I live in Oregon, where Measure 36 was just passed and, should the measure hold, soon our state constitution will be amended to define marriage as between one man and one woman. I've worked a bit on the No on 36 campaign, but with some reservations. I personally don't feel that (for me) state-mediated legal marriage is something I want to participate in, and in an ideal world I don't believe that the status anyone's relationship would be defined by the government. But, we live in this world, not the ideal one of my imagination.
I've been torn on the issue for a couple of other reasons as well. I've been moved to speak against Measure 36 on a personal level because my partner and I rely heavily on our dual coverage of insurance benefits for the well-being of our two children, and I'm concerned about losing our domestic partnership rights. And I'm pissed about paying taxes on the insurance because I'm in a non-heterosexual rather than heterosexual relationship. Also, there's the equality thing, the non-discrimination thing. You know the drill.
But, I also am committed to being thoughtful about my white privilege and in weighing carefully the ways that my white privilege informs (or fails to inform) my work in the LGBQT movement, especially in framing (or not framing) gay rights as civil rights, but in other ways as well.
The article below requires an investment in careful reading, but I'm hoping (very much) that some of you will be able to dedicate time and thought to it. I'm interested in fully understanding the author's perspective in relation to others' perspectives, and in informing my own perspective in that way. I'm looking for a reasoned, authentic discussion, in other words -- for myself, but also for our community -- and this is an invitation of sorts.
So, consider yourself cordially invited.
Thursday, 16 September 2004
I was in Atlanta on business when I saw the Sunday, Feb. 29th edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution that featured as its cover story the issue of gay marriage. Georgia is one of the states prepared to add some additional language to its state constitution that bans same sex marriages (though the state already defines marriage between a man and a woman, so the legislation is completely symbolic as it is political). What struck me about the front page story was the fact that all of the average Atlanta citizens whom were pictured that opposed gay marriages were black people. This is not to single out the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as I have noticed in all of the recent coverage and hubbub over gay marriage that the media has been real crucial in playing up the racial politics of the debate. For example, the people who are in San Francisco getting married are almost exclusively white whereas many of the people who are shown opposing it are black. And it is more black people than typically shown in the evening news (not in handcuffs). This leaves me with several questions: Is gay marriage a black/white issue? Are the Gay Community and the Black Community natural allies or sworn enemies? And where does that leave me, a black gay man, who does not want to get married?
Same-sex Marriage and Race Politics
My sister really believes that this push for gay marriage is actually not being controlled by gays & lesbians. She believes it is actually being tested in various states by the Far Right in disguise, in an effort to cause major fractures in the Democratic Party to distract from all the possible roadblocks to re-election for George W. in November such as an unpopular war and occupation, the continued loss of jobs, and growing revelations of the Bush administration’s ties to corporate scandals.
Whatever the case, it is important to remember that gay marriage rights are fraught with racial politics, and that there is no question that the public opposition to same-sex marriages is in large part being financially backed by various right-wing Christian groups like the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council. Both groups have histories and overlapping staff ties to white supremacist groups and solidly oppose affirmative action but play up some sort of Christian allegiance to the black Community when the gay marriage issue is involved. For example, in 1990’s the Traditional Values Coalition produced a short documentary called “Gay Rights, Special Rights, which was targeted at black churches to paint non-heterosexual people as only white and upper class, and as sexual pariahs, while painting black people as pure, chaste, and morally superior. The video juxtaposed images of white gay men for the leather/S&M community with the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, leaving conservative black viewers with the fear that the Civil Rights Movement was being taken over by morally debased human beings. And since black people continue to be represented as hyper sexual beings and sexual predators in both pop culture and the mass media (pimps & players, hoochies & hos, rapists of white women & tempters of white men), conservative black people often cling to the other image white America hoists onto black people as well asexual and morally superior (as seen in the role of the black talk show host and the role of the black sage/savior-of-white people used in so many Hollywood movies, like In America and The Green Mile, which are all traceable to Mammy and Uncle Remus-type caricatures).
Since the Christian Right has money and access to corporate media, they set the racial/sexual paradigm that much of America gets in this debate, which is that homos are rich and white and do not need any such special protections and that black people are black a homogeneous group who, in this case, are Christian, asexual (or hetero-normative), morally superior, and have the right type of “family values.” This, even though black families are consistently painted as dysfunctional and are treated as such in the mass media and in public policy, which has devastating effects on black self-esteem, and urban and rural black communities’ ability to be self-supporting, self-sustaining, and self determining. The lack of control over economic resources, high un/underemployment, lack of adequate funding for targeted effective HIV prevention and treatment, and the large numbers of black people in prison (nearly one million of the 2.2 million U.S. prison population) are all ways that black families (which include non-heterosexuals) are undermined by public policies often fueled by right wing “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” rhetoric.
