(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—The Cleveland metropolitan area has finally done it. The city has become the center of a political and cultural story that has nothing to do with foreclosure crisis, the lousy football team, the horrible bond rating or horrendous infrastructure. Last week, the Cleveland metro area managed to be the center of a whole new conversation about gay rights in the United States, both moving things forward and setting the narrative back 20 years. Not bad for a city some still affectionately refer to as the “Mistake on the Lake.”
Incumbent East Cleveland Mayor Eric Brewer lost his re-election bid last week amid a scandal so outrageous it sounds more like an episode of “Spin City” than real politics. A few days before the primary and de facto general election pictures surfaced of Brewer dressed in women’s lingerie and makeup, posing for pictures that would make the most tawdry MySpace user blush. The photos are pretty cringe inducing, the kind of pics that you e-mail to your friends with the subject heading “These MIGHT be workplace safe.”
It’s a shame really, because by all accounts Brewer had done a good job as mayor, but was voted out under the cloud of scandal even though only about 10 percent of registered voters bothered to go to the polls.
And we all know why he lost. Because the perception by most people is that cross-dressing makes you gay, and voters, African-American voters in particular are not too keen on gay faces in powerful places. Forget the fact that for all we know the pictures were taken by Brewer’s wife in some in-house sex game, and that he is clearly a straight man, perception is reality in politics. Ironically on the same day Brewer was rejected as mayor for perceived “gayness,” the Cleveland area widely opened its arms to unmistakable gayness in the form of the “Gay Games.”
The Federation of Gay Games announced last Tuesday that the Cleveland area would host the 2014 Gay Games having beat out the other final cities of Boston and Washington D.C. The games have occurred every four years since 1982 and are known to bring in thousands of competitors, entertainers and press from around the world to participate in a week of sports and cultural events. So how is it that at the same time one part of the Cleveland area is rejecting a competent mayor for perceived “gayness” and the whole region is embracing the most homosexual friendly event to hit the area since the Weathergirls reunion tour?
The easy and cynical answer would be to say it’s all about money. The Gay Games bring in about $50 to $80 million to the local economy in tourism, events and visitors. But I think the real reason is a bit less Machiavellian. The truth is that this really shows the African-American community in the United States isn’t really as homophobic as many social commentators and the press would like us to believe. Since the Prop 8 vote in California where African-Americans were blamed for being the swing vote to allow the banning of gay marriage, the cultural narrative in the U.S. has been that Black folk hate gays. While surveys show that the African-American community is very conservative on homosexual rights, that does not necessarily mean a general rejection of the homosexual community’s right to exist. If anything, the events in Cleveland last week represent this dichotomy perfectly.
The truth is that African-Americans—and there’s no nice way to say this—generally have no problem with homosexuals per se, so long as they don’t appear to be seeking the same sort of privileged minority status as African-Americans. The truth of the matter is that while many might’ve rejected Mayor Brewer for his perceived homosexual behavior, many more might have voted against him simply out of embarrassment that his private sexual behavior became public. What we saw last week might not have been homophobia at all, but simply the typical sexual Puritanism that costs politicians their jobs every year. While we may never know what role sexual prejudice played in the East Cleveland election we do know one thing, the Gay Games are coming to Cleveland, which means a lot of people in that city are willing to publicly embrace a lifestyle that they may privately abhor.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)