A couple of Fridays ago, I was on my couch reading a novel when my cell phone started buzzing. Friends around the country were texting heartfelt messages congratulating New York for becoming the sixth state in the United States to pass a gay marriage bill into law. My response to the news was an audible “meh,” and I returned to my book.
My ambivalence about gay marriage is an echo of things past and reflects an unexpressed feeling that, as a gay woman of color, I am still separate from the larger collective of gay people often featured as the face of the movement. On June 25, the day after the gay marriage bill passed in New York, many of the celebration photos posted on television news programs and on the Internet showed ecstatic, glowing white faces. A perusal of the background of these images showed a scant smattering of brown faces among the crowd. Being part of a minority group—black lesbians—I felt even farther away from what was a genuine political victory for the larger gay community.
This feeling of exclusion is something I’ve heard again and again among friends and colleagues. Gay community organizer Kenyon Farrow, who is also the former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice, says it best: “The marriage equality movement has bet its chips on this strategy of painting the LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] community as white, upper-class, kind of gay/lesbian versions of ‘Donna Reed’ and ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ If your strategy is normalizing gay people in that respect, that’s always going to benefit white people more because even straight black people aren’t seen as normal. It means that black LGBT people, when they look at those images and the way in which the movement is talking about itself, don’t feel particularly moved by it.”
Sensing the emotional and economic distance that is felt within LGBT communities of color from the gay community at large, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group (GMHC) under CEO Dr. Marjorie Hill issued a statement nine days before the passage of the New York same-sex marriage bill emphasizing the benefits of marriage equality for black and Latino/a gay couples and their families. Citing census records, GMHC noted that, “those with the most at stake in the current debate are black and Latino/a same-sex couples, and especially black and Latina lesbian couples. This is because those in black and Latino/a same-sex relationships are more likely to be raising children than white same-sex partners. They also earn less, on average, and are more likely to rent than own their home.” The argument here is that under the new marriage laws, these families will have economic protections and “peace of mind” should unforeseen occurrences befall a parent.
However, in order to benefit from these protections, we have to get married—something the press is fond of admonishing people of color, especially straight black women, for not doing.
What’s missing from the conversation about the perceived ambivalence of blacks and Hispanics on marriage, regardless of sexual identity, are the unconventional family structures that exist within these communities and how these relationships influence the meaning of marriage. These handmade families are connected by deep love, loyalty and a shared sense of pulling together in the face of economic and social plights that often take precedence over what is seen as a “traditional” family. For many of us, it wasn’t a mom and dad that raised us, it was Grandma Viv and Auntie Carol along with Ms. Mary down street and Uncle Larry, who sometimes sent money to support us all. These constructed families have become a distinct defining point for people of color in general, and have been used as a weapon to attack and exclude us from the large conversation about what constitutes an “American family.”
“Because we are dealing with social, economic and institutionalized factors, our fight is different, so our family composition is different,” says Ricardo Muñiz, a New York City social worker. “This whole American dream about 1.8 kids and a white picket fence is mainly a white American dream. White people have been buying into that dream for hundreds of years. People of color and oppressed communities have not had access to that dream until they have gotten to a certain socio-economic and education level. So for many of us, it is fairly recent access and we’ve been forced to come up with different family structures in order to survive.”
This particular perspective resonates strongly with the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), a New York-based organization that strives to address the multi-tiered issues facing the lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, transgender, non-conforming communities of color. In a conversation with ALP’s co-director Collette Carter, it became clear that this practice of prioritizing struggles stretches across gay and straight lines.
“A lot of our issues that we work on here at the ALP are on shifting community attitudes. Issues of survival, access to housing, access to benefits, access to health care,” Carter says. “So we acknowledge the fact that marriage has passed is an event in itself, but at the ALP it’s not necessarily a priority issue particularly when you are talking about communities of color…The law is one thing, but actually changing the minds and the social economy of how people are viewed and valued is a whole other game. And we are in the game of changing the social construct of how people are engaged with one another.”
Changing hearts and minds is an ongoing struggle in and of itself. For black and Hispanic gays, the fight is bracketed with so much marginalization (race, gender, class) that it has become easier to sit outside the gay rights mainstream in favor of tackling the everyday battles of existing within our own neighborhoods. Growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., I learned early on that exhibiting any behavior that can be remotely perceived as lesbian was going to get me into trouble.
When I got my first short haircut in my teens—out of the sheer frustration of dealing with relaxers and not out of any need to declare my sexuality—my barber had to be convinced that I could handle what may come after I got out of his chair. The patina of his worry held the revulsion that he might somehow be responsible for unleashing me on the unsuspecting, good people of Bed-Stuy.
That I had to carry both my fear and his was a weight that stayed with me as I negotiated not only my community, but my cultural standing with black movement groups I got involved with at my university. While I am comfortable in my skin now, back then the idea of marrying another woman was not the most pressing issue on my mind. And frankly, it still isn’t.
“My biggest issue with the fight for gay marriage is the fact that there are still places in this country where a gay person can be fired or denied a place to live because they are gay,” says my friend Kim, an African-American woman who lives with her partner in Brooklyn. “And based on geography and economics, gay folks of color are the ones most impacted by these discriminatory practices. Just imagine if those hundreds of millions were poured into issues that impact the gay masses or even real social justice. For me this feels like a class issue. A bunch of privileged folks who wants to be treated like everyone else—except, of course, the poor black lesbians living in Mississippi.”
I’m with Kenyon Farrow in believing that for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) people of color the real fight is in cultural changes, which can then lead to the active pursuit of policies that, with larger community support, will benefit us all. One of the biggest hurdles for gays of color is the black church that, as a pillar of social activism in many of our communities, has used its considerable influence to further marginalize and denigrate gays, many of whom are the greatest contributors to community uplift. Positive changes start at home, and as we begin to actively work ourselves out of the margins of our own neighborhoods, then we would have defined yet another movement of our own, without seeking to find reflection in circles where we are nominally considered or represented.
I wrote this article for TheLoop21 this week, where you can view the original piece.