African Americans

Homophobia in the African-American community is often more intense than in the dominant community. In the past, the sexual orientation of African-American lesbians and gay men was often known by the community although it was not discussed. Many African- American individuals, particularly men, call themselves bisexual instead of gay. Many African-American LGBT individuals operate in separate spheres and may perform community service in the African-American community, but they primarily socialize within the African- American LGBT community. Identifying oneself as an LGBT individual publicly may put an African American at risk for losing his or her most important support system—the African-American community.

Many LGBT African Americans say that they do not feel welcome or comfortable in predominantly Caucasian LGBT settings (e.g., clubs, bars, pride events), and racist incidents have been reported. Diversity in the LGBT service provider community is essential to accommodate for the distrust between African Americans and Caucasians. Many service provider agencies targeting African Americans were formed during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Focus groups consisting of African-American gay men and lesbians conducted in California by Michael Browning of Day One in Pasadena, a member of this publication’s Steering Committee, clearly stated that they did not want to be called queer and considered it a negative term. Substance abuse treatment counselors need to refrain from using the term, especially if they are working with African Americans.

Focus group members stated that religion remains important to many gays and lesbians in African-American communities, even though some have had negative experiences with organized religious groups. Many treatment programs have some religious context (whether spoken about or not), and focus group members felt that including spiritual activities, music, and practices that are more indigenous to African-American communities would be helpful in treatment.

Values. Interpersonal relationships are highly valued, and the identity of African Americans is tied to their group identity. The self is considered an extended self, and this group orientation contrasts with the wider cultural norm of individualism. The community, social organizations, neighborhoods, and kinship relationships provide aid and support. African-American families vary from nuclear to extended. Female-headed households predominate in some socioeconomic levels, but marriage is still highly valued. Rearing children is considered a communal responsibility.

Language. Language is passionate and full of action. Dialects and slang are used in some geographic locations and need to be understood by providers. “Same-gender-loving” is a term used by many African-American LGBT individuals. The appropriate form of address is by title (e.g., Ms., Dr., Rev., Mrs.) rather than first name, unless permission is given to use the more informal address.

Nonverbal behavior. Body language is expressive and used extensively to help communicate. Movement, thought, and nonverbal behavior are spontaneous, and many African Americans are highly aware of nonverbal cues. Touch is important; however, observing personal space is one key to whether a person feels respected, and providers need to follow the client’s lead.

Learning styles. Learning styles tend to be relational rather than analytical. Oral communication predominates in knowledge transmission. Tradition is highly valued over the visual and the written word. Teachers and students need to develop a trusting relationship. Storytelling is used to teach about life and pass on cultural values. The use of storytelling and African proverbs can enhance insights into treatment.

Healing. Healing occurs through laying on of hands, prayer, herbs, and the like. One is sick when one cannot do for oneself any longer, and recovery from illness usually is seen as possible with the help of God. For many, God and the spiritual community are based in the Christian church and organized religion.