When Barack Obama came out in support of marriage equality May 9, it was the first time a president of the United States made a definitive statement of support for the cause. His announcement prompted many African-American leaders to follow suit.
When NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous and his board of directors echoed the president’s sentiments 10 days later, it was the first time the more than 100-year-old African-American civil rights organization had officially thrown its considerable clout behind marriage equality. That month such cultural influencers as Colin Powell, Jay-Z, and Will Smith also got on board, deepening what gay philanthropist and activist Brickson Diamond calls “a watershed moment” in the fraught history of relations between blacks and gays. Diamond lauds the black community’s “evolution” on marriage equality — one that has in many ways paralleled the president’s much-talked-about evolution — while cautioning that there is no monolithic black community, just as there is no monolithic gay community.
Once marriage has been secured for gays and lesbians, will we reach beyond ourselves to turn us into a broader, progressive community rather than the association of self-motivated, single-issue voters we often are? Will the LGBT community evolve, too?
In order to secure marriage equality, a victory that seems increasingly inevitable but will be hard-won nonetheless, LGBT institutions have been reaching out, building bridges and shoring up support among previously untapped constituencies, including African-Americans. It’s a tactic that can be the foundation for transforming LGBTs into a progressive community concerned with issues outside the narrow self-interest of certain factions. But that will only occur if we heed the call to look within, to address the injustices within our own communities and work out our own issues with race.
Vocal supporters of marriage equality have long existed in the black establishment, including the late Coretta Scott King and former NAACP board chairman Julian Bond. But more often there has been tension. Rather recently that tension took on the guise of conventional wisdom when the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 sparked widespread reports that the anti-equality measure succeeded largely because of homophobia among African-Americans, who had turned out in unprecedented numbers to support Obama. It took many months and a rigorous crunching of the numbers for that bit of unsupported snap judgment to be refuted by actual facts.
And yet the “blacks don’t want marriage equality” narrative has stuck and similar scenarios have played out in the media regarding other states’ ballot measures since. For example, after the passage of the anti–marriage equality and anti–civil unions measure Amendment One in North Carolina earlier this year, local media scapegoated black voters. The dubious data that was the basis of such conclusions was then used to fuel speculative stories positing that blacks will not come out for Obama’s second-term election now that he’s come out for marriage equality. Prior to the North Carolina election, memos from within the National Organization for Marriage were leaked, revealing the antigay organization’s explicit strategy to drive a wedge between blacks and gays by “fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop. 8.” Whether driven by NOM or simply by sloppy reporting and knee-jerk racism among LGBTs, the hostility was fanned.
And yet some good has come out of all of the bad results in the past four years. In the wake of Prop. 8, LGBT leaders were forced to examine the ways in which they had failed to reach out beyond their cloistered bubble of mainly well-off, white enclaves in cities such as West Hollywood and parts of San Francisco, to build coalitions with progressive groups that represent various racial and ethnic groups. Even if black voters had overwhelmingly cast their ballots against marriage equality (which data show they did not), it was still clear that LGBT organizations had prematurely assumed that support for equality was firm, that the cultural tide had already shifted enough to make victory likely.
Since then, LGBT groups from the national lobby group Human Rights Campaign on down to local nonprofits have been doing the legwork needed to build cultural bridges. “I see it changing with young people,” says Michael Ferrera, who works with youth every day as founder and director of LifeWorks, an LGBT mentoring program of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. The majority of LifeWorks’ youth clients are black and Latino. “I see a young generation that’s a lot less hampered by growing up with these attitudes of being an ‘other.’ The world is more multicultural, the U.S. is more Latino, and these kids are much less worried about differences.”
While the young people he describes maintain that hope, much of the world at large does not yet share their blindness toward the “other.” In fact, many of the well-established gay men and women to whom Ferrera and his organization turn for financial support haven’t yet come to that same viewpoint.
“That’s where the problem still lies,” says Ferrera. “White people — especially those with money — don’t necessarily have to interact with people of different ethnicities. They lack an awareness of white privilege, of giving voice to those who haven’t had a voice.” That is to say, the LGBT population is subject to the same problems of racism and white privilege that exist in the country as a whole (see: the Trayvon Martin case’s thorny repercussions).
