Confronting racism in LGBT community

racism, gay news, Washington Blade

‘I think what you’re seeing … is that folks are no longer waiting for these establishment or mainstream organizations to get it,” said Angela Peoples, executive director of Get Equal. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Strong concerns raised earlier this month by a local LGBT group that D.C.’s Capital Pride Alliance, which organizes the city’s annual LGBT Pride parade and festival, has not adequately addressed issues of concern to people of color came as a surprise to some in the LGBT community.

During a May 8 meeting of the Capital Pride Alliance’s board of directors, members of a newly formed coalition called No Justice No Pride said the board included only a few token members who were people of color and the board as a whole, according to No Justice No Pride members, remains insensitive to the needs and issues of people of color, especially transgender people of color.

Capital Pride officials, who dispute that assessment, said they nevertheless welcome the views of everyone in the LGBT community and promised to redouble their efforts to be more inclusive and to better represent people of color and the full diversity of the community.

In interviews this week, the Washington Blade asked four prominent black LGBT leaders who head local and national LGBT organizations to talk about how they see the current state of race relations within the LGBT community and within LGBT organizations.

The Blade also interviewed a prominent African-American official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the activist is not authorized to speak to the media.

Do the concerns by people of color that surfaced at the Capital Pride Alliance meeting earlier this month go beyond Capital Pride and touch on other local and national LGBT organizations?

Guillaume Bagal, the recently elected president of D.C.’s Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, who’s black, said the answer is yes.

“While race-related issues are at the forefront of the Capital Pride dispute, it is simply a manifestation of what has been brewing for decades in local and national LGBTQ organizations,” Bagal said.

“Take the District for instance,” he told the Blade in a statement. “Despite our richness in both social and advocacy LGBTQ groups, there remains an air of segregation many have either grown accustomed to or continue to justify rather than addressing head on. The call to address Black and Brown issues within the LGBTQ community will only get louder, and I hope LGBTQ organizations at the local and national level begin to reflect the needs of people living at the intersection of multiple societally marginalized identities.”

He said local and national LGBT organizations “need to come to terms with the reality that unless race is specified, it’s white.”

“By this I mean that unless you are intentional in addressing the needs of people of color or other minority groups, you are likely catering to the same white, cisgender, middle and upper-class gay men,” he said. “Furthermore, using words like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’ is problematic when your leadership does not reflect the community you claim to serve, and your organizational decisions are perceived as shallow and tone-deaf by communities of color.”

Earl Fowlkes is executive director of the Center for Black Equity, a national D.C.-based group that advocates for African-American LGBT people and helps organize Black Pride events in the U.S. and abroad. He is also president of D.C.’s Gertrude Stein Democratic Club and chair of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus.

‘I think there are always issues of inclusion that have to be dealt with. And we have to struggle with those,’ said longtime advocate Earl Fowlkes.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“The reality is in our community, the LGBTQ community, we still struggle with issues of race and class and age and gender identity, and they all intertwine,” he told the Blade. “It’s very complicated.”

He noted that while Capital Pride continues to encounter problems related to people of color he feels things have improved in recent years.

“I’ve noticed an increase in black participants in the parade of affinity groups and organizations,” he said in discussing the Capital Pride events. “And also people who were watching the parade – there are more people of color watching the parade,” Fowlkes said.

“But we have to look at this more holistically and understand that it’s not just the three days where we have to be better about race for Pride,” Fowlkes continued. “It should be the whole year. We don’t socialize together. There are very few places where black and white socialize together, which is the basis of relationships and friendships, the basis of understanding,” he said.

“And until we start doing that and creating those spaces to do that we’re going to have misunderstandings and a lack of sensitivity toward issues of race,” Fowlkes said.

He added, “It’s difficult because if you focus on three days of the year as opposed to looking at the entire year there are tensions as we have gentrification, where people of color, particularly blacks who lived in D.C. for many years are forced to move out because of the increase in housing costs. And a lot of those people are LGBT too.”

Angela Peoples, executive director of the national LGBT direct action group Get Equal and a member of the No Justice No Pride coalition, said she is surprised that members of the LGBT community would be asking at this time whether there are shortcomings among LGBT organizations and LGBT events pertaining to racial justice and people of color.

“I’m sorry – I’m a little taken aback by the question because this is part of the premise of the entire No Justice No Pride campaign,” she said. “It’s part of the reason that there is a Black Pride, Latino Pride, etc. in the first place,” Peoples said.

“It’s because the LGBT community historically and today has been racist and at best has encouraged people of color, particularly black folks, to fall in line.”

Most importantly, Peoples said, none of this is a new development in the LGBT community.

“So yes, there are issues. There have been issues for decades. This is not new. This is not the first time,” she said.

“And I think what you’re seeing, especially all across the country, is that folks are no longer waiting for these establishment or mainstream organizations or for the mainstream movement to get it,” she continued.

Among other things, Peoples said more LGBT organizations and advocates need to undertake a “serious conversation” about who the leadership should be, who we put our resources in,” and who should be involved in these conversations.

