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What Gays Owe Black America: Thoughts on the Inauguration of Barack Obama

By Lavender February 13, 2009

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Judging by the stinging e-mails I’ve received, some of my fellow white queers haven’t gotten over their post-Proposition 8 anger at African Americans. A faulty exit poll and even worse reporting led some to believe that it was those dastardly blacks that did in same-sex marriage in California.

I’ll leave the debunking to others. Numbers guru Nate Silver (fivethirtyeight.com) and political scientists Patrick Egan (New York University) and Kenneth Sherrill (Hunter College) have done a great job of showing that this idea is just plain wrong.

But queer America needs to understand one other important fact, and we need to get it now. If the civil rights movement had never happened, we probably wouldn’t have the few rights we enjoy today. We wouldn’t be poised to enter a new era of equality if it hadn’t been for the sacrifices of African Americans.

Their path has been a four-century slog. Black America pulled itself from slavery to emancipation, from Jim Crow segregation and Ku Klux Klan lynchings to peaceful marches that were met by whites with baseball bats and fire hoses.

African Americans progressed through the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education litigation that broke the legal back of segregation. They advanced through the sacrifices of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and all the heroes—celebrated and unsung—who sweated, sat in, and stood up for what is right.

Today you, I, and every other lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered soul stand on their shoulders. (Let’s also not forget that civil rights activists who were both LGBT and African American, like Bayard Rustin, helped build that foundation. Among other accomplishments, Rustin organized the 1963 march on Washington.)

African Americans turned “all men are created equal” from a bunch of pretty words in the Declaration of Independence into a challenge. They forced the United States of America to put up or shut up.

Where would queer America be today if black America hadn’t made that challenge? By putting their lives on the line, African Americans literally forged the path the LGBT community has followed for the last 40 years.

African-American attorneys tested and honed the legal principles our attorneys use today to win equality. Building on top of the nonviolent tactics pioneered by Gandhi, the civil rights movement taught us how such an approach can work in the United States.

Civil rights activists also schooled this nation on the idea that policies can’t be judged by their popularity. Segregation, racial discrimination, and prohibitions on interracial marriage were once beloved by the majority of Americans, but that didn’t make those hateful policies right, or constitutional. This simple principle is the base upon which every argument for LGBT equality stands today.

Of course, there is one other gift bequeathed to us from the civil rights movement and its  African-Americans leaders. This movement taught that what is impossible today may merely be improbable tomorrow. And on the day after that? Well, on that day, the impossible will have come true. We saw that happen when Barack Obama was sworn in as president.

Homophobia and ignorance about sexual orientation and gender identity do exist in heart-breaking measure within the black community. I suspect these ills live for a variety of reasons.

The primary source of antigay bigotry is religion, and many African Americans attend conservative churches. As much as attitudes have advanced over time, we still live in a homophobic country. Nasty antigay stereotypes continue to be the default settings in the brains of many, regardless of race. White LGBT leaders have compounded these problems by too often failing to work with heterosexual African Americans, or by only seeking self-serving alliances. Why should we expect black America to support us in our time of need if we don’t return the favor?

I surprised myself on January 20. I expected to be irritated by mega-church pastor Rick Warren’s invocation, and I was. By the end of the inauguration, though, Warren’s appearance was just a fading memory.

As I watched the event in a living room with 20 lesbian and straight friends, I unexpectedly found myself standing when the “Star Spangled Banner” was sung. I hadn’t intended to do that, but then one person in the room stood and then another. It seemed right to get up, even though my gesture would only be witnessed by my friends.

We reached out to each other. Holding hands, we belted out the national anthem. Tears streamed down my face, and I wasn’t the only one crying.

I have never felt more love for my country than I did on that day, when a new president called on Americans to perfect our union. The fact that an African American was the president issuing that challenge was even more proof that one day we really shall all overcome.


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

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