The cultural third rails of race and sexuality

Minority and gay constituencies need to reach out to communities that attack them and win hearts and minds

Published August 11, 2009 7:12PM (EDT)

Editor's note: Glenn Greenwald is on vacation this week. Pam Spaulding of Pam's House Blend is guest-blogging today.

"At the Intersection: Race, Sexuality, and Gender," a comprehensive report released this week by the The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, is an excellent look at some of the third rails of cultural discussion that usually results in most conversations falling into silence for fear of conflict, offending someone, or having to realize one's own biases in front of others.'

One cannot develop cultural competency if the conversation is encouraged, but not taken in by those who need to listen and absorb the information to break down barriers. We saw the schism in the last election.

The November 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California clearly showed what could happen when a group listens solely so it can repress others. Research has revealed that organizing efforts by religious and conservative forces were extensive, proactive and heavily funded. Such an observation is important because it also reveals that progressive -- or in this case, LGBT-specific -- organizing efforts were less effective at listening, canvassing, targeting and activating Californians in the same ways that conservative forces were. This ineffectiveness was a result of many significant forces, some of which included lack of access to populations historically left out of debates, basic information about these populations, and the resources -- including cultural competency needed -- to effectively reach the targeted populations.

The key findings of the report:

* Nearly all LGBT people of color say protections from violence and workplace discrimination are important; issues strong majorities of all Americans support in opinion polls. Violence and discrimination are also the most salient issues that connect three critical groups -- non-LGBT people, communities of color and white LGBT communities.

* Religious attitudes are a major source of sexual prejudice. For LGBT people of color, many of whom are regular churchgoers, the conflict is acute. More than half of LGBT people of color interviewed feel treated like sinners by their ethnic and racial communities, and faith communities are among the places LGBT people of color feel least accepted;

* LGBT people of color view the world first from the point of view of race and gender. Most feel there is as much racism and sexism among LGBT people as there is among non-LGBT people, and racially motivated violence and discrimination are more prevalent than violence or prejudice based on sexual orientation;

* LGBT people of color are serious media consumers, but they do not find enough information or see accurate media representations of themselves; "This report is a catalyst for the continuing conversations we all know are necessary to turn the reality of our diversity into inclusion of every member of the LGBT community," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "There are no simple 'answers' to the challenge of inclusion but creating a space where diverse voices can be a part of a dialogue presents opportunities for us to grow as a movement."

The findings are no surprise to me and are not probably a surprise to others, but where there is little agreement is the matter of who is responsible for effecting change (does this fall solely on the shoulders of out LGBTs of color, something tossed out there quite frequently when I raise the issue) and what are the methods of bridge building that need to be implemented. Take the quandry of the conservative black church, for instance.

Already fearful of losing connections, friendship and emotional shelter provided by their faith community if they come out, black gays and lesbians in the church now know that the homophobes in the pews and choirs, along with the bigoted pastors spewing hate from the pulpit, feel empowered to destroy those ties because of their own fear and ignorance. It makes you want to weep. One of Washington's largest black Baptist churches was upended several months ago by a female member of its choir who e-mailed messages to anti-gay Bishop Alfred Owens Jr. of the DC-based Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church outing more than 100 church members as gay, mostly male choir members, saying "I will be leaving the choir at the top of the year because 80 percent of the tenors are homosexuals and act more like a female in choir rehearsal than I do." That's so raw that you don't even know where to begin.

Also, the fact that religious opposition to civil marriage equality is irrelevant seems to escape some in the religious communities of color, even when they hold public office. I experienced this alternate reality first-hand when I participated in an Equality NC Day of Action at my state legislature and spoke with members of the Black Legislative Caucus about LGBT equality issues. One was a supporter of a state marriage amendment to ban gays and lesbians from marrying (and ban civil unions as well as domestic partnerships). I was with a small group of black LGBTs that came up to this legislator and asked her why she could promote institutionalized discrimination. Her reasons?

1) Because it's a "personal issue" for her. Her constituent pointed out that she is in the office because the voters in her district sent her to the General Assembly to represent them, not her personal feelings about legislation. That led the lawmaker to move on to the next reason...

2) "I'm a minister." She made it clear that she didn't want to have to disclose this bit of business, but since #1 didn't work out very well, this was the next hurdle to put up. The constituent, to her credit, challenged her on the issue of church-state separation, but the elected official wouldn't budge. Trying to have a reality-based conversation with someone who feels so strongly that there is no line between the two is like hitting a wall.

One of the black LGBTs with the group, in order to try to connect by humanizing the issue, told the story of friends of hers, a lesbian couple raising a child. One of the mothers is dying of a chronic illness, and in North Carolina there's nothing to legally protect them as a unit -- any will drawn up can be challenged by a homophobic family member, custody could be in jeopardy, and obviously there are myriad issues that are in play because of the lack of any kind of legal recognition.

The legislator was visibly moved by this story, but you could tell it left her in a quandry. That led to explanation #3.

