Thursday, January 15, 2009

African Americans, Prop 8, and Homophobia: Ongoing Discussion at Box Turtle (2)

As my preceding posting notes, Box Turtle Bulletin has been keeping discussion of the issue of the relationship between the black and gay communities in the wake of prop 8 alive. Box Turtle has profiled this topic recently by posting a series of interlocking statements each of which contributes something of importance to the discussion.

That a website is seeking to foster dispassionate, objective, and unfettered discussion of these topics is significant to note—and laudatory. They are issues of too much importance to our always fragile democratic experiment to be swept under the rug.

The current series began with a contribution by Timothy Kincaid that I discussed some days ago: (see As that posting notes, the recent NGLTF analysis of prop 8 polling data shows that the African-American vote for prop 8 was significantly lower than polls taken on election day at first indicated: closer to 57% than the original 70% reported by many media outlets. As these data indicate (and as many of us said from the outset when the polling data were released), attempts to lay blame for the passing of prop 8 at the feet of the black community are illicit and easily lend themselves to racist applications.

Nonetheless, Kincaid thinks, it is imperative that we not allow the misguided discussion of “blame” for prop 8 to deflect “honest discussion about those truths that all seem to want to overlook”—that “[th]e Black Church is for the most part hugely homophobic”; and “[e]ven non-religious African-Americans are disproportionately politically anti-gay.”

My posting agrees with Kincaid, both about the imperative need for continued discussion of the fraught relationship between African Americans and the gay community, and about the two truths Kincaid believes are in danger of being ignored by those who wish to foreclose open discussion of the relationship between the gay and the African-American community. For me, the primary question about the relationship between the black and the gay communities in light of prop 8 has never been about who is to blame for the passing of prop 8. It has been and remains how to address the incontrovertible and unapologetically entrenched homophobia of many members of the black community—though that is not by any means the whole picture of how African Americans relate to gay people and gay rights.

Several days after Timothy Kincaid’s article appeared, Box Turtle editor Jim Burroway posted his analysis of the NGLTF report ( Burroway also notes that his article is a response to Kincaid’s. He notes that Kincaid’s analysis “garnered a lot of controversy last week.” And he states that, in fact, that “[m]any people privately called and emailed to ask if I agreed with it.”

Burroway offers a number of suggestions to anyone seeking to foster dialogue that crosses the lines separating the black and gay communities:

We cannot assume that one oppressed minority ought to automatically empathize with another oppressed minority’s oppression. . . . Just to touch the tip of a few icebergs, gays were never enslaved or lynched in mass numbers. Non-Black gays really have no idea what it’s like to have that in their history. On the other hand, heterosexual Blacks were never obliged to undergo cruel “cures,” nor were they ostracized from their own families because of their Blackness. We really don’t know — internally know — the other’s experiences with history, and we can no longer be so naive in assuming that others will naturally see and recognize our experiences with discrimination just because they were discriminated against in a different way for different reasons . . . .

And we need to talk honestly and listen patiently to each other. We need to do this not to “educate” the other, as though we had some sort of special prize that we wish to arrogantly bestow on some poor, unenlightened folks. Instead, we need to do this with the sincere intent of understanding each other and ourselves better.

In my view, Burroway’s guidelines for framing this tense crosscultural dialogue are balanced and valuable. But they are also flawed. They are flawed because they are hedged about with provisos that will, whether this is their intent or not, daunt honest and free discussion from the outset.

We’re at a point in the development of this dialogue in which we have to move beyond those hedges with their warning signs telling us to keep out, keep away, to beware and not go there. We have to move beyond these dialogic admonitions, that is, if we want this important cultural dialogue to be effective. To a considerable extent, Jim Burroway’s guidelines continue the hedging process, and this makes them problematic.

It’s time for the hedging process to end. This process does not facilitate the dialogue we need to have, if we wish to engage the issues productively—an open and honest one, free of fetters and keep-out signs. Open dialogue is indispensable if we expect to heal a social wound that has troubled our society for some time now, and is growing deeper today for a number of reasons.

My concern about the hedging effect of Burroway’s recommendations actually begins with his initial remarks about why he is addressing Kincaid’s article: as he notes, when Kincaid published his “controversial” article, Burroway got calls and emails to ask if he agreed with Kincaid—private calls and emails. Burroway’s article is, in some sense, a counter and correction to Kincaid.

And what does that tell us? Something of great importance, I want to argue. It tells us that even the mildest factual statements that black homophobia is a problem for our society—that it exists at all, that it is fed by many black churches—are out-of-bounds, statements that someone or some groups do not intend for anyone to make.

It also tells us that there is considerable bullying going on with this conversation—behind the scenes bullying, nasty bullying in which people who want to stop this conversation do not disclose their identity or their interest in the conversation. I am not surprised to hear that Burroway received private calls and emails asking him if he agreed with Kincaid: I expected this to happen.

From the beginning of the conversation about prop 8, I saw the bullying process at work. Those intent on stopping conversation of black homophobia and its effects in our society accused anyone who called for dialogue about this topic of blaming African Americans for the passing of prop 8. The question of blame for prop 8 was used as a red herring to try to shut out any conversation at all about homophobia in the black community.

Even as many people of color and those in solidarity with them slammed anyone calling for dialogue about black homophobia with the charge of lumping all African Americans together and stereotyping an entire group of human beings, many of those making this charge in turn depicted all white gays as privileged racists unconcerned about racism and its effects on black folks. And oblivious to the racism inside ourselves and the white gay community . . . .

It was clear to me from the beginning that the African-American community does not deserve blame for what happened with prop 8, and does not deserve blame for all the considerable homophobia in our culture. I stated this repeatedly in articles I posted on this blog shortly after the elections.

But it is also clear to me that there is considerable homophobia in the African-American community, and that it needs to be addressed openly and honestly, for the sake of our society and its democratic institutions. It needs to be addressed because, in my view, it is not on the wane but is increasing. Bullying people who expect free, respectful, dispassionate dialogue about this issue is not an effective way to address an obvious and deplorable social problem. Such bullying only serves to suggest that there is, in fact, something to be covered over, hidden, allowed to fester.

It would be helpful if Burroway had invited all those who contacted him privately to log in and post their reflections. Put them on the table. Allow them to be examined in a public forum. Allow all of us to benefit from dialogic examination of the important issues facing everyone in this conversation. This is how dialogues that help build our participatory democracy need to be carried on—not behind closed doors.

Because Burroway’s entire analysis of the black-gay conversation is premised on these unvocalized private concerns of those who evidently found Kincaid’s points unacceptable to make in public discourse, his provisos for the black-gay conversation strike me as further warnings against open, free, dispassionate discourse.

It may well be true, for instance, that “[w]e cannot assume that one oppressed minority ought to automatically empathize with another oppressed minority’s oppression.” I am not persuaded, however, that we should not expect members of one oppressed minority to empathize with those of another oppressed minority.

I would certainly question whether such empathy can ever be automatic. I believe, however, that it can be taught and groomed through respectful dialogue that crosses boundary lines separating the two minority groups. In fact, everything I believe about a humane, civil society and the possibility of creating such a society is premised on belief in that possibility.

Civil society, it seems to me, is based on the assumption that we are all capable of empathetic understanding of the situations of those who are different from ourselves. It is based, too, on the assumption that, having developed that empathetic understanding, we are obliged to reach out and make solidarity with anyone who is oppressed.

We except men to understand the pain women endure as second-class citizens, though men can never experience what it is like to go through life in a female body. We should expect that empathy and solidarity from those who do not and cannot share the stigmatized characteristics of a particular demeaned group.

As a young person growing up in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle, it was clear to me that I was expected to learn about, empathize with, and understand the oppression of people of color—and, on the basis of that empathy, to do something about the oppression. For my sake as well as for the sake of any person of color with whom I have interacted as an adult, I am glad that this expectation was communicated to me in school, in church, in my family, through the media, and so on—communicated half-heartedly and with shocking contradictions at times, but communicated nonetheless.

For my sake, I am glad that when the social institutions designed to instill conscience in me often failed, I still had the tremendous grace of encountering several gifted teachers in my educational journey, who awoke understanding and empathic ability in me, and a concern to end the oppression of others. Those gifted teachers taught me an important life lesson: that the human mind and heart can be expanded, such that human beings who do not walk in the skin of other human beings can, nonetheless, understand the experience of others through the cultivation of empathetic awareness.

Why should we expect any less of black Americans in their approach to LGBT Americans? Or of white gays in their relationship to people of color? Humane societies are founded on the assumption that we can and must understand the lives of those different from our own, and relieve the unmerited suffering of those who are oppressed when our understanding has brought us to see that the suffering endured by the other is unmerited.

Does the experience of those who are subjected to unmerited suffering always or automatically lead to empathy for others who are oppressed? Certainly not. Should we expect it to do so? In my view, we have to expect this, if we want to build a civil society worth its name.

One of the primary reasons many progressive thinkers are outraged at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is that one expects a people who have endured historic oppression to know better and to do better. If human community, if social life, is only and always about those with power feeding on and brutalizing those who have no power, then why try to create any social structures at all?

We expect more by way of empathy from those who have endured unmerited oppression.
We are rightly more troubled at lack of empathy by those who have endured unmerited oppression than by those who have enjoyed privilege. Such lack of empathy disturbs us because it suggests that there is no possibility of learning from oppression, no hope of building more humane societies. And yet, we continue working towards humane societies in the belief that people’s minds and hearts are capable of conversion, and that people can learn from their own experiences of oppression to relieve the unmerited suffering of others.

