On a more serious note how do we address the possibility that Fanon or Malcolm X were / might have been homophobic – surely we need to be thinking about both in the context of their time? For example are white people on the whole less racist, straight people less homophobic today than 40 years ago? And if so (I could answer yes and no to both questions – which confuses me). I remember British activist Peter Tatchel writing a few years back in the Guardian that MX was possibly gay which shook me not because he might have been gay but because his gayness would be used to discredit and undermine everything he stood for which was quite frightening.
Fanon has often been accused of being homophobic based on his 1952 Black Skins, White Masks, a text based primarily on his experiences in Martinique, Algeria (during WWII), and France. His statements on homosexuality are as shaped by these historical experiences as they are by his training as a psychiatrist, at a time when psychiatry was more overtly hostile to homosexuals. My task here is not to reconstruct these histories (and I still believe a full accounting of homosexuality within a transnational Francophone circuit still needs to be written—or translated into English; or I need to read it if it exists).
The concern I share with Sokari has to do with the cultural and political weight we continue to assign important figures because of their attitudes toward homosexuality. Hostility toward homosexuality often elicits praise while advocacy for, let alone practice of, diminishes one’s cultural authority. In Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch, Dwight McBride points out that even known queers such as James Baldwin “heterosexualize” (not the same as closeting) themselves to gain cultural approbation.
Conversely, as she notes, revelations of or innuendos about culturally significant figures continue to elicit strong resistance (Shakespeare, Lincoln, Langston Hughes, to take 3 prime examples). (Yes, I know the sentence is incomplete.)
So, the question is why? Why should revelations about one’s perceived homo-acts affect one’s historical reputation? I should admit, here, that I find the argument that homophobia is a mask for repressed homosexuality to be unconvincing. And I find the ostensibly liberal-cum-conservative position that identities don’t matter to be disingenuous.
Was Fanon homophobic and what does that mean for queers of color? There are no easy answers. To use Obama’s locution, I can no more disown Fanon than I can my close friends (who lovingly believe I’m going to hell).
I find it fruitless to comb through his texts or his life to find evidence that he was or wasn’t homophobic. My tolerance for masochism goes only so far, and my safety word comes to my lips too readily.
The problem of valuing/devaluing black leaders and artists because of their presumed homosexuality (always after the fact, since they are always already heterosexual) is more difficult to negotiate. It means dealing with two historically simultaneous instances of homophobia: one presumed to belong to a historical actor (Fanon, Kenyatta, Malcolm X) and the other from contemporary critics who value that homophobia and, in so doing, advance their own homophobia.
From my perspective, it matters especially to queers of color, who must often attempt to balance their ethno-racial political and social attachments with their gender-sexual political and social attachments. (I wanted to use the word allegiance, but do not quite like the sense of obligation it presumes. After wrestling with critics elsewhere, I must concede, I am uncomfortable with some of its overtones. Blogs allow self-indulgent asides.)
Ultimately, I’m interested in what might be termed a shield effect or a historical alibi that goes something like this: “if x historical figure, whose politics I embrace, was homophobic, it’s because that figure understood something profound about the implications of homo-acts and homo-desires for politics. Consequently, I must embrace a similar homophobia.” (Racism is less acceptable on this front, though Hitler has his defenders and followers; sexism, as the HRC backlash demonstrates, is much more acceptable.)
This problem is compounded when we deal with Fanon who, in my book at least, was a certifiable genius. Given how smart he was, how prescient about the shape of post-independence politics in Africa, how compelling he remains, might he have been right “to be” homophobic? And does attending to history allow “us” to “excuse” him?
I don’t know. I have theories and interpretations (in my other life), but I honestly have no idea.
There is a broader question here about what values we can and should adapt and adopt from our political predecessors, how we can account for their histories and contextualize our own, how we use them or distort them to articulate our historical stances, and, perhaps most important, how we can be responsible to history and to the present by really paying attention to both.
This is, finally, the challenge of reading Fanon.