November 14th, 2008

The race for blame

I've been hearing a lot of buzz about the issue of race as it plays into the fight for LGBT equality. With Proposition 8 receiving the stamp of approval from a slim majority of voting Californians, it seems like just about everybody who hasn't gone over to the dark side against equality is in an almost equally sinister rush to blame everybody else for what happened.

So for example, we have a handful of militant LGBT whites who are spewing venom at the black and Latino communities for their supposed failure to support our cause. And naturally, a few angry voices from non-white communities are beginning to spew right back in retaliation, including one particularly toxic article I just read with a few decent points interspersed among a phalanx of defensive, irrelevant distractors:

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/opinion/la-oe-cannick8-2008nov08,0,5044196.story

Enough already, people!

I'm so tired of seeing infighting and scapegoating drawn along inter-minority lines, masquerading under the guise of "you-people-don't-know-what-my-people-have-been-through" (on either side) righteous indignation. The fact of the matter is (a) Proposition 8 should not have passed, and (b) the main reason that it did pass is that society, as a whole, isn't quite ready to embrace same-sex marriage yet. Consider this: even if we had managed to pick up a few more percentage points and pushed "No on 8" over the top, that still would leave roughly half the voting population of California that, for some reason, doesn't think we deserve equality under the law. Regardless of whether the government recognizes our right to marry, such widespread ignorance is a serious problem that will take a long time to fully eradicate.

As I've indicated before, while this particular defeat saddens me, it does not leave me distraught. Why? Because when you look at the overall "social trajectory," it becomes clear that this is a fight we are slowly but inevitably winning. And none of our efforts to defeat Prop. 8 were in vain or a waste of time or energy, because they laid the groundwork for continuing and future initiatives in support of equality.

If we can somehow get that notion through our collective heads, maybe the angrier and more reactive among us can stop making such awful, vicious, polarizing, divisive statements about how the non-white communities "failed" the LGBT community on November 4th, or about how the white LGBT community "failed" the non-white community by declining to grasp the reality of what it means to be black or Latino in America.

And yes, I know I'm a member of that aforementioned white LGBT community (assuming you don't count my sliver of Native American heritage). There are probably some rabid detractors who, given the current climate of blame-volleying, would automatically discredit anything I say based on that distinction alone. I just hope there are enough people who haven't completely lost their cool and are willing to contemplate all calmly stated, rational points of view with an open mind.


I'd like to address a few sub-points of this whole race/gay marriage issue.

Despite the fact that there are significant dynamic differences between the mid-20th-century civil rights movement and the LGBT rights movement of today, they are fundamentally identical in one important sense: both are about granting and recognizing basic human and legal equality for groups that the more ignorant, status-quo-loving contingents of our patriarchal, WASP-y, heteronormative society would "vote off the island" if they could get away with it. Of course, you generally can't take such a drastic stance these days without engendering a social backlash that's indicative of some progress, at least.

There's a funny little spark at the instinctual heart of humanity that tends to make people uncomfortable around those who they perceive to be "different" in some significant way. And that spark ignites into a full-on conflagration when those "different" types try to assert their right to exist in broad daylight and be treated just like "everybody else." The internal mantra for the "mainstream people" opposed to such recognition might as well be: "If you can't kill 'em, hate 'em. If you can't get away with openly hating 'em anymore, then make their lives miserable by blocking their paths to legal and political equality."

This is precisely the same inertia that so many marginalized groups have had to overcome throughout our history. Women, racial minorities, disabled people, and now gays (to name a few) have all faced this same uphill battle. When people claiming to represent various "-ism"-affected groups try to dismantle this argument and assert the uniqueness of their cause, I feel it's tantamount to picking nits and arguing for the sake of arguing. Basically that misses the whole point, and undermines the universal fight for equality that we might all do well to champion.

I could easily point out the challenges that are unique to the LGBT community. Namely how we are an "invisible minority"; how typically a woman is born knowing she's a woman, and a black person is born knowing (s)he is black, etc., and these facts tend to be readily apparent to outside observers. It's something you're born with and it's a part of your identity from birth, and for the most part, your family is going to accept you for it. These are not luxuries necessarily afforded the LGBT community, who typically become aware of their own "differentness" through a long, painful process later in life, generally in adolescence at the earliest. We face rejection from friends, from family, and even from ourselves upon the horrific realization that we "aren't the people we/they thought we were." And for many of us, this trend continues throughout life, long after coming out, since many strangers will actively attribute heteronormative assumptions to us from the moment they meet us.

I am not going to get into a pointless back-and-forth about "my -ism is worse than your -ism." I state the above only to remind that we all have our unique challenges -- as individuals, as minorities, as blocs of potentially united minorities, and even as a society as a whole. No single person's or group's story is the same, of course; but in some ways, the underlying idea is the same.

Now clearly, it is important to recognize the differences between groups to effectively leverage support for each other, and I will applaud the aforementioned article on this point. You can't assume the black community will automatically "get" the connection between racism and homophobia, and the respective efforts to combat each. There is plenty of homophobia within non-white communities, just as there surely is abundant racism within the LGBT community. Attempts at fostering cooperation need to recognize and deal with this.

Even on that point, however, I am cautious about leaning towards an "us and them" rhetorical framework. It's as cheesy as it is true that we are ultimately one people, if not for philosophical reasons, then for practical ones: there are black lesbians, disabled Latino transsexuals, biracial bisexuals, and probably somewhere, somehow, a Judaism-practicing Asian transgender intersexed person with ADHD who makes a living in Las Vegas as an Elvis impersonator in drag. You can't simply draw lines between these communities, because they intersect all over the damned place, and you'll just end up with a tangled mess.

I believe basic recognition of a few fundamental points will go a long way: (a) yes, the "black experience" is substantially different from the "gay experience," including the "white gay" experience, and anybody seeking to build alliances needs to understand and respect this; (b) but the underlying dynamic of status-quo marginalization we have all faced is essentially the same; and (c) the fact that many people individually embody more than one of these afflicted identities underscores the need to attack ignorance and inequality holistically, and not feel we should demographically customize our core message. Because ultimately, that message should be a universal one.


I never thought of myself as a particularly patient person. When I want something changed, I tend to be dissatisfied with anything less than immediate results. Yet in the battle for legal and political recognition of LGBT equality, I'm starting to feel like I'm among the minority of voices that is emphatic and unequivocal, yet still calm and pragmatic. I hate to see all this toxic infighting in the wake of a disappointing setback -- with the attacks and resulting counterattacks making futile attempts to belie bruised subcultural egos with petty distractors and self-righteous "you don't know what we've been through!" rhetoric.

I didn't ask to be born with "racial privilege" any more than I asked for a position of homophobic marginalization. I am not going to apologize for being largely white, any sooner than I'll apologize for wanting the right to marry. It's up to all of us to recognize and appreciate our advantages, identify our struggles, and with all that in mind, get to work on fixing the problems together!

We need to regroup and prepare for the next phase, and stop blaming each other. Stop blaming the "No on 8" campaign as a "failure," just because we didn't quite succeed. Stop blaming various supposed racial voting blocs for failing to toe the equality line. If anything deserves to be blamed, it's all the hate and ignorance that persists to some degree in all segments of our society -- regardless of recent electoral results -- and the right-wing religious fanatics from around the country who stoked those divisive fires this past election season with their money and their campaign lunacy. Yes, we can learn from the experience. Yes, we can do better next time. And yes, I'm sure we can all do a better job of recognizing and supporting the causes on all sides of the tangled web of fences we insist on building.

Because remember, my friends, time and momentum are on our side. We will win this struggle. But it's up to all of us to do it with grace, dignity, and mutual respect.