By Adam Frankel
President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage has unleashed broad discussions on LGBT rights and how his newly evolved stance may affect November election results. Many have focused specifically on how it will impact black voters, a key Obama constituency that could potentially sway the results in a number of swing states. While most point to the relatively low 41 percent of African Americans who support marriage equality, a recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows that 54 percent of African Americans view Obama’s newly announced position favorably. Nonetheless, many continue to suggest that it will discourage former supporters in the black community from heading to the polls, or that influential African-American religious leaders will suddenly neglect to campaign on the president’s behalf. Yet almost none have stopped to reflect upon how such claims dismiss the support of countless African Americans who lauded Obama’s decision and avidly support LGBT rights.
More importantly, they reflect upon a trend in our society that continues to “racialize” LGBT oppression, falsely blaming African Americans for the hardships of the queer community. They are precisely the fruit of NOM’s commitment, which seeks to “drive a wedge between gays and blacks.” They are of the same ignorance that led the media to claim that African Americans were somehow responsible for last week’s passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina. And most tragically, they will continue to pervade as we fail to question their inherent inaccuracy. The media will continue to unfairly blame African Americans for the hateful legislation’s passage, just as they will ignore the countless African Americans who themselves identify as LGBT, and the many more who support LGBT rights.
Although largely misguided, these developments have forced the public to engage in a discussion it rarely enters: the intersections of race and sexuality. Most concerning within this paradigm is the way that many LGBT people continue to relinquish their race, class and gender privilege in light of their sexual identity. This perception fosters ignorance and betrayal of many in our community to LGBT people of color, who continue to face disproportionately high levels of HIV infection, economic instability, violent hate crimes, and incarceration. This is not the fault of any given individual’s actions, and cannot be solved by sullen remorse. Rather, it will require us to engage in a deep questioning of our perceptions and interactions, which even as oppressed LGBT people, are often racially driven.
LGBT people of color have also remained largely invisible within an increasingly mainstream queer media presence. Popular shows like “Girls” have been praised for their inclusion of lead characters who are equally complex and dynamic to their counterparts, and just happen to be gay. Meanwhile, as succinctly pointed out in a recent critique by Cord Jefferson, the show still fails to depict lead characters who just happen to not be white. The contrast between the show’s diverging portrayals of LGBT people and people of color is not only offensive, but also inaccurate. Increased coverage of prominent queer characters is groundbreaking, but it cannot serve to cast a shadow over the media’s inherently racist approaches. Accepting these tendencies only serves to deepen our complacency with injustice.
A similar phenomenon occurred when rising star Melissa Harris-Perry recently dedicated an entire show to discussing issues facing queer African Americans. A momentous occasion, it was the first time in history that a nationally broadcast news program had discussed black gay Americans in depth, and, I hope, would serve as a precedent to many future conversations. But while many were moved to praise Perry for her outstanding work, they failed to reflect upon the historic legacy of invisibility faced by LGBT people of color. No single conversation or political commentator could speak loudly enough to represent the silenced voices of those who define what it means to be black and LGBT.
The president’s support of marriage equality is undoubtedly an historic development in the struggle for LGBT equality. Unfortunately, it cannot undo the recent loss in North Carolina, nor the many disheartening setbacks that are yet to come. It can however allow us to pause in a moment of reflection. We should take advantage of this unique opportunity to better understand where we have failed and how we can improve. Rather than ignorantly race-blaming and creating divisions among ourselves, we must seek to embrace the intersections of identity that define our vibrant community. Now is the time to abandon failed approaches that privilege given rights and people over others. It is the moment for us to join in solidarity by presenting a unified demand for universal justice and equality for all.
Adam Frankel is a junior at George Washington University and an intern at the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights.