Tag Archives: LGBT

Why Barney Frank Referring to Log Cabin Republicans As Uncle Toms Is Just Plain Wrong

12 Sep

The recent controversy over Barney Frank accusing Log Cabin Republicans of being “Uncle Toms overlooks some important historical facts. Those facts are significant because his overlooking them reveals a lack of understanding of the differing contexts of oppression of LGBT people and people of color, particularly African Americans, that is widespread in the primarily white LGBT movement.

But first, as a gay man, I gotta give it to Mr. Frank. Log Cabin Republicans (called that in deference to Lincoln) are worthy of criticism. I may, like Mr. Frank, disagree with Republicans who happen to be LGBT, but I have the most profound disrespect for LGBT Republicans who serve as apologists for Republican bigotry.

But to call them “Uncle Toms?” That was just wrong.

Uncle Tom is a reference to a character in a Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in 1861, before the abolition of slavery. In the story, Tom is beaten to death by his master for refusing to expose the locations of two fugitive slave women.

Many have criticized Stowe for her characterization, which presents Tom as saint-like, both for his servility, and his refusal to fight back. And there’s no doubt that Uncle Tom is two dimensional character. He’s subservient in the extreme, and his passivity in the face of injustice made the term “Uncle Tom” into an epithet over the years, especially during the Civil War when it was used by some to refer to African Americans who stayed in servitude after abolition and therefore (forcibly, it is assumed) helped the Confederate war effort.

But whatever he is, both as a literary character and a historical trope, Uncle Tom is not equivalent to Log Cabin Republicans.

Before speaking, Barney Frank should have considered the context of slavery out of which the character Uncle Tom comes. He was not voluntarily in the service of his master as are Log Cabin Republicans. Volition was something slaves were denied.

Moreover, Uncle Tom’s real life equivalents didn’t profit by their support of their masters. Slaves were property. According to the logic of slavery, they were nothing more than units of production. When they didn’t work, they were “fixed” through terrorism and violence, and when they wore out, they were discarded.

Women were regularly raped, and men sometimes castrated at the whims of their masters. Under such circumstances, a servile attitude is a form of self-defense. This survival strategy is not to be compared to Log Cabin Republicans whose agenda is more like self-aggrandizement.

And after the Civil War that Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is often said to have helped start, Blacks in the South were subjected to neo-slavery, campaigns of terror, lynching, segregation, and humiliating circumstances of labor. To the degree that some of the most egregious offenses against Black people were stopped during the 1940s and 50s (even as others were initiated), it was to a large degree in order to address the public relations needs of the U.S. Cold War strategy to which the mistreatment of Black people was a liability internationally.

Using the term “Uncle Tom” to denigrate Log Cabin Republicans minimizes the history out of which the term came to us. It sanitizes the past by suggesting a contemporary equivalency between the subservient attitudes of people terrorized by slavery and the obsequiousness of conservative LGBT people who, moreover, are on the wrong side of the current fight to address the legacy of injustice of slavery that we live with today.

And politically speaking, it fails to see the differences between the struggles of LGBT people as a sexual minority community (since obviously we aren’t all white), and other communities of color, and that does us no favors. It is in those differences that important strategies for addressing the different ways we are oppressed often exist, and the acknowledgement of those differences is vital to demonstrating the kind of understanding and respect necessary to building bonds of authentic solidarity.

Overheard in Brooklyn

19 Jul

This past weekend, two middle-aged African American men were sitting on a bench in Fort Greene Park. A white gay couple walked by provoking one of the Black men to complain to the other about LGBT people, comparing homophobia to racism. He said, “…I’m a Black man. You know that the minute I walk into the room. There’s no hiding…”

I guess that’s what I get for being nosy. The idea here is that comparing queer oppression to racism overstates the problem of homophobia because queers can pass while people of color can’t. Michael Steele, the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, has made this same argument. So have members of my family.

This logic is damaging to the cause of anti-racism and of social justice.

I get that different people experience oppression differently. I’m also not one of those people who thinks everything is relative. Some things are really worse than others, both to the person experiencing them and to our culture and political system.

However, this is beside the point. While we are oppressed in different ways, those differences don’t obliterate the connections that exist between us.

Case in point: about 50 years ago, when white conservative elites were pushed out of power by liberals, they realized that they needed to change strategies. Their main institution of political power, the Republican Party, needed to stop being the party of the rich and become a party of the people.

To accomplish this, they switched from a more purely pro-business agenda and towards opposing the Democratic Party’s rights agenda, then centered on civil rights for African Americans. The audience for this move was white Southerners who’d become Democrats in opposition to Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, and might react to civil rights for African Americans by becoming Republicans. They were right, but simply opposing civil rights was not enough.

Conservatives needed to reach beyond the South and build a national base of power. So they aligned themselves with the then fast growing evangelical movement. To do this, they appealed to the cultural conservatism of evangelicals by attacking reproductive freedom and LGBT rights. This move built their evangelical base while simultaneously splitting liberals. The liberal split cleared the way for a highly politicized evangelical plurality (the largest minority) of voters to seize control of politics.

We do share common cause, and splitting hairs over who is more oppressed doesn’t help us promote that cause. But, I realize that political arguments are not enough. Folks engage in the sort of fighting exemplified by the “queers can pass but we can’t” argument because too many of us are given little else than our survival in the face of oppression on which to hang our dignity. In a society that makes relief for injustice a zero sum game, with protection only going to those who bleed the most, we are all tempted to engage in oppression competitions.

But here’s some food for thought. As a queer who can usually pass, the very fact that passing is treated as a privilege is part of my oppression. The desire to pass is founded in shame and fear of violence. Every time I choose to hide, I must acknowledge that shame and fear. It’s not a privilege to pass. The privilege lies with those we are passing to appease.

And as long as we continue to minimize this sort of oppression, we hurt the cause of justice. After all, from day to day, most of us are not oppressed in ways that are extreme and outrageous as measured by the yardsticks of those with the most privilege. Our oppression is meted out in little humiliations, small hurts, and quiet indignities. We are followed in stores, or assumed to be foreign. We are sneered at or avoided or simply ignored. Every time looks of derision or suspicion are passed between people for whom we are the other, it chips away at our sense of security, of safety, and of peace with ourselves and the world.

While some of us are more horribly mistreated than others, it is the knowledge that we are all vulnerable to mistreatment – knowledge we are reminded of in little ways, every day – that keeps us from claiming our liberation. We need to honor these slights, these dings and scratches on our dignity, because we are human beings and we deserve better. Bottom line. That’s how we raise the standard on rights and respect.

So yeah, maybe I can pass as straight. But that’s just so not the point.

Building a Bridge Between LGBT Groups and Communities of Color

18 Jun

The Huffington Post reports that at the Father’s Day Stop and Frisk March in New York on Sunday, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, made the claim that the march was the first time LGBT groups marched with the Black community for the same cause. There were no quotes around that statement, so I think it’s fair she have a chance to clarify that statement.

But, I’m prone to ranting. It’s an occupational hazard of racial justice activists.  And so I will.

Weingarten’s supposed proclamation, (not to mention the challenges put forward by liberal media pundits who’ve reacted to President Obama’s recent statement on same sex marriage by asking LGBT groups to stand up with African Americans) deserves a response. That response is, get a grip on your history.

In less than 30 seconds of searching the web, I found this story about an LGBT contingent in the Million Man March. That contingent was organized by the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum in 1995. And it wasn’t the first time that LGBT people were a visible presence at civil rights marches.

In 1990, I was an organizer for a group opposing vigilante white supremacist violence. We organized the largest civil rights march in the Pacific Northwest up until that time. LGBT groups like the Lesbian Community Project, the Lesbian Avengers, Queer Nation, and ACT-UP were at our side on that day, as were the Coalition of Black Men, the NAACP, and the Black United Front. Despite bomb threats and police intimidation, LGBT groups and African American groups marched side by side in Portland, Oregon 22 years ago.

