Friday, November 14, 2008

Finding Common Ground: The Gay and African-American Communities in Obama's America

In my “Finding Common Ground” series earlier this week, I deliberately chose to wait before I appended the reflections I want to offer today. I did so because these touch on the volatile topic of the African-American community’s complex engagement with (and occasional resistance) to human rights for gay brothers and sisters. That topic has been made a minefield, and while I don’t mind stepping on a mine or two myself, I am unwilling to be responsible for detonating more than those already exploding all around, as a group of citizens deals with justifiable outrage at having its human rights removed by popular fiat.

As I’ve noted before, my perspective is singular, and perhaps therefore less valuable precisely because it is less common. I approach this topic as a gay white man who chose to work in historically black church-sponsored universities from the outset of his career as a theologian, and who came out of the closet only gradually as he worked in the HBCU context.

I also bring to the subject the history of white racism in the American South—the explicit, deep-rooted, historic experience of white racism that perdures among many of us who were shamefully implicated for generations in the practice of slavery. I bring to my reflections the life-long struggle to confront the racism bred in me from infancy, and to live in solidarity with people of color seeking a place at the table of participatory democracy.

I live, for godssake, in a state that has just voted more Republican than in the previous presidential election. And with strong indicators that if Hilary Clinton had been the nominee, she would have carried Arkansas, how can one credibly discount the role that racism played in my state during this election? I live in a state that also, to its eternal shame, just voted to ban all unmarried couples from adopting or fostering children—a vote in which whites outstripped blacks in support of this homophobic legislation.

I also approach these issues as someone who learned in my two decades of work in HBCUs that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, homophobia is alive and well among some African Africans—as it is among many other groups in American society, including the majority culture. I bear scars as a result of my years working in HBCUs. Those scars are there because I am a gay man who has chosen not to disguise that fact, and who has not hidden his longstanding committed relationship with another gay man who worked alongside me in two of the three HBCUs in which I taught and did administrative work.

I am now without a job and income, health coverage, entrée to professional academic communities, because of ugly homophobia within the HBCU setting.specifically, because of the homophobia of a particular African-American female whom my partner and I had previously considered a friend, and in support of whom we have made sacrifices that now place our economic lives in jeopardy. I have been hesitant to engage the current debate about the connection between the black and gay communities in light of proposition 8 precisely because of the deep scars I bear from these experiences.

It does not help, when passions are inflamed, to add fuel to the fire. When people are wounded, it does not help to deepen pain through inflammatory rhetoric. I refuse to write from my own place of hurt and anger when doing that will injure and not heal.

Even so, there is something that can be said—something that must be said—to address black homophobia from the outside. No community exists in isolation from others. Communities that seek to close themselves off from the perspectives of other communities—including the critical perspectives of those communities—do so at great risk to themselves.

Communities that harass their members when anyone breaks rank to blow the whistle if something is wrong, or that lock arms and combat any and all critiques from the outside, ghettoize themselves. Through such bullying tactics, they succeed in doing precisely what they should be combating more than anything else: they succeed in making themselves and their insights marginal to the social mainstream. They complete the marginalization process that they should be kicking against with all their might, in solidarity with other marginalized communities.

And with that apologia as a frame for the following analysis, I want to compare two very different responses of LGBT members of the African-American community to proposition 8. These are Terrance Heath’s “Marriage Matters to Us” ( and Jasmyne Cannick’s “No-on-8’s White Bias” (

Heath’s statement is actually in part a response to Cannick’s, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times after the election. Heath adverts to the line-drawing and bullying that sometimes tries to prevent those who break rank with the dominant view of a subculture from speaking freely. As he notes, W.E.B. DuBois’s “twoness of being” analogy for the African-American experience applies in a crucially important way to the experience of African Americans who are also LGBT.

The experience of belonging simultaneously to two oppressed minority communities can create a split in the soul, divided loyalties, internal war between competing agendas. Heath concludes that he and Cannick come down on opposite sides, vis-à-vis which of the competing sets of interests dominate their analysis of debates about gay human rights.

Cannick, who is an African-American lesbian, is an out and out racial exclusivist who states frankly, “There's nothing a white gay person can tell me when it comes to how I as a black lesbian should talk to my community about this issue.” Cannick’s essay against gay marriage as a priority rehearses claims often repeated within some black communities: that gay citizens enjoy socioeconomic privilege which exceeds that of most people of color; that the gay attempt to use the language of the black civil rights movement is illicit because the black movement was born in the churches and the gay movement is antithetical to the churches; and that marriage is a concern only of elite white gays, and not of the African-American LGBT community.

Heath responds to these arguments by noting that the exclusion of gay couples from marriage and all the privileges attendant on marriage further undermines the socioeconomic security of black gay and lesbian couples, which already have, on the whole, lower household incomes than do either black heterosexually married couples or white gay couples. Heath states politely but firmly that he will not allow Cannick ’s characterization of “the” black response to gay civil rights (including marriage) to speak for him, noting,

There are many paths to justice. We each chose ours for different, often deeply personal reasons. Sometimes they weave together in places where we need help and can help one another to keep going. Sometimes they part, but they inevitably cross again. We will meet each other many times on our winding paths to justice. We will need each other again. Let’s not put roadblocks in front of each other.

I find Terrance Heath’s argument far and away more cogent than Jasmyne Cannick’s. And I would hope that I do so not because I am white, or live in a racist culture, or have privilege. I do so because Heath’s argument is simply more humane—more thoughtful, more aware of nuances within the human experience in general (black or white, gay or straight), and therefore more willing to struggle with ambiguity to find commonality in human suffering beyond slogans and line-drawing.

Cannick’s argument is, I am sorry to say, racist. In its insistence that a black lesbian (or an African American in general) has nothing to learn from the experience of a white gay person, it truncates black experience from the experiences of any other marginal community that does not share the experience of marginalization due to color. This racist analysis siphons humanity from a community already subject to dehumanizing oppression. In that respect, it tragically mirrors white racism, which robs racist whites of their own humanity even as they try to dehumanize people of color.

When Coretta Scott King notes that some gay Americans stepped out courageously to defend the rights of African Americans when we ourselves did not even enjoy those same rights, she is noting that any marginalized community can build bridges of sympathy and solidarity to other marginalized communities by reflecting about what it means—as a human being—to experience unmerited suffering imposed from the outside. She is also noting the historic fact that those supporting black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s included a high proportion of gay and lesbian citizens, whose contributions should not be ignored.

Marginalization in and of itself does not lead to sympathy and solidarity with others who are marginalized. Indeed, it can lead to precisely the hard, recalcitrant defiance of solidarity—and willingness to oppress others—that seems to abide in the heart of Cannick’s argument.

But marginalization reflected on, taken into one’s soul and processed with humanity, can and often does lead to a willingness of those who have been marginalized to reach out and make common cause with others who are oppressed. It can and often does lead to a resolute determination never to oppress others as one is herself oppressed.

As Leonard Pitts notes . . . . In his recent “Some Blacks Forgot Sting of Discrimination” commenting on the African-American vote and proposition 8, Pitts grants that there is not full equivalence between the gay and the African-American struggles for human rights ( Gay people have not been enslaved. A war has not been fought to free us.

Nonetheless, Pitts sees commonality in the experience of the two marginalized communities struggling for human rights, a commonality that, in his view, ought to fuel African-American determination to reject any complicity with the oppression of gay Americans:

But that's not the same as saying blacks and gays have nothing in common. On the contrary, gay people, like black people, know what it's like to be left out, lied about, scapegoated, discriminated against, held up, beat down, denied a job, a loan or a life. And, too, they know how it feels to sit there and watch other people vote upon your very humanity, just as if those other people had a right. So beg pardon, but black people should know better.

What Pitts says here, and what Heath also notes, is something that demands to be said in response to Cannick. Just as some African-American commentators accuse gay citizens of lumping all African Americans together and making wild generalizations about “the” African-American community, Cannick illicitly stereotypes “white” gays, turning all of us into paragons of privilege.

And that is simply not where many of us live. Not only black gay couples but many white gay couples, as well, suffer economic and social deprivation because we are barred from the right to marry. Many of us live in one of the 31 states that do not even afford us legal protection from being fired simply because we are gay. Many of us have been fired solely because we were gay—when we have worked hard and given much.

Gay couples across the nation often experience discrimination when a spouse is hospitalized, and the other spouse is barred from the right to see the partner or to make medical decisions about him or her. The ways in which we can be targeted at work, our good work denied, our jobs taken away ultimately for one reason alone while other specious reasons are advanced: these are manifold.

And they have everything to do with those same forces that rabidly oppose gay marriage. What Cannick seems unable or unwilling to recognize is that those engineering the fight against gay marriage oppose all gay civil rights. The ultimate goal of this ugly end-game against gay human beings is not simply to bar gay citizens from the right to marry. It is to strip as many rights as possible from gay citizens everywhere in the land.

And that should concern Cannick. Lesbians and gay people of color occupy socioeconomic situations that are precarious enough, even where there are minimal rights for such citizens. Removing those rights everywhere in the land will disproportionately affect the very people for whom Cannick claims to be a spokesperson.

In analyzing political arguments, I long ago developed a hermeneutical principle that goes something like this: when those who claim to be your allies start saying the same thing that your enemy says, something is wrong. The ally shows herself not to be a friend but a foe when she channels to you the hate rhetoric of those who oppress you.

Sadly, this is precisely what Cannick is dong. When I listened to Dan Savage and Tony Perkins spar about proposition 8 on Anderson Cooper’s show earlier this week, I could not avoid hearing—God help me—echoes of Jasmyne Cannick running through all that Tony Perkins said (

Perkins is all over the black-gay divide regarding gay human rights. He is positively jubilant about that divide—as Cannick is. He crows and gloats along with Cannick that proposition 8 passed.

As does Bill O’Reilly. Cannick was on his show last night!—and not for the first time ( and Here’s the mind-boggling irony about where Jasmyne Cannick’s arguments have led her: she is now the darling of the right-wing media circuit, of the anti-gay (and deeply racist) right-wing media circuit.

