Waking Up To Common Ground

From the February 1994 issue of CrossRoads (#38); for more information, e-mail crossroads-info@igc.apc.org

Kenya Briggs takes a look at conflict and opportunities for dialogue -- between the African American and lesbian/gay/bisexual communities.

There is common ground between the African American and the lesbian/gay/bisexual communities of this society. Both have been and continue to be disenfranchised by a largely monolithic power structure. Both suffer the burden of stereotypical labels which suggest that they are less than human and are not worthy of dignity. Both are compelled to demand equal rights based on the humiliating argument that they cannot help the ways in which they differ from straight, white males. Perhaps most importantly, both share a common population lesbians, gays and bisexuals of African descent.

However, today it seems that the differences between these two groups have become more apparent than their commonalties. To understand why, we must examine several factors: history, politics, the dynamics of racism in the lesbian/gay/bisexual community and homophobia in the African American community, and the impact of right-wing manipulation on two groups which right wingers have historically regarded as "the enemy."

While the issue of lesbian/gay/bisexual equal rights is, in fact, a civil rights issue (and not a moral issue, as leaders of the right-wing camp portend) the history of and the struggle for lesbian/gay/bisexual civil rights is different from that of the Black civil rights movement. There is nothing wrong or strange about this. To quote from esteemed African American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., prejudices "...don't exist in the abstract; they all come with distinctive and distinguishing historical peculiarities." However, many leaders in the African American community perceive that lesbians, gays and bisexuals have been too quick to appropriate the language and tactics of the African American civil rights movement. They fear that posing the two movements as equivalent undermines the impact of the African American equality movement of the 1960s, and that community's continued struggle today.


Perhaps the single issue that has caused the most tension between the African American and the lesbian/gay/bisexual communities has been the proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military. Many leaders in the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement are drawing parallels between banning gays in the military today and the segregation of Blacks in the military 50 years ago. Gay leaders feel strongly that removing the ban could help change attitudes towards gays in the same way that integrating the military helped to change attitudes towards Blacks after World War II. They point out that many of the same arguments used to justify segregating the military then are being used to justify excluding gays today. This view is being echoed by some heterosexuals in the African American community: "They said we were too promiscuous, were cowardly and lazy." says Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia. "Some of the same things are being said about gays. There are all kinds of soldiers who are lazy, cowardly and promiscuous, and it has nothing to do with race or sexual orientation." In fact, many community leaders both gay and straight argue that the segregation of Blacks and the ban on gays in the military have had more to do with protecting the prejudices of the majority, while sacrificing the rights of those in the minority. Commentator Deborah Mathis eloquently describes this as: "The right to deny equality to certain people because certain others might not like their having it."

However, there are leading African American voices (including that of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Colin Powell) which are adamant that race and sexuality are completely separate issues especially when it comes the United States military. Lieutenant General Calvin Waller, the highest ranking African American officer in the Gulf War, went on record with this statement: "I had no choice regarding my race when I was delivered from my mother's womb...To compare my service in America's armed forces with the integration of avowed homosexuals is personally offensive to me." While General Waller's statement was probably prompted by a personal fear and hatred of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, it does point to a very real breach in communication and understanding between the two communities.

Part of the blame for this must rest on a lack of foresight and proactive coalition building with communities of color perpetuated by past and present leaders of the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement. It is obvious that these leaders now recognize the importance of an alliance with the African American community. They wish to utilize the vision and wisdom of the African American civil rights movement to obtain legally mandated equality for every lesbian, gay and bisexual American. (For example, hundreds of thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women and men participate in a huge march on the U.S. capital every several years. This is an emulation of the first March on Washington by African Americans some 30 years ago to demand their civil rights; a march conceived, ironically enough, by a gay man of African descent.)

But how often have leaders in the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement publicly decried the disproportionate percentage of African American males incarcerated each year in the American prison system? Or the staggering drop-out rate among African American high school students? How much of the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement's time, money and person power have been committed to combating drugs, or helping to fix roads and revitalize businesses in African American neighborhoods? How often do lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders attend African American community meetings and ask:

"What can we do to help?" Of course, the argument can be made that few African American leaders have done these kinds of things for the lesbian/gay/bisexual community. But, then again, the African American community is not looking to the gay community for direction and vision in its quest for civil rights.

The lesbian/gay/bisexual community has made a strategic error in assuming to call the African American community its ally without first laying the groundwork for proper coalition building. It has insulted many African American leaders by laying claim to a legacy that it (the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement in general) had very little to do with creating. While the African American community certainly hasn't cornered the market on civil rights and social justice, the fruits of its people's bravery and sacrifice, and the certainty of their allegiance, should not be taken for granted. The lesbian/gay/bisexual community can not be so quick to take without also giving.