Lying underneath Jim Burroway’s analysis of the black-gay relationship is a liberal individualistic approach to social life, one that dominates our cultural imagination, which sees minority groups as warring interest groups competing with each other. And so the need for balance and warnings, to manage unequal power relationships that might lead to social conflict if unmanaged . . . . We imagine that the relationship between two oppressed minorities is primarily centered around the balance of power: who has more of it, more power, more clout, more access, more right to be heard.

What if, by contrast, we looked at how minority groups stand in relation to each other through the prism of human rights and solidarity, of the pre-existing ties and connections of these disparate groups? If we did so, we’d recognize that all oppressed minority groups have an inherent obligation to form solidarity with all other oppressed minority groups in the common quest for human rights, because that solidarity already exists, in their shared stance to those who dispense power. When we adopt the perspective of solidarity and human rights, our primary question becomes not how to balance competing interests and to allocate power. It is how to do what is right and effect justice.

The assumption that blacks and gays are two competing blocs each trying to have more access and more power—and each jealous of the other because there is only enough access and power to go around—is a misreading of the social situation of both groups. Though one group may wish to deny its solidarity with the other group, that solidarity remains a fact of the social life of both groups: in their relationship to those who allocate human rights, power, and privilege, the groups are already in solidarity with each other, as oppressed minorities.

The question facing them, then, is not whether to be in solidarity. It is whether to make solidarity—to recognize that competing against and stigmatizing each other is tragically self-defeating, because both have a shared interest in combating the dehumanization imposed on them by the power centers of society.

When one oppressed minority group refuses to make solidarity with another oppressed minority group—when it refuses to admit that, vis-à-vis structures of oppression, both groups are the same and are already in solidarity—the oppressed minority group resisting solidarity harms itself as much as it harms the group it targets. It dehumanizes itself. It undermines its chances to build precisely the kind of humane society, in collaboration with other oppressed minorities, that would most effectively end its oppression.

From the standpoint of solidarity and human rights (as opposed to the liberal individualist standpoint), comparing the suffering of one oppressed group with that of another—you have endured slavery; I have been sent off for inhumane reparative “therapy”—is beside the point. It is a self-defeating game. Of course I cannot, as a white gay man, ever know what it is like to live life in these United States with a black skin. Of course it is ludicrous for me to pretend I can, to speak as if I understand black suffering and black oppression from the inside.

But as a gay man, I certainly know what it is like to be demeaned, to be dismissed merely because of who I happen to be and how God happened to make me, to be denied rights and privileges, to be fired and lied about, to have all the good work I have done in a workplace thrown in my face when I am dismissed for my sexual orientation. I know what it is like to be walking quietly on a street with my partner, not holding hands, and have someone in a passing car shout threats from the car window. I also know what it is like to be with my partner in a hospital and see him given an i.v. injection direct from the refrigerator by a homophobic nurse retaliating against him because he had complained when she denied him this post-surgical pain-killing injection—and when doctors’ orders mandated it.

I cannot know the details of black suffering. I can, however, see with my own eyes—and have seen—some of those details, from the outside, and they have sickened me and made me pledge to do everything in my power to end the injustice that permits people to be treated this way simply because of their color.

The point to be noted in the gay-black interchange, if we adopt a perspective of solidarity and human rights, is that it is extremely important for members of any stigmatized minority to assure that the human rights of all stigmatized minorities are promoted and protected. One crucial fact that is being overlooked in the current shouting match about the black-gay relationship in America is that African Americans do have rights that gay citizens do not yet enjoy.

Marriage is only one of those rights. In a majority of our states, gay citizens still have no legal protection—at all!—against being fired or denied housing or the right of hospital visitation of a life partner simply because they are gay. In a majority of our states, gay citizens do not have the legal right to dispose of their property through wills and estate arrangements, by allocating that property for their life partners.

Many of our gay citizens—many of the large numbers of us who are not wealthy and privileged—do not have partner benefits. Many of us are without health coverage as a result, even when our partner works. In an increasing number of places, we cannot adopt children, including our own children. None of us who are gay enjoys the federal protection from violent assault—the protection of hate-crime laws—that all people of color enjoy.

After the wonderful election of the first African-American president in our history, we are at a new moment, vis-à-vis African-American homophobia and the relationship of the black and gay community. The election of Barack Obama provides African Americans an entrée for which they have long worked, and in which they are right to rejoice.

This election also underscores the work still to be done for the LGBT citizens of this nation, many of whom have fought long and hard for the civil rights of African Americans. The unfortunate conjuncture of that marvelous election of a new president with significant losses for human rights gay citizens on a number of fronts—a new African-American president whose election points to the triumph of human rights in our democratic society—points to the imperative need for an entirely new level of conversation between the black and gay communities in our society, which addresses frankly the continued (and unacceptable) existence of both racism and black homophobia among us.

N.B. The posting by Jim Burroway I am addressing here is followed by several others at Box Turtle, in which other posters continue to address these questions. Out of fairness to Burrowayto provide a comprehensive picture of this discussion at Box Turtle—I will add some notes on these additional postings in an update.