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Racism vs. Homophobia: Why No One Wins the Oppression Olympics

I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.

It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality.  Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities.  Wow!

Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people.  As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?”  And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?”  Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.

No One Wins The Oppression Olympics

Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons.  First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.”  Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile.  With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time?  It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.

Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups.  The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people.  Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed.  In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.

Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit.  Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights.  All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on.  Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.

And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s.  While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists.  When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens).  Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.

But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.

Is There A Double Standard For Homophobia?

Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people exist.  Black same-gender couples exist.  Black heterosexual and cisgender allies to the LGBT community exist.  However, the way that race and sexual orientation, race and gender identity, race and bi/homophobia, and race and transphobia are talked about, it almost seems as if LGBT and Black are mutually exclusive.  And, to be more specific, they are at odds with one another.

Black people who are homo/bi/transphobic exist, too.  But, somehow, the US seems fixated on the anti-LGBT prejudice harbored by Black communities as if such sentiments exist in a vacuum.  That is, we discuss “black homophobia” as a social problem, while, of course, acknowledging “homophobia” as a social problem.  Notice here that we do not hear of explicit concern about “white homophobia.”  Why?

An Example: Prop 8 In California, 2008

Let’s take an example.  Prop 8.  In 2008, the state of California successfully passed an amendment to ban the legal recognition of same-sex marriage.  While the entire nation witnessed history with the election of the first (half-)Black president, the US also took one step back by stripping one of the few states with marriage equality of legal same-sex marriage.  Now, over three years later, legal challenges to Prop 8 are working their way up the judicial branch.

Immediately following the passage of Prop 8, many in LGBT communities, the media, politicians, and others engaged in a blame-game, pointing a finger squarely at Black Californians for the amendment’s success.  Initially, results from the California exist polls suggested that a larger proportion of Black voters voted in favor of banning same-sex marriage relative to voters of other races.  Corrected analyses were released later, indicating that Black voters were no more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to vote in favor of Prop 8.  More importantly, Blacks only represented 6 percent of all voters in California in 2008; even if every Black voter voted in favor of the ban, that 6 percent cannot be fairly held accountable for the entire 51 percent that voted in favor of Prop 8.  But, despite what the numbers say, some were quite hostile toward Blacks in the US, even resorting to racist assaults.

A Double Standard For Prejudice?

Why was it so easy to blame a fraction of the population for the majority’s decision to deny marriage equality in California?  Why did our attention focus on homophobia in Black communities, while failing to ask about homophobia in the US and, more specifically, homophobia in white communities?  And, why were we so angry with Black homophobes (and, at times, all Black people), but not so much white homophobes?

I argue that the answer is a double standard for homophobia.  At the root of the angry reaction toward Black voters who favored the passage of Prop 8 is confusion.  We are confused by what seems to be an oxymoron: a prejudiced minority, the oppressive oppressed, and so on.  We cannot seem to understand how one group, still facing the contemporary remnants of a history of enslavement, exclusion, discrimination, and violence, can harbor prejudice and discrimination against another, marginalized group.  The logic would seem that, given Blacks’ own experiences with prejudice, discrimination, and violence, they should be empathetic toward the plight of LGBT communities due to their exposure with prejudice, discrimination, and violence.

While the logic of empathy makes sense on the surface, it creates five problems (of likely a few others):

  1. It makes invisible the anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination, and violence of whites.  Though we single-out Blacks when we express our concern about homophobia in Black communities, whites are invisible as a specific racial group in larger discussions of homophobia.  And, it begs the question, should we expect whites to be homo/bi/transphobic?
  2. It holds Blacks to a different standard than whites.  Thus, LGBT- and non-LGBT people alike scrutinize the positions and actions of Black communities and organizations regarding gender and sexuality.  In the aftermath of Prop 8, LGBT and cisgender heterosexuals criticized Blacks in California for their contribution to the passage of Prop 8.
  3. It leads us to overlook the alliances between Black and LGBT communities and organizations, and the positive steps that Black people have taken to fight for the equal rights of LGBT people.
  4. It keeps invisible Black LGBT people.  In discussing whether Blacks are homophobic, we fail to acknowledge that some Black people are LGBT, have friends who are LGBT, and who have relatives who are LGBT.  Unfortunately, predominantly-heterosexual Black communities, predominantly-white LGBT communities, and society in general are responsible for maintaining an image of Black as straight and gay as white.
  5. It fails to ask about racism in LGBT communities.  Even with some obviously racially motivated anger directed at Black communities by LGBT people following Prop 8, there was little explicit discussion about the racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by LGBT people.

