CommunityPam's House Blend

Ballot initiatives provide a wake up call to the LGBT community about race (updated)

NOTE: I have updated this essay to incorporate some of the questions raised in the thread, some of the answers I gave, as well as comments I’ve made on other blogs and e-lists in response to the original post (I’ve preserved that here).

I didn’t think this would happen in my lifetime. We did it – we jettisoned the right-wing and its failed policies out into deep space and made history in the process. We did it with a diverse coalition of citizens – people who look like the America of the future, not the past. It will be a joy to see the Obama family restore dignity to the White House.

But it is a bittersweet moment. While we have crossed one threshold, marriage amendments in Arizona, Florida and California have passed. In Arkansas, voters decided to ban the ability of gay and lesbian couples to adopt a child. To put things in perspective, voters in California handily approved another measure to improve the health and well-being of livestock – “Standards for Confining Farm Animals,” but were content to eliminate the existing right of gays and lesbians to marry.

It makes it quite clear that equality is in the eye of the beholder, and we must reconcile the fact that some of the same people who marked that ballot for Barack Obama did not see fit to vote to prevent discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. 

And now I feel that a giant snowball of blame game is about to roll over and crush me on this front. Who voted for Yes on 8 is clear now, as exit polls show 70% of blacks, (with black women at 74%) voted for the amendment. That’s about 20 points higher than any other racial group. But the blame needs to be put into perspective – blacks represent only 6.2% of California’s population and they were about 10% of those who voted.  One reader noted this decision in the Sunshine State:

That was certainly the case in Florida in the passage of Amendment 2. One of the groups fighting it made it very clear that they were going to do no outreach whatsoever to the black community. I fear this was a fatal flaw.

…I believe by failing to deal with the elephant in the room, so to speak, we missed the opportunity to not only move the black community but also engage them in a dialog that is much needed and position ourselves to improve understanding between our two communities.

For those of us who are black and gay, a group too often marginalized within a marginalized community, I see this as a clear signal to the LGBT advocacy community. There hasn’t been enough outreach to those groups who voted against us. We haven’t reached them; there hasn’t been enough effort expended.

I’ve been blogging for years about the need to discuss race in regards to LGBT issues. I hope that this is now the wakeup call for our “professional gays” out there who represent us to come out of their comfort zones and help bridge this concrete education gap. The belief that white=gay is big part of the problem, and as long as black LGBTs are invisible in their own communities and there is a dearth of color in the public face of LGBT leadership, the socially conservative black community can remain in denial that I exist as a black lesbian. 

But the losses are about more than these racial hurdles. I thank Darkrose for her diary “Blame the Brown People = Recipe for Failure.” It puts the defeats in perspective. A snippet:

It seems like the frame for the passage of Prop 8 is going to be “It’s because Obama’s candidacy caused increased black turnout, and the black community is homophobic.” Never mind that it was voters 65 and over who put Prop 8 over the top, or that one of the whitest institutions in America–the Mormon Church–funnelled millions of dollars from Utah to California to make sure that 8 passed. The parts of the state that went solid for 8 were the inland areas, which are overwhelmingly white.

…It wasn’t a black group that put Prop 8 on the ballot, and paid the signature-gatherers and bankrolled the ads. Nor is it fair to say that Obama’s have-it-both-ways position meant that black voters were going to march sheeplike to the polls and vote as Obama dictated.

Writing off an entire race as hopelessly unenlightened isn’t going to help.

There have been immediate defensive reactions and confused interpretation of my post’s point at my pad that don’t surprise me. They read it somehow as an attack rather than a call for a collective focus on the issue. My reply to one reader:

“Who is blaming whites for homophobia in the black community? No one caused the homophobia, but it is the responsibility of all of us to do that outreach to change hearts and minds.

My point is that the discomfort that many whites have about race (little exposure to and no deep personal relationships with any POC) has an impact on dealing with communities of color when it comes to outreach. That results in a failure to educate. That’s not an indictment of whites or dropping the “racist bomb”, it simply partially explains why you see few POC at the head of LGBT organizations (or even populating those staffs). 

It’s much the same as straight people are more comfortable with LGBTs-and our issues-if they know someone who is LGBT. The discomfort melts away. ”

There is a lot of work to do, and we have to be willing to accept this challenge to communicate and bridge these gaps. All of us. I added this comment in response to another knee-jerk reaction:

“My comments-and your reaction-are what keep the discussion about the lack of communication between white (dominated LGBT) establishment and communities of color that leads to less information being disseminated. This can be addressed if people own up to the fact that unexamined white privilege and black defensiveness plays a role in the silence. We can do something about that if we want to.  We all have biases. It doesn’t make anyone evil, it only needs to be named and accounted for so we can all move forward.

Too often the reaction to my raising this to run to see the extreme rather than a request that we stop hiding from hurdles we have on these issues.

Who is supposed to educate the (socially conservative) religious black community – is it seen as only a “black problem” to be dealt with by the LGBT blacks already underrepresented in our orgs? That’s my fear. As a community we stress the support we need from allies. It’s sad that when it comes to this scenario, everyone runs for cover. It’s time to talk, not retreat to corners.”

We all must do outreach as we do with other constituencies. I don’t pretend to have an answer to this, mind you, I’m asking that we open up a dialogue about the hurdles that exist but we rarely discuss.

After all, I am a non-practicing Episcopalian. I have views and life experience that differs from the “churched.” Just because I am black doesn’t give me any special power to communicate to the social conservative black religious community. But we obviously have let this community remain off of the education radar because of assumptions and discomfort with engaging those who are different, then it creates a vicious cycle.

In fact, you could say that a white/Latino, etc. person of faith might have a better chance at breaking through this barrier than an unchurched person of color, but maybe not. Perhaps the best conduit is through members of the LGBT black religious community.

The bottom line is that we need to have those strategic discussions instead of writing them off completely. If we truly believe every vote counts (and the black community is otherwise mostly politically aligned with progressive views), then to avoid a group out of discomfort makes no sense. 

Perhaps with a fresh administration, and new players in the mix, we will all be forced to challenge ourselves to really communicate on a host of challenging issues of this kind.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding