Pam Spaulding

Black and gay -- and reclaiming 'civil rights'

Filed By Pam Spaulding | May 27, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: African-American, civil rights, gay and black, homophobic behavior, LGBT, Race, racial issues

Note from Pam: OK, I know people can be hesitant to jump into a thread that touches upon race. Don't let it become an orphan thread. Speak your mind - be part of the solution of open communication, not part of the problem - continued silence about this thorny issue.

As someone who is black and lesbian, it's tiring and absurd to encounter the argument that the black civil rights movement somehow exclusively owns the ability to use "civil rights." And the result of that is any challenge to this thinking amounts to stepping on the third rail.

There is no Oppression Olympics that requires a certain level of historic suffering by a group of people to be able to use those words. I refuse to cede them to anyone.

More below the fold.

In the Bay State Banner, there is an article by Talia Whyte, "Black gay couples in Mass. mark marriage anniversary," that shows just how black gays, even prominent ones, have had to deal with the issue of being rendered invisible -- but how marriage equality in the state has begun to crack through the wall of homophobia within the black community there.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons celebrated the occasion at City Hall as the city was the first to issue same-sex marriage. Simmons is the first out black lesbian in the country to serve as mayor, following in the trailblazing footsteps of Kenneth E. Reeves, was the first openly gay black man to become mayor.

Over the last five years, the mayor said, she has noticed that some in the black community have come around to accepting gay marriage, possibly because they realize married gay couples are no different from married straight couples.

"Marriage is a marriage is a marriage," Simmons said. "Once we start to think that way, some of those barriers that keep us from thinking inclusively will erode."

...Like Simmons, Reeves said he has also seen attitudes toward marriage equality change for the positive in the local black community. But, he added, the community still needs to be more honest with itself about homosexuality.

"There are gay people in the black community, but the community pretends we don't exist," he said. "We have to have a new conversation about this."

Well, the reason we are rendered invisible is that too many in the black community don't want to intellectually deal with our existence and the homophobia fomented within the culture, particularly large elements of the religious black community. It's something that I experienced that quite publicly a couple of months ago when I lobbied the chair of the NC legislative black caucus, Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford), who actually votes with us on the issues, but refused to offer to engage her caucus colleagues who support a marriage amendment:

With several black LGBTs standing right there in front of her, Rep. Adams actually said "your issues are not the black caucus's issues" -- as in social justice for black LGBTs is not their issue.

Obviously, it's not as if they don't know we are there, but that we present an obstacle to a reality-based conversation about equality, and the fact that an oppressed minority group is advocating oppression (or allowing for it to fester by not engaging the issue). Thus the bluster over the use of "civil rights" in the LGBT equality struggle.

Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs at the National Black Justice Coalition, has written a guest post for the Blend that needs to be saved and circulated.

Dr. Rhue:

"King Would Stand with Us"
Civil Rights Belong to All People

by Sylvia Rhue, Ph.D

Recently I spent an hour talking to Rev. Eric Lee, the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I told him how I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, my friends and I going door to door to raise money for the cause, how we saw Dr. King every time he came to Los Angeles. We talked about how the organizers of the King Day Parade in Atlanta invited Keith Boykin (one of the founders of the National Black Justice Coalition) and I to walk at the front of the March to represent LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. I had just been interviewed for an article on Black clergy responses to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and I was asked how I felt about Black clergy who work against LGBT rights. I told the journalist that if he had been around in the 60's during the Civil Rights Movement he would know that many, many Black ministers didn't sign on to the Civil Rights Movement. In fact Dr. King was kicked out of the National Baptist Convention for his civil rights actions.

My conversation with Rev. Eric Lee was so important to me because Rev. Lee is a champion of universal rights for all people and he puts his heart, passion for justice, and credentials out there for LGBT people in a consistently dynamic way. He was front and center in the battle against Proposition 8 and he wrote a book entitled, "Prop 8 and the California Divide", and is about to embark on a book tour. Rev. Lee said, "I cannot side with religious persecution and the injustice of discrimination. It amazes me how quickly we side with the former oppressors to oppress others. It is a violation to deny someone the same rights that you have. Scripture does not call people of God to pass laws to judge or condemn. People quote John 3:16, but they forget John 3:17 "'For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved'". (KJV)

Rev. Lee spoke recently with the man Rev. Jesse Jackson called "the teacher of the Civil Rights Movement". Dr. King called him "the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world". We know him as Rev. James Lawson, the lionized and profoundly respected Civil Rights leader who taught nonviolent direct action to the Freedom Riders, the student sit-ins and the Southern Campaigns. Rev. Lawson, a United Methodist minister, told Rev. Lee that King would stand with us if he were here. Yes, Dr. King would stand with us for LGBT rights.