Of course, the gay movement has many important and powerful supporters in the African American community Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King and the NAACP just to name a few. But to broaden its support among African Americans, lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders will have to broaden their agenda to include issues of importance to the Black community. One sure way to accomplish this is for lesbians, gays and bisexuals of African descent to take an active role in the dialogue between the gay and African American communities. Unfortunately, Black lesbians, gays and bisexuals have not been made a visible and vocal part of this debate. While the gay community is as racially diverse as this county's overall population, white men and women have always been its most visible and empowered members.

The African American heterosexual community has similarly rendered invisible its lesbian, gay and bisexual population. While many African leaders maintain that homophobia is not a problem in their community, openly gay African Americans are rarely identified as community leaders. Furthermore, their issues are often marginalized with the implication that homosexual issues are basically "white" issues, and are therefore not important to the African American community as a whole. (This, of course, could not be farther from the truth. AIDS, for example, has long been categorized by many heterosexual leaders in the African American community as a gay, white, male disease. However, AIDS is now infecting heterosexual men, women and children in the African American community at an alarming rate.) The marginalization of African American lesbians, gays and bisexuals by both the Black and gay communities has resulted in the exclusion of the most essential voices from a necessary dialogue voices which can best articulate the issues of both communities in ways that non-African American gays, and heterosexual Blacks can understand.

Perhaps the biggest question facing African American leaders in this controversy is the following: Can African Americans successfully fight racial discrimination in this country without also supporting the fight for lesbian/gay/bisexual civil rights? Or, more specifically, can a society that is permitted to discriminate against any one of its members be trusted to ensure the liberty of any class, any race, any group of people who are not part of the social majority?


There are, today, some leaders in the African American community who are building coalitions with right-wing Christian fundamentalists against the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement. May of these African American leaders are ministers who are joining with right-wing Christian leaders to call homosexuality an "abomination before God." This interpretation of certain sections of the Bible would seem to be all that these African American leaders have in common with Christian fundamentalists. The right wing has long been -- and continues to be an enemy of the African American civil rights movement. But the influence of the Christian right wing must not be underestimated . Fundamentalists are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to align themselves with Black religious leaders against gays. They are reaching out into African American communities in ways that lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders have neglected.

Right-wing homophobes are even circulating an anti-gay video among African American religious leaders. The video juxtaposes African American civil rights footage from the 1960s with images of contemporary gay civil rights marches. It features interviews with right-wing leaders who accuse lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders of demanding "special rights." (In much the same way, right-wingers accused Blacks of demanding special rights and attacked affirmative action programs during the Reagan-Bush era.) The video depicts lesbians, gays and bisexuals as child molesters and sexual perverts, and "reveals" that the lesbian/gay/bisexual agenda is not equal rights, but rather the domination and conversion of the entire world! Most African American leaders, Christian or otherwise, will see through this type of hate-filled and distorted propaganda. Nevertheless, the gay movement needs to be very concerned with the right wing's use of money and manipulative religious rhetoric to undermine the gay struggle for civil rights in African American communities. It is an unfortunate fact that there are some very vocal homophobes in the African American community. Ironically, their fear and hatred of lesbians, gays and bisexuals may guide them into the waiting arms of the original oppressor: a white, male, fundamentalist-led movement bent on making the world over in its own image.

Recently, the issues of religion and gay rights collided in San Francisco, in a controversy sparked by an insensitive, homophobic, statement made by a local African American minister. The Rev. Eugene Lumpkin, while serving as a commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, told a local reporter that homosexuality is an "abomination" against God. Lumpkin also suggested that AIDS is a punishment for homosexual behavior. He was eventually dismissed from the Human Rights Commission for his anti-gay statements. The incident ignited tempers in both the lesbian/gay/bisexual and the African American communities. Gays accused Lumpkin and the African American ministry of homophobia and gay-bashing. African Americans accused the gay community of racism, elitism and religion-bashing. Even the Rev. Lou Sheldon, of the fundamentalist Traditional Values Coalition, got into the fray. His group intended to use the fighting as an opportunity to drive a wedge even further between the gay and African American communities.

But the instigative tactics of Sheldon and his crew were thwarted. Leaders from San Francisco's African American and lesbian/gay/bisexual communities have decided to use this incident as an opportunity to initiate dialogue. It isn't a perfect dialogue, but it is the beginning of communication, interaction and, hopefully, understanding between some of the leaders of these two communities. It is a dialogue that includes the voices of lesbians, gays and bisexuals of African descent. And it is the beginning of a process which has been slow in coming, and is long overdue.

[QRD main page] Last updated: 25 May 1995 by Chuck Tarver