Dueling identities: University student conducts master’s thesis on being black and gay
When Miles Crumley@@http://pdx.edu/psy/[email protected]@ chose a research topic for his master’s thesis at Portland State University, he picked one he knows well — himself.
Crumley is black and gay. He talks openly about his race and sexuality. He attends Black Student Union meetings at the University and convinces his heterosexual friends to go to gay bars with him in Eugene. But Crumley says he’s often separated from the gay community because he doesn’t look or act gay. In a crisp, white button-up collared shirt and denim jeans, Crumley looks like any other college-aged male. More than his clothing or mannerisms, Crumley says his skin color makes people assume he is not gay.
“When I go into queer circles, I’ve been asked, ‘What are you doing here?’” he says. “I’ve had people be very dismissive. They don’t want to talk to me.”
The 26-year-old student from Atlanta, Ga. — who is working on his master’s degree at PSU while also pursuing premedical studies at the University — represents a population of gay males who are black and often struggle to be accepted because of their gay and black identity. His research explores how gay, black males develop their identity during adolescence. It also attempts to show other gay, black males that they are not alone.
Since January 2012, Crumley has interviewed 11 gay, black males from across the United States about how they formed their identity during adolescence. He says previous research has shown that members of marginalized groups have lower self-esteem and higher stress levels. He has found that gay, black males, who are part of multiple marginalized groups, are often stuck on what he calls an island of isolation. When gay people are alienated from their racial group, they gravitate toward gay communities. But Crumley says gay groups are not void of racism. “If you’re an ethnic minority in a LGBT group, then they will ostracize you,” he says.
He cited suicide numbers among gay and lesbian racial minorities to prove his isolation theory. A 2011 study from researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health @@[email protected]@found that gay and lesbian teens in Oregon are five times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual youth. A previous study in 2010 by Columbia University researchers found that black and Latino gays and lesbians reported even higher rates of suicide attempts than white gays and lesbians.
Like his research subjects, Crumley says he has struggled to find friends in black groups and gay groups. “You have to interact with people because that’s how you’re going to survive,” he says. “But they don’t fully accept you.”
He is either not gay enough or black enough.
Crumley first admitted he was gay six years ago to a class at Portland State University, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 2007. The class discussed how sexual minorities form their identities during childhood, which made Crumley think about his own identity. He wasn’t afraid to tell friends he was gay. Most of them already knew, he says. But telling his family, especially his father, was not so easy.
Crumley grew up in what he calls a traditional Southern black household. He attended church every Sunday with his family until his senior year in high school. Although he says his family was supportive and doesn’t conform to some of the socially conservative ideals of the black church, he still feels his parents disapprove. “We don’t talk about it in my house. It’s never brought up. It’s never discussed,” he says. “My dad just doesn’t care. My mother will always be in denial.”
Miles’ father, George Crumley, 57, says that he doesn’t talk about Miles’ sexuality because his son doesn’t talk about his social life to him. “For a long time, he wouldn’t come home,” Crumley’s father says. “But I don’t look at him any differently. He was afraid that I would treat him different. I’m not homophobic. I treat all my kids the same.”
Even so, Crumley’s father says his son is struggling with his identity. “There’s a lot of confusion as to what’s really going on in his head,” he says. “Miles is still looking for who he is.”
Pew Research Center data from April 2012 show that 39 percent of black Americans support gay marriage compared to 47 percent of white Americans. Although a large percentage of black Americans oppose homosexuality, Crumley says he’s found that tolerance toward gays and lesbians depends on each person’s experiences.
All gay males go through the same developmental processes but develop their identity in different environments, he says. Crumley isn’t sure if his experience would be any different had he continued living in the South. Even living in Portland and Eugene — relatively gay-friendly cities — for the past nine years, he says it’s challenging to find people who accept him.
Strong anti-gay sentiment from the black community is also fueled by the lack of role models for black gay men in the media, Crumley says. Growing up, he wasn’t exposed to many black male identities other than tough and violent rappers in music videos. Of the 11 gay, black men in his research, those who had role models in their lives found a stable identity more quickly than those who didn’t.
University professor and journalist Alex Tizon@@[email protected]@ has conducted extensive research on how expectations of masculinity vary among different races in the United States. “There is a certain mythology around African-American men that describes them as hypermasculine, hypersexual and aggressive,” Tizon says. These gender constructions may influence how the black community accepts homosexuality, he says. Crumley agrees. He says it’s easier for the black community to silence gays and lesbians than it is go against mainstream ideas of black male identities.
Through his research, Crumley says he’s learned more about himself. He used to think his sexuality defined who he is, but he has changed. “Being gay is just one aspect of you,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be all of you. Who you’re sleeping with at nighttime has nothing to do with who you are.”
Crumley will earn his master’s degree from PSU this summer. He will graduate next spring from the University and plans to go to medical school. His goal is to become a traveling doctor, helping people in small towns in the United States. Although he isn’t planning on conducting more research about gay, black males, he hopes his thesis will show other black males that it’s alright to be different.
“You can be gay, straight or bisexual,” he says. “You can decide how to shape your life. And that’s often what’s been missing in the black population. They are never presented with many options.”
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