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What Rainbow?

Queer people of color have been reluctant to engage the in the gay civil rights movement's marriage battle. That's because we don't see what's in it for us.
 
 
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Eric German and Arthur Thomas got hitched a year ago -- sort of. They weren't making a political statement or even being terribly romantic, they just wanted to get Thomas out of the homeless shelter he was living in. "I was in the hospital, and he has no family and I have no family," recalls Thomas. "So he took care of me. We kind of bonded."

They're a black gay version of the odd couple. Thomas is a towering, gravely-voiced guy who's fond of football jerseys and won't hesitate to tell you to fuck off when he thinks you need to hear it; German cuts a slight, soft-spoken figure and carefully ponders each word he parcels out, as though he has a limited supply. Still, you get the feeling German's got Thomas's number. He can make Thomas take his HIV meds, even on those difficult mornings when he's rebelling against himself, and he helps his man stay sober. "If I didn't have this individual, there's no telling where I would be," Thomas admits, "because, you know, everywhere you go there's drugs. And I can say, 'Today I feel like getting high, so let's just stay home.'"

They're both enrolled in a government program that helps poor people living with HIV pay rent and buy food and other necessities. Last spring, when Thomas was released from the hospital, German didn't want him going back into the shelters. So he suggested they get a place in his building in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Once impolitely known as "Do or Die Bed-Stuy," the slowly gentrifying area is one of a shrinking few in New York City where a couple on a budget as tight as German and Thomas's can still find an affordable but comfortable one-bedroom.

But when the duo told their case workers in city government of their plans to shack up, they got surprising news: The only way they could live together was if they got on New York City's domestic partner registry. In the process, Thomas's case would have to be closed and folded into German's. "We didn't want to be domestic partners," German explains. They were in love, sure, but they hadn't planned on such formalities. "That's the only way he could stay with me. So we went and did that."

The couple didn't so much mind the shotgun wedding, but it created a nightmare of paperwork and legal wrangling. The order from the city caseworkers, it turns out, was completely arbitrary. The city's domestic partner registry actually carries no legal weight (and in any case there is no rule against people getting public assistance living together). So Thomas's closed case has delayed everything from his medical care to food aid payments.

It's unclear why the couple's case workers misled them. Maybe it was an honest mistake. Maybe they were overzealously implementing the going wisdom in today's public assistance programs, which holds that poor people are better off when they're married. Either way, the whole experience has soured Thomas on the idea of the law getting involved in his love for any reason. When asked about the recent hoopla surrounding gay marriage, he barely musters enough interest to dismiss the conversation. "It's a rich people thing," he grouses.

Chicago's Reverend Gregory Daniels agrees. Daniels has earned a place in history. Not because he has done anything important, but because he brought us a quote no historian of this year's gay marriage standoff will be able to resist citing. During a Boston press conference, staged by the rightwing Family Research Council on the eve of Massachusetts' constitutional convention, the black minister pledged, "If the KKK was opposing same-sex marriage, Reverend Daniels would ride with them."

Daniels' hyperbole was appalling, but hardly unexpected. The religious right's battle plan has long centered on mobilizing black conservatives in the culture wars. The debate over same-sex marriage is not nearly the first act in the homophobic minstrel show that black conservatives like Daniels are performing. But it has arguably been the most influential -- and widespread. From Boston to Atlanta, black ministers are standing in for the white right as the public face of "traditional values." And in the Bronx, Latino clergy are joining in, forming a rainbow coalition of bigotry.

Most observers have focused on how straight African Americans are responding to the rightwing's blackface performance. But perhaps more significant for gay America is the reaction of black and Latino gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people. German and Thomas may represent an extreme example, but the incongruity between their life and that of the couples who have taken center stage in the marriage debate is not uncommon in black and Latino neighborhoods.

The relatively young gay civil rights movement has seen unprecedented success in the last year: Sodomy is legal. Queers have taken over the airwaves. And the holy grail of marriage no longer seems fantastically out of reach. But as the sexual equality movement reaches its crescendo, many blacks and Latinos in the community aren't sure we want to sing along -- and even those of us who have chosen to join in say we'd much prefer a different song.

Queer folks of color long ago began creating their own gay fantasias. White gays look to San Francisco's Castro and New York's Chelsea as their homo-Meccas; black folks turn to Washington, D.C., and Greenwhich Village's Christopher Street. There's now a nationwide circuit of Black Gay Pride celebrations, to which thousands flock from around the country all summer long. Go to Black Pride parties in Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles and you won't hear a single Cher track, but you'll groove to 50 Cent and Sean Paul all night long. We've even got our own class divide -- in New York "professional" black gay folks hang out at swank lounges in Harlem while guys like German and Thomas kick it in the sweaty clubs of Brooklyn.

And then, of course, there's the ever-important language of sexual identity. Black people of all political and economic stripes have long cringed at the rainbow flags and assorted emblems of gay life, feeling they signify a society with which they have no connection. So black activists on the West Coast have popularized the phrase same-gender-loving as a replacement for words like gay and queer. It's become the black version of LGBT -- a catch-all moniker that safely identifies everyone in the identity spectrum, from those who don't want to be called gay to those who just want to be called anything but straight.

So despite all of the racial currents running through the gay marriage debate -- from gay activists invoking the rhetoric of the black civil rights movement to rightwingers manipulating a backlash to that implied analogy among straight African Americans -- it is not surprising that few blacks have joined the throngs flocking to city hall. Nor, for that matter, have many people of color of any kind. When anti-gay religious leaders held a rally in the South Bronx, some 5,000 Latinos turned up; the gay organizers' counter demonstration drew only around 50.

