Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Race, Sexual Orientation, and Honesty

In light of our nation's history of racial injustice, seeing Obama take the podium November 4, 2008 brought tears to my eyes. But seeing that an estimated 70% of black voters voted against marriage equality in California, my initial disappointment over Prop 8's passage turned into anger.

Now, I'm not blaming this loss on black voters in California, who comprised something like a mere 6% of the state's voting population. The organizing and resources of the mostly-white professional "marriage defense" set and the millions of white voters who formed the core of the Yes on 8 base had far more of an impact than black voters did. What disappoints me is that clearly there's some sort of disconnect going on that prevents many black heterosexuals from seeing LGBT rights as the crystal clear issue of basic equality and fairness that many gay men and lesbians see it as.

From what I've read and talked about with people, I believe that this disconnect has several related causes. It is a failing of predominately white LGBT organizations to reach out, and speak to, to the black community. It is attributable to sexual prejudice in black communities that are centered around churches that preach intolerance of gay men and lesbians. I also think part of the disconnect comes from the black/gay civil rights analogy that some gay people too readily use. Personally, I once heard a rich white gay guy compare himself to Rosa Parks and I cringed a little. I listen to black people opposed to gay rights, for instance, and hear them express contempt for a "false" civil-rights movement that has co-opted the "real" (ie- black) civil rights movement. The analogy insults and outrages some blacks, such as virulent anti-gay Ken Hutcherson. I've written about this before. The gay/black civil rights analogy is imperfect, any analogy is, but the similarities are there. Just because we point out the similarities, it doesn't mean we're trying to denigrate what African-Americans went through.

Speaking of Mr. Hutcherson, there is another factor in all this that bears mentioning. Specifically, no single oppressed group holds a monopoly on "real" oppression. To put it bluntly, some minorities (whether gay or black or whatever) mistakenly believe that their minority status excuses or immunizes them from being prejudiced themselves. White gay people are just as capable of being racist as black heterosexuals are of being homophobic. Yet, sometimes these very people are often so focused on their own sense of oppression, that they fail to see their own racist, sexist, or homophobic thoughts for what they are- bigotry and/or ignorance.

So, I don't find it at all surprising that some white gays are saying really despicable, really racist things in the wake of all this Prop 8 hoopla. To these people I can only implore them to stop. Something that all minorities know is that the actions of a few are oftentimes attributed to all. And now, thanks to the words of some angry white gays, the All Gay People Are Rich White Racists stereotype is starting to solidify and further divide the black and gay communities.

Less benignly, when outright racism and homophobia aren't an issue, many people are unaware of the fact that even if they are oppressed in some ways, they can be privileged in others. As a lesbian, for instance, I see that many gay men are clumsily unaware of their own male privilege- believing that they are the default gay human being around which all "LGBT life" revolves. As a white person, I have no doubt that I have my own blind spots. These need to be pointed out without angry accusations and the then knee-jerk defensive-ness that is pretty common in these discussions.

You see, what really gets me is that white "marriage defenders" play on and perpetuate these divisions to further their own goals. And you better believe they are laughing at us now as they gloat in the glow of their post-coital "marriage defense" victories. I have written about this before too. (Mostly white) "marriage defenders" use sexual prejudice to their advantage by expressing concern for the black community when it furthers their own interests and, often, then abandoning this community when it does not further white self interest (see affirmative action and hate crimes legislation). They feed into this idea that homosexuality is somehow responsible for the "plight" of the black family or that same-sex marriage will worsen black fatherlessness.

These theories have no basis in reality, of course. Yet that doesn't stop "marriage defenders" from lapping this division up, egging it on, and opportunistically pitting the black community against the LGBT community as though this is all a zero-sum game where if gay people win then black people lose. Our friend the Playful Walrus, for instance, suggested that so many blacks voted against Prop 8 because "racial minorities don't like it when their voting rights are taken away by a court." He's referring, of course, to the fact that the California Supreme Court invalidated a voter-approved ban on gay marriage. Ah. Note how this argument equates the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era with our basic democratic process of judicial review. Yet, if I remember correctly, racial minorities actually sort of did like it when the court "took away" the voting rights of majorities that had oppressed them for decades.

Looking on the bright side of all this, Prop 8's defeat in California is teaching us something about the complexities and nuances of race, sexual orientation, and identity in America. The white LGBT community is not reaching the black heterosexual community, and LGBT people of color still remain largely invisible in all this. The day after the election Pam Spaulding wrote an excellent article about race, homophobia, and sexual orientation. Coming from someone who is a part of the African-American and the LGBT community, she acknowledges that sexual prejudice in the black community and racial prejudice and privilege in white LGBT communities is something that needs to be addressed honestly and openly.

In order to address homophobia in the black community, we have to be able to acknowledge that it exists without people of color and "allied" white liberals knee-jerk calling anyone who does so a "racist." Calling each other names and then angrily retreating back to our own segregated little corners of the world because some things are too "taboo" to acknowledge won't get us anywhere near addressing this. White LGBT people need to acknowledge white privilege and call people out for making asinine, racist comments on the internet and in the public sphere. Just because you are gay it doesn't give you a free pass to be racist or sexist.

These discussions are too important for that kind of stunted knee-jerk type of thinking.

Not only does homophobia contribute to the escalating rates of HIV/AIDS in the black community, but the denial of marriage rights for gay men and lesbians is unfair discrimination, inequality, and intolerance that stamps gay people with a badge of inferiority.

I anticipate realizing Obama's promise of hope and change for all Americans. I celebrate what his victory means for our nation and to African-Americans. As one commenter here said a few days ago, it's a great time to have a black Democrat in the White House. Now, we have work to do. We are all harmed when the rights of some of us are taken away or denied. Even though the injustices we face are different, I remain in solidarity with all people who face true injustice.

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