Triple Negation”: Respectability Politics over Gender and Sexual Identities

Cathy Cohen. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.





     In The Boundaries of Blackness, using the lack of a response from black communities, Cohen argues that black political and civil rights leaders as well as black institutions specifically the black church established a secondary marginalization that pushed black gay men and black lesbian outside the boundaries of care and “respectability” politics. This secondary marginalization takes place when there are internal conflicts between members of marginalized groups leading to hierarchies and the power to police these communities. Cohen asserts, “The indigenous construction and policing of group identity and membership serves as the site for local power struggles…” (70). Black leaders not only constructed the meaning “blackness” through concept of respectability politics but also constructed borders to withhold care from groups who were not respectable and providing care to those who were. This concept of secondary marginalization was important for black communities to deny critical resources from subpopulations of already marginalized groups. Cohen argues there were three stages of black HIV/AIDS politics.
       The first stage took place from 1980-1986. The Center for Disease control officially recognized AIDS. As a response, black gay male activists worked within black communities, spreading the word, educating people about the disease, and providing care to those afflicted. They also responded to lack of attention from gay white communities and so developed advertising materials geared to inform black communities about the disease.
      The second stage took place from 1987 to the mid 1990s. At the time, black organizations (churches, media, and civil rights organizations) as well as social service agencies became increasingly aware of HIV/AIDS. In 1992, the NAACP delivered five HIV/AIDS recommendations at a Minority Health Summit; however, black institutions were hesitant to mobilize against the disease. The five recommendations from the NAACP identified black women and children as the most important at risk populations, ignoring gay black men and injection drug users. Instead of discussing HIV/AIDS as a political issue, the document focused “on the universal need for more programs, more money and attention” (265). The issue was also ignored by the black church, black elected officials, and black media outlets.        
      The third stage took place from the early 1990s to 1999 as AIDS work became professionalized. In black communities, funding sources poured in allowing AIDS organizations to emerge especially as women constituted larger numbers of those afflicted. While black organizations, black elected officials, and black media outlets, started to do more for the cause, their efforts paled in comparison to the spread of the disease. During these three stages, bisexual and gay black men, black lesbian women, and black injection drug users are blamed, demonized, and ignored. Since drug use and homosexuality are not respectable, they remain outside the boundaries of blackness.

      In Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, Mark Anthony Neal cites filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who stated that as a black gay man, the principles of Michele Wallace’s “Black Macho” defines him as a “triple negation.” For a black gay man, this puts him and many others in a position, making them vulnerable to be attacked both physically and verbally by “illiterate homophobic thugs” and “Black American culture’s best and brightest” (151). My subjects, being black cross dressing, transsexual, and transgender women, are marginalized not only within the “black community” but within the LBGT community as well. In the article, “Deviance as Resistance,” Cohen uses the phrase “oppositional practices,” to refer to nonconformity or an act of resistance in marginalized black communities. She warns that attention needs to be given to how oppressed individuals “act with the limited agency afforded to them to secure small levels of autonomy” (27). She uses respectability politics as a way to demonstrate that deviant behavior was not always just acting out. This behavior is used to claim autonomy especially for those outside the boundaries of “state-sanctioned, normalized, White, middle- and upper-class male heterosexuality” (27).     

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