Defining the movement for same-sex marriage

Many LGBT African-Americans are resisting the urge to equate the struggle for gay equality with the struggle for racial equality. It’s not too late for everyone to find a common ground.

BY Irene Monroe

February 15 2005 12:00 AM ET

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.

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