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Black and gay — and reclaiming ‘civil rights’

By pams
Wednesday, May 27, 2009 13:34 EDT
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As someone who is black and lesbian, it’s tiring and absurd to encounter the argument that the black civil rights movement somehow exclusively owns the ability to use “civil rights.” And the result of that is any challenge to this thinking amounts to stepping on the third rail.

There is no Oppression Olympics that requires a certain level of historic suffering by a group of people to be able to use those words. I refuse to cede them to anyone.

In the Bay State Banner, there is an article by Talia Whyte, “Black gay couples in Mass. mark marriage anniversary,” that shows just how black gays, even prominent ones, have had to deal with the issue of being rendered invisible — but how marriage equality in the state has begun to crack through the wall of homophobia within the black community there.

Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons celebrated the occasion at City Hall as the city was the first to issue same-sex marriage. Simmons is the first out black lesbian in the country to serve as mayor, following in the trailblazing footsteps of Kenneth E. Reeves, was the first openly gay black man to become mayor.

Over the last five years, the mayor said, she has noticed that some in the black community have come around to accepting gay marriage, possibly because they realize married gay couples are no different from married straight couples.

Marriage is a marriage is a marriage,” Simmons said. “Once we start to think that way, some of those barriers that keep us from thinking inclusively will erode.”

…Like Simmons, Reeves said he has also seen attitudes toward marriage equality change for the positive in the local black community. But, he added, the community still needs to be more honest with itself about homosexuality.

There are gay people in the black community, but the community pretends we don’t exist,” he said. “We have to have a new conversation about this.”

Well, the reason we are rendered invisible is that too many in the black community don’t want to intellectually deal with our existence and the homophobia fomented within the culture, particularly large elements of the religious black community. It’s something that I experienced that quite publicly a couple of months ago when I lobbied the chair of the NC legislative black caucus, Rep. Alma Adams (D-Guilford), who actually votes with us on the issues, but refused to offer to engage her caucus colleagues who support a marriage amendment:

With several black LGBTs standing right there in front of her, Rep. Adams actually said “your issues are not the black caucus’s issues” — as in social justice for black LGBTs is not their issue.

Obviously, it’s not as if they don’t know we are there, but that we present an obstacle to a reality-based conversation about equality, and the fact that an oppressed minority group is advocating oppression (or allowing for it to fester by not engaging the issue). Thus the bluster over the use of “civil rights” in the LGBT equality struggle.

Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs at the National Black Justice Coalition, has written a guest post for the Blend that needs to be saved and circulated.

More below the fold. Dr. Rhue:

“King Would Stand with Us”
Civil Rights Belong to All People

by Sylvia Rhue, Ph.D

Recently I spent an hour talking to Rev. Eric Lee, the President and CEO of the Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I told him how I met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964, my friends and I going door to door to raise money for the cause, how we saw Dr. King every time he came to Los Angeles. We talked about how the organizers of the King Day Parade in Atlanta invited Keith Boykin (one of the founders of the National Black Justice Coalition) and I to walk at the front of the March to represent LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. I had just been interviewed for an article on Black clergy responses to equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and I was asked how I felt about Black clergy who work against LGBT rights. I told the journalist that if he had been around in the 60′s during the Civil Rights Movement he would know that many, many Black ministers didn’t sign on to the Civil Rights Movement. In fact Dr. King was kicked out of the National Baptist Convention for his civil rights actions.

My conversation with Rev. Eric Lee was so important to me because Rev. Lee is a champion of universal rights for all people and he puts his heart, passion for justice, and credentials out there for LGBT people in a consistently dynamic way. He was front and center in the battle against Proposition 8 and he wrote a book entitled, “Prop 8 and the California Divide”, and is about to embark on a book tour. Rev. Lee said, “I cannot side with religious persecution and the injustice of discrimination. It amazes me how quickly we side with the former oppressors to oppress others. It is a violation to deny someone the same rights that you have. Scripture does not call people of God to pass laws to judge or condemn. People quote John 3:16, but they forget John 3:17 “‘For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved’”. (KJV)

Rev. Lee spoke recently with the man Rev. Jesse Jackson called “the teacher of the Civil Rights Movement”. Dr. King called him “the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world”. We know him as Rev. James Lawson, the lionized and profoundly respected Civil Rights leader who taught nonviolent direct action to the Freedom Riders, the student sit-ins and the Southern Campaigns. Rev. Lawson, a United Methodist minister, told Rev. Lee that King would stand with us if he were here. Yes, Dr. King would stand with us for LGBT rights.

