My joy at the news of last week’s presidential election was quickly deflated as I learned about the passage of Proposition 8 in California and a number of other anti-gay measures around the nation. What’s particularly heartbreaking to me personally (as a member of the LGBTQ community) is that alongside the legitimate anger this defeat has prompted (image of some of that anger from here), it’s also generated some racist name-calling in street protests as well as some much more measured and supposedly reasonable race-baiting by prominent white gay writers, like Dan Savage.
What writers like Savage and Andrew Sullivan and other relatively privileged white gay men fail to understand is that supposedly single-issue propositions, like Prop 8, are still embedded in larger systems of inequality that have to be at least partially addressed with voters in what we’re calling “the ground game” now. Worse still, they are actively scapegoating black people for this defeat. The defeat of Prop 8 and the other ballot measures last Tuesday at the same time that our first African American president succeeded, is clear evidence to me that gay marriage organizers failed at the ground game. Let me break it down.
White LGBT folk need to learn about race and racism, especially their own. There’s just no excuse for rally-goers at a No on 8 rally dropping the N-bomb on black people, and the fact that these particular black people happened to also be gay and carrying “No on 8” signs makes the whole thing even more absurd and inexcusable. In addition to that kind of overt racism (which, I thought we were over and was a myth anyway, but I digress) is just part of what LGBT white folks need to educate themselves about. While some prominent white queer people have denounced overt racism, they could also stand to learn a little about inclusion. According to Daily Voice blogger Rod McCollum, there was not one black LGBT couple in any of the “no on 8” ads. Not one.
Beyond stopping overt racism, and learning about inclusion, white LGBT folk need to get much, much smarter about race. For those just beginning to think about race in the marriage equality movement, let me recommend this Open Letter to White Activists by laura.fo is a good starting point (hat tip: Lizhenry via Twitter). Included in her list are the following:
1) Think about the way you use civil rights imagery; 2) Think about you talk about “sex” and “freedom” ; 3) Think about how you talk about Black churches…
And, further down her list, “Stop assuming Black support.” To anyone that’s thought critically about race, there’s often a cringe-worthy quality to the rhetoric of the gay-marriage movement in the thoughtless appropriation of civil rights rhetoric while simultaneously assuming Black support and disparaging church folk (more about which, in a moment). This is not a winning strategy.
The scapegoating of black people for the failure of Prop 8 assumes that black people are more homophobic than white people. Terence, writing at Pam’s House Blend, has a long and incredibly insightful piece in which he argues that, in fact, blacks are more homophobic than whites because of a long history of having their own sexuality “queered” by the racial oppression of our society. This is similar to an argument that Michael Eric Dyson makes (who is cited in the post) and an argument that Patricia Hill Collins makes in Black Sexual Politics.
Yet, such claims are flawed to the extent that they erase the lives of black and brown LGBT folk. In a statement by Dean Spade and Craig Willse titled, “I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal,” (hat tip Julie Netherland) the authors write about the move to blame black folks for the failure of Prop 8:
“Beneath this claim is an uninterrogated idea that people of color are “more homophobic” than white people. Such an idea equates gayness with whiteness and erases the lives of LGBT people of color. It also erases and marginalizes the enduring radical work of LGBT people of color organizing that has prioritized the most vulnerable members of our communities.
Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?”
I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8. The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hardwork of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT. While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do (download pdf), I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.
Class and gay marriage. When people in the marriage equality movement frame their struggle exclusively in terms of “rights and benefits,” they unconsciously adopt a class-based rhetoric that excludes many potential allies, including straight people across races and LGBT people across classes. It’s hard to know how marriage equality “benefits” should resonate as an issue with poor and working-class straight or queer people who often work in jobs that have no benefits. While it’s tragic and wrong when, for example, a terminally-ill lesbian cop in NJ is not able to give her partner the death benefits that she would receive if her partner had been a man, these are not the working-class images we typically see in the struggle for marriage equality. (Although, given NJ’s recent history with racial profiling by state police, one wonders about the wisdom of a cop as an example that’s supposed to a resonate for people of color who are the target of polic brutality.) A more radical – and racially diverse – approach advocated by the organization Queers for Economic Justice includes an effort to expand the dialogue on marriage equality to make benefits available whether or not one is married.
Gender, race and “normal” families. Advocates for gay marriage need to check their gender politics. For women who came to feminist consciousness in a certain era, marriage is and remains a repressive patriarchal institution based on the transfer of women-as-property. Hence, the battle to be “allowed in” to marriage is similar to the battle to be “allowed to” serve in the military, in which the ultimate prize of acceptance is a dubious goal. Thus, it’s not surprising to see this movement as a largely (white)male-led movement. Still, I’m enough of a sociologist to recognize that marriage is the primary way that our society recognizes people as adults, as citizens, and as human beings. So, by denying an entire group of people the right to marry it really is denying them (us) a basic, fundamental human right.
But the movement for gay marriage, and indeed much of the scholarship on this issue, is framed in terms of assimilation and acceptance as “normal families” rather than in terms of human rights. The “normal family” is a central feature of the white racial frame as in the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family.” This is an unfortunate strategy as it excludes the large number of the population that do not live in such an arrangement and the possibly larger number that have no desire to do so.
