's probably better to be gay in a large coastal city with an influential gay community, but otherwise I think it sort of is what it is.

Also, since this article is about Harlem, I'm unclear on what the South being homophobic has to do with the price of tea in China.
posted by Sara C. at 10:08 PM on June 8, 2014

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