There’s good news and bad, as is always the case with LGBT rights issues.
With D.C. Black Pride in full swing this weekend and the country reeling from the latest eruption of ugly racism — Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s comments and bewildering CNN interview — and homophobia — the reaction to out football player Michael Sam, who kissed his boyfriend in a clip shown on ESPN last week — illustrate how thorny life can be at the intersection of the black, LGBT experience.
“I wouldn’t even call these isolated little pockets,” says Sharon Lettman-Hicks, an LGBT ally and executive director and CEO of National Black Justice Coalition. “[This is] the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling and it’s very clear that structural racism does still exist and African Americans deal with it everyday in some form or fashion of their everyday lives. For Donald Sterling to be talking to a person of color in those terms shows an attitude that’s deeply steeped in an attitude of superiority, to use this boy dynamic in how he characterized a grown black man, it’s just deeply steeped in structural racism.”
She says the reactions to Sam’s kiss are no different.
“For him going so low in the draft and to only go in his home state where there was a level of familiarity, for someone of his talent and his accomplishment, where he went in the draft was an insult,” Lettman-Hicks says. “Yes, we have to celebrate the nuggets of victory, but we should not always have to be on the very lowest level of success. I see great similarities between racism and homophobia as I live and advocate at the intersection of these issues everyday.”
Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and a black lesbian, agrees.
“This fiction of us being a colorblind society is just that — fiction,” Nipper says. “People are still being impacted by this on all sides, that’s the reality of the kind of racism and bigotry that still exists in this country. … You really see it in the comments sections of these articles when these stories break. You see, first, what Sterling said, or what happened with the Sam video, but then you scroll down through the comments and it really tells you a lot about where we are. … You begin to see that these attitudes are not so isolated and we are impacted across society by these issues and there’s a lot more work to do around black LGBT issues and with other people of color. Before you even get to the issues of sexual orientation or gender identity, you have all this racism that still exists. I think there’s a unique opportunity for us as black gay people to bridge the issues and remind people of what it’s like and the way it’s compounded for those of us with multiple identities. For so many black trans people or gender nonconforming people, it’s really bad and ends in violence.”
And with racial hatred continuing to flare up in the national dialogue 60 years after the Brown case and 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, what does that say about where we might be nationally on LGBT issues in 50 or 60 years with several legislative victories still eluding activists?
Kylar Broadus, senior public policy counsel for the Trans Civil Rights Project with the Task Force, says it will take a long time for public attitudes to catch up.
“I would like to say no and look through rose-colored glasses, but I’m a pretty straight shooter and in terms of human behavior, we don’t tend to learn our lessons very well,” says Broadus, who’s transgender. “We do it over and over and over again. We might pass a law, but it takes a long time to implement that law and to roll out everything and understand how it really works in society. The 1964 Civil Rights Act took years for it to really take hold. Sometimes in the LGBT world, we want everything on the fast track. That’s great and I would love to see that, but it really takes a while to fully embrace things culturally.”
Earl Fowlkes, president and CEO of the Center for Black Equity and a longtime organizer of D.C. Black Pride, says there’s a degree of removal from these cultural issues and those who attend Black Pride events, which are in their 24th year this weekend and of which organizers predict about 20,000 or more people will attend in some capacity this weekend, with as many as half coming from out of town according to Fowlkes’ estimate.
“There’s always this influx of young people coming for the first time so we see all these young people, they’re 22 years old and they say, ‘This is my first Pride,’” Fowlkes says. “It’s like being on a college campus, it’s not really the real world. We’re seeing things through the eyes of these young people and they’re really not hung up on the same things people were hung up on 20 years ago. Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend on TV, they’re not shaken up by it and nobody is really talking about it in that age group. I travel all around to all different cities. I was just at the beach in Galveston, Texas two weeks ago and I saw young couples — same-sex couples — holding hands on the beach. Younger people just don’t have the same hang-ups.”
That can be good and bad, some argue.
Nipper says LGBT “safe spaces” are needed for queer black youth.
“There’s something very valuable in creating that thing we all long for and that is being expressed at D.C. Black Pride,” she says. “It gives you that sense of what it could be like if you could live out loud to that degree in all areas of your life. It’s important that we’re doing all the analysis and tearing down all the negative stuff, but we can do that political work but we still need the celebrations, the place to be reminded that we’re fighting for something that is wonderful and beautiful — free expression and the ability to be creative and share experiences with other people like yourself.”
Broadus says there’s also a danger, however, that black LGBT youth will lose sight of how ugly society, at times, can get. He saw a similar thing happen during his many years teaching at a historically black college where he saw rampant apathy about education and little sense of how much struggle had preceded the students.
“Of course I’m making generalizations, but we had many who didn’t want to study, didn’t even buy the textbooks, just didn’t get it that people had died so they could have access to that education,” he says. “For people younger than me, they don’t have that burning desire many times. We see that in the LGBT movement, in the transgender movement. Once we have attained certain rights, people who come after haven’t experienced that struggle. We don’t want them to have to suffer those same things, but in that curve, something is lost too.”
Too much of that, leaders say, can backfire over time. Broadus cites the disproportionately high HIV rates among black men who have sex with men, especially among youth who didn’t see first-hand the deadliest AIDS years before the advent of anti-retroviral therapy. Lettman-Hicks cites the Supreme Court upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action last month.
“We assumed it would never be challenged, so when you have those kind of historical moments setting precedents, I would not think that 10, 20 or 30 years from now, all will be good,” she says. “All it takes is a bigot or two to pop up and challenge it and I don’t believe the religious right is ready to concede this stuff anytime soon.”
But in the fight for LGBT rights and coming down hard as a society against those who find their racism or anti-gay views made public, is there any fear — as the right often argues — that we’re punishing some so harshly that freedom of speech is a myth or that national “group think” is being forced on everyone?
Lettman-Hicks acknowledges the movement can seem “heavy handed” at times, but she says it’s out of necessity.
“If we don’t stand up for ourselves, who will,” she says. “I’m challenged by (the free speech argument) at times, but the homophobia has existed on so many levels and been abused for so long, I have to just take the gay out of it for a minute and replace it with anything that has amassed political correctness over society. Paula Deen caught absolute hell for her comments and that had nothing to do with LGBT people, because society has deemed collectively that racial insensitivity is unacceptable. We are working to have homophobia and transphobia handled the same way, so is our lobby heavy handed at times? Absolutely, but for good reason.”
Nipper agrees, but with a slightly different spin.
“They say how horrible it is that they have to see this kiss, but they don’t have to deal with the discomfort we have to deal with all the time,” she says. “We’re not going around talking about how awful it is we have to see straight people kissing. Of course, that’s a little silly, but it speaks to the real reason people were upset. It’s really just the pinhead of bigotry. We’ve seen it and we know the fear that’s behind it and let’s be honest. These are the forces that would prevent us from showing up in the world and being ourselves just like everyone else. People are getting murdered, getting fired, being bullied, committing suicide, we see this from county to county, state to state. … These are the kinds of people who will gather their voices and work in opposition to tear down anything that resembles equality and that’s why the reaction is so strong and I think it’s appropriate.”