Still, this is a powerful narrative in our culture and it is has taken on a noticeably racial inflection at this moment. The idealized image of the “normal” Obama family is part of what got Barack Obama elected. And, indeed, the image of Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha counters age-old racist stereotypes about negligent black fathers and irresponsible black mothers. A recent article in The New York Times explicitly connects the success of the real-life Obama to the fictional “Huxtables” created by Bill Cosby (and indeed, The NYTimes article credits the show, at least in part, with Obama’s success). This idealized family image of the Obama/Huxtable family is one that requires a particular heteronormative gender performance from all the participants. After all, the Huxtables are variations on the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family” of the white racial frame which was front and center in this election. Any deviation from the Ozzie-and-Harriet model by the Obamas was severly punished (yet, the McCain’s numerous steps outside this went largely unremarked upon). For example, Michelle Obama/Mom got in trouble for being too assertive, Barack Obama/Dad was lauded when he attacked black men as irresponsible, and their daughters must dress and act appropriately “girl-like” (hat tip to Joe for this insight). What white gay marriage advocates seem to encourage looks and sounds a lot like assimilation into that heteronormative model of the family. A movement that emphasized social justice and human rights would allow for and celebrate a range of expressions of gender and sexuality rather than conformity to a particularly narrow conceptualization of what constitutes a family.
Religion, race and gay marriage. Advocates for gay marriage need to work on their religious intolerance (image from here.) The Mormon church and others on the religious right funded the political campaign to take away marriage rights in California, following on a long history of religious-sponsored vicious hatred toward LGBT people. Understandably, many LGBT people have no patience with religious arguments intended to undermine our rights. Yet, for many people, including black people and LGBT folk, the church is the central social institution. As Joe pointed out recently, most churches are still among the most racially segregated institutions we participate in. Given the fact that marriage is both a religious rite (as well as a human right) that is being defended by religious people in racially-segregated congregations means that those interested in marriage equality need a ground game that engages, rather than alienates, church folk and does so with a real awareness of racial issues. The “No on 8” graffiti that appeared on several churches (as pictured above) following the defeat last week is not the way to win supporters. The rhetoric of gay marriage supporters that polarizes “black churches” and all religious folks as diamterically opposed to “gay supporters of No on 8” keeps both sides locked in a symbiotic relationship in which each side significantly affects the evolution of its counterpart, as Tina Fetner explains in her new book. Such dichotomous, either/or, views of marriage equality ignore the fact that it’s religious LGBT folk who have been pioneers in the movement.
I agree with Jasmyne Cannick who writes that:
“Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally ‘get it.’ Until then, don’t expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue — including with this black lesbian.”
And, for this anti-racist white lesbian, I’m not so interested in a marriage equality movement that fails to “get it” about race. What gay marriage supporters must do if they hope to win on this issue is to address the deeply intertwined politics of race, class, gender and religion in ways that frame marriage equality as an important human rights issue that other people should care about rather than a luxury denied already privileged white gay men.
Jessie, this is by far the most thorough and sensitive analysis of Proposition 8 and racism issues, indeed of any kind, I have seen on the Internet. Thanks. Didn’t whites propose this anti-rights proposition? I suspect very few or no people of color were involved in pressing for this attack on human rights, yet the presumably white ringleaders and funders are hard to find in web searches.
Great post! I agree with most of what you say. If any of several demographic groups had voted a bit more heavily against Prop. 8, it would have been defeated, so in this sense there is plenty of blame to go around. The organizers of no-on-8 didn’t do a good job of outreach to African-Americans. On the other hand, I reject the implication I sometimes read that members of oppressed groups can be excused for bigotry or homophobia on the basis of their oppression. Moral standards have their force precisely because they are universal. We all must struggle to achieve tolerance. We should speak out against anyone who hold that basic rights like marriage should be restricted to only to certain groups, whether that privilege is based on race or sexual orientation.
Thanks, Joe, M., – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Clearly, this has been on my mind since last week. Yes, Joe – the leaders of Proposition 8 were primarily, if not exclusively, white. I should do some more digging on that. And, yes M., we should be concerned about intolerance in all forms, I just think there’s a mote-in-the-eye issue around racism for white gay people before they/we start calling out the speck-in-the-eye of homophobia in black folks.
Thanks for bringing some critical analysis to this issue Jessie. I have a question that might fall outside the realm of this blog, but how how did we get to this ballot initiative in CA? Specifically, a law was passed granting homosexuals the right to marry, then all of a sudden i was reading there was going to be a popular vote on it. It seems to me that this protocol rarely is followed when other (by which i mean all) laws are passed.
Dan Savage was on AC 360 last night squaring off against the always unctuous Tony Perkins. The ‘discussion’ ,put charitably, immediately devolved into a shout-fest. But the first point of attack at Dan Savage waged by Perkins was ‘why aren’t you attacking the African-American churches’. I don’t think Savage responded to that. Neither responded to anything.
Would it be too simplistic to argue that, once again, the elephant in the room is religion? I know that it isn’t only religious zealots who hold such primitive views but it seems that without the financial and rhetorical thrust of Churches (almost any of them) this fundamental civil right would have already been achieved.
Hey Mordy, I’m happy to be able to share some of my thoughts on the subject. Like I said, it’s been on my mind a lot lately.
The short answer to your question about how we got to Prop 8 is that California is one of a handful of states that allows for popular referendums (referenda?) like this one to be held on *any* law. (Theoretically, the citizens of California could launch a campaign to take away the rights of blacks as well, but that message didn’t get out either.) So, yes, gay marriage passed; and then, the opponents rallied to launch the Prop 8 battle. There’s lots more here and here.
I think there are lots of ways that religion is the elephant in the room, but not exactly in the way that you suggest. What I tried to convey in the post is that the church is central to lots of peoples’ lives (including black people and LGBT people) but that this sort of campaign against marriage equality is another way that the right has hijacked the issue. There are lots of religious folk who support marriage equality, and indeed, people in Metropolitan Community Churches (that I attend) have been some of the pioneers in advocating for gay marriage. So, yeah, religion is the elephant in the room…but I don’t think that hurling invectives as religious folk is a very smart strategy.
Thank you for your analysis. I’m going to link this to my blog…Id write more comments but I’ve written so much on the topic that my mind’s kind of tired, but I truly thank you for your analysis. I just wish more people (particularly the gay white men) would read and actually try to understand this viewpoint. So many I’ve spoken to just can’t comprehend that gay marriage may not benefit everyone or be that best way to achieve equality.
Hey Micah ~ It’s good to see you here, I hope you’ll stick around. I hear you on the tiredness! 😉
Wow, Jessie. I really enjoyed this post. It can be so frustrating to me (and others) when people pit injustices against each other. Like racism vs. homophobia. Like when women like Geraldine Ferraro pit racism and sexism against each other. All of these are terrible realities that take away our humanity and comparing and contrasting them and trying to figure out which one is worse is not really solving anything.
And I am continually frustrated by campaigns that marginalize some of their own most ardent supporters.
Thank you so much for this passionate and well thought/felt out response.
I responded to this asinine, race-based, apologetic nonsense 3 days ago on my blog, and I’ll do so again here…
I swear, If I have to hear one more Black gay person try to defend the Black mainstream community’s blatantly hypocritical, oxymoronic, equal-rights denying slap in the face to their gay brothers and sisters as a failure of WHITE PEOPLE (mainstream gay rights movement) to reach out to Black people, I am going to fucking scream until my tonsils burst into flame. It is an asinine argument. One whose purpose is geared more toward the exculpatory than the explanatory.
WTF?… Are we really expected to buy into the rationale that Black people are so unprogressive – so unsophisticated – that we require the intervention of White activists to explain to us the fundamental relevancy of fair and equal treatment for all under the law? Are some of us actually trying to persuade others to swallow the ridiculous proposition (no pun intended) that our community is so politically and racially simple-minded that we are incapable of empathizing and understanding the intrinsic harm that is done to our Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered family members & friends by discriminatory anti-gay laws if the popular face of the resistance is anything other than Black?…
How can the argument that White gays and lesbians should be expected to shoulder the responsibility of reaching out, building bridges and educating the Black community on the value of gay-rights issues, more so than the Black Gay community, be made with a straight face?… What, are we too inept to discern for ourselves the need to stand up and let our dignity, love, pride and humanity be seen, and have it speak to the conscience of our heterosexual brothers, fathers, sisters, mothers and children; to impress upon them their moral obligation to protect and treasure our access to freedom and equality as well as their own?
These idiotic concepts are exactly what is implied by this, “because the face of the gay-rights movement is white, Black folks can’t relate to it,” farcical reasoning. It makes a joke of Black peoples’ ability to comprehend socio-political issues for ourselves, and it removes the onus for our detestable voting conduct and misguidedly – in this case – drops it at the feet of white gays….
Sorry, as a gay Black man that lives amongst my people everyday, I ain’t buyin’ it.
Many of the Black hands that pulled levers or punched cards on November 4th to deny rights to gays are attached to persons, persons who most likely know, love, and care for someone who is gay. Yet this did not prevent them from visiting upon their love ones the ultimate disrespect – you are not as good as me!… Our heterosexual Black family knows our heart, they know we exist, and they are familiar with our plight.
There is no excuse.
We have to own up to OUR shit on this one.
If our community doesn’t “get it” on such a morally unambiguous issue as this, then I doubt any amount of intervention by White gay-rights activists is going to make much of a difference.
Besides being shamefully apologetic and extremely insulting to the intelligence of Black folk, the things-could-have-been-different-if-only-the-white-gay-rights-people-had-reached-out-to-the-black-community excuse is patently weak, because the number ONE reason Black people decided to vote to legally discriminate against gay people is their continued intellectual/emotional capitulence to archaic, primitive homo-hating religions en masse…. These intolerant, divisive, belief systems have done more to chain the mind and inhibit personal freedom throughout human history than anything else… And Black folk, unfortunately, can be seen in great attendance at such indoctrination centers … well, religiously.
If Black gays, or Whites for that matter, desire the for real culprit of homo-oppression, they need look no further than the closest church, mosque, or synagogue…
Hey TEvans ~ good to see you here and hope you will come back. I think you make an excellent point, well several, but we still disagree about a few things. I see what you mean when you say: Are we really expected to buy into the rationale that Black people are so unprogressive – so unsophisticated – that we require the intervention of White activists to explain to us the fundamental relevancy of fair and equal treatment for all under the law?
You know, sometimes I think paternalism is an occupational-hazard of being a white person. I can see how that argument comes off that way, but that’s not what I meant to convey in that post. My point is not that black people are not just as homophobic as white people; they are, and can be, and that’s part of the reason that I mentioned that post by Terence about black homophobia. I also never said, or meant to suggest, that black people are so ‘unsophisticated’ that they couldn’t get the implications of their vote for Prop 8 without the intervention of white activists.
My point is that white LGBT activists for marriage equality have got to be called on their racist politics. Whether or not the racism and racial exclusion of the campaign was the crucial feature of why black people voted for Prop 8 remains an open question. My best guess is that it was one part of a larger mosaic of reasons. Although my post was directed at white LGBT folks, I just never said that whites needed to shoulder more of the responsibility for bridge building than anybody else that cares about marriage equality. That’s something you’re inferring from the post, but it’s not what I said.
Along with race, I believe that white LGBT activists for marriage equality need to be called out for their politics around class/gender and religious intolerance which are just as alienating to potential allies – both within and beyond the black community – as race. What’s disappointing, and yet illustrates my point, is the way that you end your comment by lambasting the religious folks – and across three major traditions! Nicely done. Of course, of course I know the way that religion gets used across all these traditions to justify the worst kind of homophobia and violence against queer people. And yet, queer people are in those very churches, synagogues and mosques, whether or not the straight religious people – secular LGBT people – want to acknowledge that or not. What makes that an especially asinine argument, to use your phrase, is that it’s been religious queer people who’ve been pioneers in the fight for marriage equality. It simply doesn’t advance the cause of LGBT rights to engage in the kind of racially intolerant rhetoric; and in fact, it undermines the broader goal of human rights.
