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Karen Ocamb: Cultural Incompetence Is Hurting Us

NOTE FROM PAM: Journalist Karen Ocamb makes some spot-on observations in this piece. I will have a post in the same vein up later.

For as long as I have been covering the post-Prop 8 rallies, town halls, and strategy meetings, I have never seen the high-octane grassroots activists sit still and hush up for anyone as they did for former Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand on Sunday. This is what complete respect looks like.

Hildebrand was brought to Los Angeles by Courage Campaign Founder Rick Jacobs for the Next Steps Meeting during which activists discussed ballot language for an initiative to repeal Prop 8 and how to proceed – whether they wind up going back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012.

But the meeting was not all sweetness and light and healing of the fractured and hurt LGBT community. Jeffrey King, director of In The Meantime, a health and awareness group for black gay men and one of the few people of color in the room, challenged Hildebrand and the marriage activists about their approach to the black community. Be careful about comparing the struggle for marriage equality to the historic movement for civil rights, he said, because many people in the African American community see that as a sign of disrespect.

Hildebrand made clear his fondness for and attraction to African American men, gay and straight, saying he meant no offense. But he also made clear that marriage equality IS a civil rights issue – though as a white man – and as marriage advocates – he and the group needed Jeffrey’s help in reaching out to the black community on the issue.

(Please see my story on the Next Steps Meeting here –

and my extensive interview with Steve Hildebrand here – )

The issue seemed settled as Hildebrand moved on to take other questions – he later sought out Jeffrey for a personal one-on-one conversation.

Whether we go back to the ballot in 2010 or 2012 will likely be answered in the next few days. Equality California is announcing their recommendation Wednesday and the Courage Campaign has set a financial benchmark of $200,000 by Thursday (money to do the necessary research on ballot language – the ballot is due to the attorney general’s office by Sept. 25). If they fail to meet that amount by then, Jacobs says it means they will have to wait until 2012 to return to the ballot.  

But there are deeper issues at stake here, one of which is this: no one has seriously addressed cultural competency in relation to the intensely complicated issue of marriage. Actually, political consultant Richie Ross, who received his training from United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez, did discuss the impact of culture on Latino voters at the big meeting in San Bernardino – but no one really followed up.

Let me put it this way: if you heard an elected or community leader say something you perceived to be homophobic – even if they followed up with an apology – wouldn’t you always have that slight in the back of your mind when you heard that person’s name?

So how do you imagine straight (and some LGBT) African Americans might feel if you even mentioned “gay marriage” after weeks of having blamed the whole race for passing Prop 8? The very few largely unpublicized utterances of apology – or perhaps more accurately, “mistakes were made” – by some LGBT leaders is not sufficient to sooth the hurt that caused.

And then there are the nuanced slights that escape notice by many whites but are tossed in the ever-expanding pile of reasons to distrust white gays.

More below the fold.Here’s an example.  The meeting was held at Jewel’s Catch One Disco – the first and oldest black gay disco in the world. But the information about where the disco is located says “South LA.” That’s inaccurate. Jewel’s Catch One is located in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles, which incorporates Koreatown and a burgeoning Latino population. However, since Jewel Thais-Williams is a well-known black lesbian and her club tends to cater to black LGBT people – there was an assumption that Catch One must be located in the city’s primary African American district  of South LA.  

The idea promoted by LGBTs that “we are everywhere” (not all LGBTs are white and live in West Hollywood) applies to African Americans, too. But we tend to categorize in micro-regions for convenience.

This might seem like minutia in the vast landscape of cultural competence – but it’s not. It’s still a matter of respect.

So is appearing properly attired when attending an African American event or meeting with black leaders.

From this we might move into understanding the distinction between how someone views someone else’s personal behavior as their own business – versus asking someone about their opinion of gay marriage, which will probably yield a Bible-based diatribe about how it’s unnatural and against God’s will. Jump into a comparison of marriage equality with civil rights – and, as Jeffrey King tried to point out to Steve Hildebrand – that’s a whole other story.

Meanwhile – many of the black gays with whom I’ve spoken – say yes, we want marriage – but it is NOT one of our top priorities. Right now, many black gays in California are worried about the AIDS budget cuts.

Meanwhile – many of the black gays with whom I’ve spoken – say yes, we want marriage – but it is NOT one of our top priorities. Right now, many black gays in California are worried about the AIDS budget cuts. Jeffrey’s written about that on Bilerico here – and San Francisco-based Sidney Brinkly has posted about it, too.

And while we applaud straight allies Alice Huffman, president of the California chapter of the NAACP, and Rev. Eric Lee, president of the Los Angeles chapter of SCLC, for their stance on marriage equality in defiance of their respective national civil rights organizations – we call them “courageous” and don’t really deal with how the NAACP and SCLC (Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference) can be “neutral” on an issue they KNOW is discriminatory.

How do we move them?

In my humble opinion, it’s not fair to say to black LGBTs – they’re your people, you know them, you deal and work with them, you bring them around.

If we really believe our struggle is about freedom, equality and justice, that means we all have to do our part. And I would suggest that means we do our homework and learn cultural competency  – about the beautiful rainbow spectrum of diversity that the LGBT represents.  

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding