Your Rights vs. Mine: Is There Common Ground Between LGBT and African-American Civil Rights?

3127308063_1bf989893bWhat do some African-Americans think about the LGBT’s rallying cry that ‘Gay is the New Black’?

“It’s absolutely disgusting”, says Renee Martin, author of Womanist Musings, a site she began because she saw that even on feminism blogs, “people were talking to women of color rather than letting women of color speak for themselves.”

“It’s racial appropriation, racist and it erases people of color who are same gender-loving”, the heterosexual Canadian mother of two continues, saying, “What about those of us who are still Black? It furthermore frames the issue as saying, ‘Oh, look- things are bad. White people are suffering because they are being treated like blacks and they deserve better than that.’ And that’s really how it comes across to the black community. That this is suffering because someone is being treated like a black person– as though, we don’t deserve to be treated any better ourselves.”

And that’s just the start of our conversation on whether the LGBT community and the African-American community can find any common ground.

Did anybody stop and ask, “Is this a good thing? How helpful has marriage been?”

I’ll be upfront. This is a conversation I’ve wanted to have for months. While gay rights groups have gone to great lengths to reaffirm that the African-American community and the LGBT community are common allies, since Proposition 8, there’s been a widening divide between the two. It began with the now thoroughly debunked notion that African-Americans voted overwhelmingly to pass Proposition 8 (initially estimates were put at 70%– later analysis showed that number to be around 58%) and media outlets like The Advocate asking ‘Is Gay The New Black?’ on their covers.

This is also, an uncomfortable conversation for me personally to have. Renee and I met online last week, after she posted an entry about a post on Prop. 8 lawyers that I had written. I had accompanied the article with an image I found online showing a Jim Crow era segregated drinking fountain labeled ‘Prop. 8’. Her response was titled ‘Queerty and Prop. 8 Racism‘. She wrote:

“Isn’t that lovely? Of course we are not supposed to get upset with this obvious racist depiction, or the appropriation regularly engaged in by white gay and lesbian leaders to argue a case against the second class status of the GLBTQI community in the larger social sphere. How dare we uppity blacks demand that we have control over our history and how it is used when white gays and lesbians have a point to make.? The world needs to know that they are being treated like niggers and all is wrong with the universe if whites are being reduced to status of blacks…

Here is a tip, if you want blacks to be allies I suggest you stop appropriating our experiences to serve your own ends. Between the gay is the new black meme and the continual charges of homophobia, with no effort to have a constructive conversation with the Black community you are alienating people in droves.”

So, we decided to have a constructive conversation. Here’s some of it:

QUEERTY: What do you think is the correct way, or the appropriate way for gay civil rights leaders to reach out to the African-American community?

Renee Martin: It’s quite easy. I really do believe they should point out members of the GLBT community that are black or of color, who have either contributed to the movement for gay rights or have basically been socially active and socially aware. This I believe to be an absolutely brilliant strategy, simply because young people of color are positively desperate for models, desperate for role models to see themselves reflected in any way, shape or form in a positive manner is really going to catch their attention. Especially when you think about the fact that the majority of the images you see in the media are negative. They’re pimps, they’re hookers, theyr’e prostitutes and none of this fosters positive self-identity.

Whereas, if they were to continually see people of color who were gay who were successful in whatever field, be it art, science– it doesn’t matter… it will normalize the idea that gayness is not just about a white identity. I think it would be especially attractive to the young, and I think it would be attractive to parents too, who are struggling to get their kids to hold up men like Chris Brown as a hero. I mean, who wants their kid to think of Chris Brown as a hero? When I think of someone like [lesbian poet] Audre Lord, I would love a child of mine to see Audre Lord as a hero.
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How do you get the message across that gay equality isn’t just a gay issue? The reason I chose that image was because, from my perspective, the idea that I can get a civil union but not get married, carries with it the same basic prejudices that separate drinking fountains have and I know one of the things the gay community is struggling with is how we can tie our own struggles into the larger history of equality. How do we do that in a way that isn’t offensive?

By not engaging in racial appropriation. By not using images that come from Jim Crow. That would be one. It’s a good thing to avoid. That is definitely appropriation. But if you want to talk about civil right, you can talk about [Bayard] Ruskin. You know, he organized The March on Washington. It’s a very little known fact. It’s been completely rewritten. His role in civil rights. It comes back to letting people of their particular race speak about their history and their culture and how the gay and lesbian identity has a strong role to play in it. It’s not for someone else to stand outside of our culture and see if they can pull pieces out of it for their own purposes because it reduces the totality of our experience.

We are more than just what occurred during Jim Crow. We are more than what occurred during slavery and if anybody’s going to own that pain and own that struggle, it should be us who gets to decide. I find it incredibly disgusting this continually referring back to the African diaspora, because we’re not the only civil rights struggle on the planet. Society continually refers back to Blacks keeps the conversation on a binary where race always refers to Black vs. White… Why aren’t you talking about the Latino community? What aren’t you talking about the struggles in indigenous communities? There’s some serious issues, but it’s always referring back to ‘Gay is the new Black.’ It’s not just racist, it’s also erasure in the way the conversation is being framed.

picture-211Well, I think this is something the gay community is beginning to address. Rick Jacobs, of the Courage Campaign has taken up the marriage struggle in California, but his organization is actually focused on a variety of progressive social issues, which he sees gay rights just being a part of.