And, I totally ignored your comment Hannah, while I was responding to TEvans. Sorry about that! Thanks for your kind words, glad you enjoyed the post. Doing all those intersections at once – race/class/gender/sexuality and religion – feels a little like a 3-D chess game. Not that I could play that, but you get what I meant.
Hey, Jessie… Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad that you’ve presented this opportunity to discuss this bizarrely controversial issue. I mean, some of the reactions, and counter-reactions, concerning the Black response to Prop 8 have been socially intriguing, if nothing else.
To wit, you stated:
“You know, sometimes I think paternalism is an occupational-hazard of being a white person. I can see how that argument comes off that way, but that’s not what I meant to convey in that post. My point is not that black people are not just as homophobic as white people; they are, and can be, and that’s part of the reason that I mentioned that post by Terence about black homophobia. I also never said, or meant to suggest, that black people are so ‘unsophisticated’ that they couldn’t get the implications of their vote for Prop 8 without the intervention of white activists.”
I think the specter of an innate white paternalism is involuntarily raised when, in the attempt to defend the indefensible choices many Black voters made on election day, the initial knee-jerk response of Black GLBT folk is not to “man-up,” so to speak, and admit that our hetero brothers & sisters screwed up, but rather the deflecting clarion of, “white gays should have been less racist and reached out to us.”
Taken as a separate issue, this charge of white racism within the gay-rights movement arena — and within the gay community as a whole — unquestionably has merit. But when it is applied here, without first and foremost acknowledging the legitimacy of the criticism leveled at the Black community, who are uniquely qualified to know better when it comes to the danger of legally codified discrimination, it appears to be a desperate, apologetic attempt at switching the blame. And, to me, the underlying message in this approach invokes a sense of white paternalism. It indirectly implies that we Black people require some form of white affirmation and guidance to do the right thing.
And secondly you said:
“Along with race, I believe that white LGBT activists for marriage equality need to be called out for their politics around class/gender and religious intolerance which are just as alienating to potential allies – both within and beyond the black community – as race. What’s disappointing, and yet illustrates my point, is the way that you end your comment by lambasting the religious folks – and across three major traditions! Nicely done. Of course, of course I know the way that religion gets used across all these traditions to justify the worst kind of homophobia and violence against queer people. And yet, queer people are in those very churches, synagogues and mosques, whether or not the straight religious people – secular LGBT people – want to acknowledge that or not. What makes that an especially asinine argument, to use your phrase, is that it’s been religious queer people who’ve been pioneers in the fight for marriage equality. It simply doesn’t advance the cause of LGBT rights to engage in the kind of racially intolerant rhetoric; and in fact, it undermines the broader goal of human rights.”
If by “called out for their politics” you mean stating the truth about the ugly, horrific reality of the rabid homo-intolerance/hatred and historic homosexual persecution of the three organized religions I mentioned, then I must respectfully disagree; and remain completely unrepentant… When it comes to the subject of homosexuality, no matter how some liberal-minded christians and gay followers may wish to euphemistically argue otherwise, the religious manuscripts of these religions are not ambiguous, they do not mince words. Homosexuality is WRONG. And since the prevailing belief among the followers is that the scriptures of these manuscripts are divinely inspired by their “God,” it logically translates through reason to God thinks homosexuality is wrong. Given the immense social influence that religion has traditionally wielded (regrettably), that is a very powerful and dangerous message to incorporate Particularly for the homosexual.
When it comes to oppression I will never advocate not telling the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be for some — potential allies or not. Doing otherwise, IMO, usually leads to the creation and perpetuation of disillusioned, phony, BS perceptions that things are better off than they actually are. Such a state of being rarely if ever has a beneficial or progressive outcome… It is my belief that NOT telling it like it is with regard to religion’s massive contribution to the anti-gay ethos borders on complicity.
Perhaps some potential allies, through their lack of understanding or blind, stubborn refusal to align with the most rudimentary concepts of fairness and equality — in a society whose laws are supposed to be absent of religious influence, deem themselves unfit for the task.
As for GLBT folk who are members of these religions — particularly the ones that buy into the concept of homosexuality as an innate “sin” … since I’m tired and sleepy now, I’ll just make this one sentence comparison: there are such things as black republicans, too.
Nite. Catch y’all on the flipside.
Hey TEvans ~ it is complicated, isn’t it? Let’s see if I can respond to some of your points.
Taken as a separate issue, this charge of white racism within the gay-rights movement arena — and within the gay community as a whole — unquestionably has merit.
On this, we can agree! And this was really one of the major points of my post. While you are quite legitimately focused on what you call the “knee-jerk response of Black GLBT” to focus on the fact that black “hetero brothers & sisters screwed up,” my point was to critique my white queer brothers (mainly, and lots of white straight progressives) who seem to have a strong knee-jerk response to blame black people for everything. That’s all. Like I said, I think we’re agreeing here.
When it comes to the subject of homosexuality, no matter how some liberal-minded christians and gay followers may wish to euphemistically argue otherwise, the religious manuscripts of these religions are not ambiguous, they do not mince words. Homosexuality is WRONG. And since the prevailing belief among the followers is that the scriptures of these manuscripts are divinely inspired by their “God,” it logically translates through reason to God thinks homosexuality is wrong.
Well, that’s certainly how some people have interpreted scriptures….but that’s an interpretation through a social and cultural context that reaffirms oppression. It’s an old trick. Religious folk have used scriptures to justify the oppression of women, the horrible oppression of slavery, even used scripture to justify the laws against interracial marriage in this country. That’s truly evil and pernicious and if anything should be called out, it’s oppressing people and using God/religion to justify it.
But, I would argue that ceding the ground of “Homosexuality is WRONG” to the religious-homophobic bigots and giving them the point that that’s what the scriptures says, is ultimately a flawed strategy on the part of the gay rights movement (and anyone concerned with human rights). Can you imagine agreeing with the notion that “well, yes, the scriptures do say that black people are inferior and meant to be enslaved”? No, of course not. Yet, we (queer people and progressives) often quickly cede the ground of “well, the bible does say that homosexuality is wrong.” Hogwash. It doesn’t say that. Now, I’m not the most qualified person to offer an exegesis of any sacred text, including the one in my own tradition, but I will say that much of what we have been told that the Bible says about homosexuality is based on mistranslation or a lack of understanding of the cultural context of the passage. (I just screened the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So” in my intro soc class for the family/religion unit, so this is all very much on my mind these days. Frankly, I think this is the kind of activism that LGBT people of all races should have been doing – screening this film in churches and then having a discussion afterward about Prop 8.)
The same book that some use to condemn homosexuality also includes the story of Ruth and Naomi. In that story, which you may remember, Ruth makes this commitment to Naomi: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” Sounds like a lesbian wedding to me, yet straight people use this passage at their hetero-wedding all the time without a hint of irony! 😉 This is the kind of sermon that I hear at the queer, multiracial church I attend, and next time you’re in NYC I invite you to come hear Rev. Pat or Rev. Edgard preach (this coming Sunday is “Leather Sunday and Trans Remembrance Day”). When you compare LGBT folk who attend church to “black republicans,” by which I think you mean to suggest a lack of political awareness and possibly a certain level of self-hatred, you reveal more about your own intolerance toward religion than anything else. I just don’t think this is the path that’s going to move us forward on this, or any other human rights issue.
Jessie, thanks for the mention of my book – I am sure you know, but I want to make clear, that as much as my book is focused around religious opposition to lesbian and gay rights, it does so very narrowly, limiting the analysis to activists and organizations in the religious right social movement. This includes primarily conservative, evangelical Christians, but of course not all of that large group, just those who participate in the movement.
There is a much more complex and interesting story in churches in general about sexuality and diversity, as you point out. However, leaders in non-religious LGBT movement organizations have been resistant to building coalitions with religious organizations, and I agree with you that they are not well served by a very narrow leadership demographic that (Urvashi Vaid notwithstanding) tends to be highly educated, white, urban-dwelling and upper-middle class.
Hey tina ~ thanks for dropping by! This is spot on: leaders in non-religious LGBT movement organizations have been resistant to building coalitions with religious organizations, and I agree with you that they are not well served by a very narrow leadership demographic that (Urvashi Vaid notwithstanding) Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Thanks for clarifying the focus of the book. Sorry if I failed to capture some of the nuance. It’s an excellent book and lots of people should read it! I linked it above, but here it is again: How the Religious Right Shaped Lesbian and Gay Activism.
Jessie, T Evans: interesting discussion you all are having. I would just add that while I can’t speak knowledgeably about all religions, I do know that if you study the Bible it’s pretty clear that it does not say that “homosexuality is WRONG.” Though people often point to chapters in Leviticus, Acts, and the Sodom & Gomorrah stories, if you read these carefully and with an eye for context it is clear that these chapters actually do not condemn homosexuality. (Biblical passages in the New Testament show that Jesus himself has little to say on the subject of sexuality.) What is present in the Bible are passages that have been *interpreted* by contemporary audiences to mean that homosexuality is wrong. While many religious folk justify their homophobia with the contention that “it’s in the Bible, homosexuality is a sin,” this claim is based on a decontextualized and therefore inaccurate reading of the book, a point made even by many respected Biblical scholars. See Peter Gomes’ “The Good Book” and John Shelby Spong’s “Living in Sin?” for two detailed discussions of this. Many people of faith use religion to justify (or deflect attention away from) their homophobia, sexism, and racism. To my way of thinking, however, this is evidentiary of human flaws and imperfections, not necessarily of inherent problems in faith itself.
Thanks, Adia ~ Peter Gomes is a good resource, I don’t know Shelby Spong’s work. And, of course, there’s John Boswell’s classic, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, in which he talks about a time when same-gender marriage was a holy rite recognized by the church. Still, it’s true, religion is used to justify all manner of evil in the world. Yet a lot of people, the majority even, still find meaning in religion. A number of sociologists have increasingly recognized the “rational choice” in religion (such as Rodney Stark), yet the LGBT community often seems stuck in a 1960s-era “god is dead” moment.
Back to the earlier point I was making wondering whether or not marriage is the right goal or not, comes this news about the murder of transgender African American woman Duanna Johnson at the hands of Memphis police. She refused to respond when the police called her “he-she” and “faggot” and then beat her to death. Two officers were fired after the attack; neither was prosecuted. Johnson is the third African American trans woman to be murdered in Memphis in as many years. Maybe the fight for marriage equality would have made someone think twice about the value of Duanna Johnson’s life, but I’m not sure.
Hey Jessie! I just want to say again that I think this is an amazing amazing post that I’ve read a few times now just to take it all in.
I also really appreciate the link to the laura.fo letter. I’ve seen the inabilities of the white power structure in Boston to reach across racial lines play out recently in my own backyard during a recent race for state rep. My rep’s district covers two “white” precincts with the bulk of the precincts being in traditionally black neighborhoods. For her most recent campaign, white volunteers went to the white neighborhoods and black volunteers went to the black neighborhoods. We never intermingled. Which perhaps is part of Boston’s racial history/present… but also a part of the white volunteers’ ignorance of *where* to even go to reach out to voters in our own backyards.
I think the one question I have in all of this have to do with your statements around using “benefits” as an argument for marriage equality. I get where you’re coming from about it… but my experience with working class folks’ perspective on the importance of “benefits” is quite a bit different. And it may be my own white/racial construct playing into how I see that issue…. but in the blue collar world that I come from, nothing looms larger than the idea of “benefits.” While the cocktail party conversations in white Boston frequently start with questions about “where did you go to school (college)?” the family gatherings I’ve been to in Kentucky/Tennessee always had a family member asking if my job came with any kind of benefits.
Also, I’ve found that the most effective conversations I’ve had with people opposed to marriage equality happened when I centered the conversation on the tangible benefits of marriage such as Social Security and survivorship rights. It may be a factor of my just not being able to discuss the intangible and personal human rights benefits very effectively… but there’s something about the basic “bottom line” that I think people in the US just “get”.
Anyway. Lots of food for thought. Thanks for putting it out there.
Hey Kristie ~ thanks for taking the time to drop by here! 😉 I agree that the “benefits” rhetoric is a very, very effective strategy for some people. And, just as you suggest, it works well across middle-to-working-class groups of folks for whom “benefits” are a powerful motivator. But, when I hear someone like Suze Orman say things like this, in response to “would you want to marry K.T. (her partner)?”:
Yes. Absolutely. Both of us have millions of dollars in our name. It’s killing me that upon my death, K.T. is going to lose 50 percent of everything I have to estate taxes. Or vice versa.
I just reflexively roll my eyes and say, oh puh-lease! To me, this is really the face of the “same-sex marriage” debate and honestly, it almost makes me vote against it. (I mean, I wouldn’t but you get my point.) When I was referring to “rights and benefits” rhetoric in the original post, I was really referring to a broader sort of strategy that situates “same-sex marriage” within a project of gaining shared access to property-and-income-and-benefits. And that sort of project – “the gay agenda,” if you will – is connected to lots and lots of other class-based politics within the LGBT community, like gentrification and displacing/surveillance of poor people of color, like the rise of the gay/lesbian wedding and travel industries. In my view, the battle for same-sex marriage is much more allied with this sort of ‘right-to-consumption’ and its attendant class politics than to a broad human rights agenda that recognizes the struggles of queer people who are poor, many of whom are also people of color. I’m just sayin’, when I hear “same-sex marriage” I think of Suze and her millions, not the homeless queer kids at the shelter (in our church). I just can’t get myself off the couch to march for Suze Orman’s right to pass on her millions to K.T.
interesting discussion. judith butler in undoing gender, has a provocative piece about gay marriage in which she makes two related points. the first (in line with some of the arguments in the original post) is that gay marriage *both* has real, important tangible benefits whose importance should not be diminished *and* is a fundamentally conservative project. we don’t have to look much beyond the terms “gay” and “marriage” to recognize that we’re not talking about some inclusive, radical, queer utopia that validates kinship in all its forms. her second point is that by entering the debate on these terms (marriage vs not), we foreclose other possibilities, like a vision where benefits are not attached to our kinship structures at all. entering into a debate about the state’s legitimation of our relationships extends the considerable power of the state in ways that repair some inequities but at the expense of other (perhaps more inclusive) possibilities. as she puts it, “If we engage the terms that these debates supply, then we ratify the frame at the moment in which we take our stand (Butler, Undoing Gender, p.129). from my perspective, we are put in an untenable position. i do think that gay marriage offers folks more than the right to pass long their wealth; it offers both powerful social recognition and real, tangible material benefits that are not available to many people through any other means. unfortunately, to access those benefits (social and material), we are asked to enter an institution and a political debate that reinscribes some problematic relationships and politics.
In my view, the battle for same-sex marriage is much more allied with this sort of ‘right-to-consumption’ and its attendant class politics than to a broad human rights agenda that recognizes the struggles of queer people who are poor, many of whom are also people of color.
I can see that. It’s kind of a case of this particular issue being about misplaced priorities.
I think it’s also, to be honest, a really difficult paradigm shift for middle-class white queers like me to make. It’s hard to take yourself out of the benefits that you would get and can get from same sex marriage and think about the larger fight that needs to be done. Which I think is just part of that whole “I’ll get mine first and then I’ll come back for you” thing that the HRC et al perpetuate.
Julie slipped. 🙂
from my perspective, we are put in an untenable position. i do think that gay marriage offers folks more than the right to pass long their wealth; it offers both powerful social recognition and real, tangible material benefits that are not available to many people through any other means. unfortunately, to access those benefits (social and material), we are asked to enter an institution and a political debate that reinscribes some problematic relationships and politics.
I can see that point. And whenever I think about the possibilities of survivorship rights that transcend traditionally-thought-of relationships like marriage, I always flashback to the 9/11 fund that in the beginning days at least, gave payments to anyone who could show an economic relationship with a victim… such as roommates… parents who received money from children…etc. I remember thinking at the time *that’s* how we need to be thinking about benefits all the time.
I also think the social recognition factor can’t be over-stated… as well as the way the word/action of “marriage” taps into a core feeling for a lot of people because of the “construct” a lot of us grew up in…. I don’t think I know how to phrase this properly… but having grown up Catholic in a very conservative part of the world… having the ability to take part in the word “marriage” speaks to and satisfies a very core part of me.
Anyway. I really appreciate the chance to discuss all of this here.
