Friday, January 9, 2009

Prop 8 and Black Voters Again: Timothy Kincaid's Contribution

Just before I went to bed last night, I happened to see that Andrew Sullivan had linked to a Box Turtle article by Timothy Kincaid that carries on the prop 8-black voters discussion (, Now that I’m scanning news sites this morning, I notice that an astute reader, Waldo of Waldo Lydecker’s blog, has also recommended Timothy Kincaid’s article in a comment Waldo made about my posting yesterday dealing with this topic.

Timothy Kincaid’s argument parallels mine in yesterday’s posting about prop 8 and the black vote. He notes that fashioning an honest critical discussion about the relationship of the gay community to African Americans and of African Americans to gays is well-nigh impossible, in our vexed cultural climate that makes discussions around racial issues so fraught with tension. As Kincaid notes, there is clear, reprehensible racism in some sectors of the gay community. And many of also fear to engaging the issues because we are concerned that we will immediately be attacked as racists, simply for opening our mouths.

Kincaid concludes that we have to engage these issues, unless we who are gay want to write off the African-American community—and he does not want to end up there, as I do not want to do so. In his view, we may spin the data about the black vote in various ways, but we must not allow the spinning to cloud two incontrovertible conclusions:

The Black Church is for the most part hugely homophobic.

Even non-religious African-Americans are disproportionately politically anti-gay.

I agree. And I think that anyone, from any side of the discussion, who believes in the need for all marginalized groups to stand in solidarity with all other marginalized groups, has to face these two facts squarely. We have to do so, that is, if we intend to move forward.

The time for slamming any white gay person who wants to engage these issues as racist and privileged and rich is over. In my considered opinion, the African-American community shoots itself in the foot when it continues to engage in these self-defeating tactics to hold frank discussion at bay, and when it continues to shoot the messenger who notes the elephant in the living room.

This does not mean that white gay people should give a free pass to white racist gay folks. If we call on the African-American community to deal with its homophobia, we have an equal responsibility to call on our own community to deal with its racism. For that matter, if we're going to talk about the homophobia of the black church, then why not also address the homophobia of the white churches? The Knights of Columbus gave a bundle to help pass prop 8. The Catholic bishops of California did almost everything but stand on their heads to pass the anti-gay marriage amendment. The Mormons' sordid involvement has been carefully dissected.

What the preceding provisos do mean is that the black community damages itself when it covers over its own homophobia—as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently argues in the posting about which I commented yesterday. As Timothy Kincaid notes, that damage is passed on in seriously destructive ways to young gay and lesbian African Americans.

Though Kincaid admits the temptation to step away from the struggle—how often can one be slapped in the face and told that one is an unwelcome intruder before one considers that route, after all?—he finds that escapist option “cold” to consider that option, when he thinks of the needs of those young black gay men and women:

But we also know that there is a strong and unapologetic voice of harshest homophobia that has no hesitation in using race as a justification for denying that gay and lesbian Americans deserve civil equality. If we seek change, it cannot be haphazard or hesitant. It will be no picnic and we have to be willing to offend some who believe that they own the concept of civil rights and not be afraid to be called racist by those who oppose us.

Or we could also just write off this subset of the population and hope that we can sway enough whites and Asians to outweigh the African American vote. But while it may be pragmatic for winning an election, this approach strikes me as particularly cold. It not only leaves another generation of young black gay men and women growing up in a community that has pockets of severe hostility, but it also dismisses a lot of otherwise decent people as not being worth our time or effort.

I agree wholeheartedly—both about our obligation to refuse to be deterred from doing what is right in these struggles, and also about the hard road ahead for any of us who don’t choose simply to write off all African Americans in the struggle for gay rights. From bitter personal experience, I know how hard that struggle is.

As an academic vice-president charged with enhancing a university’s commitment to social justice and civic engagement, I was slapped—and slapped hard—when I brought a request of other faculty for support groups for gay and lesbian students and faculty to the top of the administration. When I listed, among many other groups for student engagement, the organization GLSEN, I was accused of promoting my cause, of putting “my lifestyle” in the face of the faculty—the same faculty who had requested support groups for LGBT campus members.

