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social sciences

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African Americans  
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African Americans who engage in same-sex sexual practices and/or who lead cross-gendered lives have always been a part of black and glbtq communities. However, at times their presence in both groups has either gone unrecognized or been highly contested. The creation of black glbtq communities beginning in the mid-nineteenth century has provided African Americans who are "in the life" with greater opportunities to be themselves without having to fear rejection or marginalization.

African Societies

Although early white Christian missionaries and anthropologists and contemporary anti-glbtq black critics have contended that same-sex sexuality did not exist in Africa prior to European contact, the accounts of explorers and colonizers suggest otherwise. Not only did white people not impose same-sex sexual practices upon the continent, but some African societies allowed for a wider range of sexual activities and gender possibilities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than did many European countries.

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For example, same-sex sexual behavior and relationships among young men and women were often an accepted and institutionalized practice in African cultures, especially in societies that were highly sex-segregated. A number of African societies also recognized cross-gender roles, such as the Kongo and Ndonga kingdoms in what is today Angola.

The Slavery Era

Some free and enslaved Africans in the New World continued to engage in same-sex sexual practices. The high male-to-female sex ratio among people of African descent in many of the American colonies likely made same-sex relations more prevalent. Among the five men executed for sodomy in the colonies from the early seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century was Jan Creoli, a "negro" in the New Netherland Colony. Convicted of a second sodomy offense in 1646, he was choked to death and his body tied to a stake and burned.

In addition to consensual same-sex sexual relationships, enslaved African-American men were also raped and subjected to other acts of sexual violence by white men. For example, in her 1861 slave narrative, Harriet Jacobs mentions a white male slaveholder who forced one of his male slaves to submit to "the strangest freaks of despotism," which Jacobs finds to be "of a nature too filthy to be repeated."

For some free African Americans, as for members of the dominant society, the ideology and practice of separate spheres for women and men fostered the development of romantic and sometimes erotic same-sex friendships in the mid- and late nineteenth century.

A rare glimpse of such a relationship in the black community is provided by the correspondence between two Connecticut freeborn women, domestic servant Addie Brown and schoolteacher Rebecca Primus, in the 1860s. Brown's preserved letters describe an intensely emotional friendship that involved at the very least the caressing of breasts. The nature of their relationship was recognized and even appreciated by their families, but to maintain social respectability, they were still expected to marry, and both women reluctantly did so.

Emancipation and Continued Subjugation

African Americans in the South were able to gain control over their own bodies with the legal abolition of slavery, but they continued to have severe limits placed on their sexual and gender expression.

The narrow cultural space available to same-gender loving and gender non-conforming freedwomen and men is demonstrated by the experiences of Frances Thompson. A former slave, Thompson was raped by a group of white men during the Memphis riots of 1866. But while such a crime would have been ignored or dismissed in the antebellum South, she testified to a congressional committee investigating the riots, helping to call attention to the ongoing sexual exploitation of black women by white men. However, her testimony and that of other black women who had been raped in the riots were later discredited when it was discovered that Thompson had been born male-bodied.

Outside the former slaveholding South, same-gender loving and gender non-conforming African Americans began to organize and attend drag events in the mid- to late nineteenth century. The masquerade ball of Harlem's Hamilton Lodge, which became the largest annual gathering of glbtq people in New York, was first held in 1869. By the 1890s, drag balls were popular in the black communities of many other northern and mid-Atlantic cities.

But African Americans faced arrest if they publicly cross-dressed beyond licensed masquerade balls. For example, "Miss Maud," a 30-year-old black drag queen, was arrested for vagrancy following a New Year's Eve drag gathering in Washington, D.C. in 1885. Although the judge "admired his stylish appearance," he nevertheless received a three-month jail sentence.

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Bayard Rustin at a news briefing on the March on Washington in the Statler Hotel in 1963.
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