Hey Julie, Kristie ~ You (and Judith Butler) make some excellent points, Julie. I do think that part of what I object to about the whole ‘gay marriage’ thing is the ‘marriage’ part, and entering the debate on those terms. But, as Kristie points out, that is a powerful word with profound cultural resonance. Still, I remain bothered by the other kinds of resonances that ‘gay marriage’ has, the class, race and gender politics for me are just disturbing. I don’t know what the rallies looked like yesterday in Boston or San Francisco or elsewhere, but here in New York, they looked awfully *white* and middle-class, which frankly is kinda hard to do in a city this diverse (really, it was like something from a Seinfeld episode where all the black and brown people are made to disappear). Kristie, you said:
I think it’s also, to be honest, a really difficult paradigm shift for middle-class white queers like me to make. It’s hard to take yourself out of the benefits that you would get and can get from same sex marriage and think about the larger fight that needs to be done. Which I think is just part of that whole “I’ll get mine first and then I’ll come back for you” thing that the HRC et al perpetuate.
and, I see your point. I think that the “I’ll get mine” mentality is a spot on description of HRC’s approach to politics, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in the “I’ll come back for you” part of the equation. I actually don’t agree it’s that big a paradigm shift to make. I think it’s possible to have a political/social movement that addresses these forms of inequality simultaneously within a broader human rights framework that talks about marriage equality as something that provides basic human dignity and should be available to all as a matter of social justice, rather than the only mechanism for accessing “benefits” which only applies to some people.
And, then Kristie you also said (in response to Julie):
having grown up Catholic in a very conservative part of the world… having the ability to take part in the word “marriage” speaks to and satisfies a very core part of me.
I think we can’t diminish the value of that word and that concept for some people, and the potential it might have to reclaim it and expand the definition of marriage to include same-gender couples. It *could* be a profound shift for people, but I don’t think that’s either a given or universal. For me, the potential benefits of the battle for gay marriage as it is currently formulated are offset by what I see as a larger downside. And that downside has to do with the exclusionary race/gender/class politics of the “I’ll get mine”-rhetoric for white, middle-class gay people in this battle. In my view, such a strategy runs the very serious risk of amounting to a Pyrrhic victory in which there is some limited success in some states that benefits a few (already well-off gay people), but any larger goals (of the “I’ll come back for you later” variety) are rendered impossible because of the narrow, elitist tone of this struggle. But then, I’ve been married before (in a previous lifetime), so it could just be that I’m incredibly jaded about the transformative potential of the institution of marriage…it looks a lot like the military to me. 😉
Very interesting additions to the discussion…
Yes, Jessie, we certainly do agree on the issue of white racism being problematic with respect to the improvement of the relationship between the mainstream gay-rights movement and the African American community — straight AND gay (actually an argument could be made that there really is NO significant relationship to improve upon…but I’d rather not be that pessimistic)…
But I believe we still remain somewhat at opposite ends of the spectrum on the intrinsic culpability of religions and their philosophical scriptures…
“But, I would argue that ceding the ground of “Homosexuality is WRONG” to the religious-homophobic bigots and giving them the point that that’s what the scriptures says, is ultimately a flawed strategy on the part of the gay rights movement (and anyone concerned with human rights). Can you imagine agreeing with the notion that “well, yes, the scriptures do say that black people are inferior and meant to be enslaved”? No, of course not. Yet, we (queer people and progressives) often quickly cede the ground of “well, the bible does say that homosexuality is wrong.” Hogwash. It doesn’t say that.”
And Adia said:
“I do know that if you study the Bible it’s pretty clear that it does not say that “homosexuality is WRONG.” Though people often point to chapters in Leviticus, Acts, and the Sodom & Gomorrah stories, if you read these carefully and with an eye for context it is clear that these chapters actually do not condemn homosexuality. (Biblical passages in the New Testament show that Jesus himself has little to say on the subject of sexuality.) What is present in the Bible are passages that have been *interpreted* by contemporary audiences to mean that homosexuality is wrong.”
First, I feel it important that I mention that I am in no way a Christian … or a Jew or Muslim, or any other official adherent to any organized religious theology. However, I am a student of history and philosophy, and as such I’ve done my fair share of research into the history of religions, particularly Christianity… And, I really do resist this conversation morphing into a scripture-translation, literal-context debate concerning religious text, but apparently some flirtation with the subject matter will be required…
I have two major problems with the, “that may be what the Bible says but that’s not what it really means due to faulty translation,” argument… One, in order for the average Christian to adequately critically analyze the bible in such a manner — a book purported to lend itself graciously and conveniently to being cognitively accessible to the common person for the benefit of spiritual salvation and the imparting of divine wisdom — he/she would, today, almost certainly require a degree in the field of ancient languages. Now, how practical or realistic is that?… Two, if the transcriptions and translations of the common Bible are so open to suspicion, so open to interpretation in so many instances, then does it not inherently throw the entire manuscript itself into the realm of the suspect, thus making it dysfunctional as a synchronized coherent philosophical teaching?… I mean, if they manage to get the literal translation wrong about homosexuality, women, and slavery, how can it be argued for certain that they got it right with regard to the Ten Commandments or any other biblical teaching point? You see, it becomes the thread that unravels the quilt (which is cool by me considering I don’t put much stock in any of it)…
To somewhat illustrate my point, I’m certain that despite both your and Adia’s protestations to the contrary, we could easily find qualified theological scholars who would argue that condemnation of homosexuality is exactly what the Bible scripturally conveys. Would you not agree?…
And as to Adia’s claim that, “Though people often point to chapters in Leviticus, Acts, and the Sodom & Gomorrah stories, if you read these carefully and with an eye for context it is clear that these chapters actually do not condemn homosexuality. (Biblical passages in the New Testament show that Jesus himself has little to say on the subject of sexuality.) “, Jesus (whose historical veracity is very well open to debate…but that’s another story altogether), may not have had much to say, but Paul certainly did. In Romans 1:26-27 Paul is very specific:
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.”
