NOM Strategy: Use Race to Divide Marriage Equality Supporters

There’s a lot of buzz about the just revealed internal memos from the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) which make plain their divisive racial strategies to oppose marriage equality. The key strategy NOM has employed is wedge politics, that is, seeking to drive a wedge between African Americans, Latinos and those in the LGBT movement.

Here is just some of what the NOM memos say about blacks:

The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party. Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement’s allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue.

NOM’s strategy for Latinos looks like this:

Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We can interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity.

You can read all the documents here, thanks to HRC.

To say that NOM’s strategy is racist is stating the obvious. Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious, but I want to make a slightly less obvious point, and that is that the revelations about NOM’s racial politics highlight the LGBT movement’s need for a racial justice agenda.

The truth is that African Americans and Latinos are just as likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, as white people. And, Zack Ford makes the excellent point that:

“NOM’s tactics seek to erase an entire population of people who live at the intersections of these experiences, limiting their ability to fulfill their complete identities.”

That’s exactly right. The NOM strategies are not only racist, but they assume that “gay” and “black” or “lesbian” and “Latina” are somehow mutually exclusive categories, that you can’t be both gay and black, or lesbian and Latina. The reality is that the LGBT movement has also ignored the “both/and” identities. How else to explain the popularity of the “Gay is the new Black” slogan popularized by during the Prop 8 campaign? We’re right to get outraged as NOM’s racial strategy to divide “gays and blacks” – but this division is one we have to take a serious look at within the LGBT movement which currently lacks a racial justice agenda.

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(Creative Commons License photo credit: tantek)

What would it look like if the LGBT movement had a racial justice agenda?  Well, for starters, we’d see our struggle for equality tied to other movements for justice, not just by analogy. So, for example, there’s been a noticeable silence about Trayvon Martin on most of the mainstream gay blogs, probably because most (white) gay folks don’t see the case as “our issue.”

But, as Zach Stafford pointed out here recently, gay folk should care about Trayvon Martin because all of us who are “outsiders” – whether because of sexual orientation, gender non-conformity, or race – can be targets of violence.

When we say that “gay rights is the new civil rights movement,” we’re playing into the divisive racial politics of NOM.  We have to do better than “gay is the new black.”  We have to see that the fight for sexual equality hasn’t replaced the fight for racial equality, because that’s not over. When the LGBT movement moves beyond shallow slogans like “gay is the new black” to embrace a racial justice agenda that sees our struggle tied to others, then we’ll have truly won a victory against opponents like NOM that can only see “gays” and “blacks” as an easy place to drive a wedge.

~ This post originally appeared on HuffPo Gay Voices.

The DREAM Act and the Failure of White Gay/Lesbian Progressives

This week the U.S. Senate voted on two landmark pieces of legislation: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (DADT) and the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who came to this country as children.  The repeal of DADT succeeded, while the DREAM Act failed to pass. Gay and lesbian activists and their allies who fought for the repeal of DADT are understandably elated with the overturning of the 17-year-old ban.  But, so far at least, white gay and lesbian progressives have failed to see the DREAM Act as part of the same struggle for human rights.

May Day Immigration Marches, Los Angeles
Creative Commons License photo credit: Salina Canizales

Don’t get me wrong, leading gay and lesbian organizations, such as NGLTF have mentioned both the DREAM Act and DADT – but as separate, single issues.   In separate press releases this week, Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) came out in favor of the repeal of DADT and the DREAM Act.    In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest (and predominantly white) gay rights organization, has had a lot to say on DADT, but has had very little to say about the DREAM Act.  White gay bloggers like Dan Savage and Joe.My.God. have mentioned the DREAM Act along with DADT, as they have been updating their readers about the lame-duck session of Congress.    The Advocate, a magazine popular with white gays and lesbians, has tons of coverage about the repeal of DADT, but has had only one piece about the immigration (in November) but nothing to date in the archive about the DREAM Act, except as the scheduling of that vote threatened to affect repeal of DADT.  And, perhaps most disappointing for me to see personally as a church-going lesbian, the moderator for my denomination issued a press release that heralded the triumph of this single issue.

What’s the matter with single issue politics?  Isn’t this simply a pragmatic strategy for getting things done in the current political climate?  I don’t think so.  And, neither does Urvashi Vaid.  In a recent speech at the CUNY Graduate Center, Vaid, a longtime activist working at the intersections of LGBT rights and racial justice articulated the dilemma of single-issue gay politics this way:

The key structural reason why neither branch of the LGBT movements has operationalized its stated intersectional politics, is quite simple: the default definition for what “Gay” means has been set by, and remains dominated by, the ideas and experiences of those in our communities who are white and this really has not changed in more than fifty years. Issues, identities, problems that are not “purely” gay – read as affecting white gay men and women – are always defined as not the concern of “our” LGBT movement – they are dismissed as “non-gay” issues, as divisive, as the issues that some ‘other movement’ is more suited to champion. We have our hands full we are told. We need to single-mindedly focus on one thing.

This is an argument that many LGBT liberationists and gay-equality focused activists have made to each other and bought wholesale for decade– without malice, without prejudice – just because there has been an unquestioned assumption that this narrow focus works, that we are getting results because we are making a “gay rights” argument, that this is smart and successful political strategy.

My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement. The gay-rights focus was historically needed but is a vestigial burden we need to shed. It leads to an unsuccessful political strategy where we try to win on one issue at a time, it narrows our imagination and vision, it does not serve large numbers of our own people, and it feeds the perception that we are generally privileged and powerful, and not in need of civil equality.

What this means right now, at this critical juncture when the repeal of DADT has passed and the DREAM Act hasn’t, is that gay and lesbian activists should be calling for the passage of the DREAM Act and other (even broader) immigration reforms.   I’ve yet to hear one white gay or lesbian activist stand up and say, “Let’s use this momentum from the DADT victory to see the passage of the DREAM Act.”  Not one.   As Vaid said, by focusing on one, single issue at a time, we’re narrowing our imagination and our vision.

Instead of this broadening of vision and building toward a common goal, among white gays and lesbians  there’s a kind of collective “oh, well, the Brown people didn’t get their bill, quelle sad, but we got ours – so let’s celebrate!”  What white gay and lesbian progressives fail to understand is that among those young people hoping to achieve citizenship through the (very restrictive) DREAM Act are gay and lesbian teens.  It’s not that DADT and the DREAM Act are separate issues, they’re part of the same struggle.     It’s just that white gays and lesbians don’t see that.  I hope that changes.


Battling Racism in Drag

I’ve written here before about the racism in the gay community and this is one of the most egregious examples.  Shirley Q Liquor is one of the drag personas of Chuck Knipp, a white guy who performs in blackface.   The centerpiece of his act seems to be trading on the crassest stereotypes of black women.

The following is an excerpt from the Shirley Q. Liquor MySpace page, describing the character:

“How you derrin’! I’m Shirley Q. Liquor. I is from Texarkana and is mother of 19 chillrens. I love some brown bakeded beans, sermons on ignunce, K-Mark, and Shlitz malt liquor. I enjoys goin’ to get my nails did. I think I’m gonna get my nails painted blue with a lil’ gold jessie picture on my littlest nail. I also enjoys hangin’ out with my girl Watusi. Good lawd, she got’s some crazy ass drivin’s. Oh, and she so ugly. She 7″1′ and no amount of make up gonna help her. Oh lawd, she look AWFUL. Well honey, that’s it for now. Tell yo momma I axed her how she durrin’. Bye suga.”

In Shirley Q. Liquor’s repertoire are numbers with titles such as as “Church Slave,” “Who is My Baby Daddy?” and “Jailed.” Although Knipp defends his act as a parody of Tyler Perry’s Madea character, just saying that you’re mimicking black-created foolishness isn’t enough to absolve Knipp of the overtly racist content of his Shirley Q. character.  And, just because white, predominantly gay audiences pay for this crap is no excuse either (boys of Queer Eye – I’m *so* disappointed in you for getting your pic snapped with Shirley Q!).

If you object to Knipp’s Shirley Q. Liquor drag character, take a second and sign this online petition.

Judith Butler Refuses Award at Berlin Pride Citing Racism

Last week, noted  social critic and philosophy professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).   Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color.  The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

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(Creative Commons License photo credit: thomasderzweifler)

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive”  (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date.   As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem.   Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card.   This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world, in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving.   This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another.  In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined.  When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression.  Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican).   And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage.  The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for – as SUSPECT points out in their statement – a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement.  What might this look like?  As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality, is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.