And what terrible irony, when Cannick noted in a previous essay regarding gay marriage,

Our worth [i.e., the worth of people of color] in the gay civil rights movement, whether you choose to believe it or not, amounts to our willingness to be used in photo ops and carry their message of marriage to Blacks, putting aside all other issues. That’s it. Those of us who have been willing to do it have been rewarded handsomely for our time (

Out of her own mouth: though Ms. Cannick appears to resent (and should resent) the tokenist use of people of color in photo op ads for gay marriage, she herself is now being amply rewarded for her outspoken blacks-vs.-gays arguments by becoming a poster child for the likes of Bill O’Reilly.

I only hope that as Ms. Cannick plays into the hands of these lowlifes, she calls her new allies on their racism as strongly as she has been calling the mainstream gay community on its racism. Tony Perkins’s ties to one of the most strident racists in the land, David Duke of Perkins’s home state of Louisiana, were probed as long ago as 2005 by Max Blumenthal in the Nation (

In 1996 Perkins bought the mailing list of Duke, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, for $82,000. Perkins was then campaign manager for a Republican candidate for the Senate from Louisiana, “Woody” Jenkins. As Blumenthal notes, the Federal Election Commission fined Jenkins for seeking to hide Duke’s contribution to his campaign. Perkins denies having known of Duke’s contribution to the Jenkins campaign (

Yes, the religious and political right—with a sordid history of overt racism—are all over the black-gay divide these days (see e.g.,, which has predictably been linked to the religious right LifeSite news site).* And there, right in the their midst, stands Jasmyne Cannick, an African-American lesbian. Something is wrong with this picture.

Can Cannick truly be unaware of the deliberate attempt of the religious and political right to exploit divisions between the black and gay communities for some time now—to divide and conquer in order to consolidate the power of the men who rule us, white men like Perkins and O’Reilly? Straight white men.

I’ve documented that attempt at length on this blog. I won’t repeat all I have said about it. It’s not hard to find abundant evidence for this longstanding strategy of division and what it intends. It is easy to follow the money, to see how economically privileged right-wing interest groups (largely comprised of white men purporting to be straight) are doing all they can to fund movements in mainline churches like the Methodist, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches, to pit people of color against gay persons.

Using precisely the argument Cannick herself advances . . . . Namely, that the quest for human rights by people of color is authentic and biblically mandated, whereas the quest for human rights by LGBT persons is inauthentic and not rooted in the core values of religious communities. I have written at length about these issues, and won’t repeat myself here.

I can only hope that as Cannick poses for her photo ops on FOX news, she listens to the powerful words of fellow African Americans like Leonard Pitts, who comes to very different conclusions than she does. In the article I cited previously, Pitts states,

Yes, I know. I can hear some black folk yelling at me from here, wanting me to know it's not the same, what gays have gone through and what black people did, wanting me to know they acted from sound principles and strong values. It is justification and rationalization, and I've heard it all before. I wish they would explain to me how they can, with a straight face, use arguments against gay people that were first tested and perfected against us.

Or perhaps Cannick will listen to Princeton professor of politics and African-American studies Melissa Harris Lacewell, who told Rachel Maddow in an MSNBC interview I cited a few days ago, “Communities of color demonstrated an awfully bigoted vote [with proposition 8].”

For my part, I have to conclude that when I hear someone who appears on the surface to be a friend and ally saying to me precisely what my enemies and oppressors say to me, I perk up my ears. I know that something is wrong when that happens.

As I’ve stated on this blog, I have had the gruesome experience of having had my life and work interrupted by an African-American woman to whom I reported in a previous workplace, who talked solidarity but walked oppression. She did so in part because she herself was answerable to a United Methodist bishop—a white man—who has made a name for himself as a defender of homophobia in his church. In turn, in her crusade to attack me as an unapologetically gay man, she was aided and abetted by a Mormon woman and a Southern Baptist one, both white, both jealous of my position and intent on undermining me. Both unwilling to respect me because I am gay; both secure in their jobs after hounding me out of mine, both unapologetic about their message to me that my humanity counts less than theirs does.

I could, if I so chose, use these experiences to conclude that all black people, or all African-American feminists, or all Mormons, or every Southern Baptist, or the Methodists in general, are the enemy. I could wash my hands of people from each group as Jasmyne Cannick appears willing to do with white gays.

But what good does it do for me to write off all members of any ethnic or religious group? Within each of those groups of people, I may find both oppressors and those willing to stand in solidarity with me as a gay man. For every African-American woman willing to sell herself out to the white male power structure in church or society as a token representative of the "good" minority groups—and I've met such women and seen how they are rewarded for selling themselves to those men—there are two more refusing to sell out.

When those with whom I have hoped to make common cause in the struggle for every human being to find a place at the table refuse to walk with me, the humane reaction—I’m convinced—is to look for solidarity with someone else. For everyone who talks but doesn’t walk, there are others aplenty out there willing to walk, if we don’t burn the bridges to them and their communities.

*Hat tip to Waldo Lydecker's Journal for this citation, and a profound thanks to Waldo Lydecker for linking to and recommending Bilgrimage recently.