And in 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul wrote, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.”
Now, if the scriptural content of the Bible is believed by the followers of the Christian faith to be the inerrant “word of God” does it matter if Jesus himself did not quote these scriptures? In the mind of the average believer, especially the Black ones that I have had the misfortune to discuss this topic, they are STILL the expressed opinion of their God, because they could not be in the Bible if they were not. Most Christians stand firm on this, translation and interpretation concerns be damned…if they are even considered at all.
The main thing for me on this issue is functionality; how does this whole religion-view on homosexuality play out in the real world of social relations, policy and consequences. Overwhelmingly, it has proved to be extremely detrimental and adversarial to the cultivation and sustainment of a gay-tolerant society.
Bottomline: traditionally religion has been no friend of gay folks (and that’s really putting it mildly). Followers of religion quite frequently use their faith and their religious manuscripts to beat gay people over the head about who and what they are. I have no qualms, if in the act of self-defense, I point out the blatantly intolerant, hateful, hypocritical and arrogantly narcissistic nature of their actions. The truth is the freakin’ truth… Perhaps because we fight from the current position of weakness — politically that is — some degree of compromise along the lines that you mention could prove beneficial, but I kinda doubt it. And I know I ain’t the one to attempt it… My view of the matter more closely matches the one of a brother named Derek who responded to the subject with this:
“If a person’s belief is that the bible teaches against homosexuality and they govern their life by it, why are they expected to be against Prop 8? That baffles me. There is no common ground there. These are diametrically opposing views. Is a person expected to abandon what they hold to be the ordinance of God for the sake of agreement? If they did, their commitment to their religion would be questionable at best.”…
Hard as hell for me to disagree with the brother on this one.
Also, on another note, I don’t get some of the Black BLBT *opposition* to legalized gay marriage… Take for instance, Micah, who seems like an intelligent beautiful brother and from whose website link I found myself directed to your article, he says some people just can’t comprehend how gay marriage may not benefit everyone… Well, exactly how does it NOT benefit Black gay people? Last time I checked no where in this nation, or the world, where same-sex marriage is legal does there exist an exemption clause based on race…
I can understand priority based indifference to same-sex marriage from the issue-ladened Black gay community (although I still cringe at it a bit), but out-and-out opposition? …Because of some racist White folks? It makes no sense at all. It is a classic example of slicing off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
A pro-gay-marriage heterosexual sister had this to say:
“As I said, I was thoroughly pissed off as I read some of the reflexive responses coming from some white members of the gay community immediately following Prop 8’s passage. I decided not to march last weekend because of a story Farai Chideya told on Bill Maher last Friday. She recounted how a black, gay friend of hers who was wearing a “No on 8” t-shirt, holding a “No on 8” sign at a “No on 8” rally, was called a ‘nigger.’ I refused to put myself in that situation.
But I have had a softening of heart. Racists will always be somewhere in every group. I cannot let them decided how or when I will stand with and for people I care about. I have always supported full equality for all people and have always* been an ally of lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered people. So, I’ve purchased my t-shirts and will wade into the next protest I can find. Last weekend I heard the marchers chant “Black or white marriage is a human right.” I like it! “
TEvans, thanks again for your willingness to engage this difficult debate. Unfortunately, I have an offline writing obligation that’s pulling my attention elsewhere so I’m not going to be able to match your level of engagement on this. A couple of quick thoughts about religion and then about race. First, about religion. If, as you suggest, most of the church-going folks that you know believe that their sacred text (the Bible) says that homosexuality is wrong – wouldn’t a more effective strategy for political and social change be to engage them about that text and its interpretation rather than to stand outside and call them bigots? And, wouldn’t it be a step in the right direction if you didn’t affirm their hateful interpretation of that text? Second, about race. There’s an excellent article in the most recent issue of the journal Sexualities by Priya Kandaswamy (h/t to Julie for sending it my way) in which the author makes a convincing argument about the racial politics involved in the fight for same-sex marriage. Here’s the abstract:
This article situates contemporary debates about same-sex marriage in relation to the politics of state austerity, particularly ‘welfare reform’, in the US. While these two issues are rarely thought about together, looking at claims for marriage rights in the context of cutbacks in social welfare programs and the increasing promotion of ‘marriage incentives’ as a means of getting low-income single mothers off welfare reveals conservative undertones to same-sex marriage campaigns. This article examines the specific benefits that gay and lesbian activists seek to access through marriage, arguing that these benefits are better understood as privileges of a racially stratified welfare state.
(I can send you the PDF of the full text article if you’re interested.) My point here, and the place that I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree, is that religion, race and the same-sex marriage debate are much more complicated than simply saying that religion is to blame and same-sex marriage is not inflected with racial politics.
increasing promotion of ‘marriage incentives’ as a means of getting low-income single mothers off welfare reveals conservative undertones to same-sex marriage campaigns. This article examines the specific benefits that gay and lesbian activists seek to access through marriage, arguing that these benefits are better understood as privileges of a racially stratified welfare state.
Ok *fascinating* :::off to e-library:::
thank you Jessie for your posting. it certainly opened up some significant dialogue. i agree with you immensely and wish others could truly understand where you are coming from. one thing i will say before closing. barack obama is our president because he represents change and unity among all people. the movement for Prop. 8 should incorporate this strategy in their efforts. i am so excited to have lived long enough to witness an african-american president. i as an african-american heterosexual male was extremely diasppointed about Prop.8, so to blame us for the plight of Prop.8 is not fair nor across the board. personally, i feel neglecting people of color in the campaigning against Prop. 8 certainly did not help. Peace
An excellent article. We appreciate the work you put into that.