Twenty years ago, I met Fannie Lou Hamer. I’d just graduated from high school in Cleveland. My sister, Beverly, and I were very active in the Congress of Racial Equality, and I met Mrs. Hamer at a party following a rally she’d addressed. Mrs. Hamer was sitting in a chair in the middle of the basement room and people were going up to pay their respects. She looked like the women in my family. She was stout, wore a wig, and had trouble with her legs (in her case because of the beatings she’d taken in jail). Even then I knew she was one of the most important people I would ever meet.
I didn’t come out as a lesbian until ten years later. Since then, I’ve often reflected on what it would have been like to be an openly gay person in the Civil Rights movement. Reading Hamer’s early statement supporting equal rights for women, long before most Black women dared to make the connection, I suspect her politics would have encompassed me as a lesbian. After all, it was the open-hearted spirit and hard work of older, poor Black women that made the movement possible. But the few known homosexuals in the movement — James Baldwin, for example — did not demand recognition of their homosexuality, and I’m sure there would have been no place for me as an openly lesbian activist.
One of the major barriers for lesbians and gay men was, and remains, black religious institutions. Traditionally an inspirational and organizing tool in the Black community, the church has almost always taken a stand against homosexuality. This condemnation naturally causes great pain among the large numbers of Black lesbians and gay men who want to maintain religious ties, which are also ties to family, culture, and home. That lesbians and gay men can be found in every Black church in this country — even in the pulpit — is hardly a well-kept secret. Yet, Blacks and other people of color pretend that homosexuality is a “white disease,” and brand gay people in their communities as “white-minded.” Many Black people still consider homosexuality a sin, an illness, a crime, or worse, tantamount to renouncing membership in the race.
Because of our shared status as outcasts, the Black community often shows great tolerance for members who do not conform to white social, sexual, and legal conventions. But for gay people, that tolerance is only extended if we stay closeted, “play it, but don’t say it.” Peaceful co-existence between Black homosexuals and heterosexuals is bought at the exorbitant price of our silence. The same sisters and brothers to whom racial passing would be anathema expect Black lesbians and gays to pass as straight and endure similar devastation to the spirit.
Many of the current generation of Black gay activists came through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and we see our situation in political terms. Just as we refuse to accept racist assaults, we also refuse to bow to attacks upon our sexuality, which is as crucial to our identities as race. The development of Third World lesbian and gay organizations, closely tied to the growth of Third World feminism, has prompted volatile debate about homosexuality in the Black community after years of no talk at all.
One of the stormiest confrontations occurred in 1983, during the fight to have a lesbian or gay speaker at the 20th Anniversary March on Washington. Congressional Representative Walter E. Fauntroy, national director of the march, polarized the situation when he reputedly equated gay rights with “penguin rights.” Fauntroy later denied this statement, but also asserted that the march “would not be an aggregation of single-issue groups” and insisted that including proponents of abortion or gay rights might be “interpreted as the advocacy of abortion or the gay lifestyle.” The very march being commemorated only added Black women — like Fannie Lou Hamer — to the speakers’ roster at the last moment.
Then as now, the organizers’ concept of coalition building was shortsighted. As another movement veteran, Bernice Johnson Reagon, has written, “You don’t go into coalition because you just like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that’s the only way you can figure you can stay alive…. There is an offensive movement that started in this country in the ’60s that is continuing. The reason we are stumbling is that we are at the point where in order to take the next step we’ve got to do it with some folk we don’t care too much about. And we got to vomit over that for a little while. We must just keep going.”