Given all of these social problems that largely plague the black community (and thinking about my sister’s theory), one has to wonder why this issue would rise to the surface in an election year, just when the Democratic ticket is unifying. And it is an issue, according to the polls anyway, that could potentially strip the Democratic Party of it solid support from African-American communities. And even though several old-guard civil rights leaders (including Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Revs. Al Sharpton, and Jesse Jackson) have long supported equal protection under the law for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community (which usually, but not always means support of same-sex marriage), the right wing continues to pit gay marriage (and by extension, gay civil rights) against black political interests, by relying on conservative black people to publicly speak out against it (and a lot has been written about how several black ministers received monies from right-wing organizations to speak out against same-sex marriages in their pulpits). But many black leaders, including some I’ve been able to catch on television recently despite the right-wing’s spin on the matter, have made the argument that they know too well the dangers that lie in “separate but equal” rhetoric. So, if many of our black leaders vocally support same-sex marriage, how has the Christian Right been able to create such a wedge between the black community and the gay community?
Homophobia in Black Popular Culture
Some of the ways that the Christian Right-wing has been so successful in using same-sex marriage as a wedge issue is by both exploiting homophobia in the black community and also racism in the gay community. In regards to homophobia in the black community the focus of conversation has been about the Black Churches’ stance on homosexuality. It has been said many times that while many black churches remain somewhat hostile places for non-heterosexual parishioners, it is also where you will in fact find many black gays and lesbians. Many of them are in positions of power and leadership within the church ushers, choir members/directors, musicians, and even preachers themselves. But let me debunk the myth that the Black Church is the black community. The black community is in no way monolithic, nor are black Christians. The vast majority of black people who identify as “Christian” do not attend any church whatsoever. Many black Americans have been Muslim for over a century and there are larger numbers of black people who are proudly identifying as Yoruba, Santero/a, and atheists as well. The black community in America is also growing more ethnically diverse, with a larger, more visible presence of Africans, West Indians, and Afro-Latinos amongst our ranks. We have always been politically diverse, with conservatives, liberals, radicals and revolutionaries alike (and politics do not necessarily align with what religion you may identify as your own). It is also true that we are and have always been sexually diverse and multi-gendered. Many of our well-known Black History Month favorites were in fact Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, or Transgender.
Despite our internal diversity, we are at a time (for the last 30 years) when black people are portrayed in the mass media—mostly through hip-hop culture—as being hyper-sexual and hyper-heterosexual to be specific.
Nowhere is the performance of black masculinity more prevalent than in hip-hop culture, which is where the most palpable form of homophobia in American culture currently resides. This of course is due largely to the white record industry’s notions of who we are, which they also sell to non-black people. Remember pop culture has for the last 150 years been presenting blackness to the world initially as white performers in blackface, to black performers in black face, and currently to white, black and other racial groups performing blackness as something that connotes sexual potency and a propensity for violent behavior, which are also performed as heterosexuality.
And with the music video, performance is important (if not more) than song content. As black hip-hop artists perform gangsta and Black Nationalist revolutionary forms of masculinity alike, so follows overt homophobia and hostility to queer people, gay men in particular. Recently, DMX’s video and song “Where the Hood At?” contained some of the most blatant and hateful homophobic lyrics and images I have seen in about a decade. The song suggests that the “faggot” can and will never be part of the “hood” for he is not a man. The song and video are particularly targeted at black men who are not out of the closet, and considered on the “down low.” Although challenged by DMX, the image of the “down low” brother is another form of performance of black masculinity, regardless of actual sexual preference.
But it’s not just “commercial” rap artists being homophobic. “Conscious” hiphop artists such as Common, Dead Prez and Mos Def have also promoted homophobia through their lyrics, mostly around notions of “strong black families,” and since gay black men (in theory) do not have children, we are somehow anti-family and antithetical to what a “strong black man” should be. Lesbians (who are not interested in performing sex acts for the pleasure of men voyeurs) are also seen as anti-family, and not a part of the black community. A woman “not wanting dick” in a nation where black dick is the only tangible power symbol for black men is seen as just plain crazy, which is also expressed in many hip-hop tunes. None of these artists interrogate their representations of masculinity in their music, but merely perform them for street credibility. And for white market consumption.
It cannot be taken lightly that white men are in control of the record industry as a whole (even with a few black entrepreneurs), and control what images get played. Young white suburban males are the largest consumer of hip-hop music. So performance of black masculinity (or black sexuality as a whole) is created by white men for white men. And since white men have always portrayed black men as sexually dangerous and black women as always sexually available (and sexual violence against black women is rarely taken seriously), simplistic representations of black sexuality as hyper-heterosexual are important to maintaining white supremacy and patriarchy, and control of black bodies. Black people are merely the unfortunate middlemen in an exchange between white men. We consume the representations like the rest of America. And the more that black people are willing to accept these representations as fact rather than racist fiction, the more heightened homophobia in our communities tends to be.