In other words, there is no ownership of "civil rights." One can acknowledge the struggles are different, but the commonality is the need to eliminate discrimination under the law. It doesn't have anything to do with the bible, those words don't pass judgment upon one struggle over another.

In fact, Dr. King built his movement based on the teachings of Gandhi -- so who's hijacking what -- and more importantly, why does it matter? The argument is ludicrous on its face, yet the appropriation of "civil rights" is allowed to occur. It serves no one to do this -- and the reason is quite clear -- whites don't want to have the difficult conversation and chance being labeled racist for bringing it up, blacks who oppose equality for LGBTs toss out the race card to avoid the discussion. Those of us who are in both groups are continually frustrated by the task of having to take this topic on almost always alone.

And the thing is, my blackness clearly doesn't provide any cover when addressing homophobia either. Just witness the scathing, sad, and quite frankly, ignorant comments in a piece I cross posted at HuffPost. Here's one of my favorites:

The States should & can handle social issues and are doing so what's the problem! Some people can just not be happy anymore without confrontation to to sad. I do not believe in gay marriage and do not hate anyone nor do I fear anything--- I Let Go and Let God have the Judgment day not my problem or am I in control of who loves who!.

My response:

You can't be serious with that statement. If we left matters of civil rights to the states, Jim Crow would still be in effect, Obama's parents would not have been able to marry, and poll taxes would still exist. How soon we forget.

That's the level of ignorance I'm talking about; others made the quite accurate point that the LGBT community rarely gets behind social justice issues of concern to minorities. Honestly, this card can be played legitimately - because it's true.

I mean how elementary is it that if you want support from a community that you actually have to communicate with them to get your point across and win hearts and minds over. And that was one of the failures of Prop 8. And people have admitted as much, as efforts to get it overturned begin to gain support for another ballot initiative.

Organizers hope to reach Latinos, faith communities and African Americans, constituencies into which they previously failed to make in-roads. Their approach aims to blend slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk's put-a-human-face-on-the-issue activism with Barack Obama's neighbor-to-neighbor organizing.

What a lack of cross-community dialogue means for out minority LGBTs is that one has to be willing to put yourself out there to be attacked, over and over for addressing homophobia in communities of color knowing that few, if any, non-POC LGBTs are going to come forward to have your back. I see it time and again, with the excuses ranging from "I'll be called a racist" or "it doesn't feel safe to do this" or "it isn't my place to do it." And many of these excuses are from people who have the anonymity of the Internet to protect them. Now that's bad.

Well, I'm here to tell you that it doesn't feel great to have your "black card" revoked any more than it feels to be called racist. Plus, I don't have the cover of anonymity. Of course that's my choice, but the work is so important; I hate to see the rancor and misunderstandings go on and on with the parties talking past one another.

The sad thing is that so few black LGBTs are willing to live out, be out and challenge misguided assumptions that it makes it doubly difficult for those of color who do want to challenge the homophobia.

The thing is that are plenty of allies and leaders from the black community who do support full civil rights for LGBTs who can be cited when dealing with this issue - John Lewis, Julian Bond, Leonard Pitts, Al Sharpton, Gov. Deval Patrick, Gov. David Paterson, to name a few. Members of black community who consistently oppose LGBT rights conveniently choose to ignore these leaders -- they have to be called out on it.

Dr. Rhue:

Coretta King stood with us because she knew that the sustaining of the Beloved Community meant that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people must be included.

We who work for full LGBT rights stand as heirs of the Civil Rights Movement because it is based on justice, equality, fair play, equal rights and profoundly deep spiritual roots that plumb the depths of the Golden Rule. Those of us whose characters were forged in the fires of the Civil Rights Movement continue the fight of. We understand the words of James Baldwin, a Black gay man, who knew all of us were "snatching our humanity from the fires of human cruelty".

I stood with King in the 60's and he would stand with us now because challenging homophobia is a part of the unfinished business of Civil Rights Movement.

Those work so feverishly against LGBT rights are on the wrong side of justice, the wrong side of history, the wrong side of love, and the wrong end of the ever-bending moral arc of the universe.

Those who stand for LGBT equality understand the importance of our work when we hear the words of Dr. King: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong the Declaration of Independence is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came to earth. If we are wrong justice is a lie. And we are determined here and now to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We all need to step up and reclaim "civil rights." Will it mean you take heat to do so? Yes. But it is telling if people choose not to.

* Want to see a Grade A homobigot? Meet Firpo W. Carr.

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Angela Brightfeather | May 27, 2009 6:18 PM

Dear Pam,

Great piece of thinking and I agree with everything said.

It brings to mind another incident that I encountered at the NC Lobby Day a few years back when a Black NC State Senator visited with those lobbying for a few moments. When asked by me why he did not favor the inclusion of Gender Diversity in an upcoming piece of state legislation being pushed by Equality NC, he stood there and said that he did not think that "the public in general was ready to accept rights for gender diverse people". My answer to him was pretty to the point, because it really ticked me off. I asked him if he had remembered that same statement from the speech given by a NC Senator who stated almost the exact same words in a floor debate over including African Americans in the Civil Rights law back in the 60's and I noted that now I understood exactly how he must have felt to hear those words back then.

Time is a hard teacher and those who have experienced discrimination in the past, by all rights, should be able to understand exactly what the GLBT community is saying today about their rights, or the lack of them in many areas. Those who have had experiences like that, have the choice to use those experiences to short circuit the BS and move directly to support civil rights for GLBT people, or to deny their experiences as having any relevance to other human beings in similar situations. They also have the option of shutting up and getting out of the way of progress. I find here in NC as in many of the Southern States, that once people have been accepted and obtained their rights, they have very little to say about others having them after that. They don't speak up, I think, because they don't want to "rock the boat" that they just got a ticket to ride a short while ago.

But I am curious about one thing you noted about people in the GLBT community not supporting civil rights issues for others. I have been involved in supporting those rights for years myself.

Do you think that if GLBT people had won civil rights before Black Americans and the shoe was on the other foot, that GLBT people would be more or less involved in obtaining rights for Black Americans? Or would GLBT Americans be claiming that civl rights was their issue as is being done in some sectors of the Black community?

mizz t. casa | May 27, 2009 6:33 PM

"In other words, there is no ownership of "civil rights." One can acknowledge the struggles are different, but the commonality is the need to eliminate discrimination under the law. It doesn't have anything to do with the bible, those words don't pass judgment upon one struggle over another.


colored queer | May 27, 2009 7:23 PM

It is interesting that so much of this post talks about the need for people of color (Instead of blacks, I am using this term to include all non-whites for this discussion as what this post says about blk community can be applied to all POC groups) to speak out about homophobia in our communiites which I totally agree that we all need to do. However, it is so surprising that so little is said about the widespread "racism" in gay orgs except how gay orgs which are mostly white fail to reach out to people of color communities and that too in context of marriage only. I am not suggesting that a average white gay person is racist but it that institutionalized racism in gay orgs that is troubling to POC communities.

And before folks start attacking me for using the "race card" and asking for evidence of racism within the gay community, let me say that there are plenty of LGBT people of color who had horrendous experiences in white gay orgs and gay movement and who simply walked away. It is no coincidence that you do not see any diversity in gay institutions despite the classic defenses that whites give for their absence. But, all that got exposed after what happened in CA and lid on hush hush racism in gay community blew off. Infact, NGLTF has issued reports and surveys how majority of gay minorities of color (I believe it was Asian -- they may have done a similar Latin and blks as well)experienced and reported racism within the gay community.

So, Pam, I am at loss at your position which seems to put so much emphasis on "homophobia" among POC communities and offers hardly any suggestions to white gay orgs and white gay leaders regarding diversity in the gay community.

For example, Pam, through your work on gay issues you may be familiar (pardon me if you aren't but it is easy to look some of their sites) with power structures of boards and senior staff (Executive Directors etc) of major gay orgs, national and state, and ofcourse there are no POC leaders in those groups but your post does not point to that flaw just to begin the conversation among gay whites on racism issues who have been hoarding power with in good old boy/girl networks of Chelsea, Castro and Ptown and have been the major beneficiaries (socially and economically) of the movement so far. Also, missing from this discussion is the racism that has literally become so ingrained in gay institutions which systematically excludes POC and as a result all you see a sea of white faces from legal services orgs to gay immigrant right groups and their meetings look like gatherings at republican conventions.

Any genuine and honest conversation with LGBT POC on these issues would have to "substantially" address racism within the gay community if we want to bring about meaningful and long lasting changes in our movement. And that is why people even LGBT folks of color find that analogy of gay movement with civil rights movement so offensive. White dominated gay orgs first need to empower LGBT POC and give them a seat at the table with respect. The face of America is changing -- a black president, Latina woman Supreme Court Justice nominee and a diverse cabinet. So, what would it take for gay whites to let LGBT folks of color fully participate in the movement and institutions beyond some tokens of color (most communication people in gay orgs seem to be POC but hardly any in the Managing or Executive director roles..) who are used when these groups need them.

