Published in The Advocate, February 15, 2005.
Tensions here in Massachusetts are mounting once again along the color line in LGBTQ communities over the issue of marriage for same-sex couples. With the state legislature soon to rev up again to debate the issue and with very little time for white queer religious and political machines to colorize what has been since its inception a white movement, voices from African-American queer organizations and communities are speaking up.
And to the surprise of white LGBTQ organizations, both African-American LGBTQ people and heterosexuals have much to say about the white queer political machine’s appropriation of the language of the black civil rights movement—to push their agenda with the absence of people of color.
“I don’t ever want to see a white gay man stand before a camera again and equate his struggle to the black civil rights movement,” Jasmyne Cannick—board member of the National Black Justice Coalition, a black LGBTQ civil rights organization—wrote on ProudParenting.com.
I caught up with Cannick last weekend in Washington, D.C., at the annual board retreat for the NBJC, of which I am also a member. I asked her and other board members if they thought African-Americans’ perceived ownership of the term “civil rights” ignores, if not violates, the civil rights of any and all disenfranchised groups in this country. “White folks are always stealing our shit without any accountability,” one board member, who did not want to be identified, told me.
Cannick, like many African-American LGBTQ people, does see the marriage equality struggle as a civil rights issue. But she resents the unchecked white privilege of white queer organizations and activists using the term as analogous to the black civil rights movement without a dialogue with the entire LGBTQ community about it—in order to ascertain how the marriage debate should be framed. How the marriage debate should have been framed—in a way that speaks truth to various LGBTQ communities of color and classes—has not been given considerable concern.
With no language to adequately articulate the unique embodiment of LGBTQ communities of color and classes in the same-sex marriage debate, this has become contentious. The dominant white queer languaging of this debate at best muffles the voices of these communities and at worst mutes them. In other words, in leaving out the voices of LGBTQ communities of color and classes, the same-sex marriage debate is being hijacked by a white upper-class queer universality that not only renders these marginalized queer communities invisible, but—as it is presently framed—also renders them speechless.
“You have to be strategic in how you message to different communities, and I, as a black lesbian, would never presume to know how to message to the Latino community. You would go to Latino activists and allow them to take the lead. They best know how to deal with their own community,” Cannick told the Boston gay newspaper Bay Windows.
The same-sex marriage debate has brought much consternation and polarization between black and white LGBTQ communities. And much of the finger-pointing of where the dissension began is aimed at Boston-based Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. Some view GLAD as a lily-white organization, and many people of color feel that it replicates much of the same race and class divisions present in our federal judicial system. While the marriage debate was strategically framed as an upper- to middle-class LGBTQ family issue, African-American lesbian activist Jacquie Bishop noted that the “strategy won in court, but not in the court of public opinion.”
In criticizing GLAD for its approach, African-American lesbian scholar Marilyn Monteiro wrote to me in an e-mail, “I’ve told GLAD this as well—asking me for money to assist them in ‘their’ struggle; expropriating (and therefore exploiting blacks in particular) the civil rights movement rhetoric; strategies in their interests while still excluding us from leadership positions other than token appointments. Please! It certainly is this way in Beantown, for sure. GLAD asked me to evaluate their Web pages. I did. Do you think there have been any changes of the kind I suggested? Hell, no!
White political and religious organizations are now attempting to bridge this divide. A board member of a statewide gay organization, who did not want to be identified, wrote to me, “The board is interested in looking at its own white privilege as it seeks to work with the African-American religious community. We have realized that most of our communities of faith…are predominantly white communities. This concerns us…. We [have] voted to begin a process of understanding white privilege and the ways in which we can seem to be antiracist.”
While many of us LGBTQ African Americans will embrace those offers to be inclusive, others feel that the white queer community is coming a day late and a dollar short. And any effort now is seen as disingenuous.
Since the marriage debate is so narrowly framed in the white queer community, the NBJC is commemorating Black History Month by adopting the motto “Fairness for Our Families,” choosing to focus on empowering black families through education and mobilization. With this emphasis on family equality, a wider net is cast, focusing not only on same-sex marriage as an issue of concern for African-American same-sex households but also issues such as HIV/AIDS, adoption by gays, unemployment, and homophobic clergy.
“I am very pleased that we will continue to be engaged in public policy and public advocacy on marriage and other issues this year,” Keith Boykin, the board’s president, stated in an NBJC press release. “The board of directors decided that we would concentrate on fairness for our families this year. Family is not a one-dimensional concept.”
I have been asked by several white activists if it is too late now in trying to get black LGBTQ people more ensconced in this movement. And I have been told by many African-American LGBTQ people that because of their exclusion in the struggle, they are tired and now suffering from “marriage fatigue.”
With very little time before the Massachusetts state legislature takes up the marriage issue again and with antigay activists gearing up for the next round in this debate, what a crying shame it would be if we lose this battle because of all the infighting. The issues raised by the African-American LGBTQ community and other queer communities of color and classes must be taken seriously and corrected in order to successfully move forward.
But a note of caution here: If we lose this battle, we will have missed a historic opportunity to effect change, not only here in the Bay State but across the country. Let us remember that the whole world is watching us. United we can stand as a prophetic movement, or divided we will fall as a petty people.