Race and the Gay Community
While homophobia in the black community is certainly an issue we need to address, blacks of all sexualities experience the reality that many white gays and lesbians think that because they’re gay, they “understand” oppression, and therefore could not be racist like their heterosexual counterparts. Bullshit. America is first built on the privilege of whiteness, and as long as you have white skin, you have a level of agency and access above and beyond people of color, period. White women and white non-heteros included. There is a white gay man named Charles Knipp who roams this nation performing drag in blackface to sold-out houses, north and south alike. Just this past Valentine’s day weekend, he performed at the Slide Bar in NY’s east village to a packed house of white queer folks eager to see him perform “Shirley Q Liquor,” a welfare mother with 19 kids. And haven’t all of the popular culture gay images on TV shows like Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, etc., been exclusively white? No matter how many black divas wail over club beats in white gay clubs all over America (Mammy goes disco!) with gay men appropriating language and other black cultural norms (specifically from black women), white gay men continue to function as cultural imperialists the same way straight white boys appropriate hip-hop (and let’s not ignore that white women have been in on the act, largely a result of Madonna bringing white women into the game.).
There have always been racial tensions in the gay community as long as there have been racial tensions in America, but in the 1990’s, the white gay community went mainstream, further pushing non-hetero people of color from the movement.
The reason for this schism is that in order to be mainstream in America, one has to be seen as white. And since white is normative, one has to interrogate what other labels or institutions are seen as normative in our society: family, marriage, and military service, to name a few. It is then no surprise that a movement that goes for “normality” would then end up in a battle over a dubious institution like marriage (and hetero-normative family structures by extension). And debates over “family values,” no matter how broad or narrow you look at them, always have whiteness at the center, and are almost always anti-black. As articulated by Robin D.G. Kelley in his book Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional, the infamous Moynihan report is the most egregious of examples of how the black family structure has been portrayed as dysfunctional, an image that still has influence on the way in which black families are discussed in the media and controlled by law enforcement and public policy. Since black families are in fact presented and treated as dysfunctional, this explains the large numbers of black children in the hands of the state through foster care, and increasingly, prisons (so-called “youth detention centers”). In many cases, trans-racial adoptions are the result. Many white same-sex unions take advantage of the state’s treatment of black families; after all, white queer couples are known for adopting black children since they are so “readily” available and also not considered as attractive or healthy compared to white, Asian and Latino/a kids. If black families were not labeled as dysfunctional or de-stabilized by prison expansion and welfare “reform,” our children would not be removed from their homes at the numbers they are, and there would be no need for adoption or foster care in the first place. So the fact that the white gay community continues to use white images of same-sex families is no accident, since the black family, heterosexual, same sex or otherwise, is always portrayed as dysfunctional.
I also think the white gay community’s supposed “understanding” of racism is what has caused them to appropriate language and ideology of the Black Civil Rights Movement, which has led to the bitter divide between the two communities. This is where I as a black gay man, am forced to intervene in a debate that I find problematic on all sides.
Black Community and Gay Community Natural Allies or Sworn Enemies?
As the gay community moved more to the right in the 1990’s, they also began to talk about Gay Rights as Civil Rights. Even today in this gay marriage debate, I have heard countless well-groomed, well-fed white gays and lesbians on TV referring to themselves as “second-class citizens.” Jason West, the white mayor of New Paltz, NY, who started marrying gay couples was quoted as saying, “The same people who don’t want to see gays and lesbians get married are the same people who would have made Rosa Parks go to the back of the bus." It’s these comparisons that piss black people off. While the anger of black heteros is sometimes expressed in ways that are in fact homophobic, the truth of the matter is that black folks are tired of seeing other people hijack their shit for their own gains, and getting nothing in return. Black non-heteros share this anger of having our blackness and black political rhetoric and struggle stolen for other people’s gains. The hijacking of Rosa Parks for their campaigns clearly ignores the fact that white gays and lesbians who lived in Montgomery, AL and elsewhere probably gladly made many a black person go to the back of the bus. James Baldwin wrote in his long essay “No Name in the Street” about how he was felt up by a white sheriff in a small southern town when on a visit during the civil rights era.
These comparisons of “Gay Civil Rights” as equal to “Black Civil Rights” really began in the early 1990’s, and largely responsible for this was Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and a few other mostly-white gay organizations. This push from HRC, without any visible black leadership or tangible support from black allies (straight and queer), to equate these movements did several things: 1) Piss off the black community for the white gay movement’s cultural appropriation, and making the straight black community question non-hetero black people’s allegiances, resulting in our further isolation. 2) Giving the (white) Christian Right ammunition to build relationships with black ministers to denounce gay rights from their pulpits based on the HRC’s cultural appropriation. 3) Create a scenario in their effort to go mainstream that equates gay and lesbian with upper-class and white. This meant that the only visibility of non-hetero poor people and people of color wound up on Jerry Springer, where non-heteros who are poor and of color are encouraged (and paid) to act out, and are therefore only represented as dishonest, violent, and pathological.
