November 26, 2019 at 12:19 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Black LGBTQ activists split over Harris, Buttigieg spat
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, Ind.) at the Democratic presidential debate on Nov. 20. (Screen capture via YouTube)

In the aftermath of Sen. Kamala Harris criticizing Mayor Pete Buttigieg for bringing up the gay experience when confronted with his issues with black voters, black gay activists living at the intersection of the two groups are split in their reactions.

The responses from black gay activists ranged from backing Harris, saying neither was right and rejecting the spat in a call for unity against President Trump.

Among the activists saying neither candidate was right is Alvin McEwen, a South Carolina-based blogger.

“I think they are both in the wrong because they are both perpetuating the gay vs. black nonsense,” McEwen said. “To me as a gay black man, when folks start this mess, it puts folks like me — gay LGBTQs in a tug of war in which both communities treat us like commodities in some sort of Oppression Olympics. Black people get so insulted that they won’t acknowledge the existence of LGBTQs of color, and the LGBTQ community get defensive that they do the same thing.”

McEwen said until both communities “acknowledge LGBTQ people of color as the intersection of both communities, we are going to continue to have this dumb argument,” blaming both Harris and Buttigieg for starting a fight.

“And I am very disappointed at both Harris and Buttigieg for feuding over this and thus perpetuating this nonsense when both have the visibility to demand nuance to the conversation,” McEwen said.

The trouble started at the Democratic debate last week in Atlanta, where Buttigieg — who’s currently polling around zero among black voters — was asked about his lack of support among communities of color.

As South Bend mayor, Buttigieg has a less than favorable record with the black community. Just this year, black residents were angry over his handling in June of the police shooting of Eric Logan, a 54-year-old black man.

Buttigieg in 2012 terminated a black police chief investigating racism among his colleagues, which Buttigieg later called his “first serious mistake as mayor,” and a “1,000 Properties in 1,000 Days” development plan that ended up destroying an estimated 679 homes, many of which were in communities of color.

On top of all that, the rollout for the Buttigieg campaign’s “Douglass plan” to aid black Americans was less than stellar. As first reported by The Intercept, some on the list of 400 supporters of the campaign said they didn’t request to be on it, and at least 40 percent were white.

Asked about these issues during the debate, Buttigieg said he recognizes and welcomes the opportunities to connect with black voters, then made the pivot to his experience being gay.

“While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country,” Buttigieg said, “turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here wearing a ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago.”

While Harris declined to criticize Buttigieg during the debate itself, she made her feelings known the next day when speaking to a Black Women Power Breakfast on Thursday hosted by Higher Heights, calling the South Bend mayor “a bit naive.”

Harris said those who have been in the civil rights struggle for a long time know it was wrong for Buttigieg to “compare our struggles.”

“It is not productive, it is not smart and strategically it works against what we need to do which is build coalition,” Harris said. “We know that in our ongoing fight for civil rights if any one of us starts to differentiate ourselves in a certain way and in particular what he did on the stage, it’s just not productive. And I think it’s a bit naïve.”

It should be noted in the debate, Buttigieg in his remarks explicitly distinguished his experience from that of black Americans.

Asked by NBC News about Harris’ remarks, Buttigieg said “there’s no equating those two experiences.”

“What I do think is it’s important for each of us to reveal who we are and what motivates us and it’s important for voters to understand what makes me tick, what moves me and my sources of motivation and ensuring that I stand up for others,” Buttigieg said. “Last night I shared that some of my sources of motivation included my personal experience, my governing experience and my personal faith.”

Earl Fowlkes, executive director of the D.C.-based Center for Black Equity, was present when Buttigieg made the remarks and said he sides with Harris.

“While there are many similarities in the fight for equality for both Black Americans and the LGBTQ community under the heading of human rights, discrimination based on race is different than discrimination based on being LGBTQ,” Fowlkes said. “My ancestors were forcibly brought to this country as slaves, which started the horrible legacy of racial discrimination in the United States.”

Fowlkes added as a gay black man, he has been “on the receiving end of discrimination for being black and a member of the LGBTQ community,” but there’s a distinction between the two.

“I could possibly hide being LGBTQ but I cannot hide being Black,” Fowlkes said. “Racial discrimination is pervasive in our society and even in the LGBTQ community. Comparing racism to LGBTQ discrimination is seen by some in the black community as a way to marginalize the fight for racial equality both economically and socially, which our nation continues to struggle with.”

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said at the end of the day the exchange “misses the point” about the existence of people who are black and LGBTQ.

“Both of their responses miss this important intersection and contribute to the erasure of members of the community who have unique gifts and also face unique challenges as a result of our identities and expression,” Johns said. “My hope is that we can move past these superficial missives designed for click-bait to acknowledge the very real experiences of members of both the Black and LGBTQ+ communities. The wellbeing of our communities and country depends upon this. ”

In a speech before the National Action Network Breakfast in Atlanta the same day, Buttigieg brought up the importance of people living at the intersection of the black and LGBTQ communities.

“I know that my own rights were expanded by the activism and the advocacy, not just of people like me, but of people nothing at all like me standing side by side — black folks, LGBT folks, black LGBT folks of whom there are many,” Buttigieg said.

Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign who is a gay black man, issued a call for unity after the exchange, saying “no two civil rights struggles are identical” and the attention to the exchange between Harris and Buttigieg is better focused on defeating Trump.

“Our next president will be charged with reinstituting a wide array of civil rights protections that are currently being dismantled and undoing the heinous, anti-LGBTQ attacks of the current federal administration,” David said. “The next president could effectively help to ensure that LGBTQ adults and young people (with all of our intersectional identities) can live in a country that supports them authentically, respectfully and with dignity. To achieve those goals, we cannot sow division. The only outcome in that scenario is another four years of Donald Trump, and we cannot afford that.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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