To activists like Kenyon Farrow, a lead organizer for a group that works with black and Latino queer youth in New York City, the issue does not resonate because the whole gay civil rights agenda is relevant to neither the lives of black people like German and Thomas nor those of their middle-class counterparts. Farrow has written a provocative essay urging black LGBT people to ditch the gay marriage debate in favor of issues that will mean more for people of color -- HIV, healthcare, race. It's making waves on the Internet list-serves and weblogs that black queers are increasingly plugged into for their information.

"I think that we can afford not to have this fight," Farrow argues. The real challenge is building links between the straight and gay black worlds, he says, and creating space inside black and Latino neighborhoods in which their queer residents can be out. "We need to work on homophobia in the black community, and address that issue without just reacting to the right's bullshit around same-sex marriage."

Even some of those who have aggressively championed the marriage campaign fear they have made dubious bedfellows. "There're a lot of people in the Latino LGBT community that say it too: Marriage is not a priority; why are we involved in this?" says Andres Duque, who helped put together the Bronx pro-gay rally and is part of a national coalition of Latino advocates for same-sex marriage. Duque worries about the price of success if same-sex marriage becomes a reality. He notes the experience of black and Latino AIDS activists: Since new HIV drugs appeared in the mid-1990s, it has been difficult to engage many of the individuals and organizations that used to bolster the AIDS movement -- even as death rates fall much more slowly and new infections occur much more often among blacks and Latinos than whites. "I do worry about what happens afterwards." Duque admits. "Will the mainstream community say, 'Our work is done'?"

If so, what will that mean for people like German and Thomas? There's no denying marriage would bring them some security -- German's ability to make decisions about Thomas's treatment if he becomes incapacitated, for instance. But it would do nothing to deal with broader question of his ability to pay for that treatment in the first place. So creating equality for a couple like theirs requires a more nuanced formula than the one the gay civil rights movement has presented.

That's a tricky problem for queer politicos to solve. Since gay civil rights issues have largely replaced the more radical politics of sexual freedom, proponents have traded on the argument that in demanding equal access, gays are not threatening the privileges everyone else is already enjoying. Mainstream gay activists have worked tirelessly to show Middle America that we are no different than it, that we mean no harm to its way of life. The right does everything it can to counter that assertion. The Family Research Council's homepage features a FAQ on why gay relationships are not equivalent to straight ones, pointing out spurious "facts" such as the relatively high rates of infidelity in and short duration of same-sex partnerships.

So mainstream gay civil rights activism has steadfastly avoided drawing attention to the needs of people like German and Thomas -- poor, recovering addicts who depend upon tax dollars to fend off an expensive disease. When they discuss hate crime, they tend to ignore the untold number of transgender prostitutes and middle-aged men killed in pick-up crimes every year and instead focus on Matthew Shephard, a seemingly blameless blond college student.

"It becomes more and more obvious to me that white gays see the gay community as white," musician Tim'm West writes on one popular gay hip hop blog, responding to Farrow's essay, "and don't seem to care about a presentation of these rights as something that affects non-upper-middle-class-white-gay-folk."

Keith Boykin, a longtime black gay activist and author, shares all of this unease with mainstream gay politics. But he says that's exactly why he's serving as president of the ad hoc National Black Justice Coalition, which was formed specifically as a response to the black ministers' verbal gay bashing. He's tired of worrying about what white gay activists are doing; black and Latino LGBT folks need to create movements of their own if they want their issues addressed.

"We spend a lot of time complaining about what we could be doing, but we don't do it," says Boykin, who used to lead the now-defunct National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum. "I'm disappointed by some of the rhetoric and excuses that we often use in our community. We need to be more involved in the political process."

So after last summer's Supreme Court sodomy decision, when, as he puts it, "gay was on everybody's mind," Boykin and a group of black activists got together to figure out how to make sure it was on the black community's mind in a positive way. "Nobody back last summer thought that gay marriage was going to be an issue," Boykin says of the coalition's thinking. "Only when the black ministers came out and started saying this stuff did we realize that this wasn't going to stop--and the right wing was going to be paying for it."

The group decided it had to respond. So each person picked a sector of the community--the church, civil rights groups like the NAACP, elected officials--and worked on finding straight allies to stand up for their same-gender-loving brothers and sisters. They've appeared on Black Entertainment Television and on popular black radio programs. They're staging rallies in cities with large black populations. And in the process, they're sparking an unprecedented conversation about homosexuality in the black community.

Duque says a similar process has unfolded in the Spanish language media. "We knew that Spanish media was going to jump on this issue," he explains. "And if we weren't there, what were they going to say?"

Still, while people like German and Thomas are listening, they remain reluctant to chime in. Unlike his beau, German wants to get married. "I love him. I love doing for him. And yeah I would like to get married," German says. He's appalled by the right's demonizing of his relationship, and he even keeps on his wall a Human Rights Campaign equality sticker -- the universal emblem of gay civil rights. But that doesn't mean you'll catch him at any marriage rallies. He says he's just not that kind of guy, that he's too busy helping Thomas sort out his doctors' appointments and medications to bother with activism.

Boykin and Duque say that that posture, more than anything about the gay civil rights movement itself, is what will leave gay people of color in the lurch when the marriage dust settles. Like it or not, black LGBT people are wedged between the black ministers serving as front-men for the Christian right and the mainstream gay movement, with its focus on assuaging Middle America's fears. "I couldn't care less what they're doing --in terms of the mainstream organizations," concludes Duque. "For me, it's important to be active in my own community."