So, given this difficult history and problematic working relationship of the black community and the gay community, how can the gay community now, at its most crucial hour, expect large scale support of same-sex marriage by the black community when there has been no real work done to build strategic allies with us? A new coalition has formed of black people, non-hetero and hetero, to promote same-sex marriage equality to the black community, and I assume to effectively bridge that disconnect, and to in effect, say that gay marriage ain’t just a white thing. Or is it?
Is Gay Marriage Anti Black?
I, as a black gay man, do not support this push for same-sex marriage. Although I don’t claim to represent all black gay people, I do believe that the manner in which this campaign has been handled has put black people in the middle of essentially two white groups of people, who are trying to manipulate us one way or the other. The Christian right, which is in fact anti-black, has tried to create a false alliance between themselves and blacks through religion to push forward their homophobic, fascist agenda. The white gay civil rights groups are also anti-black, however they want black people to see this struggle for same-sex unions as tantamount to separate but equal Jim Crow laws. Yet any close examination reveals that histories of terror imposed upon generations of all black people in this country do not in any way compare to what appears to be the very last barrier between white gays and lesbians’ access to what bell hooks describes as “christian capitalist patriarchy.” That system is inherently anti-black, and no amount of civil rights will ever get black people any real liberation from it. For, in what is now a good 40 years of “civil rights,” nothing has intrinsically changed or altered in the American power structure, and a few black faces in inherently racist institutions is hardly progress.
Given the current white hetero-normative constructions of family and how the institutions of marriage and nuclear families have been used against black people, I do think that to support same-sex marriage is in fact, anti-black (I also believe the institution of marriage to be historically anti-woman, and don’t support it for those reasons as well). At this point I don’t know if I am totally opposed to the institution of marriage altogether, but I do know that the campaign would have to happen on very different terms for me to support same-sex marriages. At this point, the white gay community is as much to blame as the Christian right for the way they have constructed the campaign, including who is represented, and their appropriation of black civil rights language.
Along with how the campaign is currently devised, I struggle with same-sex marriage because, given the level of homophobia in our society (specifically in the black community), and racism as well, I think that even if same-sex marriage becomes legal, white people will access that privilege far more than black people. This is especially the case with poor black people, who regardless of sexual preference or gender, are struggling with the most critical of needs (housing, food, gainful employment), which are not at all met by same-sex marriage. Some black people (men in particular) might not try to access same-sex marriage because they do not even identify as “gay” partly because of homophobia in the black community, but also because of the fact that racist white queer people continue to dominate the public discourse of what “gay” is, which does not include black people of the hip-hop generation by and large.
I do fully understand that non-heteros of all races and classes may cheer this effort for they want their love to be recognized, and may want to reap some of the practical benefits that a marriage entitlement would bring health care (if one of you gets health care from your job in the first place) for your spouse, hospital visits without drama or scrutiny, and control over a deceased partner’s estate. But, gay marriage, in and of itself, is not a move towards real, and systemic liberation. It does not address my most critical need as a black gay man to be able to walk down the streets of my community with my lover, spouse or trick, and not be subjected to ridicule, assault or even murder. Gay marriage does not adequately address homophobia or transphobia, for same-sex marriage still implies binary opposite thinking, and transgender folks are not at all addressed in this debate.
What does gay marriage mean for all Black people?
But what does that mean for black people? For black non-heteros, specifically? Am I supposed to get behind this effort, and convince heterosexual black people to do the same, especially when I know the racist manner in which this campaign has been carried out for over ten years? And especially when I know that the vast majority of issues that my community—The Black Community, of all orientations and genders—are not taken nearly this seriously when it comes to crucial life and death issues that we face daily like inadequate housing and health care, HIV/AIDS, police brutality, and the wholesale lockdown of an entire generation in America’s grotesquely large prison system. How do those of us who are non-heterosexual and black use this as an opportunity to deal with homophobia, transphobia and misogyny in our communities, and heal those larger wounds of isolation, marginalization and fear that plague us regardless of marital status? It is the undoing of systems of domination and control that will lead to liberation for all of ourselves, and all of us as a whole.
In the end, I am down for black people who oppose gay marriage—other folks “in the life” as well as straight, feminists, Christians, Muslims, and the like. But I want more than just quotes from Leviticus or other religious and moral posturing. I want to engage in a meaningful critical conversation of what this means for all of us, which means that I must not be afraid to be me in our community, and you must not be afraid of me. I will struggle alongside you, but I must know that you will also have my back.
Kenyon Farrow © 2004