As a former organizer of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, I know that some LGBT national groups have been a presence at marches and rallies alongside African American groups for a while now and vice versa. And national LGBT groups are part of the coalition that makes up the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, a group founded by A. Philip Randolph.

The NAACP chapter in North Carolina marched alongside LGBT groups in opposition to Amendment 1, the measure that outlaws same sex marriage. They are among many African American groups that have sided with LGBT rights over the years.

It’s important to know this history because denying it marginalizes the efforts of a committed minority of people of all races in the LGBT community that has been there, fighting on these issues. They are the pioneers of this moment in LGBT history.

LGBT people of color have played critical roles among that human rights minority. We’ve been the ones advocating for LGBT rights in communities of color, and for racial equity in the LGBT community. The bridge that groups crossed Sunday in order to march together was constructed on our backs. I won’t allow statements that step on that legacy to go unchallenged.

But groups like Weingarten’s own union and the mainstream media outlets through which liberal pundits have been putting forth challenges have rarely, if ever, paid attention to LGBT people of color, much less to the multi-issue human rights minority in the LGBT movement. By playing only to power and political expediency, they contribute to the myth that the LGBT community can be summed up in terms of its least controversial and most influential groups. The same groups that tend to marginalize issues of concern to LGBT people of color.

I get that the primarily white LGBT community hasn’t been present enough on racial justice. I became an organizer in the LGBT movement because I wanted to advocate for racial justice in the LGBT community.

I left the national LGBT movement in the late 1990s because I felt that in order to close the gap between people of color and primarily white national LGBT groups, LGBT people of color would have to come to the national movement through broad-based people of color organizations. Power, I realized, only concedes to power.

But flawed as they are, to say that LGBT groups haven’t been present – to claim that the first time LGBT groups marched alongside African Americans on an issue of racial justice was in 2012 – is ridiculous. If she really said it, she needs to take it back. Such statements rewrite history in a way that make us vulnerable to our own prejudices and to the revisionists of the other side.

Race Basics: Colonialism and Religious Bigotry

18 May

I don’t play in the oppression Olympics. Yet, I’ve argued that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy. This statement has generated some controversy, with some saying I’ve overlooked Native people, and others saying there is a hierarchy of oppressions in which Blacks suffer most.

All this talk got me to thinking about the particular racism faced by Native people and how it fits into my analysis.

I recalled a time, some years back, when I got stuck in a soft spot on the shoulder of a road on my way to a speaking engagement. I tried to wave down help, but to no avail. For hours, no one stopped.

When I got to my destination, I told the story to my host who promptly said, “You’re in Indian country. They thought you were Native American.” What the…? Lots of white folks, he explained, are afraid of Native people in reservation-adjacent areas in Oregon.

A year later, I was in Idaho for a reception with an LGBT rights group. Near the end of the evening, two Native American men arrived. As they walked to the ticket table, one of the guests referred to them by using the “N” word preceded by the word “prairie.” Again, I was shocked.

When years later I worked in criminal justice reform out West, I learned a bit more about the racism faced by Native people. In Montana, urban Indians are profiled as vagrants and targeted for  harassment. Native drivers were regularly pulled over and assumed to be either drunk or driving without insurance. The latter is often true because the extraordinary poverty rate among Native people in Montana means many can’t afford insurance.

In 2000, Native Americans were more than 20% of all prisoners in Idaho and Wyoming in spite of being approximately 7% of the populations of those states.

Later, as a program officer of a social justice foundation, I visited Native groups all over the Northwest, both on reservation and off. Among them was the Wind River Alliance in Wyoming. From them, I learned that the Wind River had been reduced to a trickle on the reservation by white farmers whose water rights trumped Indian treaty rights.

