Saturday, November 8, 2008

Prop 8 & Black blame: Are we done yet?

(crossposted over at Pushback)

We get it. It was ironic and problematic that African-Americans in Califonia voted largely in favor of Proposition 8. But much of the analysis surrounding the demographic breakdown of the loss has been completely superficial, divisive, and counterproductive. As a whole, we live in a homophobic society. Period. If attitudes around marriage equality and same-sex relationships have slowly and/or steadily shifted in a progressive direction over the course of the past decade (particularly among young people), let’s look at why.

It hasn’t been by accident or by some cosmic shifting of the civil rights stars. It has been in large part due to the tireless work of activists and the increased representation of gays and lesbians in the mainstream media. So what went wrong with African-Americans?

While I’m not discrediting the blood, sweat, and tears of LGBT activists that have worked hard for this movement, I do question the diversity of the work. Have you seen many ads about gay marriage geared towards non-whites? Seen many representations of gay people of color in the mainstream media? When was the last time you saw a gay black man on TV who wasn’t a side character in a hair salon? Anti-racist training is all good and well but, frankly, how many people of color actually work at the largest, most prominent, best funded LGBT organizations in the country? So is it any wonder that many African-Americans reside firmly in the socially conservative box in which most Americans have always lived with regards to sexuality?

People criticizing the black vote in Prop 8 have forgotten a fundamental organizing principle: on any issue, people respond when they are spoken to. As an organizer, when a large block of people that I expected to vote my way based solely on principle don’t, I blame myself and my assumptions, which, no matter how logical-seeming, were clearly incorrect.

For example, logic would have said that all white women would have supported the African-American voting rights movement because of their own fight for suffrage decades earlier, but that wasn’t always the case. Why? Because white women were still white. They clung to the racial identity with which they were most familiar and which society told them to prioritize. They still had to go home to their white husbands, and white churches, and white children and claim a whiteness that ignorance said was threatened by the black vote.

See the parallel? Straight black people are still straight. That is the sexual identity that we, like most other straight Americans, have been told to prioritize and that is supposedly threatened by gay marriage. While assuming that black people should automatically support marriage equality may be right on the merits (gay rights = civil rights), it is actually illogical considering:

  • the historic marginalization of people of color within the LGBT movement
  • the lack of inclusion and diversity in many of the larger organizations that were channeling money into California
  • the minimal and limited representation of gay people of color in the media
  • the more extreme and at times convoluted views on marriage and gender roles passed down as a legacy from slavery
  • and the large historical role of “the African-American church,” a stereotyped religious entity that is, at its core, theologically evangelical and conservative

Taking the African American vote for granted in this instance (and in any for that matter), presupposes that we live on a civil rights island, pray to Rosa Parks every morning, and are not influenced by the attitudes of the larger society around us. Don’t forget–some of our greatest civil rights icons of the 1960s were notoriously homophobic. That is the nature of American bigotry: it is selfish and separatist, causing many of our movements for freedom to be the same.

Do I understand the hypocrisy inherent in this vote? Absolutely. And and as a straight, pro-marriage equality African-American it frustrates me that the conflict is not readily apparent to many of my peers. But the correct response to this loss isn’t to blame a segment of people, but to realize the chasms in the movement and work to bridge the divide. The rhetoric of “white gays gave YOU guys Obama but black straights couldn’t give US a win on Prop 8″ is ridiculous, and insulting to everyone involved. We ALL won with Obama and we ALL lost with Prop 8. Now let’s all find a solution.

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