Editors' note: Carmen Morgan has been a community activist supporting grassroots initiatives for over 15 years. She is currently the Director of Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations (LDIR), a program that provides resources and skills to community workers and activists. Formerly she served as the Associate Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an international social justice organization, where she worked towards economic justice, gay liberation, and monitored human rights violations. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
Long gone are the days of segregated movements. There may have been a time when movement building benefited from the separate and particular locations of race, gender, class, and sexual identity, as each forged their own paths towards gaining credibility within a mainstream context. But today's generation, a generation of multi-identified, class-conscious, queer, people of color, expect more intersections, more interplay between issues of justice. As younger activist support community building and movement building activities, they expect a more complicated analysis that explores the contradictions and intersections of their lives. They identify as queer feminist of color, or transgender immigrants living with HIV. They do not identify solely as gendered or raced activists.
As we continue to develop strategies that address structural inequities, a fragmented approach, one that does not acknowledge the intersectionality of class, race, gender, and sexual identity, will miss the needs and expectations of "post baby boom" generations. These younger generations expect that the identities that shape their experiences will be included in all aspects of their movement building. If existing movements do not address their reality, younger activists will create their own movements.
Barack Obama's great appeal to Generation X is due in part to is own complicated set of identities. White and black. Holding both Midwest and immigrant roots. Raised working class but also Harvard educated. These identities coexist to form a more textured canvas. For Generation X'ers, Obama and his election were emblematic of the shift away from the rigid identity politics of the sixties.
Intersectional movement building could have addressed the false dichotomy that was created during and after California's "No on Prop 8" Campaign. The fallout from the California initiative to ban same sex marriages is still being felt within LA's activist community. The gay rights and African American communities, in particular, were reeling after the results of the 2008 November election. Some organizers in the gay rights community attributed the passage of the initiative to the African American vote. In turn, some leaders in the African American community responded by claiming racial insensitivity and lack of outreach as the reason why many African Americans supported the initiative. Coalitions were fractured amidst finger pointing and heated accusations.
When interviewed about her reactions regarding the passing of the initiative, Jasmyne Cannick, a black lesbian activist stated:
It was a poorly run campaign. There was very little outreach into the African-American community. There was just about no work done with the black gay and lesbian community down here in Los Angeles to do that outreach work.
In response to claims of black bigotry, Keith Boykin, a black gay activist formerly with the Clinton administration, argued that there is a misperception that the black community is overwhelmingly homophobic. He said that support for gay marriage will come from the black community if gay marriage is framed as a civil rights issue rather than a moral one.
What happens when we reduce people to one part of their identity, we make them not human and we only focus on the part we don't like.
Harvard scholar, Henry Louis Gates Jr. argued in his 1993 article published in The New Yorker that any gay rights comparison to the civil rights movement of the sixties is erroneous. He noted that the gay rights movement has not experienced the same level of violence or the same level of intergenerational poverty that informed the civil rights movement. Fifteen years later, California's Proposition 8, proved that the same tension continues. Some now argue that an effective strategy might be to refer to gay rights as a human rights issue, thereby avoiding the alienation of potential black allies.
In either case, black gay activists and white anti-racists are left wondering how racial justice and gay rights could ever be pitted against one another. Any gay rights analysis that is not anti-racist or any anti-racist strategy that does not include addressing heterosexism is tragically flawed. It may be helpful to remember the work of Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Bayard Rustin, and other gay/civil rights activist, as we formulate more inclusive and broad-based community strategies.
Whether gay rights is framed as a civil rights issue or a human rights issue, it is clear that as we work to address social inequities, we will lose valuable ground if we do not frame issues of equity in the broadest sense. We will need activists with the ability to have an expanding and inclusive social justice analysis if we hope to not repeat mistakes of the past.