the need for alliance building: fighting racism and homophobia

A friend of mine is working on a zine about queer politics and has asked me to write something. Below the cut is the draft I have so far — pretty rough, but a start. Related to this, today I got invited on Facebook to Gays on Strike (link will probably only work if you’re logged into Facebook). This event calls for gays (and I should note that the words ‘lesbian,’ ‘bisexual,’ ‘queer,’ ‘transgender,’ and others are not included in this event description) to go on strike on February 19, 2009, to protest bans on same-sex marriage. The event and its description seem problematic to me for a variety of reasons. One is that the event is on MLK Day, which seems to me to be too simply piggybacking on the civil rights movements of African Americans (see my discussion below the cut).

But perhaps this gem reveals my discomfort the most: “With an African American president– you would hope that civil liberties wouldn’t have to be a fight.” This is a sort of shaming tactic: that because someone is marginalized in one way, they should be aware of the ways in which others are oppressed. Of course, when I hear this type of statement from a white gay or lesbian person (“s/he’s black, surely s/he must understand that gay rights are necessary”), I rarely hear that same white gay or lesbian person discuss their own implication in a racist structure (that is, how they benefit from white privilege and are combating racism). The ultimate effect is that marginalized folks (but especially African Americans) are held up to a higher ethical code than straight white men.

Another problem with the rhetoric of this site: “You want to protect families? : Ban divorce. Protecting families is a bit different than causing 18,000 of them to be forced apart.” As someone noted in the comments on the event page, this is hardly the rhetoric LGBT activists need to be using, especially when we consider how divorce has helped women in oppressive situations get out of awful marriages. Of course, I don’t think the creators of this page are actually endorsing banning divorce, but the suggestion seems so ridiculous and anti-woman and anti-liberty…

Of course, longtime readers and friends know that I don’t care for marriage. I think the institution of marriage is too corrupted and historically anti-woman to be a viable option. Additionally, I think the state’s endorsement of marriage is an infringement on what Habermas calls the lifeworld; I don’t need the government telling me what constitutes a family. But while we have marriage and some folks want it, why not let them have it?

Anyway, just some thoughts. Below the cut is the draft of my essay. Any comments or feedback would be appreciated, if you’re inclined.

After the historic election of Barack Obama and the bans on same-sex marriage passed in California and elsewhere, my concern for the ability to build coalitions across gender, racial, and sexual lines in this country has increased. Before the 2008 election, I already had these concerns. History had shown us the inability of white feminist movements to admit their own classist and racist assumptions, of white LGBT movements to be inclusive of people of color, of various civil rights movements to be inclusive of LGBT folks—to paint with large brush strokes.

But this election, touted as a landmark election of change, marks what may become the death knell to coalition building, if we are not careful to recognize the continued injustices of this country and to work together to build alliances. Here are my concerns.

The election of Barack Obama has already been celebrated as the demarkation of the present from a racist past. Certainly, it is an exciting moment to have our first black president, but we must remember that racism is still alive and well in this country: prisons disproportionately hold black Americans; anti-immigration movements are continually marking the brown “other” as lazy and dangerous (and even as “terrorists”); jobs are still called “our jobs” by white male Americans; African American men still have to be concerned about being pulled over and harassed by police officers; schools in urban black areas are still radically underfunded and under-served. This list could go on and on….

If we celebrate Obama’s victory as a the end of racism, one concern of mine is that gay rights groups will use this to advance their misinformed assertion that gays are the last oppressed group in this country. This claim, ignorant at its core, masks over the continued racism in America, as well as the largely invisible exclusion of differently abled folks in public spaces; the cultural sexism that leaves in tact a culture of rape, continues unequal pay, and silences many women; laws in some states and counties that make it illegal for atheists to run for office; Islamophobia that equates Muslims with terrorists; and a whole host of other problems.

What gay activists do with this election will be telling. I have already heard some white lesbians and gay men repeat the tired assumption that homophobia is stronger in African American communities than white communities. They cite the fact that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama and 7 out of 10 African Americans in California voted for Proposition 8. While combatting homophobia in African American communities is important, the blaming of African Americans for continued cultural homophobia is a kind of scapegoating, one that ignores that the majority of white Californians voted for Proposition 8 as well. Homophobia is an American problem, not a black problem or a white problem (or a problem of any specific racial or ethnic community).

I read online that one YouTube commenter, a white gay man, was never going to defend African Americans again. He saw Dee Garrett’s video supporting Proposition 8 and expressed his outrage. I too was outraged when I saw Dee Garrett’s video, wherein she says civil rights are about race, not about gay marriage. She certainly is wrong in many ways, but her homophobia does not absolve me, as a white man, of fighting racism.

In fact, I feel that many white LGBT activists do not take the time to think about the effects of “piggybacking” on the historic civil rights struggles of others, especially African Americans. As Diane Finnerty writes in her “Open Letter to My White Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Sisters and Brothers,” the equation of LGBT rights movements with African American civil rights movements ignores the situated oppression of black people before and during the 1960s civil rights era, ignores the presence of other civil rights movements, and ignores the historic case law, especially when Brown v. Board of Education and the rhetoric of “separate but not equal” is invoked.

