African American and Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Communities
Waking Up To
Common Ground

Kenya Briggs takes a look at conflict -- and opportunities
for dialogue --  between the African American and
lesbian/gay/bisexual communities,

     There is common ground between the African American and
the lesbian/gay/bisexual communities of this society. Both
have been and continue to be disenfranchised by a largely
monolithic power structure. Both suffer the burden of
stereotypical labels which suggest that they are less than
human and are not worthy of dignity. Both are compelled to
demand equal rights based on the humiliating argument that
they cannot help the ways in which they differ from
straight, white males. Perhaps most importantly, both share
a common population -- lesbians, gays and bisexuals of
African descent. However, today it seems that the
differences between these two groups have become more
apparent than their commonalties. To understand why, we must
examine several factors: history, politics, the dynamics of
racism in the lesbian/gay/bisexual community and homophobia
in the African American community, and the impact of right-
wing manipulation on two groups which right wingers have
historically regarded as "the enemy."
     While the issue of lesbian/gay/bisexual equal rights
is, in fact, a civil rights issue (and not a moral issue, as
leaders of the right-wing camp portend) the history of and
the struggle for lesbian/gay/bisexual civil rights is
different from that of the Black civil rights movement.
There is nothing wrong or strange about this. To quote from
esteemed African American academic Henry Louis Gates Jr.,
prejudices "...don't exist in the abstract; they all come
with distinctive and distinguishing historical
peculiarities." However, many leaders in the African
American community perceive that lesbians, gays and
bisexuals have been too quick to appropriate the language
and tactics of the African American civil rights movement.
They fear that posing the two movements as equivalent
undermines the impact of the African American equality
movement of the 1960s, and that community's continued
struggle today.

     Perhaps the single issue that has caused the most
tension between the African American and the
lesbian/gay/bisexual communities has been the proposal to
lift the ban on gays in the military. Many leaders in the
lesbian/gay/bisexual movement are drawing parallels between
banning gays in the military today and the segregation of
Blacks in the military 50 years ago. Gay leaders feel
strongly that removing the ban could help change attitudes
towards gays in the same way that integrating the military
helped to change attitudes towards Blacks after World War
II. They point out that many of the same arguments used to
justify segregating the military then are being used to
justify excluding gays today. This view is being echoed by
some heterosexuals in the African American community: "They
said we were too promiscuous, were cowardly and lazy." says
Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason
University in Virginia. "Some of the same things are being
said about gays. There are all kinds of soldiers who are
lazy, cowardly and promiscuous, and it has nothing to do
with race or sexual orientation." In fact, many community
leaders -- both gay and straight -- argue that the
segregation of Blacks and the ban on gays in the military
have had more to do with protecting the prejudices of the
majority, while sacrificing the rights of those in the
minority. Commentator Deborah Mathis eloquently describes
this as: "The right to deny equality to certain people
because certain others might not like their having it."
     However, there are leading African American voices
(including that of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman
General Colin Powell) which are adamant that race and
sexuality are completely separate issues -- especially when
it comes the United States military. Lieutenant General
Calvin Waller, the highest ranking African American officer
in the Gulf War, went on record with this statement: "I had
no choice regarding my race when I was delivered from my
mother's womb...To compare my service in America's armed
forces with the integration of avowed homosexuals is
personally offensive to me." While General Waller's
statement was probably prompted by a personal fear and
hatred of lesbians, gays and bisexuals, it does point to a
very real breach in communication and understanding between
the two communities.
     Part of the blame for this must rest on a lack of
foresight and proactive coalition building with communities
of color perpetuated by past and present leaders of the
lesbian/gay/bisexual movement. It is obvious that these
leaders now recognize the importance of an alliance with the
African American community.  They wish to utilize the vision
and wisdom of the African American civil rights movement to
obtain legally mandated equality for every lesbian, gay and
bisexual American. (For example, hundreds of thousands of
lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women and men
participate in a huge march on the U.S. capital every
several years. This is an emulation of the first March on
Washington by African Americans some 30 years ago to demand
their civil rights; a march conceived, ironically enough, by
a gay man of African descent.)
     But how often have leaders in the lesbian/gay/bisexual
movement publicly decried the disproportionate percentage of
African American males incarcerated each year in the
American prison system?  Or the staggering drop-out rate
among African American high school students? How much of the
lesbian/gay/bisexual movement's time, money and person power
have been committed to combating drugs, or helping to fix
roads and revitalize businesses in African American
neighborhoods? How often do lesbian, gay and bisexual
leaders attend African American community meetings and ask:
"What can we do to help?" Of course, the argument can be
made that few African American leaders have done these kinds
of things for the lesbian/gay/bisexual community. But, then
again, the African American community is not looking to the
gay community for direction and vision in its quest for
civil rights.
     The lesbian/gay/bisexual community has made a strategic
error in assuming to call the African American community its
ally without first laying the groundwork for proper
coalition building. It has insulted many African American
leaders by laying claim to a legacy that it (the
lesbian/gay/bisexual movement in general) had very little to
do with creating. While the African American community
certainly hasn't cornered the market on civil rights and
social justice, the fruits of its people's bravery and
sacrifice, and the certainty of their allegiance, should not
be taken for granted. The lesbian/gay/bisexual community can
not be so quick to take without also giving.