Let’s Look More Broadly

Frankly, the social science research on racial and ethnic differences in attitudes toward LGBT people, same-gender relationships, and homo/bisexuality is mixed; but, the tendency seems to be, once you have accounted for racial differences in religiosity and education, you see little racial difference in these attitudes and, for some matters (e.g., LGBT rights), you actually see more favorable attitudes among Blacks compared to whites.  But, that is missed in a narrow focus on homophobia among Blacks.  The larger point that is missed is that Blacks, like whites, are socialized in a society that stigmatizes LGBT people.  Period.  Thus, all people, regardless of race and ethnicity, are implicated in the maintenance or elimination of homo/bi/transphobia.  Though one might be sympathetic, or even empathetic, to the plight of other marginalized groups, one’s own marginalized status does not make one automatically an ally.

Another point that is often overlooked is the sneaky (and not-so-sneaky) efforts of white, cisgender, heterosexual men to pit Black and LGBT communities against one another.  A recent example of such “divide and conquer” strategizing is not as subtle as other conservative politicians and religious leaders’ efforts:

Edwin O’Brien, Baltimore’s soon-to-be Cardinal, used a speech this week to denounce marriage rights for Maryland’s gay and lesbian couples. He angrily attacked the pending passage of marriage bills in the House and Senate. Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, is a strong supporter of marriage equality and he helped to introduce the bills this past Tuesday.  On Wednesday, O’Brien put his own spin on one of the most heinous arguments put forth by social and religious conservatives — that gay people’s civil rights are an affront to black people and the rights of black people.

For all of these reasons, it is important that we regularly acknowledge the intersections among race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality.  What are the unique experiences of individuals who are marginalized on more than one of these axes?  Where are opportunities for coalition-building across marginalized and privileged communities?  And, as my last point suggested, how the intersections of these systems manipulated for gain?  Obviously, these are difficult questions, but important nonetheless.

Being Gay Doesn’t Make You Anti-Racist And Anti-Sexist

By the time the supposed Black vs. gay war had been (re)launched following California’s passage of 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marrage in the state, I was well aware of oppression within oppressed groups (I ranted back in February about the problematic expression, “gay is the new black.”)  In this post, I want to challenge the notion that being a minority automatically makes one empathetic toward other minority groups, and, further, that being a minority makes one immune to oppressing others.

Wow, Was I Naive Or What?

As a young biracial gay feminist aspiring-vegetarian activist, I understood the experience of a minority to include empathy for other minorities and explicit efforts to challenge all forms of oppression.  In my case, being of color and gay meant being a feminist and actively challenging sexist oppression, as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination.  This mindset continued into college, particularly when I shifted toward a queer identity.  I suppose it only took moving to Indiana and beginning my graduate studies to burst my naive bubble.  It only took a few sexist and racist comments at the local gay bar and a growing awareness of the heteronormativity in Black communities (like any community) for me to begin to realize experience with one form of oppression doesn’t translate into advocacy against another.  I began to recognize that being a queer man (now genderqueer-identified) did not make my objectification of women any less sexist.

“It’s Okay, I’m Gay”

My intention is to critique this misguided assumption in general, but I use queer folks as my example case here.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen gay men fondle women’s bodies at a bar or party, sometimes with the woman’s explicit consent or assumed consent through her laughter or silence.  I’ve even heard such behavior justified by comments like, “it’s okay, I’m gay.”  This logic implies that sexism and the objectification of women is merely something of heterosexual men (and I guess bisexual men, too).  It has also been extended to justify racist prejudice.  (I can’t tell you how furious I was when I met a white gay man who saw himself as a Black heterosexual woman because of his “ghetto”, sassy attitude.)  Certainly, this logic may carry over to justify other forms of prejudice: ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and so forth.

Gay Can Mean Anti-Racist and Anti-Sexist

Today, a gay identity is not merely about sexual behavior – it’s a sociopolitical sexual identity.  That means that lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities incorporate an explicit challenge to heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classist oppression, etc.  LGBT and queer people, like any other minority, can begin to build coalitions (again) with other minority groups to challenge the status quo.  Such coalitions have existed in the past, and I’m certain that a number exist today.  But, like the Prop 8 fiasco, it seems that the “divide and conquer” strategy of pitting Blacks against gays against feminists against immigrants is still alive, well, and successful.  Not only is coalition-building across minority groups possible, it is necessary now as it was in the 1960s and 70s.  Although our President is of color for a change, white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men still rule the country, yet they’re a numerical minority!  But, one could say that people of color, feminists, queers, working-class people, immigrants, and other minorities banded together to vote President Barack Obama into office.  Real and effective alliances are possible!