As this happened, it did not escape my attention that not a single gay or lesbian faculty or staff member supported me, spoke out, called for fair play and honesty in this discussion. All were and to my knowledge remain deeply closeted—though their sexual orientation is an open secret on the campus in question. These closeted gay and lesbian colleagues were, in fact, among my worst detractors, those most inclined to assist the top-level administrator who was determined to close the door on this discussion, as she vilified, hounded, and eventually expelled me.

There is not, to my knowledge, a single LGBT student, faculty member, administrator, of staff member at this HBCU. There is a wall of silence a mile high around the open secrets with which many campus members live. The pretense—the stupid and self-destructive determination not to deal with what is right there in the midst of the campus—is insuperable.

I understand the need for these colleagues to step gingerly. The school in question has no official policy statement forbidding discrimination against employees on grounds of sexual orientation. The community in which these colleagues work daily is hardly a receptive community, hardly one that allows them to be open about their identities. The church that sponsors this university—a mainstream white church, one that proudly professes to have an open heart, open mind, and open door—colludes in and structures the homophobia through behind-the-scenes tactics and governace procedures that forbid these issues from being publicly discussed. In many ways, those powerful conservative white men behind the scenes who are pulling the strings and pitting blacks against gays are the chief malefactors that need most to be exposed, in these struggles.

But I also know that nothing will change until these closeted gay and lesbian people of color come out of the closet and stop defending and colluding with homophobic leaders. Nothing will change until they themselves call for just treatment of gay and lesbian members of their campus community. Nothing will change until they call the hand of homophobic campus leaders and refuse to allow those leaders to continue oppressing employees who happen to be gay. Nothing will change until the African-American community stops playing games around these issues and starts talking openly and honestly about them.

And much needs to change, because on that campus as on many others, young gay and lesbian students remain in desperate need of understanding, support, and affirmation. They do not need to be preached to by homophobic faculty members who tell them that their “chosen” “lifestyle” is abhorrent to God—and such preaching does take place on this campus and many other HBCU campuses. They do not need to be told that they have a white boys’ or white girls’ disease that makes them pariahs among their own people.

How can anyone who values her or his humanity remain aloof in the face of such need? How can any educator do so—particularly educators who tell themselves that they are transformative leaders committed to social justice? How can churched communities justify such cruelty, lying, injustice, and refusal to reach out and offer a helping and healing hand to those in need?

And as I end this reflection, I want to take this opportunity to thank Ta-Nehisi Coates for his very gracious response to my comments yesterday. I agree with what he says in his response: playing the oppression of one group against the oppression of another is a zero-sum game, one that gets us nowhere fast. I appreciate very much the commitment of Ta-Nehisi Coates to gay rights, as a straight man of color who does not have to involve himself in my struggles.

And speaking of that—and apropos this discussion—there’s another very important discussion at the Box Turtle site today ( This is a horrifying story of a Tennessee hotel that recently fired a gay employee. Solely because he was gay. A hotel that fired this employee while admitting that its reason for doing so was the man’s sexual orientation.

The hotel’s assistant manager Leonard Stoddard—who is an African American—is blowing the whistle. He is the one who was charged with delivering to this gay employee the news that he was fired because of his sexual orientation. He is willing to verify that this was the motive. And he is courageous about opposing the discrimination, even though he knows that the stand he is taking will lead to his own termination.

In all these battles, in which it is so easy to slip into stereotypes about “the” black church, about “all” gays, about people of color “in general,” it’s important to remember that human stories run beneath stereotypes. And human beings are infinitely surprising.

Even as “the” gay community asks “the” African-American community not to overlook the support many gays have given to black civil rights for generations, it is important that we in the gay community not forget the courage that people of color including Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Bayard Rustin, Mildred Loving, Gil Caldwell, and many others have given to our cause.

Add Leonard Stoddard to that list.