With this June’s historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, many white LGBTQ organizations nationwide have been questioning what to do next.
The Harvard Alumni Association and the Harvard Gender and Sexuality Caucus last month picked up the gauntlet to answer that very question, cosponsoring a conference titled "What Should We Do After 'I Do'?: Conversations on the Challenges That Remain for the LGBTQ Community." Harvard alumni, students, staff, faculty, and friends came from across the country for a day-long gathering exploring the topic, with hopes of perhaps charting a future course in the unfinished struggle for LGBTQ rights and equality.
The challenge of what to do next — reach out to LGBTQ people of color — appeared daunting to many of the conference attendees. And for good reason.
Any outreach to communities of color will, undoubtedly, dredge up the history of how this country’s same-sex marriage debate created much consternation and polarization between LGBTQ people of color and white LGBTQ people. With white LGBTQ political and religious organizations now attempting to bridge this historic divide, many people of color are asking what’s in it for them.
While many LGBTQ communities of color will embrace the larger queer population’s offers of inclusivity, others feel that the white queer community in 2015 is coming a day late and a dollar short. And any effort now is seen as disingenuous, if not patronizing.
The bitter internecine feuds among LGBTQ communities of color and the dominant community — concerning framing the marriage debate and strategies employed — have left both sides battle-worn. And needless to say, the trip down memory lane is a painful one.
With the passing of Proposition 8 in California, and many white gays blaming African-American voters for its victory at the ballot box (possibly thanks to faulty exit polls), the struggle for marriage equality showed us all that it would be a state-by-state battle, where the demographics of each state indeed came into play. Some strategists had felt all along that people of color — both straight and queer — were liabilities, slowing, if not disrupting, LGBT progress and momentum. These activists openly stated and showed in their community strategies and organizing that they didn’t want or need queer people of color, especially in predominantly white states, to win the battle. Their reason was the following: With enough successive wins from less heterogeneous LGBTQ and straight areas, like Iowa, Connecticut, Vermont, and, yes, even my home state of, Massachusetts, these judicial endorsements of same-sex marriage not only increased public acceptance of LGBTQ nuptials, but these endorsements could conceivably push the issue of marriage equality all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court, circumventing our internal wars of class, race, and homophobic faith communities entirely.
Sadly, however, many of our state-by-state battles for marriage equality continued, and the issue was often framed as a single-issue agenda, addressing the concerns and values of an elite few. If people of color were part of the discussion, it was for token photo ops. Communities of color fought back, stating we cannot be deployed in the marriage equality battle in a used-when-needed basis. In response to the how the marriage debate initially took shape, many LGBTQ people of color organizations sprung up to address their needs, focusing not only on HIV ravaging their communities, but also focusing on unemployment, gang violence, youth homelessness, and homophobic clergy, to name a few.
Post-marriage equality, I have been asked by several white activists, "Is it now too late trying to reach out to communities of color?" It’s a similar question that was asked of me in 2005 when a board member of a statewide gay organization, who did not want to be identified, wrote to me stating the following:
“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."
I cannot speak for all communities of color, let along the ones I identify with. However, as one who sits at the intersections of several identities, my query to white LGBTQ activists and organizations is the following: Will efforts to reach out to communities of color be matched by the same agency, urgency, time, and dollars spent on marriage equality?