Such strategies failed in the past and will fail again without any real action by white gay orgs and removing those blocks or glass ceilings. Racism within gay community is a hot topic among LGBT POC and that gets communicated to our families and friends many of whom witnessed the rage and the blame game of white gays after prop 8 in CA. In the end, we rely on our own families/friends for love and support depsite their flaws.

At this point there is no point to even mention or discuss that it would certainly help if white gays showed up to support our causes -- high HIV infection rates, police violence, employment discrimination based on race/gender and so on..

I like you. Too bad no one replied, but it was a wonderful comment.

I understand that, Pam. I am a black, native American bisexual who has had to listen to people on the bus and on the train rant to one another as loudly as you please that it's 'their fight' and the LGBT community has no right to compare the racial civil rights movement to the LGBT civil rights movement. and yet they miss the whole point. their fight was for more than voting; it was for being treated like human beings, not slaves. So too are we now slaves, trampled under and shackled to a system that refuses to acknowledge us as human. this is no less a fight, no smaller a population, and no less a need to be recognized as valid in our own homes, and our own lives. I honor the continued fight of my black ancestry. I honor the continued fight of my native ancestry. And I honor them both by fighting so that that every person in the country will have the right to love whom they will, and to have that commitment seen as love and not filth, as my black/native american father and white/native american mother were seen less than 40 years ago for their love. We WILL overcome.

Wow. Thank you, Liz. Let no one doubt that our greatest strength emanates from the full complexity of our diversity. You give me great hope that the future will be better for us all.

From my experience as a Swedish-American LGBTI, statements like,"I'll be called a racist", "It doesn't feel safe to do this" and "It isn't my place to do this" aren't always excuses as they are many times pithy summations of frustrating realities. To me a blanket dismissal of them shifts blame to where it does little help to deter the cause.

rikki mordhorst | May 28, 2009 1:29 AM

excellent article! time we all get on with supporting one another... and work together... there will always be excuses... time for more action

Thanks, Pam. I am a 67-year-old white gay male and a white anti-racist ally, living openly as a gay man in the small rural community of Hot Springs, Montana.

You have really hit the nail on the head. Discrimination is discrimination, and there is no hierarchy of injustice. Injustice is injustice.

Oppression stops when the oppressor stops oppressing.

Oppression of women will stop when men stop oppressing women.

Oppression of people of color will stop when white people stop oppressing people of color.

Oppression of the LBGT Community will stop when heterosexuals stop oppressing homosexuals.

Most of us think that we because we do not harbor feelings of personal racism, that therefore we are not racist.

However, in my experience until we white folks acknowledge and deal with our "whiteness", we will continue to unwittingly collaborate with cultural and institutional racism.

Whiteness is a totally new concept for most white folks because we have been raised in a culture in which "white" is simply the way things are.

People of color confront race every day of their lives, but how many white folks ever give a thought to their "whiteness?"

People look at the lily whiteness of most of our LBGT organizations and ask, "Why don't THEY, (People of Color), participate?"

A more appropriate question to ask is: "What is it about our 'whiteness' that gets in the way of a greater degree of participation by people of color?"

Thanks again for tackling this subject which is so uncomfortable to so many people.

Keep up the good work, and know that there are at least a few white anti-racist allies out there who are involved in this struggle.

Sophia Eudemon | May 28, 2009 2:49 AM

I discussed the truth that civil rights are not only for Blacks recently with several Black co-workers. I soon noticed that they were quoting their churches positions (i.e. down low is ideal as is the norm in the Black church) and not what they'd determined by independent, logical thought or basic human decency.

I finally hit upon an analogy that seemed to make my point. I asked one of my co-workers how she'd feel if Christians were placed in "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" situations in the military. I.E. one could be Christian but only if they carefully hid all signs of it from everyone else. Or imagine if Christians were not allowed to marry due to their choice to become Christians.

My point is when talking to many members of the Black population it is good to remember that *everything* is viewed through the eyes of their version of Christianity. Little can be understood unless it can be translated into things relevant to being Christian.

Until and unless Black LGBT individuals are willing to openly work to limit the negative influence of Christianity on the Black population there will be very little help coming from the Black population for LGBT issues of relevance to anyone to include their Black sisters and brothers who happen to be in the LGBT population.

colored queer | May 28, 2009 9:59 AM

"""People look at the lily whiteness of most of our LBGT organizations and ask, "Why don't THEY, (People of Color), participate?"

A more appropriate question to ask is: "What is it about our 'whiteness' that gets in the way of a greater degree of participation by people of color?""""

