Thursday, March 03, 2005

Divide and conquer.

I recently had coffee with a friend who I am just getting to know, and the conversation forced me to try to articulate some thoughts on some issues that have been rolling around in my head lately, mainly about race and sexuality.

J is an African-American fellow who grew up in predominantly black communities in Chicago and Minneapolis. I am a European-American chap who grew up in rural and small town Mississippi and Alabama, in predominantly white neighborhoods but in close proximity to black people in the larger community. Both of us are 27, homosexual, college educated, and have lived in NYC for slightly more than 2 years.

As we talked about family and how we interact with our families, he said positions race, religion, and homosexuality caused some tension with his mother (and family/community at large, but it sounded as if she was where general family attitudes collided with his so I will use her as the representative voice of that community as I understood it). They come from the south side in Chicago, and she viewed white people with suspicion and seemed almost hostile to the mixing of the races (this is meant as much culturally and community wise as it is meant in the 'mixed baby' sense). I got the feeling that she would not have been happy that her son was spending his evening in New York talking to this white kid. It didn't sound like it was so much animosity towards white people in general, but just wanting to keep things segregated. Black (and conversely, white) people were better off sticking with their own kind. Mixing things up just introduced troublesome things.

Like homosexuality. It seemed that she viewed homosexuality as a mainly white perversion or like some affliction which the black community is dragged into by the white folk. That her son sometimes hung out with white folks and was gay seemed intimately connected in some way.

I can't say that I ever got the impression from my parents that my having black friends and being a homo are connected in their minds. If you are uncomfortable with basic social interaction between people of different races, our corner of Alabama/Mississippi probably isn't a place you should live, so perhaps it this is partially because of a more casual regard for racial interaction from a less effectively segregated community at large (or one which was more aggresively integrated in the previous generation), but more importantly, there is little reason for my parents to associate homosexuality with black people, while there are, unfortunately, many reasons for a black person to associate gay culture with white culture.

Much to all of our detriment, the major gay organizations turn a blind and negligent eye to gay people of color and only really represent the wealthy and fairly secure middle/upper middle class white homosexuals. The battles they pick are the battles for those who have already made it to have it just a little better. Partner benefits, gay marriage, cheaper and better HIV meds. Yes, I am perhaps being unfair; all of these are important issues, but you have to have a certain amount of security and safety to really enjoy any of these. The poor, the rural, the inner city (of any color), and (most) people of color aren't really seen as part of the 'gay community'. The 'gay community' is Will and Grace or Queer as Folk (I have never seen the L Word, so I hesitate to include it in my example; not trying to exclude the lezzies on purpose). Black people aren't seen as part of the 'gay community' unless they are somewhat assimilated into this 'white' world. The rest act on their sexuality in more of a 'down low' fashion and that is more of a black community issue than a gay issue, right? Sounds ridiculous, but you would be suprised how prevalent these attitudes are amongst some in the gay community.

Instead of partnering with black community leaders on issues of HIV and discrimination, the big gay powers that be have somewhat pitted them against us and aligned themselves with the corporate and political elite (isn't that whose feet we are supposed to be holding to the fire?). And the black community as noticed.

And so have many of us in the gay community who no longer feel represented by the HRC or Lambda or the Advocate, etc. I have been discussing similar things with friends who are working with the new gay group Queer Fist. They don't quite fully have their direction yet, but they have the anger and they are getting organized.

For me personally, this divide between the black community and the gay community is particularly painful and bewildering. As I was telling J tonight, for me, issues of racism and homophobia have never seemed very different. Dealing with one helped me deal with the other. In fact, the underly basic issue is inseperable in my mind: it is all about bigotry and assumptions about some 'other'. About 'Them'. When first beginning to come to terms personally with being gay, with this meaning something in my life other than dirty secrets and hidden shame, with it being a part of my identity/personality/worldview, it was Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin who led me safely through to the otherside (the 'otherside' not meaning 'gay' instead of 'straight', but rather acceptance and comfort instead of shame and discomfort). Their lessons weren't just for the black reader, but for any black sheep, any outsider, any disadvantaged.

_Invisible Man_ is easily the single most important book to my mental/emotional development. It wasn't just the external racism which Ellison was dealing with, but also how a person deals with their own internalized bigotries and how a person can be limited and damaged by their own misunderstandings of themselves and how they relate to society. It was about learning how others see (or don't see) you. It was a personal journey, not just a lament or indictment.

Other than Ellison, no single author has made such an impact on my worldview except perhaps James Baldwin. I will admit freely to having read few of his works of fiction, but his essays and interviews I have pored over. And it was this voice, which railed against the injustices of American bigotry and fear with unmatched anger and passion, which warned that it isn't only those on the receiving end of oppression who suffer. Being the oppressor is also debilitating (even if more comfortable). When given the choice of being hammer or nail, demand more choices.

I still have to believe that for most of us, bigotry is a singular vice. Fighting it on one front furthers the fight on the others. Perhaps this is why gays are the new popular target; they aren't targeting just us. It is easier to go on TV and talk about how the gay people are ruining our country and our culture and our marriages and our children, but notice which communities had fewer voting booths this year and increased challenges and more contested votes. They used us to embolden people's bigotry and biases, and they stole your black vote. And it isn't benign or 'just politics': they want my gay ass just as dead as they want your black ass.

Hyperbole? Maybe, but the effect of their abstinance only education isn't reduced unwanted pregnacy or lower STD rates, it is a rise in HIV/syphilis/etc. in our communities. It is gay kids and black kids (and poor kids of any race) dying. And they know that, the politicians pushing it, and that is why they support it. The gay marriage amendment? It ain't about keeping gay people apart, it is about saying that we matter less to the law. It is an implicit threat: get in your place, boy or the law may not pay too much attention when somebody puts you back there. This is what the HRC should be screaming bloody murder about, not just whatever individual benefits we can get, not just what AIDS drugs cost. The rhetoric of the right is that we, in what we, gay people, are an abomination and are destroying the country. They aren't calling us a national threat because they like us and want to be friends.
The HRC doesn't care because even if you belong to a marginal group, with enough money or influence, you can buy a pass. They have enough money now, so they don't care.

Because really it isn't just about black or gay: the powerful elite care nothing of the fact that we are gay or black or polka-dotted; it is just about power. They look to bully whoever is weak and if any group of traditionally down-trodden or marginal people is gaining ground, they focus on them. Gay, black, brown, female, poor, whatever. It is all the same as long as someone stays stuck at the bottom for them to feed off of. Back to hammer or nail. I refuse to be either. I still want more choices.

No comments: