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The Great Gay Awakening vs. Civil War

By Lavender December 4, 2008

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An Explosion of Protests and an Argument Over Race Engulf GLBT America

To seriously mangle Charles Dickens, these could either be the best of times or the worst of times for GLBT America. How this momentous period turns out depends on what you and I do next.

On the side of unexpectedly good news, the passage of Proposition 8 in California and the approval of other anti-gay measures in Arizona, Florida, and Arkansas have sparked an unprecedented outburst of political action. Within hours of the announcement that voters had eliminated same-sex marriage in California, protests sprang up throughout the state.

Led by no single group and organized through text messaging, blogs, and social networking sites, the demonstrations drew cameras day after day. In little more than a week, protests stretched across the nation. To put these events in context, consider that the Stonewall riots were limited to one neighborhood in one city, but still succeeded in giving birth to the modern GLBT rights movement.

But other events have also occurred. At the same time protesters were taking to the streets, a civil war over race was threatening to break out within the GLBT community and between white queers and straight African Americans.

The instant that Prop 8 passed, some of us white folks—and I am English and German white—got it in our heads that blacks did this to us. This meme has been passed from newspapers to blogs to TV commentators and back again ad nauseam. African Americans surging to the polls to vote for Barack Obama are alleged to have provided Prop 8’s margin of victory. This rush to blame is wrong. I don’t just mean morally wrong, although it is that. I mean this is also “2 + 2 = 3” wrong.

This idea is rooted in an exit poll sponsored by CNN, AP, and others that claimed 70 percent of African Americans voting in California supported Prop 8. But as numbers-crunching Daily Kos diarist Shanikka shows, the exit poll could not have accurately reported the black vote. Shanikka also reports that there were not enough African American voters to push the proposition to victory.

Polling guru Nate Silver (no relation) of FiveThirtyEight.com fame agrees. “The notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly,” he says.
If you’re looking for a race to blame for Prop 8, then look no farther than us white folks. It’s God’s bleached people who made up the majority of “yes” voters. Shanikka estimates that nearly 3.2 million whites supported Prop 8. The margin of victory was only 523,500 votes.

But the post-election conflict has gone farther than an argument over an exit poll. Bloggers have raged about the alleged failings of blacks and whites. A handful of white demonstrators reportedly shouted the N-word at several black men who were attempting to protest Prop 8. Black lesbian writer Jasmyne A. Cannick and white gay Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff exchanged fire on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times.

Cannick argues that blacks don’t and shouldn’t care about marriage rights and accused the No on Prop 8 campaign of ignoring minority communities. GLBT leaders also don’t understand the role of black churches and don’t realize that using the term “civil rights” alienates African Americans, Cannick writes.

Naff calls Cannick’s opinion “shockingly racist” and says her ideas raise questions about double standards. White evangelical Christians and Mormons can be freely called bigots for their attacks on GLBT people, but black ministers who do the same are considered untouchable, Naff argues.

Leaving aside their angry tone, I think that both Cannick and Naff speak truth. At the least, they express the pain, anger, and confusion of whites and blacks who don’t yet know how to respect each other or work together. As painful as those two columns are to read, the argument between these writers and the other recent events provide GLBT Americans of all hues with an opportunity.

For us whites, this is a chance to finally learn to hear our black sisters and brothers. This is also an opportunity to confront the misunderstandings and racism—subtle or overt—we absorbed growing up in a nation where racial stereotypes still rule.

I won’t presume to speak for what African Americans need to do, but I will note that those who work against queers are doing much more than hurting GLBT blacks. These folks are ostracizing one of the only groups of whites who know deep down to their socks what it means to be oppressed. Obama’s election is a milestone, but as blacks know only too well, it didn’t magically erase racism.

Our future depends on what you and I do next. Will we transform our street protests into the long-term action required for victory? Will we build the coalition that will free us all, or will we let our pain and misunderstandings break us apart forever?

Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose freelance writing has appeared in Ms. magazine, Salon.com, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected]

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