That is exactly my point. Lets face it: the gay community dominated by whites could care less about "racism" within gay community or any issues faced by LGBT folks of color until the marriage issues came around and when they realized that they need support from other groups. Racism is widespread in gay institutions and now the leaders of these gay white groups are sending out "messengers of color" to exclusively focus on "homophobia" in the people of color communities. This new strategy would fail until gay institutions work on their racism first and then develop a comprehensive strategy that finds common grounds with the issues faced by LGBT people of color as well as larger communities of color. But,ofcourse, racism has become so deeply ingrained in the fabric of white gay institutions that it would take bold measures to address and erase it before we can develop meaningful alliances with people of color communities.

@Sophia, i'm as good an athiest as anybody, and better than some, but it seems to me your preconditions for success are way too eschatological.

We don't need a massive change in everybody's hearts. We need to (a) stop engaging in alliance busting and (b) learn how to be good allies ourselves.

The sun had barely risen on the day after our failure to defeat Prop 8 when we were barraged with messages from the anti-equality Right about how Black and Latino people were responsible for our defeat.

As an old radical, I recognized that as blatant alliance busting.

I was saddened to see my friends and allies in this community saying the same thing, but I've been around long enough to recognize that the energy was coming from the Right, the same people who are driving racism and sexism and trying to sell the idea that straight, White, able, affluent Christian men are normative and privileged.

Please, let's not play their game. Let's not buy what they're selling. Let's not bust up our own alliances for them.

Being an ally means listening, taking a stand, questioning our own normative assumptions and language, listening, and not betraying our allies.

This message isn't meant for Sophia, but for you, me, and all of us.

Bottom line: the way to have an ally is be an ally. Let's stop being such shitty allies.

As a transgendered woman of color i participate, I'm just not noticed or marginalized...

Sophia Eudemon | May 28, 2009 7:00 PM

I'm not anti-religious. However, I do not support the common tendency of many people, of any race, to be manipulated by their religious handlers to justify harming others.

Incidentally I'm not male or rich but I am White. As a White person I wish to point out to Blacks that everything on this planet does not revolve around being Black any more than it does around being White. Why is it that so many (I did not say all) Blacks can't engage in conversations without the issue of being Black entering in somewhere? This drives people away to the point that I suspect even some Blacks who have a broader range of interests will avoid you. My suggestion - try going an entire day without once bringing up being Black. You might like it.

The truth is that the people who have the most time and money available for "LGBTQI" issues are middle class well-educated white gay men - after all, their gayness may be the only non-dominant identity they have. The rest of us tend to split our attention between "TBLGQI" and other "identity" issues (race/ethnicity, poverty, women's rights, disability rights, minority religious rights, etc). Feminist organizations have the same dynamics - the typical heavily involved person is a white well-educated middle-class heterosexual woman. Not surprisingly, these leaders with only one non-dominant identity are prone to formulating very narrow objectives and tend to be reluctant to work on what they perceive as "other people's issues". Some limits are necessary, since no-one is going to work as hard at "your" issue than you will. However, setting aside time and resources for collaborations allows each group to see each other and perhaps find shared interests and learn something from each other. I suspect that the reasons that white-dominant organizations fail to attract minority participation is that a cold-call invitation to attend, without changing the routine, isn't going to be attractive to someone who has too many things on her plate anyway. Socializing during collaborations (political, charitable work (Habitat for Humanity crew, school supplies drive, anything), religious, education-related, etc) is an opportunity to demonstrate to the POC volunteer that the white volunteer listens, doesn't take command unless they are the only one in the room that has needed technical skill X, and wants that particular POC volunteer's company for something other than tokenism.

People have too little free time to waste on unpleasant and unproductive encounters.

For over a decade I've participated on a national level to the point where I won an IFGE Trinity Award in 2006.

I've participated in four federal lobby days for transgender rights, four lobby days in 2 states and have an award winning blog.

But who gets called by the media/college campuses/ politicians when they want to discuss transgender rights issues?

White transpeople.

Who are the people disproportionately runnning these transgender orgs?

Once again, white transpeople.

If you want POC's involved, we have to be more than just melanin in a photo shoot, then you go right back to all white meeting rooms at $150 a night hotels to formulate policy.

We POC's have to be sitting at the table when you are formulating policy as well.

When I was NTAC's Lobby Director I took part in 2000 Task Force Transgender policy meeting held in DC. I was the only POC physically sitting at the table. The other two POC's were on the phone.

The monoracial GLBT movement has done itself a disservice by not including all members of its rainbow of diversity.

There are wonderful transactivists of color all over this country, but they don't get the attention they deserve.

And until they do and you see them in leadership positions, the perception in communities of color that this is a 'white's only' movement that we aren't welcome to participate in is going to be hard to shake.