June 3, 2020 at 1:19 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
‘It means giving up some privilege’: Black leaders on how gays can fight racism
Protesters defy curfew order to demonstrate at the White House. (Photo by Chris Johnson via Twitter)

As anger over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis continues to rage — with protests, #BlackOut posts on social media and even violence — some are asking what action is needed from the LGBTQ community.

The LGBTQ community is no stranger to discrimination — and LGBTQ people who are black live at the intersection of the two communities — but as institutional racism has risen to the fore, what concrete actions can LGBTQ people take, especially white gay men?

Black leaders who spoke with the Blade said identifying the intersectionality between the communities is a first step, but acknowledging the systematic problems that enable racism is next. 

Earl Fowlkes, a D.C.-based black gay Democratic activist, called on the white gay community to “stand in solidarity with the black community to promote the end of racism in our country.”

“That means, first of all, to acknowledge racism exists, and I think that’s very difficult for some people to do, and to also recognize every white American benefits from racism in some form, and to acknowledge that,” Fowlkes said.

Fowlkes called for empathy and for white gay people to sit down and listen to the issues facing black Americans, which he said “means also giving up some privilege, but in the long haul, we’ll have a better country.”

“It means that, for example, to ensure that through public and government funds that the institutions that serve black Americans are funded fully,” Fowlkes said. “Racism has caused inequities around health, social and economic issues, and education.”

As an example, Fowlkes said the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health is important, but urged contributions to other groups like Us Helping Us, which seeks to improve the lives of gay black men.

Fowlkes also pointed out in D.C. during the coronavirus pandemic, 70 percent of the people who have tested positive for coronavirus have been African Americans, although black people make up 42 percent of the population.

“It means that you have to put resources in the African-American communities to close the gap of health disparities, and that means to invest money, it means to shift money around that has traditionally gone to large institutions and putting them into the black community,” Fowlkes said.

Protests in the days after Floyd’s killing continued throughout the country. In D.C. on Tuesday, despite D.C. Mayor Muriel Bower’s curfew order, peaceful protesters demonstrated at the now heavily fenced-in White House throughout the night. Among the signs they carried read, “Abolish Police,” “Defund the Police,” “Blue Lives Murder” and “White Silence is Violence.”

The death of Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police officers by asphyxiation, is but one incident in the news generating anger over persistent problems with racism in the United States.

Others are the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; the death of Breonna Taylor in a shooting with police in Louisville; a white woman in New York City calling the police on Christian Cooper, a black gay man who told her to obey the rules in Central Park and leash her dog.

David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said recognizing the totality of the problem of racist acts is important.

“Well-intentioned white gay folks are learning how to say George Floyd’s name, fewer are saying the name of Breonna Taylor,” Johns said.

Johns also identified Tony McDade, a black trans man who was murdered by police in Tallahassee, Fla., as a victim of racist police violence.

McDade was killed on May 27 when a Tallahassee Police Department officer was responding to a deadly stabbing incident, according to a report by ABC News.

Tallahassee Police Chief Lawrence Revell is quoted as saying the police came across McDade, whom he said matched the description of the stabbing suspect. McDade allegedly pointed a gun at the officer, who fatally shot him, Revell reportedly said.

Johns said McDade had experiences common for black transgender people, such as past trouble with the law, but said his death should be recognized.

“Tony, less than 24 hours before he was murdered, was a victim of a hate crime,” Johns said. “As a result of him living as a black trans man, he has been incarcerated and has experienced a lot of the things that we know sadly have come to be reflected publicly in the lives of trans folks, which may explain people’s silence, but saying his name is one of the most powerful things people can do at this moment.”

With annual Pride celebrations cancelled this year as a result of the coronavirus, John said resources intended for those events “should be invested in organizations that are backed by native, indigenous black queer folks.”

“The fact that there are literal fires did not obscure the fact that our country has been on fire for a long time, especially for black trans folks in particular,” Johns said.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and President Trump are offering starkly different approaches to the problem, to say the least.

Joseph Biden, in a speech in Philadelphia on Tuesday addressing the unrest, said “the moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism,” but conceded it may take a generation to achieve.

As an intermediate step, Biden identified legislation introduced by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) to ban police from using choke holds, saying Congress should pass it and “put it on President Trump’s desk in the next few days.”

“There are other measures: To stop transferring weapons of war to police forces, to improve oversight and accountability, to create a model use of force standard — that also should be made law this month,” Biden said. “No more excuses. No more delays.”

Trump, who has faced criticism over Floyd’s death and for forcibly removing protesters in Lafayette Square to arrange a photo opportunity at St. John’s Church, has yet to articulate a vision for the national issue.

During an interview on “Fox & Friends” Wednesday morning, Trump said “police departments have to do better” when asked about distrust of police in the black community, but didn’t identify what that should be, according to CBS News reporter Weijia Jiang.

A dark side of the unrest is the violence, destruction of property and looting that have occurred throughout the country concurrently with the protests.

In D.C. the headquarters for the AFL-CIO and the historic St. John’s Church were set on fire, and U.S. monuments and private property were damaged and defaced.

Looting continued in New York City on Tuesday night despite a curfew instituted by Mayor Bill de Blasio. In St. Louis, retired police chief captain David Dorn, who’s black, was fatally shot when responding to an alarm at a pawnshop during looting.

Rob Smith, a black gay Iraq war veteran and a member of the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA, talked about the Second Amendment when asked what the gay community should be doing to address police brutality.

“Any gay people who want to help need to realize that the best thing we can do as American citizens is to protect our Second Amendment right to bear arms,” Smith said. “As we’ve all seen over the past week, protests can too quickly turn into chaos and when police aren’t there to help you, who will? It’s time to stop conflating being gay with being a leftist and start learning how to protect ourselves.”

LGBTQ groups last week issued a statement, led by the Human Rights Campaign, calling for the integration of anti-racism and an end to white supremacy into the LGBTQ movement. As of this week, the statement now has more than 100 signers.

Fowlkes, however, was skeptical about the statement, saying it’s not the first time LGBTQ groups have expressed solidarity with black people, but then didn’t follow through. 

“We had a retreat once to deal with racism,” Fowlkes said. “Everyone in the room left that retreat agreeing to deal with racism and anti-racism policies within their organizations. The problem is, you get back to your organization, you have to deal with your board of directors, who may not necessarily agree with the pace or the scope of the work that’s been agreed to.”

Johns questioned whether the joint statement from LGBTQ groups itself is a “problematic frame,” but said attention should be paid to organizations at LGBTQ groups. 

“It has been and will continue to be important for the white-led progressive LGBTQ movement to appreciate the ways in which politics, the lack of power-sharing, the dominance that exists in society more generally, and that is reserved for white people even when they’re gay isn’t better within the existing structure,” Johns said.

Without citing the Human Rights Campaign by name, Johns expressed some ideas for restructuring at the nation’s leading LGBTQ group.

“There are a few extremely white organizations, including one that now has a black president, who have a whole lot of power and hold on to the resources, and they don’t do as good a job of sharing as they should,” Johns said. “Let’s see if they put their money where their mouth is.”

Asked specifically what the Human Rights Campaign should be doing, Johns referenced the 2019 Democratic presidential candidate town hall hosted by the organization, when a black transgender activist grabbed the microphone to make her voice heard.

“There was a black woman, Blossom C. Brown, who was shut down, who had to literally take the mic from Don Lemon, and talk about the erasure of black trans women in a space that was designed for queer people,” Johns said. “And so, I want to be clear in celebrating that which I have seen and encourage them to continue to do more. More specifically power and resource sharing.”

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

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