Tennessee GLBT African Americans cite differing priorities

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“God does not require us to achieve any of the good tasks that humanity must pursue. What God requires of us is that we not stop trying.” – Bayard Rustin

Open almost any GLBT periodical and among the articles, ads, and opinions you will find few representations of people of color. And why only during the show’s final season did a regular black character appear on “Will and Grace?” Granted, any Taye Diggs is better than none at all.

It’s difficult to make generalizations about the broader GLBT community and culture from glossy pictures and sitcoms, but for many GLBT people of color the generalization is accurate.

Where are people of color? How are we integrated into GLBT society? Why are we relegated to the sidelines of Black and Latin club nights, the music or crime pages of mainstream GLBT magazines and newspapers, and only publicly visible in the raging debates about the Down Low and sky high HIV infection rates?

Why are people of color invisible within—and even cautious of—mainstream LGBT society?

Originally, this article was to be about the Knoxville-based People of Color Caucus and their work in building bridges between GLBT communities of color and the mainstream GLBT community. However, as I talked to GLBT people of color across Tennessee, it became obvious that there is a larger issue.

That issue is how the concerns of race and class play out in the activities of GLBT groups and organizations, as well as the larger GLBT community.

One of my best friends asked me a couple of days ago, “Can gay people be racist?” Initially, the question hit me like the time my nephew asked if there was really a Santa Claus. I felt compelled to tell the truth, but knew that doing so would shatter a well-placed and purposeful façade. I came clean and answered, “Hell, yes.”

Gay people are racist, sexist, classist, ageist, and able-ist. There is no “ism” exhibited in the broader American society that is not mirrored in the GLBT community. I should add anti-immigrant to the above list as well. After all, we are Americans and heirs to centuries of institutional racism, prejudice, and white privilege. It will take much more than a rainbow flag to wipe the slate clean and level the playing field.

So where are gay people of color? A couple of months ago I attended a lobbying training session in Chattanooga hosted by the Tennessee Equality Project. The goal of the workshop was to train people across the state to assist in lobbying against the upcoming marriage amendment. I was the only African American person in attendance, which I pretty much expected even though Chattanooga has a good-sized LGBT population of color. Isn’t marriage a priority for all GLBTs regardless of race?

It is not.

The core survival issues faced by people of color are often not a priority or policy concern for the larger GLBT culture; and, if these issues are addressed, it is not within the context of race and class.

Black and brown people, including GLBTs, are often double-dealing with contemporary economic, policy, and social concerns such as inadequate healthcare, high unemployment, and lack of affordable housing. Add racism to the mix and the picture becomes bleaker.

The National Black Justice Coalition – the nation’s premiere African American GLBT civil rights organization – estimates that there are 85,000 plus Black same-sex households in the United States. As conservative Republicans, their Democratic allies, and the religious right gear up for another vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, GLBT civil rights organizations also prepare for the fight. One might ask, “Where are the African American and Latino lesbians and gays in the struggle for marriage equality? Where are their images in public relations materials? Where are the black and brown marriage spokespersons? Where are the 85,000 plus Black same sex households?”

The answer is: “Trying to keep their 85,000 plus households afloat – fed, healthy and alive.”

Surveys of GLBT consumers have typically found that gay white male household income hovers between $45,000 and $63,000 annually, while black same sex household income is typically $40,000 – $45,000. Earning disparity is a huge concern for people of color and GLBT people of color in particular.

Every year the National Urban League releases a policy report entitled the “State of Black America.” In 2006, the report found the median net worth of the average black family is 10 times less than the average white family – $6,166 versus $67,000, mainly because of the differences in both income levels and home ownership rates. Black unemployment rates were also twice as high as those of whites. And, while homes remain a key source of net worth and wealth, just under half of Blacks own their homes, compared to 70 percent of Whites.

The Black-White health gap is another area of concern. The National Urban League identified some discouraging trends, including increases in the proportions of Black children and adults without health insurance. As the study points out, "Take a group that suffers disproportionately from health care issues, and couple that with a higher percentage of that group not having the means to combat illness or receive preventative treatment – the outcome is a vicious cycle that holds the promise of perpetuating itself for years to come."

For many Black and Brown people, marriage equality is just further down the list of priorities. It’s not that we don’t care. In fact, some studies show that Black same-sex couples would disproportionately benefit from marriage equality.

Often, when mainstream GLBT groups reach out to communities of color, it is “after the fact.” After the event has been planned. After the policy has been set. After the agenda has been drafted. This smacks of tokenism, and is offensive to those people of color who have been invited to participate. This is, however, exactly how issues dealing with race and class become invisible in the larger GLBT “agenda.” If the entire community is not at the table from the beginning, then the entire community cannot be assured that concerns about healthcare, economics, diversity, and education are part of the larger GLBT equality dialogue.

There is a long history of GLBTs of all colors working in the fight for civil rights for women and people of color. And no one can doubt the influence of the various Civil Rights movements of the 1960s on the current push for GLBT equality. But somewhere along the way, both sides have dropped the ball. The conversation has stopped. And, people of color, and their issues, have been relegated to the sidelines of the GLBT “agenda.”

Marian Anderson once said, “No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger than its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise.” And Marian would know. Not only did she allow her voice to soar, she stood steadfast against oppression and offered her talents to the world.

There is room in this struggle for everyone, and enough oppression to go around, but one thing is certain – we will not prevail without the contributions of all GLBT people

Resources: National Black Justice Coalition: Black Same Sex Households in the United States online at www.nbjc.org. The National Urban League: State of Black America online at www.nul.org.