Friday, November 07, 2008

The Gays vs. African Americans Meme Benefits No One

ETA: In the comments of Renee's post about the issue, I found this link to Shannika putting it down as to why "The Facts Belie the Scapegoating of Black People for Proposition 8"

Kismet, La Macha, Pam Spaulding, Kevin and many others have brought my attention to the fact that African Americans are being "blamed" for the passage of the anti-gay marriage propositions on election day. There is a sentiment, from some (and Dan Savage is not alone if the comments on myriad blogs are to be believed), that African Americans betrayed gays (and forgive this simple explanation as if those don't ever intersect) who overwhelmingly supported Obama.

As Kevin notes, it is hurtful and troubling that an estimated 70% of African Americans who voted in California supported Prop 8. And, like Kevin, I also point to this quote by La Macha:
Black and Latin@ communities have some big time issues with queer hate.
The huge role of the black church in some black communities--institutions that I believe are largely socially conservative and patriarchal--assures the perpetuation and validation of homophobia.* So, too, does the emphasis on a certain "type" of black manhood, an idolization of "hypermasculinity" that defines black gay men as somehow lacking, less than men. These are but two factors that render black gays, to borrow a quote from Pam, "marginalized within a marginalized community."

But here's the other half of La Macha's quote:
I also think gay organizations have to confront their very real racism within their organizing strategies.
Pam and La Macha both point out that there has not been enough outreach from gay organizations to communities of color. I think we are often written off, as Dark Rose noted at Pam's, as "hopelessly unenlightened" or, in the words of La Macha, "just conservative." From one of Pam's commenters came this anecdote:
One of the groups fighting [Florida's Prop 2] made it very clear that they were going to do no outreach whatsoever to the black community.
And from La Macha's second post:
Gloria Nieto had a sense of those demographic forces, too. When Nieto, a lead organizer for the No on Proposition 8 campaign in San Jose, wanted to distribute campaign signs in Spanish and Vietnamese this fall, she had to get them made herself because the statewide campaign only had signs in English.
I agree with Kevin when he says it's a two way street--and not in the "You owe me because I did A B or C" sense. As Kevin says:
[I]t doesn’t work that way. You vote for, you give aid to, you advocate for other people and causes because it is the right thing to do. If you’re doing it because you expect something in return, your doing it for the wrong reasons. No one wins in this situation because nothing has changed. No fundamental shifting of paradigms has occured. It’s simply, “I’ll throw you a bone if you throw me one back.” And the falling on the convenient (always marginalized, conveniently enough) scapegoat is just plain tired.
This is not the way to build connections and support. And, as many of these bloggers have noted, the simplistic equation of gay = white and the resultant Gays vs. African Americans denies the existence and experiences of black gay people.

Work has to be done, by us, within our communities, too. The last year has brought home to me the privilege and complicity I've shown in ignoring or discounting homophobia. When I was trying to take Alex and Coti's side when so much of our small town and black Baptist church were vehemently against them, I was amazed by the rumors and questions that flew. Was I gay? I must be gay! I must be secretly sleeping with one of them! The pastor of my church announced after a sermon that there was a special place in hell for people who were leading young people astray--though I'm sure I wasn't the only focus of that attack, I know I was a target. I complained aloud one day about being "tired of this shit" and Alex looked right at me said, "You're only going through a little bit of what we've gone through for years."

And then there was the time when Alex, Coti's brother, V (who is gay), and I went to the drive through at Wendy's. I recognized our order-taker as one of my students and said so. V looked at him in response and the guy went off. "Why are you looking at me?" he kept asking. "Don't be all up in my face like that, punk." I pulled up and told V to get out and got talk to the manager. That shook me so badly and V was like, "Oh, I'm used to it. Forget him." But I made him go in and the manager pretty much stated that he didn't believe that because the guy wouldn't act that way.

But the last straw for me, with my town and "my" church? When my sister told me that she had been horrified because the pastor stood and used the word "fags" and "freaks" during service. I vowed that I would not go back. This church that bears my great-great grandfather's name on the cornerstone as a founding deacon. This church where I was baptized at four, went to Sunday School for years, worked in the kitchen, socialized with the youth department, sang in the choir.

It was suddenly no longer "mine." I suppose it hadn't been in a long time, but I'd just reached a point in my life where my brain couldn't support the cognitive dissonance required for me to be one person "in the world" and another "in the church." And still, it was hard to let go.

I've seen black gays and lesbians met with overt hatred--vicious name calling, physical violence, gay men being characterized as all "sneaky," "promiscuous," and "down low" and thus the cause of the truly alarming incidence of HIV/AIDS in black communities. I've seen the less overt resentment and ignorance--my experience in particular is that the personhood and sexuality of lesbians are erased--they are not gay women, they are male impersonators. I've had people tell me Alex didn't really like girls because Coti (who identifies as a stud) is "so much like a boy" and that black women are gay only because of a shortage of men. And I've repeatedly heard that lesbians can be cured by the mythical powers of the almighty penis, literally fucked straight.

But there have been good moments within my intimate community, too. I had my kid watch the Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes "think before you say that's so gay" commercials sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and we talked about them. A couple of days ago, he told me his friend Jacob said that it was "gay" that my son was on the jump rope team at their school. My son said he asked Jacob, "What does that mean? Gay is not bad." And then he parrotted the commercials and told Jacob to think before he says stuff.** Now, whether this is how the conversation actually unfolded, I don't know, but he remembers and he got the point of the commercials.