In other words, there is no ownership of “civil rights.” One can acknowledge the struggles are different, but the commonality is the need to eliminate discrimination under the law. It doesn’t have anything to do with the bible, those words don’t pass judgment upon one struggle over another.

In fact, Dr. King built his movement based on the teachings of Gandhi — so who’s hijacking what — and more importantly, why does it matter? The argument is ludicrous on its face, yet the appropriation of “civil rights” is allowed to occur. It serves no one to do this — and the reason is quite clear — whites don’t want to have the difficult conversation and chance being labeled racist for bringing it up, blacks who oppose equality for LGBTs toss out the race card to avoid the discussion. Those of us who are in both groups are continually frustrated by the task of having to take this topic on almost always alone.

And the thing is, my blackness clearly doesn’t provide any cover when addressing homophobia either. Just witness the scathing, sad, and quite frankly, ignorant comments in a piece I cross posted at HuffPost. Here’s one of my favorites:

The States should & can handle social issues and are doing so what’s the problem! Some people can just not be happy anymore without confrontation to to sad. I do not believe in gay marriage and do not hate anyone nor do I fear anything— I Let Go and Let God have the Judgment day not my problem or am I in control of who loves who!.
My response:
You can’t be serious with that statement. If we left matters of civil rights to the states, Jim Crow would still be in effect, Obama’s parents would not have been able to marry, and poll taxes would still exist. How soon we forget.
That’s the level of ignorance I’m talking about; others made the quite accurate point that the LGBT community rarely gets behind social justice issues of concern to minorities. Honestly, this card can be played legitimately – because it’s true.

I mean how elementary is it that if you want support from a community that you actually have to communicate with them to get your point across and win hearts and minds over. And that was one of the failures of Prop 8. And people have admitted as much, as efforts to get it overturned begin to gain support for another ballot initiative.

Organizers hope to reach Latinos, faith communities and African Americans, constituencies into which they previously failed to make in-roads. Their approach aims to blend slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk’s put-a-human-face-on-the-issue activism with Barack Obama’s neighbor-to-neighbor organizing.
What a lack of cross-community dialogue means for out minority LGBTs is that one has to be willing to put yourself out there to be attacked, over and over for addressing homophobia in communities of color knowing that few, if any, non-POC LGBTs are going to come forward to have your back. I see it time and again, with the excuses ranging from “I’ll be called a racist” or “it doesn’t feel safe to do this” or “it isn’t my place to do it.” And many of these excuses are from people who have the anonymity of the Internet to protect them. Now that’s bad.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t feel great to have your “black card” revoked any more than it feels to be called racist. Plus, I don’t have the cover of anonymity. Of course that’s my choice, but the work is so important; I hate to see the rancor and misunderstandings go on and on with the parties talking past one another.

The sad thing is that so few black LGBTs are willing to live out, be out and challenge misguided assumptions that it makes it doubly difficult for those of color who do want to challenge the homophobia.

The thing is that are plenty of allies and leaders from the black community who do support full civil rights for LGBTs who can be cited when dealing with this issue – John Lewis, Julian Bond, Leonard Pitts, Al Sharpton, Gov. Deval Patrick, Gov. David Paterson, to name a few. Members of black community who consistently oppose LGBT rights conveniently choose to ignore these leaders — they have to be called out on it.

Dr. Rhue:

Coretta King stood with us because she knew that the sustaining of the Beloved Community meant that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people must be included.

We who work for full LGBT rights stand as heirs of the Civil Rights Movement because it is based on justice, equality, fair play, equal rights and profoundly deep spiritual roots that plumb the depths of the Golden Rule. Those of us whose characters were forged in the fires of the Civil Rights Movement continue the fight of. We understand the words of James Baldwin, a Black gay man, who knew all of us were “snatching our humanity from the fires of human cruelty”.

I stood with King in the 60′s and he would stand with us now because challenging homophobia is a part of the unfinished business of Civil Rights Movement.

Those work so feverishly against LGBT rights are on the wrong side of justice, the wrong side of history, the wrong side of love, and the wrong end of the ever-bending moral arc of the universe.

Those who stand for LGBT equality understand the importance of our work when we hear the words of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong the Declaration of Independence is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer and never came to earth. If we are wrong justice is a lie. And we are determined here and now to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.

We all need to step up and reclaim “civil rights.” Will it mean you take heat to do so? Yes. But it is telling if people choose not to.

Related:
* Want to see a Grade A homobigot? Meet Firpo W. Carr.

 
 
 
 
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