3) "I'm not against anyone, one to one". She said this several times, as if to suggest that she's only protecting marriage by favoring the amendment, but is sympathetic to the concerns raised by the story of the lesbian couple. It's the classic "I'm really not a bigot" defense. No one wants to have that label placed upon them. Unfortunately that led Rep. Parmon to ramble into territory that was perilously close to civil unions without saying those words specifically. The problem, even if she only supports some limited legal recognition, is that the marriage amendment she supports says:

Marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.

That means no civil unions, no domestic partnerships, nada. It's written so broadly that even private company benefits offered to "same-sex spousal equivalents" could be jeopardized. If she supports some kind of way for that lesbian couple to protect their family unit if one passes away, she's negating any possible solution by supporting the amendment.

Afterwards we all commented how hurtful it was to be rendered "less-than" to our faces by this respected lawmaker, who, if she stepped into a time machine that took her only a few generations back in time, couldn't marry a person of the same race, let alone someone of another race -- and the bible was used to justify that. She looked at the people in her office in the eye and said that she "respects you as a person", but would, without any guilt, vote to ensure you aren't equal in the eyes of the law. It was painful, just painful. So we, as LGBTs of color, have a long way to go to if we're to build those internal bridges. But on the other side of the fence, the sense I gather from the reticence to date of the white LGBT community to do outreach in this arena seems to revolve around a couple of things based on the discussions on my blog:

* A surface assumption that all minorities or all POC LGBTs are somehow a cultural monolith any more than the white LGBT community is -- as in all are churched or all poor or working class, for instance and we're responsible for "fixing" the problem because they "can't". And the "can't" stems from...

* A reluctance to immerse themselves in outreach that challenges their own inherent biases and cultural ignorance of various communities of color for fear of rejection or embarrassment. It's an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position to be placed on the defensive, wary and feeling outnumbered -- something people of color have to deal with as a reality all the time. But minorities don't have the luxury of deciding whether we need to be competent regarding the dominant culture.

And the thing is, my blackness clearly doesn't provide any cover when addressing homophobia either. Just witness the scathing, sad, and quite frankly, ignorant comments in a piece I cross posted at HuffPost. Here's one of my favorites:

The States should & can handle social issues and are doing so what's the problem! Some people can just not be happy anymore without confrontation to to sad. I do not believe in gay marriage and do not hate anyone nor do I fear anything--- I Let Go and Let God have the Judgment day not my problem or am I in control of who loves who!.

My response:

You can't be serious with that statement. If we left matters of civil rights to the states, Jim Crow would still be in effect, Obama's parents would not have been able to marry, and poll taxes would still exist. How soon we forget. That's the level of ignorance I'm talking about; others made the quite accurate point that the LGBT community rarely gets behind social justice issues of concern to minorities. Honestly, this card can be played legitimately - because it's true.

I mean how elementary is it that if you want support from a community that you actually have to communicate with them to get your point across and win hearts and minds over. And that was one of the failures of Prop 8. And people have admitted as much, as efforts to get it overturned begin to gain support for another ballot initiative.

Organizers hope to reach Latinos, faith communities and African Americans, constituencies into which they previously failed to make in-roads. Their approach aims to blend slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk's put-a-human-face-on-the-issue activism with Barack Obama's neighbor-to-neighbor organizing.

What a lack of cross-community dialogue means for out minority LGBTs is that one has to be willing to put yourself out there to be attacked, over and over for addressing homophobia in communities of color knowing that few, if any, non-POC LGBTs are going to come forward to have your back. I see it time and again, with the excuses ranging from "I'll be called a racist" or "it doesn't feel safe to do this" or "it isn't my place to do it." And many of these excuses are from people who have the anonymity of the Internet to protect them. Now that's bad.

Well, it doesn't feel great to have your "black card" revoked any more than it feels to be called racist -- and I don't have the cover of anonymity. Of course that's my choice, but the work is so important; I hate to see the rancor and misunderstandings go on and on with the parties talking past one another. The sad thing is that so few black LGBTs are willing to live out, be out and challenge misguided assumptions that it makes it doubly difficult for those of color who do want to challenge the homophobia.

The thing is that are plenty of allies and leaders from the black community who do support full civil rights for LGBTs who can be cited when dealing with this issue - John Lewis, Julian Bond, Leonard Pitts, Al Sharpton, Gov. Deval Patrick, Gov. David Paterson, to name a few. Members of black community who consistently oppose LGBT rights conveniently choose to ignore these leaders -- they have to be called out on it.

And that's why "At the Intersection: Race, Sexuality, and Gender," is a must read.

HRC will host a live national conversation via webchat on Thursday, August 13th, at 3PM Eastern to spur commentary about the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Panelists include LZ Granderson (one of few out gay sports commentators on ESPN and the author of the CNN opinion piece "Gay is not the new black"), Rinku Sen, Bishop Rainey Cheeks, and Joshua Ulibarri. The moderator is the leader of this pioneering research Che-Ruddell Tabisola.

By Pam Spaulding

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