Well, yes. Racism, homophobia, they’re all based on the same thing, so in that sense, I could say, ‘Yeah, there is a degree of similarity’. How it expresses itself changes from movement to movement… I don’t see that an obvious attack on gay rights is fostering any more openness in the community, though. If anything, I see defensiveness, using white privilege as a weight to sling around, basically saying, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. You’re just like me!’ That’s the meme you see repeated over and over: I’m just like you– without asking who is the ‘Who’ the community is supposed to be just like. That’s a problem. It’s the invisible conversation.

That’s fair. I marched in a lot of the Prop 8 demonstrations, however and most of the people who were marching, at least in Los Angeles, were a real mix of people. It wasn’t a group of white men marching, as it may have been in the past.

As it may have been in the past? Ohhhkay. Go on.

No, no. What do you mean by that?

I mean that right there, there’s erasure. What do you mean, ‘As it may have been in the past?’ I think people of color have contributed greatly to the movement. I think they’ve always been out there at protests. I just don’t think this has been acknowledged, because the gay community, like any other community, is seeking to privilege a white identity and therefore has whitewashed our contributions and I find it disgusting to hear someone say ‘like it was in the past.’ I mean, make a movie about Milk, but [African-American trans activist] Sylvia Rivera, ‘Hell, no! We can’t talk about her’. Why are we talking about this woman of color when we can lift up this white man and hold him as a hero of the gay community? I find this constant, ‘Oh, it’s just now people of color are getting on the boat’ kind of deal absolutely ridiculous. It’s revisionist history.
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You know what? You’re absolutely right. The counter argument is that there is this system that rewards white male privilege in place and while it’s absolutely true that we want to have people who are reflective of the entire country being, but we need to have elected leaders to begin with. I notice on your site that you’re very critical of groups like HRC for pushing these white leaders. Are they taking the wrong route?

There are two ways of looking at this situation. You can either say that you’re going to mirror dominant ideologies and reproduce our authoritarian society within the social justice movement or we can decide to take the anarchist approach and state unequivocally that the system doesn’t work and needs to be taken apart and restructured as something other. What approach an individual takes has a lot to do with how much they value their privilege. While I’m not an anarchist, I don’t think recreating hierarchy is necessarily positive. Again, I think we need to reframe the conversation… it’s possible for us to give birth to new things. When we mirror or pantomime, we’re giving up our authority and our power. Part of power is being creative and not just making the world as we’ve seen it before. We know that what currently exists erases so many people and just repeats oppression time and time again.

I have an ‘unhusband’ … We’ve been happily unmarried for almost 20 years

By that logic, isn’t the struggle for the word ‘marriage’ then just another attempt to recreate a straight institution?

Well, here’s my position. I’m not believe in marriage, straight or gay. I’m not married myself. I have an ‘unhusband’ and I use the term ‘unhusband’ to disturb patriarchal associations in our relationship. We’ve been happily unmarried for almost twenty years. So, I don’t necessarily see that marriage will bring the kind of benefits the gay and lesbian community thinks it will gain. Blacks had the right to marry so long ago and what did it really do for us? There were far more important civil actions that led to greater freedom than the right to marry. But because I’m speaking as an ally, I don’t feel it’s my place to say to someone, ‘This is the direction I think your movement should take.’ As an ally it’s my job to support the decisions that the community makes, but marriage legitimizes the norm that there’s this way of being gay and lesbian [that’s correct]. What about the couples that don’t want to get married? What about the couple that want to live a polyamorous lifestyle? What about people that are asexual? I think focusing gay rights on gay marriage is so limited, because there are so many people it won’t help.

On top of that, when the marriages first started happening in California, they were coming out and saying, “Make sure you don’t wear a dress to your wedding”. This is ridiculous. I thought this was about two people loving each other. Why should you care if a guy wants to wear a dress on his wedding day? That’s his business. People are being disciplined withing their own community because people are trying, once again, to present the meme ‘We’re just like you.”

Well, yeah– going back to Harvey Milk, that was his rallying call: “We’re just like you”. But whether marriage is useful or not, except in two states, gay people don’t have that right. And even if you have personal objections, when two women get married, it doesn’t have the same patriarchal overtones that a straight marriage has. We don’t have the luxury of deciding whether we want to express ourselves in a married relationship or not, because it’s not something we have the right to. It’s not necessarily about recreating a system as it is having access to the same system that’s available to everyone else.

I understand the argument you’re making. My question is, “Is the system you want access to a good thing?” Did anybody stop and ask, “Is this a good thing? How helpful has marriage been?” Look at the marriage rate among heterosexuals and they’re atrocious. I don’t know why people are spending $30,000 to walk down the aisle when chances are in five years they’ll get divorced. The idea that love is something that needs to be certified by the government is extremely problematic. As an ally of the gay and lesbian community, however, if this is the organizing path that has been chosen, I’m going to support it. It’s not up to me to say to the community, as an outsider, that this shouldn’t be your goal.

My only thing is that, along the way, we should look at how people are getting left out of the struggle by the total focus on gay marriage. What issues are being left out? I mean, [The Employment Nondiscrimination Act]:  That would benefit everybody. When I think about the possibilities for coalition building, I really fail to see why this hasn’t gotten the same push that gay marriage has. I mean, across the board– when you think of the people in the black community, feminists, you name it, that you could draw on for support and build networks with, the potentials are huge, but yet, the focus is gay marriage.

Stay tuned for more of the wide-ranging interview with Renee as we’ll be adding audio excerpts shortly. In the meantime, we look forward to your comments and responses.