Monday, December 1, 2008

Charles Blow and Pam Spaulding on Black Women and Prop 8

I’ve said several times on this blog how much I appreciate Pam Spaulding. I find her consistently insightful, engaged, articulate, and balanced—rarely balanced. I’m impressed today by her comments about Charles Blow’s recent op-ed piece in the New York Times regarding polling data about black women and proposition 8 (;jsessionid=BF8070BF4306460C2CC0A446D621D258?diaryId=8449, and

Blow notes that, while it is inaccurate and unfair to blame African Americans for the success of proposition 8, “the fact remains that a strikingly high percentage of blacks said they voted to ban same-sex marriage in California.” He draws attention, in particular, to polling data suggesting that 75% of black women in California may have voted to remove the right of marriage from gay citizens.

Blow advances a number of theories to explain this finding, and offers suggestions about ways for the LGBT community to build effective dialogue with the African-American community regarding gay marriage. He notes that black women tend to be churched, and as a result, tend to have conservative views on moral issues.

In his view, another factor deserves consideration as well: “Marriage can be a sore subject for black women in general.” Blow notes that black women are more likely than all other groups of women to be unmarried, and more likely to be divorced. As he maintains, “Women who can’t find a man to marry might not be thrilled about the idea of men marrying each other.”

In Blow’s view, the LGBT community will not be successful in engaging African-American women if it debates religious issues (“the Bible”), or compares the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage with the struggle to legalize cross-racial marriage. Blow thinks that the most successful way for the gay community to talk about the issue of gay marriage with black women is to address the health costs of silence regarding sexual orientation in the African-American community—that is, to note data showing that HIV infection continues to rise precipitously among black women, while the African-American community maintains silence about issues of sexual orientation.

Pam Spaulding responds to Blow in the posting I cite above. In particular, she subjects his three suggestions to the gay community to searching critical inspection. Re: the first suggestion—that the LGBT community needs to refrain from discussing the Bible—Pam Spaulding argues,

[W]e cannot throw up our hands and cede a "religious beliefs" or bible-based excuse to those who don't support marriage equality. The Right and black religious conservatives don't own religion. There are black leaders of faith who do support equality, and they need to be front and center and supported by the LGBT community to do outreach.

In Spaulding’s view, too many LGBT leaders refuse to engage the black community about religious issues and write off both the black religious community and the black community in general (as if it is monolithic) because this engagement creates discomfort in the gay community. Spaulding thinks that irrational fear of the Other and lack of cultural awareness causes many gays of the dominant culture to “write off the demo rather than confronting racial, religious, and cultural differences through outreach . . . .”

I’m impressed with Pam Spaulding’s consistent attempt to build bridges between the LGBT community and the African-American community. The cross-cultural dialogue she embodies in her own thinking is exceptionally difficult: it requires holding several points of view, and several loyalties, in tension. It’s easier to collapse one’s loyalties into primary and subordinate loyalties—to privilege either sexual orientation or race, if one happens to be, as Pam Spaulding is, both black and gay. It is easier to construct what Keith Boykin, in an excerpt cited today by Waldo Lydecker, calls a "hierarchy of oppression": easier, that is, to define black suffering due to racism as real suffering and gay suffering due to homophobia as illicit suffering (

I welcome Pam Spaulding’s attempt to create a dialogic space for this cross-cultural conversation, and her call to the gay community not to write off all African Americans. The health of our culture demands such difficult conversation. The health of both the gay community and communities of color demands such conversation, impossible though it sometimes seems.

At the same time, I have to note—as I have noted several times on this blog—that creating that space and keeping it open for dialogue is not easy. I will have to admit that when I first read Charles Blow’s piece, I felt defeated by it. Like Pam Spaulding, I am not persuaded that it is in anyone’s best interest for us to give up the battle to wrest ownership of religion from the hands of the religious right. I keep blogging here precisely because I believe this is a crucial task for our culture, if we want to build a participatory democracy (and to safeguard faith commitment from religious and political ideologues who distort the meaning of that commitment).

But I also understand the frustration and fatigue of gays who don't happen to be black and who are tempted to give up on the black community. I understand the discomfort. To many of us who have sought to engage in these dialogues, the reaction of the African-American community (or of some of its spokespersons) can seem fiercely defensive, to an extent that positively defies conversation. One can only be told so many times that these are issues for the African-American community to resolve for itself and on its own terms, before one politely accedes and walks away.

And I say this as someone who committed himself at the beginning of his academic career to work in HBCUs, precisely because he was committed to addressing racism. And who committed himself to enter that dialogue as a learner and not a messianic savior figure. And who has found himself rather decisively expelled from that conversation precisely due to the fearsome homophobia of a particular African-American leader, who refuses to address issues of sexual orientation while she demands respectful attention to her insights as a black female.

I have come to think that, to a large extent, the frustration and fatigue of many of us in the gay community vis-a-vis dialogue with perople of color is a necessary response, as long as there are strong dynamics within the African-American community that react immediately to attempts at dialogue on the part of members of the dominant community as culturally ignorant or unconsciously racist. To a large extent, the African-American community has to resolve questions of homophobia and sexual orientation on its own terms, in-house—until it is willing to open dialogic spaces that do not automatically invalidate the testimony of gay people who happen to be white, and that do not exclude the testimony of such witnesses when those witnesses ask questions that the black community does not wish to hear.

Pam Spaudling’s posting about these issues ends by asking, “Where do we go from here?” In my view, the only healthy place to go is a dialogic space. And that space must be opened by members of the African-American community such as Pam Spaulding who want to carry on this dialogue. But to be an effective dialogic space, it also must be a safe space, a space in which people are free to talk freely without being attacked as racist before they have even begun to talk.

It is, I believe, this fear—and the experience of being so stigmatized, repeatedly—that inhibits the attempt of many gay members of the dominant culture from engaging in the much-needed cross-cultural dialogue with people of color. And I think that the primary responsibility for addressing these issues belongs to African Americans themelves. Not much is going to change until African-American leaders—and, in particular, black church leaders—begin to call for healty dialogue about these issues, which welcomes the insights of the gay community.