2 min

Studying black, studying gay

PhD candidate Oren Howlett tackles the explosive intersection of race and sex

Carleton University doctorate student Oren Howlett is trying to dispel the myth of the hyper-masculine black gay male.

Howlett argues the modern gay black man undergoes a different experience than queer men of other races in the way they negotiate their identity in terms with their ethnicity and sexuality. The negotiation of identity, Howlett says, is complex for everyone, regardless of race, but is “especially nuanced” for black men as a category because they must negotiate the factors that make up their identity differently than white males.

Black males are subject to certain stereotypes regarding their sexuality and masculinity, as well as their sexual prowess, he says. The media, on one hand, often portrays the black males as a sort of “exotic, masculine” figure who are “gun loving super-hung he-men.”

At 29, Howlett is a PhD candidate in the Canadian Studies Department of Carleton University. Originally from Toronto, where Howlett did his undergraduate studies at the University Of Toronto, he moved to Ottawa six years ago, where he pursued graduate studies at Carleton. As part of his dissertation, Howlett has proposed a project to interview up to 30 black gay men, likely from the Toronto and Ottawa areas. The project would interview the participants and document their experiences in order to shed some light on the lives of a minority group within a minority group. Black lesbians will not be part of the study, although Howlett feels that would also make an interesting project. He hopes — emphasis on hope, he says, with a laugh — to have the project completely finished by 2010.

“I want to give insights into worlds people don’t necessarily think about,” he says, “Often times (in the queer community) we tend to gloss over these differences. We assume we’re here, we’re queer and we’re all sort of the same [as a community] but we’re not.”

“Hopefully,” he adds, “this doesn’t cause a lot of controversy. Race and sexuality [are]very touchy topics and when you put them together they sort of explode.”

The queer community, in context, translates this to mean that many black men remain closeted because they are too masculine. Many of Howlett’s observations come from his own, personal experiences as a queer black man.

“Much of my work is very personal,” he says, “You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been in a bar and had someone come up to me and ask me how big my dick is. Just because someone is black doesn’t mean they are well-hung or awesome in bed. A white guy can be well hung and awesome in bed, too.”