Our Closets, Ourselves


“Was Langston Hughes gay?” It’s a question that never fails to surface during my talks on religion in the poetry of Langston Hughes. Someone always wants to know. Rumors that Hughes was gay have been a mainstay of Harlem lore since the 1920s. And not everyone is questioning; Some are sure.   Hughes has been a central figure in every archival exhibit and text on black gay writers since the 1970s. Isaac Julien’s 1989 biopic added more “certainty” to the notion: In such a “gay world” as the Harlem Renaissance, of course Hughes was gay.

The research for my book, Langston’s Salvation, and the persistent questions about Hughes’s sexuality have lead me to think about sexuality in unanticipated ways and to make connections between religion and sexuality. It intrigues me, however, that no one seems satisfied with any of the alternative answers to the question, including the current prevailing assertion that Hughes was “asexual.” Indeed, there is perhaps no other claim about Hughes’s sexuality that has fueled the speculation that he was gay like the assertion that he was “asexual.” After years of research, however, I cannot say that Hughes was gay, “straight,” or “asexual.” What I can say is that Hughes didn’t want us to know and perhaps we never will. So, the pursuit continues, captured so brilliantly in the title of Julien’s film, “Looking for Langston.”

And herein lies the larger issue for me. What if Hughes’s sexuality didn’t conform to any of the known narratives of sexuality that we have constructed? What if his sexuality was of his own making, transforming and reconfiguring in space and time? What if Hughes was “sexually free”? In our modern understandings of sexuality, we have left little room for this possibility. Indeed, nothing terrifies us more than an individual or a society that is “sexually free.” A person who is “sexually free” is inattentive to fixed “identities” and in most respects non-responsive to enforced Church and State control and surveillance.

This a concern for me because of two interrelated and mutually reinforcing narratives of black sexuality that have dominated the discourse and shaped individual experiences: “the closet” and “coming out.” Most of us glean our understanding of “the closet” from the work of the late Eve Sedgwick, who argued, “the closet is the defining structure for gay oppression in this country,” a place of non-freedom, delusion, and denial. While I accept Sedgwick’s critique of the binary of hetero/homo in Western culture, I want to question, however, if “the closet” is always a matter of oppression and denial, and if it is indeed a “closet.” Just like in New York real estate, not everything that is called a “closet” is one.

            I’m inspired on this point by the work of Jeffry McCune, who notes similarities but distinguishes between “the closet” and the “DL” (the “down low”). Discursively, “the closet” is structured as “white” while the “DL” is a space where black men negotiate the terms of their own masculinity and sexuality. So what often looks like oppression, denial, and deception are actually choices being made about how one navigates the world on his or her own terms. What, then, if we reimagine what we have come to call “the closet” as a space of social arrangements and personal choices amid pre-scripted notions of sexual norms? And at the same time I ask, how is “the closet” different from other forms of
“dissemblance” that black people have been called upon to perform?

            What reinforces the notion of “the closet” is the public performance of “coming out.” There has been a proliferation of these declarations of sexuality in the last two decades, beginning with Ellen DeGeneres in 1997. Her story set the pattern for subsequent declarations and few of these public “confessions” deviate from the pattern. “Coming out” must be done, and there is a right and a wrong way to do it. “Coming out,” once a term that connoted a “debut” into a community of one’s own, has morphed into a performance of apology for difference and a plea for public absolution.

            Even more than this, however, I’m interested in how discourses of power are re-inscribed through this process of “coming out,” which necessitates that everyone make the same choice and the same statements. This is precisely the power that Church and State yield, and is the chief basis for their claims to normativity. “Coming out” is no longer optional, and staying “in” is viewed as a type of violence.   But how is the call to “come out” similar to other types of pressures to conform to the status quo? Isn’t the call for everyone to “come out” another form of policing and surveillance?

            A few years ago social media were set ablaze by Raven Symone’s statements about her sexuality and race. I was more intrigued by the response to her claims that she didn’t want to be “labeled” gay and was not “African American” than those statements themselves. What intrigued me more was that Raven Symone had “come out” in the wrong way. It was not up to her to dictate the parameters of her sexuality. It was not up to her to give names to her experience of herself in ways that have not been sanctioned and/or recognized. She was not “sexually free.”

So, what is a productive way forward with regard to this aspect of black sexuality? Not a massive exodus back to “the closet,” or that we jettison the concept entirely. There are still oppressive forces that render the lives of LBGTQ folks nearly unbearable, locking them into closets of their own making. But there are also those of American society’s construction. It is our discourse on sexuality that has built many of those “closets.” Might we consider, then, how this notion builds upon and constructs other systems of power that work to oppress and negatively shape experiences and ways of being? Might we work for a black sexuality that truly is not policed – by theologies, institutions, or ideas of normalcy? A sexuality beyond narratives of “in” and “out.”

It is possible that Langston Hughes was gay. It is also possible he was not. More likely, his was a sexuality of his own construction that didn’t conform to anyone’s conception of what it meant to be black and sexual. But if he had ever said that, he likely would have set his world ablaze.


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