By Faith Cheltenham
“Gays should protest black people! The new conflict is gays vs. blacks, and blacks vs. gays. And black gays vs. themselves. It’s gonna be great.”— Stephen Colbert
I’ve been waving a sign on street corners since H8 passed: “Black Queers.” Responses have varied—from honks of support to looks of disapproval from blacks and whites. A black woman came up to me at a rally and asked me if I didn’t think the sign was offensive to black people. She looked around as if there were a person in charge of things like this, someone who could head-nod in disagreement.
I said, “It’s who I am, and people should know,” flipping it over to reveal another slogan: “We Do Exist.” When I carry the sign in the middle of a crowd, it faces in and then out, equally interchanged—a message to my communities.
“We’ve been going up to the church every weekend to volunteer. You know they want to sue our church if we refuse to marry them?” my dad says.
My dad used to come to rallies I planned for National Coming Out Week at University of California, Los Angeles; he was the first family member I chose to come out to as a lesbian (and then as a bisexual). He respected and comfortably got along with my transgender girlfriend, always saying, “I love you for who you are.”
“They” got to him and to most of my immediate and extended African-American family over the age of 21. Mormons deviously targeted one of their most unlikely allies for a campaign of misinformation. Enemy of my enemy won the day, but I actually find the subsequent discourse regarding “black backlash” highly encouraging.
Anger is getting people to talk and making them ask hard questions. I met an African-American couple who shared their experience volunteering for No on 8 even while they dealt with discriminatory comments from within. Since we all happened to be at the same rally, we walked over and talked to Lorri Jean of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. She was aghast, saying, “We’ve got a lot of educating to do in our own communities.”
Instead of continuing to talk to my loving mother about how hard the struggle is for black queers, I asked her if she voted yes. “I love you and accept you as you are,” she said, “but I cannot support your marriage to a woman.” Honest, and very to the point—“marriage is religious,” “it is representative of the black family,” it’s the new tent pole for the Christian right, and it’s held aloft by the moral high ground assigned to blacks by mainstream culture. It’s really not a good thing for anyone, for when the backlash against proponents of H8 begins, African-Americans are first in the line of fire. African-Americans did vote disproportionately for Prop. 8, and as a community we are also disproportionately affected by HIV, the cops, access to quality education, and glass ceilings.
Somehow I see a correlation. I see ties between bigotry, fear, and ignorance—but how do you get beyond that to love?
“This God = Love stuff I just don’t get,” says the black pastor on the corner of La Cienega and Centinela, in the predominantly African-American Ladera Heights neighborhood. “Keith,” as I’ll call him, came up to us as our flag-waving wound down, saying he had a couple of questions.
At first Keith didn’t know a single gay person. As the corner grew colder, Keith remembered his cousin who’d moved away and didn’t keep in touch. “Married for years and now he has a partner up in San Fran.”
I asked Keith, “Do you know how many of us are gone from the table during Thanksgiving?”
“Your choice, your choice,” the usual response.
A multicultural group of us—including blacks, Latinos, Jewish, and non-culturally identified—kept talking to Keith, and each of us had different ways of approaching the phobia. I prayed that God would bless his heart with understanding as he had mine. I wanted to argue the biblical points I long ago reconciled between me and my Jesus. I wanted to bring up Huey Newton’s support for the Gay Liberation Front in the ‘70s.
Others took the legal route, talking about Social Security and insurance benefits. One or two just wanted to shout “equal rights” in his ear as they continued to make the circuit around us. We were as different as can be, yet united for the same cause and finally representing every side of the rainbow.
I’m more hopeful than some of my African LGBT peers that the mainstream will embrace queers of color as essential to winning this fight.
When I first began going to my favorite restaurant-bar, the Abbey, nearly 10 years ago, I was usually the only black in the place and often got asked if I was lost. These days there’s less need for the customary head-nod African-Americans employ to recognize strangers in strange lands. In my family I’ve been able to see progression as well: My mother still speaks in tongues, but she now believes God made me a certain way. She hasn’t found a way to see my love as the same, as worthy of tradition, but I’m still going to sit at her table and try.
I need my LGBT community to support my efforts, while it understands at the same time that there are discriminations that only people of color face. Perhaps we’ve all spent too long creating separate “safe spaces.” We need to get uncomfortable in our skin so we can grow new ones fully free of internal bigotries. It’s been unfortunate to see “Gay Is the New Black” and similar signs springing up during rallies. Or hearing comments like “What is this? A Latino rally or gay rights? Why are they chanting in Spanish?”
The truth remains: People of color have fought for civil rights in the past and still fight. People of color have the most experience changing hearts and minds over generations, and the same must happen for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community—so why not find the overlapping pieces as key to solving the puzzle?
“Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”— Huey Newton, Black Panther Party cofounder.
Faith Cheltenham is a blogger, activist and poet. Read more of her work at www.faithish.com.
This article first appeared in The Advocate, November 14, 2008. It is reprinted with permission.