Mayors Talk Homophobia Among Black Community

This story was written by Vidya B. Viswanathan, Harvard Crimson
Two ground-breaking local politicians discussed homophobia among the black community during a two-hour forum in the Lowell Junior Common Room yesterday.

The forum featured two colleagues in Cambridge government: former Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 -- the first openly gay African-American mayor in the country -- and his successor, Mayor E. Denise Simmons, who identifies as both African-American and lesbian.

Both figures discussed the challenges of homophobia in politics -- even in a city as liberal as Cambridge.

Simmons expressed frustration that problems of homophobia distract attention from larger social issues facing black Americans.

The mayor recalled an incident early in her political career, when she received a letter "against gay marriage" from "the black clergy" -- a group she described as "conspicuously absent" from other debates.

"It was one of the saddest moments for me in political life," she said.

Simmons also spoke of her arrival on the Cambridge School Committee, when she said she worked with a committee member who had "a very closed mind." Simmons declined to elaborate on the colleague in a subsequent interview.

But Simmons was more optimistic about the state of gay African-Americans in Cambridge today, saying "we've evolved since then."

Reeves, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of homosexuals among African-Americans.

"Within our intelligentsia in the black community, you have more gay men and women," he said. "The black community cannot do without us. I don't think it's a coincidence that the two elected mayors are black, gay, and lesbian."

Simmons also said that gay African Americans can better work for social change when they work together. With regard to Reeves, she said there is a "difference when you serve with someone that looks like you and thinks the way you do."

But some Harvard students who spoke at the event said the black and gay communities are not nearly as united at Harvard as they are in Cambridge.

"I know a lot of gay people here at Harvard. They are okay with their homosexuality, but the heterosexual black community here is not," a sophomore said in front of the forum.

Anjelica M. Kelly '09, co-president of the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW), said after the event that, "I don't think we do anything homophobic, but we have to reach out more."

Audience members also directly disagreed with the speakers.

Simmons proposed that people concerned with homophobia should address it through the lens of another social dilemma. "You can raise the issue of homophobia in that context, but you can never lead with that issue," she said.

But an audience member disagreed.

"I think if we're going to deal with oppression, then we have to deal with oppression across the board, and there's no hierarchy within that," she said.

The event was hosted by ABHW, the LGBT Political Coalition, and the Black Men's Forum.
© 2008 Harvard Crimson via U-WIRE