Each year, Dyana
Mason kicks off the summer with two road trips: one to
Washington, D.C.'s black gay pride celebration in May and a
second to its predominantly white June counterpart,
Capital Pride. Mason, director of an advocacy group
called Equality Virginia, is not alone. Through the
fall, similar celebrations will unfold across the nation,
underscoring a racial rift some say splinters gay
America when a united front is needed most.
National gay and lesbian groups are responding
with marketing campaigns and old-fashioned schmoozing
to win over minority gays, many of whom argue that
white activists want their votes on same-sex marriage and
other national issues but rarely include poverty, racism,
and other minority concerns on their agendas. "We have
this rainbow of unity--'We're all in it
together,"' said Earl Fowlkes, president of the
International Federation of Black Prides. "Truth be told,
it's not that way."
His group represents more than 23 annual black
pride celebrations drawing thousands of black gays to
New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities. Such
culture-specific celebrations are on the rise as the face of
gay America shifts from the white male stereotype.
Roughly 4 million gay and lesbian adults live in
the United States, according to the Gay and Lesbian
Atlas, compiled by the Urban Institute. Among them are
large groups of Hispanics and blacks; in Los Angeles, for
example, the group found that Hispanics accounty
for 32% of all same-sex couple households. In the
South black gays account for more than a quarter
of gay households in South Carolina and Mississippi.
The numbers say minorities are just as prevalent
as whites. So why, then, do their faces number so few
at national gay rights events?
In 2000 the Human Rights Campaign set out to
answer that question, surveying leaders in several
communities of color across the country. "Their
perceptions of us were rich white male elitist organization
with low investment in issues facing the multicultural
community," recalled Donna Payne, senior diversity
organizer with the HRC, the nation's largest gay
rights advocacy organization.
In addition to creating Payne's position,
leaders began to showcase work by black gay filmmakers
in their Washington store and establish a gospel
social and an outreach program to mentor gay youths at
historically black colleges. Perhaps most important,
top brass at the Human Rights Campaign began
frequenting black pride parades and parties. "Overall, we
understand that we have to be able to have room under the
umbrella for everyone," Payne said.
Despite the changes, frustrations linger. For
one, Latinos shrink from organizations that think
translating documents into Spanish is enough, said
Noemi Perez, a Virginia activist who has worked with gays.
"You can't just transplant an individual who is
Latino," she said. "That is a big piece of the puzzle
as to why it's hard for these organizations to bring
the communities to the table."
Hispanics and blacks say they feel distanced
from a national gay rights agenda focused on same-sex
marriage. Fowlkes and Perez named "existence issues"
such as poverty, discrimination, and job stability as
primary for minority gays--not wedding bells. "If I
don't have the money I need to have food in my
refrigerator or to get on a bus to get to work, the
whole issue of the right to marry, that's secondary,"
Perez said. "The lives of the folks on Will &
Grace are not necessarily reflective of the lives
of gay Latinos."
But for some minority gays--and
heterosexuals--distance from the white
mainstream stems from a notion that race trumps all. It's an
age-old idea that leaves many viewing themselves as
black or Hispanic first and gay second. "We [have]
formed our own institution--that being the prides,
our social organizations, our social clubs," Fowlkes said.
"All the things our parents and grandparents did to
react to racism in their day."
With antigay legislation gaining ground
nationwide, the argument for uniting across racial
lines is strong. Bans on same-sex marriage were
approved in all 11 states that held referendums last fall,
including Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, and
Kentucky. In Richmond, Mason's staff is taking baby
steps to diversify. The flagship Virginia gay rights group
hosted an awards dinner in April with Julian Bond, chairman
of the National Association for the Advancement of
Still, Mason lists a concern of many white gay
leaders: In areas where minority gay communities are
not well-organized, reaching across racial lines is
nearly impossible. "We don't have a Richmond black gay
pride, for example," she said. "We don't have that type of
opportunity for us to really find who these folks are."
(Dionne Walker, AP)