To make the point, they aired a video of a local judge explaining his decision against the tribes’ water rights lawsuit. He said “we” already won that “war,” and water rights are one of the spoils.

This conquerer mentality regarding Native people is everywhere. It is expressed by those who say Native people are “vanishing.” It’s indicated by the current fight over re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That Act is opposed by the House Republican majority in part because of special provisions concerning violence against Native women.

It may also explain the soaring unemployment rates of Native Americans, topping 18% in the West.

I’ve toured the Crow Reservation on visits to the Center Pole Foundation in Montana. Many there live in dilapidated and poorly insulated trailers.

During the freezing winter, space heaters run constantly. Families sleep as close to the ceiling as possible in order to feel the heat. But the bills run so high that the electricity is eventually cut. Families wait until summer to earn enough money to settle back bills and avoid freezing next winter.

I also met members of the Chinook Nation. The University of Oregon describes the Chinook tribe of Washington as historical relics.  Some claim they are “extinct.” Yet these supposedly extinct people continue to fight for recognition of their tribal sovereignty.

The situation of Native Americans today is the legacy of genocide, relocation and forced assimilation. This legacy is as much a part of our history as Yankee Doodle Dandy, WWII, and and the invention of the car all rolled into one.

When Columbus first arrived in North America, the Library of Congress claims that 900,000 Native people lived here. Some demographers claim as many as 7 or 8 million. By the 1890s, only 250,000 remained. Whole nations were destroyed. Others were pushed onto reservations, and many more were simply terminated.

This history speaks to another dimension of racism: colonialism and religious prejudice.

While Africans were profiled as animals to justify race slavery, Native Americans were profiled as anti-Christians to justify wars over land and resources. Today’s debates over the dominance of Christianity in our politics echo this history. Religious bigotry continues to drive the expansion of American Empire in the form of the war on terror/Islam. And, that war is part of a larger culture “war” that is knocking down rights of LGBT people, women, and religious minorities.

I continue to believe that anti-Black racism drives white supremacy. I believe it because I know that the converse of Black in our culture is white. In order to justify slavery, white identity was created as the lever of white supremacy with anti-Black racism as the fulcrum.

But, anti-Indian racism is very real. It is an extension of a long history of colonialism, and its legacy is the mentality that drives the expansion of American Empire and Christian jihad.

I won’t play in the oppression Olympics, but I do believe that to fight racism we need a game plan. That game plan is incomplete if we overlook anti-Native racism.

Obama Comes Out of the Closet

10 May

When President Obama came out of the closet with his support of same sex marriage (first stated as an Illinois State Senator in 1996), it was a bright spot in a difficult week for LGBT people. The cynical nature of his “evolution” on the issue got an eye roll out of me, but it also got a tear and a cheer.

Coming one day after the passage of North Carolina Amendment 1, Mr. Obama’s statement in support of same sex marriage, perhaps the most politically touchy subject affecting same sex couples, was a calculated political risk taken at a critical time in the career of our nation’s first black president. It was historic.

And, speaking as a gay man, it was also about damn time.

I’m 50 years old. As a child in the 1960s, I could never have imagined this moment. Homophobia was so commonplace in those days that it was not just normal, it was considered righteous. Adults and children alike bullied boys they perceived as gay.

I was no exception. I grew up isolated, picked on, occasionally assaulted, and without hope for the future. I knew I was “different,” and I was sure that adulthood would hold nothing good for me. And as childhood was no walk in the park, I frequently contemplated suicide in the manner of small children, picturing the regret that my tormentors would experience at my funeral.

By my teens, contemplation turned to action. I figured out how to butch up enough to deflect the bullying of my elementary school years onto other victims, but I lived with a secret, terrified at being found out. I turned to drugs and alcohol, taking the slow road to self-destruction. Eventually, I flunked out of school.

As a working-class boy of color, my family and community meant everything to me. Without the support of these social networks, how was I supposed to get work, make a family, and have a rewarding life? Yet, I knew I would be rejected if I came out. When finally it was made clear to me that my immediate family was aware of my sexual orientation and that I was to “never bring it into the house,” I knew it was time to cut out on my own.