Even if many of the wealthy, influential — and, yes, mostly white — gay men and women of Los Angeles from whom Ferrera seeks support are still part of the problem, Ferrera — a gay white man in his 40s — is part of the solution. Increasingly, and perhaps surprisingly, so is corporate America, which is seeing future growth markets in formerly marginalized groups. “They are making huge advances with their diversity programs,” reports Ferrera, who says companies are trying to up their credibility with gay people as well as among various ethnic groups, and they’re doing so through employee initiatives. “The leaders of these employee affinity groups have access to the upper echelons of their corporations.” And the evidence is in the checks: LifeWorks has received $30,000 a year each from Mattel and Toyota; Target is another major donor.
The change Vallerie Wagner sees is achingly slow. “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” laments the director of education for AIDS Project Los Angeles, who oversees prevention efforts and is leading the agency’s commitment to establish a sexual health center for African-American and Latino gay men. “We’re not so good at capturing the lessons learned,” she says.
Wagner fears that as a people we end up getting defined by others instead of proactively defining ourselves. “Why can’t we figure out how the Affordable Care Act is important for the LGBT community and educate our community?” she asks, pointing to the need to stake our claim regarding broader political issues that affect us.
But doing that would mean being focused outside of our populace and outside of the goal of winning marriage equality. “If we don’t broaden the scope of what we do, then the opposition has only one area in which to attack us, and we’ll lose every time,” she says, singling out the recent Chick-fil-A uproar after the fast-food purveyor’s president expressed anti-marriage views and was revealed to have supported antigay causes. Wagner sees the level of gay protest on that issue as a distraction from truly important ones, such as health care and education. “There are gays and lesbians who are worried about keeping their kids in schools that are supportive of who they are. There are gay people who are simply worried about having proper health coverage, about having their votes count” — issues that disproportionately plague African-Americans.
Doing that would take not only seeing ourselves as a broad progressive community but actually being one. Only once we stop being reactive will we truly be able to include marginalized groups of gays and lesbians and start to have what Wagner advises will be “tough conversations” on issues of race, class, and transphobia.
But making that happen would require raising the profile of certain people within the community. “In some of the mainstream gay organizations I feel as other as I do walking into the very white gay bars along Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood,” Brickson Diamond says, though he is hesitant to name the groups. He has felt more welcomed in organizations that, while gay-oriented to a degree, focus on helping a broader population. “In Project Angel Food, we’re focused on a task that’s outside ourselves [in that case, feeding homebound people with serious illnesses]. At the Liberty Hill Foundation, funding LGBT work is only part of our goal.”
Diamond is not alone in his sentiments. “I feel like the movement is driven by the needs and wants of well-established white men,” says Doug Spearman, an actor and activist best known for his role as Chance on Noah’s Arc, one of the few television shows ever to depict African-American gays without indulging in easy stereotypes. “I don’t see anything in the movement that recognizes what it’s like to be black and gay in America.”
Likewise, there’s virtually nothing on TV or in movies, arenas that have helped spur significant cultural shifts in attitudes about gay Americans — at least if you believe Vice President Joe Biden, who famously declared that Will & Grace did more than anything else to educate America and break down fears of our otherness. “If you think about the black community,” Diamond says, “there have been gay, lesbian, and transgender folks hiding in plain sight for generations, and we’ve all politely agreed not to talk about it.” And that holds true on television, which has few LGBT characters, proportionately fewer black ones, and therefore virtually no gay people of color.
Though change may not be evident on TV, it does seem to be afoot in the real world. Or is it? Spearman, for one, isn’t buying that the NAACP’s support of marriage is much more than mere blind allegiance to President Obama. “Of course the NAACP is going to support the president,” he says, noting that some activists have continued to be vocally opposed, such as the Reverend Keith Ratliff Sr., who resigned as president of the Iowa-Nebraska branch of the NAACP over the issue. “But where are you seeing gays crossing the color lines?”
It’s going to take something big to get more gay men and women focused on issues of racial inequality among us. Ferrera is not terribly hopeful either. “I don’t think my generation is good at looking outside ‘what’s going to benefit me.’ I don’t think that we even show up for other people’s civil rights movements, and yet we expect them to show up for ours.”
He adds, “When I look at the national scene I’m very frustrated. We as a gay community need to be a rising tide that lifts all boats.”