Op-ed: If Racism Is Alive and Well, Homophobia Has Lots of Good Years Left

The Zimmerman trial feels like a relic of the inflamed race wars of the 1960s. If anything good is to come of it, it's the reminder that prejudice has a long shelf-life.

BY Neal Broverman

July 18 2013 12:13 PM ET

I was sitting at a crammed table in Miami Beach, trying to think about what Rea Carey was saying and not what I was going to order for lunch. Talking to a group of journalists at the Winter Party festival in March, the executive director of the 40-year-old National Gay and Lesbian Task Force grabbed my attention when she declared emphatically that the Supreme Court would strike down both California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. She was certain and, it turns out, correct, but those weren’t the only points she was right about that day.

“The mission doesn’t stop here,” Carey said, standing over the crowd as they munched French bread and sipped chilled wine. People were still routinely sacked from jobs for being LGBT, Carey said, reminding us that trans issues, bullying, and the continuing violence against LGBTs need addressing. Her point: when we get that good news from the Supreme Court, don’t pack up and call it a day. Even after ENDA squeezes through the House and Mississippi’s same-sex couples storm Jackson City Hall for marriage licenses, the Task Force (and the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Victory Fund, et al) still need your help and your dollars.

Carey’s speech is more relevant four months later, when the entire nation is defriending each other over the murder of Trayvon Martin and the issue of race. We have a black president, but so what? Bob Dylan could have made a protest song in the ’60s about an unarmed black kid followed, shot, and killed, while his shooter, George Zimmerman, walks free and gets his gun back. Maybe the Zimmerman case just reminded many of us how black inequality still lives on and prospers; how African-Americans disproportionately struggle with harassment, unemployment, HIV rates, and violence thanks to endemic discrimination.

But if groups like the NAACP and the Task Force were launched to win legal victories that held minorities back, how will they be effective in winning more nebulous accomplishments? Throwing out segregation or “don’t ask, don’t tell” is one thing, but making it safe for a black kid to wear a sweatshirt or you to hold your partner’s hand is another. On the homepage of the Task Force’s website, there’s a big banner that reads, “Marriage equality is just the beginning.” When you click the link, another line appears: “Now more than ever, we need a nationwide effort to create lasting positive change for LGBT people and their families.”

If you click on the “Issues” section of the Task Force’s site, you’ll get schooled in all the ways your life is more of a grind than that of the straight person next door. There are aging concerns (as an LGBT person, you’re highly likely to end up broke and alone); concerns that your kid could get snatched away from you if you are your partner/spouse break up; the always-present worry that you could get punched in the head for leaving a gay bar and die in the street. I could go on and on, but I don’t want to add suicide to the Task Force’s list (though it probably deserves a mention).

Groups like the Task Force are taking cues from black organizations, which evolved with the times and are now working to level the playing field in employment and health issues. But making a dent in our nation’s profound homophobia is something within the reach of the LGBT lobbyists and lawyers that populate the Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, and the National Council of Lesbian Rights. People learn xenophobia at a young age (and those who are different learn to hate themselves in their early years), so let's learn from the past — school curriculums need to teach children that some girls marry girls and that Harvey Milk changed the world. California is introducing positive depictions of LGBT people in their public schools and that state’s lead needs to be taken, at the very least, by places like New York and Illinois. Similar legislation should be introduced in Albany, Springfield, and even Salt Lake City, even if it’s just to start the discussion. There’s nothing we can do if children have homophobic parents, but we can at least counter the messages they’re getting at home.

Carey and her peers also have to fight for housing for LGBT seniors. Cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles are taking it on themselves to build such developments, but all mid-size and larger metropolises need services for gay and trans elders. Also, until a cure or vaccine is found, funding for HIV prevention and services needs to be a paramount concern for LGBT groups.

Political power is imperative when it comes to holding out your hands to Uncle Sam. While we’ve made great strides in the House, we only have one LGBT senator, and zero representation in the 50 governors' mansions. And save for Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, all the out House members represent blue states that aren’t inherently hostile to their gay and trans citizens. We need a bisexual mayor of Birmingham, Ala., a transgender senator from Louisiana, and a lesbian governor of Florida. This job is the Victory Fund’s mission, but this work needs to be embraced by all LGBT groups.

Similarily, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation exists to improve media representation of LGBT people, but all queer organizations should get on this horse. Having Anderson Cooper dish on Watch What Happens Live! and a same-sex couple star on Modern Family doesn’t mean we’ve made it. ABC Family’s roster, including their new show about a lesbian-led family, The Fosters, is a step in the right direction. But queer characters and personalities remain so marginal in mainstream media, especially those of color, that the enduring image of gays on TV comes from local news stations covering debaucherous pride celebrations.

There is no shortage of problems that come with being LGBT in America and most are more insidious than DOMA or Prop. 8. It will take smart leaders like Carey and an active community to battle them as most are so entrenched they'll never truly be eradicated, only possibly minimized. Remember a decade or so ago, when everyone was saying we’re living in a post-gay world? Yeah, we were about as right about that as Y2K.

 

NEAL BROVERMAN is a columnist for The Advocate and the editor-in-chief of Out Traveler. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.

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