But where was I to go? The organized part of the gay community looked awfully white to me. I grew up in a community in Hawaii that was almost entirely, very nearly militantly brown. Turning to a white community for comfort would be perceived as a betrayal of my family. It felt like a form of betrayal to me.

All of that might just be TMI, but I share it because my story is not unusual. It is, in fact, pretty typical of the experiences of LGBT people of color of my generation.

Over the years, I made a life for myself as a political activist and community servant. I created a community among those who believe as I do in the importance of human rights, racial and gender justice, and sexual freedom. Life did indeed get better.

However, like I said, I’m 50. I’ve waited a long time to hear my president acknowledge that I am fully human and therefore as deserving of rights as anyone else. For 50 years, I’ve waited to hear my president say that regardless of his private religious beliefs, I should be able to share in the same rights of citizenship as straight people.

I lived through the AIDS crisis of the 80s. I helplessly watched friends die as our federal government stood idly by because the disease first appeared in the U.S. among gay men. As an out gay activist my 20s and 30s, death threats, hate mail, and the occasional stalking were part of my “normal.” For most of my life, I’ve had no protection from discrimination in housing and employment based on my sexual orientation. As a former Oregonian, I lived through five statewide ballot measure races in which the morality of my very existence was questioned, and my most basic rights put up for a vote.

I know I should be grateful, but, as far as I’m concerned, every day we continue to debate the relative humanity of other human beings is a day spent reinforcing a way of thinking that is an affront to the humanity of all of us. So, I’m not saying thank you. I’m saying what I believe to be on the minds of most LGBT people of my generation. It’s about damn time.

North Carolina Amendment 1: Racism In Homophobe’s Clothing

9 May

Much has been written about Amendment 1, the referendum to change the North Carolina State Constitution to deny official recognition of domestic unions other than legal marriage between a man and a woman. The amendment was approved by 60% of North Carolina voters yesterday.

The passage of Amendment 1 is a serious defeat for pro-LGBT forces. 60% exceeds the polling estimates and, in the land of ballot issues, a 20% margin is pretty much a landslide.

I worked on a bunch of ballot measure races back in the 1990s, starting with serving on the campaign staff of the 1992 No on 9 Campaign against an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment in Oregon. That proposed amendment tried to equate LGBT folk with pedophiles. We defeated it, but not by much.

Ballots measure like North Carolina Amendment 1 and 1992’s ballot measure 9 are as much about racism and bigotry in general as they are about how folks feel about LGBT people. Here’s why:

First, the organizations that sponsor these homophobic measures are part of a movement with a much broader agenda. Oregon’s ballot measure 9 was sponsored by the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. They also attacked reproductive choice, and held positions against Affirmative Action and humane immigration reform.

That same year in Colorado, an anti-LGBT constitutional amendment passed by ballot measure. The sponsors of Colorado’s measure were the sponsors of an anti-Latino English Only measure just two years before.

For these groups, homophobia offers a soft-entry point into the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of evangelical Christians. By exploiting a popular prejudice, they build the support necessary to advance much more expansive anti-democratic agendas.

Protestant Pastor Martin Neimoller famously spoke to this dynamic when he stood up in solidarity with German Jews saying:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

But there’s more. The very fact that constitutional rights can be contested in what amount to popularity contests should give us all pause. Our federal constitution, at least in theory, is supposed to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Inviting voters to decide whether any minority group’s rights should be protected does an end run around constitutionally guaranteed protections. Amendment 1 and all similar measures put all of our rights in jeopardy.

Measures like Amendment 1 invite us into the dangerous belief that where our civil rights are concerned the majority should rule. That, in fact, majority rule is the most democratic way to determine whether or not any group is eligible for protection when the opposite is true. It is anti-democratic to permanently limit the ability of any group to air their grievances and seek the protection of government.