Furthermore, it becomes problematic when white LGBT folks assume that because someone else is marginalized or oppressed, that they should be on the side of LGBT rights and freedom. Finnerty calls this a shaming tactic: “Of all people who should understand discrimination, I’m surprised that you, as a person of color, wouldn’t understand this is a civil rights issue.” This statement assumes that just because someone has been oppressed that they should understand all forms of oppression. I believe this is the logic behind citing the statistic that 7 in 10 black Californians voted for Proposition 8.

When I hear this cited, I hear two often-unstated assumptions: that all marginalized groups should understand all oppression, and that people of color are more homophobic than white people. What doesn’t appear to be happening is white LGBT folks taking the time to research and understand how oppressions are linked, how homophobia works differently in different contexts, and may be influenced by white supremacy and the sexualization of Black men and women by the white media, for example.

This entry was posted in Feminism, Gender, Queer issues and theory, Race, Social Justice. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to the need for alliance building: fighting racism and homophobia

  1. Julie says:

    I was just having a similar conversation earlier.

    I think many movements for freedom have “piggybacked” on one another throughout history. This just seems to be the nature of things. Either way, resisting sexisim, racism, and homophobia is everybody’s business if we value the notion of equality at all.

    I’m quite disturbed by the possibility that this prop-8 deal will foster racism in queer (by this I’m meaning eveybody who does not ID as “straight”) communities.

    Meh… distressing

    Fight the good fight sir!

  2. Adam says:

    Admittedly I’m not a tough person to convince that many configurations of identity politics are counterproductive (to put it mildly), but this is good stuff. And props for the atheist line. 🙂

  3. Michael says:

    I had you in mind with that one, Adam. 🙂

  4. Jender says:

    What an excellent post!

  5. Michael says:

    Thanks, Jender, and thanks for visiting!

  6. Laura says:

    A thoughtful post, Michael, as usual.

    It is disappointing that 7 in 10 African-Americans voted for Prop 8, but yeah, I think it is kind of just that — disappointing. My interest in that statistic is I think how it helps me realize how piggybacking, aligning of GLBTQ rights on African-American rights fails to try to tease out why a lot of Americans (of all colors) vote against gay rights. That statistic has helped me realize that it doesn’t really say anything about marginalized people failing to recognize/support other marginalized people… There’s obviously something else going on. It’s got to be that gay rights is a moral and religious issue in this country. It’s just not seen — by millions of people — as a civil rights issue. And shoot, I knew that! I just forgot.

    Anyway, I completely agree about the need to be careful with easy assumptions, temptations to scapegoat, etc. That is a much needed reminder, Michael. Thanks.

  7. Yas says:

    Michale I think your title should be the need for alliance building: fighting racism, homophobia and sexism.

    It just seems that sexism is always left out. I am glad that there are a lot of people protesting the outcome of prop 8. I am proud of Americans for doing that.

    But where was the protest when in this elections there was blatant sexism not just against Hillary but Palin as well. I do not like Palin but that does not mean that I condone the sexism she faced.

    Even George Clooney stood up to say something about Prop 8 which was great, nobody stood up against sexism. Even Ellen Degeneres did no dare to do so.

    Just like I have black friends who don’t like Al Sharpton but I will never condone racist commentary being used to ridicule him.

    Do not get me wrong I am not saying sexism is worse than racism. I am saying when someone in the media makes racist commentary or jokes we ridicule that person or we criticise that person such as Limbaugh and ann coultor. The person making the remark will have to apologise. Same thing with anti-semitic remarks.

    Sometimes even those who make homophobic remarks/jokes have to apologise and sometimes such remarks are accepted.

    But with sexist commentary and jokes, such remarks are always accepted, nobody has to apologise.

    One of the first steps to dealing with racism, sexism and homophobia is to ridicule and criticse those who take advantage of free speech to disguise there racism, sexism and homophobia. Even those who make thise cooments in the form of a joke, after all racist and anti-semitic jokes are not tolerated why are sexist and homophobic jokes tolerated.

    The next step involves in discussion and educating the public about these various discrimination and prejudices something I think the Government need to look at.

    However divided we fall, United we stand, we need to united to fight racism, sexism and homophobia. Racism has always been talked about in public, in the news although not enough since it still exist. homophobia is talked about in the news although not so much before Prop 8 and still not even enough. Sexism is always ignored.

    If there was blatant racism during the elections there would have been so much outrage as there should be and there would be a lot of discussions. Women politicians are held to a higher standard. Minority women are held to a much higher standard and it would be difficult for a gay politican to even run in an elections.

    Civil rights activist, feminist activist and gay activist need to fight together on all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Then and only then can we win.

  8. Michael says:

    Yas, I agree with you that there is much needed work to be done to fight sexism. Thank you for your impassioned comment!

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