When I was younger, my paternal great uncle M.C. was one of my favorite people in the whole wide world. I wasn't even ten when he died. When I was a little bit older, I was watching a talk show with my mom's mom and, while I don't remember the exact topic, I remember the discussion centered around gays. My grandmother said hesitantly, "You know your uncle M.C. was... like that?" I remember being shocked and shaking my head. And she reached over and patted my hand--my grandmother was not a physically affectionate person, that's why I remember that--and she said, "That's okay. There ain't nothing wrong with it at all." My 60+ year-old, southern grandmother told me that, in awkward language, but with a lovely sentiment.

She knew, having been an unwed mother, what it was like to be talked about and ostracized. I have never forgotten that moment. That and my mom's constant affirmations of people's dignity and right to live their own lives and her reminders, rooted in her Christianity, "to love everyone" and "not mistreat anyone," had more effect on who I am than all the negativity I heard in my church and in the street.

Not everyone had a grandmother like mine or has a mama like mine, though, and that's why I think the work of coalition-building is so vital. When people like Pam and Dark Rose and Alex and Coti and V are disappeared, marginalized, treated as if they don't exist by two of their communities, it's easier for the dehumanization to continue.
*Is every black church like this? Of course not, but that has been my experience.

**My son is growing up and making me so simultaneously proud and frustrated that I see myself morphing into one of those, "My kid is the greatest, most complex person in the world!" parents and I'm not even fighting it.


Giftie Etcetera said...

I face a problem in representing some of my juvenile defendants who are black and gay. They come to court for "ungovernable" behavior, which basically means they are disobeying their parents.

Understand, my typical young black defendant lives in the projects with grandma and eight of his cousins and no mother or father to speak of. He or she is poor, exposed to drugs and violence, and jaded. He is arrested for burglary, battery, or drug possession.

But my typical gay black juvenile client comes from a middle class family, lives with his parents (or at least mom and a fairly stable stepdad), and mom and dad generally have at least some college education. Time and time again, these kids fight with their parents, and, in open court, the parents call their kids "fag." Hence, the reason for the ungovernable behavior, which generally consists of sneaking out of the house or fighting with the parents.

I've had this scenario happen time and time again. I've never had it happen with a white child (though I've definitely represented gay white teenagers). The white parents likely don't like that their children are gay (I'm guessing based on the people I know in town and their attitudes), but the kids are treated decently.

The black parents, who truly are otherwise decent people, cannot abide by having a gay son. I've tried to find resources to help the kids, but no one wants to offer services to gay kids, lest they be accused child molestation (which is just silly, I know). Our typical go-tos for helping kids in the community, such as community groups or preachers, don't accept these cases...or do and try to redeem their souls.


I am at a point where I can't do anything for these kids. This doesn't address most of your post, but it is bothersome for me. The kids don't have a chance.

Melissa McEwan said...

I love this post, Elle.

Raquita said...

I totally identify and agree with you - I've been fighting homophobia in my family since my brother came out a few years back.
its a sad sad thing that we even have to have a discussion about human rights in the bliac community.

Raquita said...

black community - I can't type when I'm heated..

elle said...

Our typical go-tos for helping kids in the community, such as community groups or preachers, don't accept these cases...or do and try to redeem their souls.

Kristy, that is so sad and disturbing, but through my experiences with Alex and her mom and the church, I've seen much of what you say.

Thanks, Liss.

And Raquita, I wish more of us would get heated and angry about the attacks on LGBTQI people in our communities. It's time out for that sh*t.

Renee said...

I am simply sick over this issue. The more I read the angrier I get. The blame the blacks just makes me such a vision of red, I can hardly see straight. While people are screaming blame the blacks they are forgetting the members of the community that are black. What does this say to them about being welcomed?

The white privilege in the commenting is positively disgusting. What this issue reveals is that along with blacks having issues with homosexuality, the GLBT community has racial issues much the same as feminism. I think that is probably what I find most heartbreaking about it. I have spent so much time in the community have so many GLBTQI friends and to know that my race once again the defining characteristic in a place where I used to feel welcome is devastating. Liberal my ass!

Unknown said...


I've seen NO POLLING on major media newscasts concerning how Latinos and Asians voted on Prop. 8.

Wonder why that is.

alarob said...

I want to emphasize the point expressed in your title, that the idea of opposition between blacks and gays helps no one — but it does help the enemies of equality.

My experience as an activist has perhaps shown me more of the prejudice within the affluent gay community. Being an object of prejudice themselves, white gay men sometimes indulge in ugly stereotypes, and unreasonable demands that everyone else accept them as they are or be condemned as a bigot. I've seen more effort from African-American Christians to initiate dialogue on this issue than I have from anyone else. And these overtures have been spurned.

As a southern historian I'm also aware of the long history of white efforts to deny the status of "manhood" to African American men. Is it any wonder that there's such heightened sensitivity to perceived threats to that status? Since emancipation our whole society has been organized to hollow out any real meaning from the roles of husband, father, breadwinner, citizen, worker, and all the other traditional Victorian roles a black man might aspire to fill. Now along come some rich white queers who claim that those roles are meaningless now, and that gays are the inheritors of the civil rights movement. Seems like there's a lot of bridge building that needs to be done. First step: Climb down from the soapbox and take turns at some open-hearted listening to each other.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...