“And it seems to me that the mainstream movement time and time again is not willing to do that,” she said. “We’ve called on HRC to divest from Wells Fargo because of their treatment of black and brown communities. We’ve called on the Task Force and Creating Change to divest from Wells Fargo because of their relationship with the Dakota Access Pipeline and to private prisons.”

“And these groups don’t want to respond. They don’t want to hear truth,” Peoples said.

She was referring to the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, and the National LGBTQ Task Force’s selection of Wells Fargo Bank as a corporate sponsor. Creating Change is a national LGBT conference organized by the Task Force.

“Wells Fargo has not been a direct sponsor of Creating Change in years and as of July 1, 2017 they will no longer be a national corporate sponsor of the National LGBTQ Task Force,” said Russell Roybal, the group’s deputy executive director.

“They remain the presenting sponsor of the Task Force Gala-Miami as they have for the last several years,” Roybal added.

A spokesperson for HRC couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. HRC has said Wells Fargo Bank has consistently received the HRC Foundation’s highest rating for a corporation on internal personnel policies for LGBT employees.

Isaiah Williams, external affairs director for the National Black Justice Coalition, another D.C.-based group that advocates for the black LGBT community, said mainstream LGBT rights organizations have historically not focused on many of the issues deemed important for LGBT people of color.

“In thinking about the last decade, marriage equality was the fight,” said Williams. “We were very much in support of that fight, but that was a very privileged fight,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the most marginalized within the LGBTQ community and our issues. And when we look at those issues we’re just trying to survive. We’re just trying to get employment where we can be our authentic selves and that we’re protected and that we can’t be fired just because of who we are as LGBT people who happen to be LGBT people of color,” Williams said.

“There has always been this issue around what are the issues we’re fighting for. And do those issues come from a place of privilege? It’s incumbent upon the movement to always center on the most marginalized, the most left behind,” he said.

In pointing to the issues that matter most to many LGBT people of color, Wilson added, “If you don’t have employment protections, if you don’t have housing protections, if you don’t have access to health care that is accessible and of quality then who cares about a marriage certificate when your quality of life is still marginalized, it’s still oppressed?”

When asked if what appears to be a large number of people of color in D.C., both LGBT and straight, who have jobs in professions such as law, medicine, business, and elective office is a sign of possible change, Williams expressed caution.

“You’re speaking of individuals,” he said. “I’m talking about systemic issues. Racism is not – please quote me on this. Racism is not about only individuals. Racism is about institutions of a system that supports racist outcomes,” he continued.

“So yes, we might have a judge. We just had the first black president. But the state of black America some would argue is still horrible. We still have record unemployment rates. We still have the Affordable Care Act that gives us access to health care, but that is being taken away,” said Williams.

“And so like everything else, the LGBT equality movement is continuing to have to deal with this notion of marginalization that really comes from a place of systemic oppression via racism.”

The activist who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed with many of the points raised by Peoples and Williams.

“I would say that as with most things, what goes on in the LGBTQ community mirrors what goes on in the mainstream community when it comes to racism and patriarchy and socio-economic differences and oppression,” the activist said.

“So it’s never gone away and as long as it’s not addressed it’s not going to go away,” said the activist. “I think what you’re seeing is a lot of the racial tensions that are bubbling up to the surface have been there underneath.”

The activist added, “And I think while some of these organizations realize that changes have to be made, not everybody realizes the urgency. They think they can do it over the course of time. And I think what you’re seeing is young activists are saying they’re not going to wait anymore. They’re very vocal. They’re very impatient. And they’re coming from another era that most people my age aren’t used to.”

The activist said some of the issues raised by groups such as No Justice No Pride are valid while other issues being raised are not valid, such as banning police from the Capital Pride parade.

“But there seems to be no middle ground,” said the activist. “If the powers that be met the activists on some middle ground and say this is what we can do now and this is what we can do moving forward you would see some movement. But I think everybody’s in an all-or-nothing stance and that’s unfortunate.”

Fowlkes said while many hurdles remain in the quest for full inclusion of people of color in LGBT organizations and institutions he sees important progress being made on that front locally.

“Capital Pride is taking a great deal of energy into improving its relationship with different parts of our community, including Black Pride,” he said. “We work with them. We talk to them. We have a relationship with them. And we will be participating in their Pride and they participate in our Pride.”

Fowlkes, who has played a lead role in organizing D.C.’s Black Pride activities for over a decade, said the different Pride events held in D.C. each year such as Black Pride, Trans Pride, and Latino Pride are not mutually exclusive.

“People need to understand their communities and be proud of their communities, whatever part of the community they come from,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t participate in Capital Pride or Capital Pride is evil,” he continued.

“I think there are always issues of inclusion that have to be dealt with. And we have to struggle with those,” said Fowlkes. “And there’s nothing wrong with that struggle. That struggle brings growth. And we have to always keep struggling and we have to be reminded of how important that struggle is.”

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