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Friday, June 17, 2011

Tracy Morgan isn't the real issue: Black community is far too accepting of homophobia

Tracy Morgan has apologized for homophobic comments he made during a comedy event.
Tracy Morgan has apologized for homophobic
comments he made during a comedy event.
By Keith Boykin -

When the news broke that comedian Tracy Morgan had engaged in an anti-gay tirade during a June 3 comedy performance in Tennessee, the reaction was as swift as it was predictable. Lesbian and gay leaders complained, Morgan was forced to apologize, and eventually most of us went back to business as usual. We recently saw the same formula with Kobe Bryant and Joakim Noah after their outbursts during NBA games.

But while the public quickly moved on to the next story, some of us did not enjoy that luxury. Five days after Morgan's performance, I had to write a eulogy for a friend and former assistant, a young Ivy League-educated black gay man who took his own life. The police found a suicide note written on an envelope in his car. He never explained what drove him to kill himself, but many of us knew he did not fit in easily with the crowd.

I'm not in a position to judge the sincerity of Morgan's apology, but in a society where gay teenagers are more likely to be bullied and three times more likely than others to commit suicide, one man's contrition is not enough to stop the problem.

That's why the most disturbing aspect of the Morgan episode is not what he said, but how the audience reacted. The applause and chants of support that reportedly greeted Morgan's tirade demonstrate just why some consider homophobia the last acceptable prejudice.

As Morgan's "30 Rock" co-star Tina Fey reminded us, Morgan is surrounded by openly gay New York City professionals who would not willingly countenance homophobia on the set of their TV show. But as an adopting parent of two young black males who live in Tennessee, I know that teenagers and young adults are rarely exposed to such constructive gay and lesbian influences.

Two years ago, an 11-year-old black student named Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover hanged himself in Massachusetts after weeks of harassment and anti-gay bullying. In the same month, another 11-year-old black kid, Jaheem Herrera in Atlanta, took his own life after suffering constant anti-gay bullying at his school. Just last fall, 19-year-old Raymond Chase, a black gay college student in Rhode Island, committed suicide in his dorm room.

Even in liberal New York City, a young black gay activist named Joseph Jefferson killed himself just last October. "I could not bear the burden of living as a gay man of color in a world grown cold and hateful toward those of us who live and love differently than the so-called 'social mainstream,' " Jefferson posted on his Facebook page the day he killed himself.

Confronting homophobia is not as simple as issuing an apology, meeting gay and lesbian youth or attending a gay rally, all of which Morgan has wisely promised to do. Those remedies assume that Morgan alone is the issue while downplaying the larger societal factors that enabled him to generate laughter from his routine in the first place.

Nor should we try to neatly package this as a simple "teachable moment." We need parents, preachers and teachers to speak out and change their behavior on a daily basis.

In the black community, often misunderstood as virulently anti-gay, the biggest obstacle is the church. Ask the fire-and-brimstone pastor to turn around and survey the sexual orientation of the choir members on any given Sunday and you'll see why we need more black gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and challenge the persistent stereotypes that limit and define us.

It's easy to point our fingers at Tracy Morgan as the latest villain in the gay rights struggle, but if we ignore the seeds of the problem in our own neighborhoods, then we're just as much to blame.

Boykin is the author of the forthcoming book "For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough."

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