Blacks and gays: the unexpected divide.
Under most circumstances none of these antigay tirades, or others like them, would make headlines. But because in each instance the critics are African-American, the incidents suddenly seem more astonishing. The underlying message behind such attacks -- that gays are unfairly comparing their struggle for civil rights with that of blacks -- creates an impression of competing minority groups. It is, say some black gay men and lesbians, a false impression. "It shouldn't surprise people," says playwright Brian Freeman, who is on tour performing Civil Sex. The play, inspired by Bayard Rustin, a gay black man credited with organizing the 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C., speaks to the black gay experience. "There are a whole gang of black conservatives out there," he says. As for Alveda King, he adds, "She's the LaToya Jackson of the King family."
Some African-Americans say comparing the black and gay civil rights struggles somehow taints or belittles the black struggle. But Mark Johnson, communications director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, believes blacks should feel honored if gays want to pattern their movement after the 1960s civil rights movement. "[The black] community has written the book," says Johnson, who is black. "Why wouldn't that get to be a textbook for others? For people to say `This is ours; it's demeaning our struggle to adapt it' is a little shortsighted. What's really being said there, whether they're saying it or not, is a tribute to the black community. It's more a fraternal issue than a fractious issue."
Still, the attacks play on a recurrent fear among some minorities. "On some level we really do believe that equality and justice are matters of choices," says Phill Wilson, founder of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. "We don't believe it's possible for all of us to be treated fairly. What black people see is if gays and lesbians use the language of the civil rights movement to fight for their civil lights at the same time that our civil rights are being eroded, there is a connection between one group ascending and the other being attacked. That's a myth."
There's also a religious component to some of the antipathy, one example of which are the Winanses, who made a publicity splash with their song "Not Natural." Among the forums the sisters have won for themselves have been two appearances on the Black Entertainment Television cable network. Keith Boykin, executive director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, criticized the network for giving the sisters "not one but two televised opportunities to spew out their bigotry." Boykin appeared on one of the BET shows as a counterpoint to the sisters' argument.
Conservative activist Alveda King would not have attracted much attention if it weren't for her uncle. In the past several months, King has been making appearances around the country condemning gay rights. While she said during a Seattle appearance in September that she was not representing her uncle, she added, "I am very familiar with how he felt about the Bible and the standards of the Bible, and he upheld those." Gay people, Alveda King said, lack the "innate and immutable" characteristics of racial minorities.
Talk-show host Alan Keyes, failed Republican presidential candidate in 1996, regularly attacks gay rights. In a June program about the Southern Baptists' Disney boycott, Keyes put the company "squarely in the camp of those who are tearing down the moral fabric of this country, culminating in their hoopla over the coming-out episode of Ellen `Degenerate.'"
Of course, the vast majority of antigay attacks come from white conservatives, many of them affiliated with the religious right. But while the Winanses, King, and Keyes also are affiliated with the religious right, it is usually their race that becomes the focus of attention.
"It's this black thing, not a religious-right thing," says novelist Jewelle Gomez. "That's a problem around all issues with African-Americans. It's not put in relation to anything else. You end up feeling singled out, as if there is a special way that black people are homophobic or that we have an extra power in our homophobia."
Gomez notes that the views of conservative blacks are often held separate from those of conservative whites. "Within the context of the religious right, Alveda King is just one of them," she says. In fact, overwhelmingly white religious-right groups -- such as the Traditional Values Coalition and Colorado for Family Values, which promoted that state's antigay Amendment 2 -- have regularly recruited blacks to help deny the validity of the gay rights movement. By comparison, gays have been more lax in their outreach, Wilson argues. "The gay and lesbian community has not strategically looked at that," he says. "Our separate ethnic communities are drifting further and further apart instead of coalescing in any strategic way."
If anything, says Freeman, the antigay outbursts are in their own way a blessing in disguise. "When people go there they provide us an opportunity to speak out," he says. "A lot of the times, the problem of dealing with homophobia in the African-American community is the silence. Anytime someone like this pops up, it provides us the opportunity to have a discussion in public, which is the only way it's addressed."
Unfortunately, the efforts of pro-gay African-Americans fail to gamer much attention. Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., has endorsed both federal nondiscrimination legislation for gays and same-sex marriage. Other black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have been equally supportive. "Who has the best voting record on gay rights in Congress, 100 times better than the next group?" asks Freeman. "The Congressional Black Caucus."
Gomez says King and the Winanses have the spotlight in part because there are no openly gay African-Americans of comparable stature. "We as a black queer community don't have anyone who gets up and talks for us on that level, who has been brave enough to come out and be active," she says. "Until that happens the black conservatives and the religious right are always going to get the headlines."
Yet while black gay men and lesbians in general have been increasingly visible within the gay community, it often takes a controversy, such as those generated by King or the Winanses, to get white gays and lesbians to take notice. "The gay and lesbian movement is a microcosm of the society in which we live," says Johnson. "How could it not be? People never focus on people-of-color issues unless there's a crisis. It's not something the culture thinks about, knows about, cares about, or is interested in discussing."
"I don't think, generally, that there is a lot of dialogue on race issues," says A. Cornelius Baker, executive director of public policy and education for the National Association for People With AIDS, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "The times we talk about it most in the gay community, I find, is when we get to meetings and there is not enough diversity in the room. Then we have an hour's discussion about how we can get more diversity in the room."
Johnson says the gay movement has come to a greater appreciation of black gays but still has a ways to go. "The mainstream gay community does realize that the black gay community has a stronger sense of self and has taken on more power," he says. "I think they see us now as teenagers, as opposed to babies. There's a certain respect -- often distant, but still respect. Everybody is usually invited to the table, but sometimes when you get there the old ways of operating don't stop."
For all the gains made by black gay men and lesbians, they remain underrepresented in gay leadership. "Heading NAPWA and being a black gay male, I look at the landscape, and with the exception of the Leadership Forum, all the other organizations are headed by nonblacks," notes Baker. "One of the things we have to recognize is that we are part of the leadership. Part of the challenge is for white people to be able say that we're not just that thing that's black and gay but that we are part of the leadership of our community, irrespective of our color."
Some gay African-Americans have already written off the larger gay community. "One of the cutting-edge issues is about separatism and identity," says Boykin. "Gay is considered a white, Eurocentric, culturally imperialistic term that doesn't represent the values of African-Americans." Other black gays, while not going quite so far, feel their connections to the larger gay community to be tenuous, citing poor representation not just in the gay leadership but also in the gay press.
At the heart of the debate lies the belief of many white gays that homophobia in the black community flies in the face of that community's own history. "There's a sense in the white community that the black community is somehow more homophobic," says Freeman, "a sense that `How could it be homophobic, because it had to face its own discrimination?'"
As Johnson notes, the issue is not that gay people don't experience discrimination but that their experiences often differ from those of African-Americans. "You have a whole group of gay people -- white gay men -- who, save for being gay, have never known discrimination," he says. "Because they now know what it's like to be discriminated against, they don't have the patience or heart to hear anybody else's anger. That's what people of color get upset about. To hear a white gay man say `I've been discriminated against' is hard for some people of color to fathom because he looks like the people who discriminated against them. Until white people understand that the oppression they see is probably never like the oppression people of color see, it's going to be hard for people to get along."
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Dec 9, 1997|
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