     Of course, the gay movement has many important and
powerful supporters in the African American community --
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King and the NAACP just to
name a few. But to broaden its support among African
Americans, lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders will have to
broaden their agenda to include issues of importance to the
Black community. One sure way to accomplish this is for
lesbians, gays and bisexuals of African descent to take an
active role in the dialogue between the gay and African
American communities. Unfortunately, Black lesbians, gays
and bisexuals have not been made a visible and vocal part of
this debate. While the gay community is as racially diverse
as this county's overall population, white men and women
have always been its most visible and empowered members.
     The African American heterosexual community has
similarly rendered invisible its lesbian, gay and bisexual
population. While many African leaders maintain that
homophobia is not a problem in their community, openly gay
African Americans are rarely identified as community
leaders. Furthermore, their issues are often marginalized
with the implication that homosexual issues are basically
"white" issues, and are therefore not important to the
African American community as a whole. (This, of course,
could not be farther from the truth. AIDS, for example, has
long been categorized by many heterosexual leaders in the
African American community as a gay, white, male disease.
However, AIDS is now infecting heterosexual men, women and
children in the African American community at an alarming
rate.) The marginalization of African American lesbians,
gays and bisexuals by both the Black and gay communities has
resulted in the exclusion of the most essential voices from
a necessary dialogue -- voices which can best articulate the
issues of both communities in ways that non-African American
gays, and heterosexual Blacks can understand.
     Perhaps the biggest question facing African American
leaders in this controversy is the following: Can African
Americans successfully fight racial discrimination in this
country without also supporting the fight for
lesbian/gay/bisexual civil rights? Or, more specifically,
can a society that is permitted to discriminate against any
one of its members be trusted to ensure the liberty of any
class, any race, any group of people who are not part of the
social majority?

     There are, today, some leaders in the African American
community who are building coalitions with right-wing
Christian fundamentalists against the lesbian/gay/bisexual
movement. May of these African American leaders are
ministers who are joining with right-wing Christian leaders
to call homosexuality an "abomination before God." This
interpretation of certain sections of the Bible would seem
to be all that these African American leaders have in common
with Christian fundamentalists. The right wing has long been
-- and continues to be -- an enemy of the African American
civil rights movement. But the influence of the Christian
right wing must not be underestimated . Fundamentalists are
pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into a campaign to
align themselves with Black religious leaders against gays.
They are reaching out into African American communities in
ways that lesbian, gay and bisexual leaders have neglected.
     Right-wing homophobes are even circulating an anti-gay
video among African American religious leaders. The video
juxtaposes African American civil rights footage from the
1960s with images of contemporary gay civil rights marches.
It features interviews with right-wing leaders who accuse
lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders of demanding
"special rights." (In much the same way, right-wingers
accused Blacks of demanding special rights and attacked
affirmative action programs during the Reagan-Bush era.) The
video depicts lesbians, gays and bisexuals as child
molesters and sexual perverts, and "reveals" that the
lesbian/gay/bisexual agenda is not equal rights, but rather
the domination and conversion of the entire world! Most
African American leaders, Christian or otherwise, will see
through this type of hate-filled and distorted propaganda.
Nevertheless, the gay movement needs to be very concerned
with the right wing's use of money and manipulative
religious rhetoric to undermine the gay struggle for civil
rights in African American communities. It is an unfortunate
fact that there are some very vocal homophobes in the
African American community. Ironically, their fear and
hatred of lesbians, gays and bisexuals may guide them into
the waiting arms of the original oppressor: a white, male,
fundamentalist-led movement bent on making the world over in
its own image.
     Recently, the issues of religion and gay rights
collided in San Francisco, in a controversy sparked by an
insensitive, homophobic, statement made by a local African
American minister. The Rev. Eugene Lumpkin, while serving as
a commissioner on the San Francisco Human Rights Commission,
told a local reporter that homosexuality is an "abomination"
against God. Lumpkin also suggested that AIDS is a
punishment for homosexual behavior. He was eventually
dismissed from the Human Rights Commission for his anti-gay
statements. The incident ignited tempers in both the
lesbian/gay/bisexual and the African American communities.
Gays accused Lumpkin and the African American ministry of
homophobia and gay-bashing. African Americans accused the
gay community of racism, elitism and religion-bashing. Even
the Rev. Lou Sheldon, of the fundamentalist Traditional
Values Coalition, got into the fray. His group intended to
use the fighting as an opportunity to drive a wedge even
further between the gay and African American communities.
     But the instigative tactics of Sheldon and his crew
were thwarted. Leaders from San Francisco's African American
and lesbian/gay/bisexual communities have decided to use
this incident as an opportunity to initiate dialogue. It
isn't a perfect dialogue, but it is the beginning of
communication, interaction and, hopefully, understanding
between some of the leaders of these two communities. It is
a dialogue that includes the voices of lesbians, gays and
bisexuals of African descent. And it is the beginning of a
process which has been slow in coming, and is long overdue.