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Gay leaders seek
to bridge racial divide

Gay leaders seek
to bridge racial divide


National gay and lesbian groups are responding with marketing campaigns and old-fashioned schmoozing to win over minority gays.

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 Colored People. 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)

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