Japanese Americans understand the danger inherent in majority rule. During WWII, American citizens of Japanese descent were incarcerated en masse because of their ethnicity.

Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws were imposed on Southern states by majority rule. If the Voting Rights Act had been a left to the whims of state by state popularity contests, African Americans might still be barred from voting in many Southern states because of poll taxes, terrorism, and literacy requirements.

But what’s even worse, in my book, is the damage of measures like Amendment 1 to our culture. I remember distinctly how angry it made me to see measures on the Oregon ballot concerning LGBT rights. My humanity was put up for a vote.

I’m not arguing that you have to like me because or even in spite of my sexual orientation, but debating my humanity through the elections system? All of us who are concerned about human rights should be united in our understanding that this kind of thing is just never, ever okay. It’s the same kind of objectifying, ugly thinking that perpetuates racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and every other kind of bigotry.

Homophobia and Racism: How They Are Connected And Why People Of Color Should Care

18 Apr

The recent document dump of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage (NOM) internal documents reveals their racist and homophobic strategy to divide the Democratic Party. Among other things, the docs state: “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…”

And, “The Latino vote in America is a key swing vote… Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We must interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity – a symbol of resistance to inappropriate assimilation.”

Ready for more race basics?

Back in the olden days, circa 1990s, one of the right wing’s most successful propaganda ploys was anti-gay documentaries. These were cheaply made and given away for free on street corners, in churches, even in Congress. The videos made quite an impression, especially one called Gay Rights/Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda. That 1993 tape echos the NOM strategy.

The tape begins with an image of Dr. King and a voice-over: “I have a dream that one day…this nation will rise up, and live out the true meaning of it’s creed, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

Then, a commentator: “Because of the kind of Constitution we have, it was wrong, just out of pure logic, for Black people to be discriminated against, solely on the basis of color.  The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Act, um, clearly something that needed to be done, in order to, uh, to hold, uh, to hold this notion of Justice in our country.”  And then, another image of Dr. King and his voice, “One day they will live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but on the content of their character.” 

Next, the video features white gay AIDS activist Larry Kramer paraphrasing Dr. King, saying “I may not get there with you, but some day we shall enter the promised land, where men and women will not be judged by their sexual desires but by the content of their character.”

The commentator: “Many failed to notice Mr. Kramer’s substitution of the words ‘sexual behavior’ for ‘skin color’…thus began the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Equal Rights.”  

Then, the tape presents images of men kissing men, same sex couples with children, flamboyant cross-dressers, and scantily clad men and women holding militant signs or raising their fists.  Then, the punchline – LGBT people are co-opting the Civil Rights Movement, literally “hijacking the freedom train and taking it from Selma to Sodom,” which, they argue would “completely neutralize the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What it would do is say that anyone, anyone with any type of sexual preference, which would include everyone, is…would be protected under this law, so therefore there would be no protection for minorities specifically…”

Former U.S. Attorney General, Edwin Meese drives the message home saying, “As a white male, I have no rights whatever, other than what is shared with everyone else…” while suggesting that civil rights are add-ons for those who have suffered as a result of certain “benign” characteristics.

The message?

  • that civil rights are bestowed on you as a special privilege, not just because you’re a citizen
  • therefore, white people, especially white males, don’t have civil rights
  • however, Black people do have them
  • therefore, civil rights are “special rights”

The false logic of this message was meant to inspire anti-LGBT activism among whites already resentful of the Black Civil Rights Movement. The tape depicted not the stereotype of the effeminate, middle-class, sweater queen, but a militant, sexually aggressive, and potentially criminal element. Sound familiar?

And they argued that LGBT people were denigrating the Civil Rights Movement by asking for civil rights protection for perverse sex acts, driving a wedge between culturally conservative Black church-goers and (white) LGBT people.

Evil genius, right? They used homophobia as a soft-entry point into Black and white church-going communities and once they were in, they told one of the most potent lies of the post-Civil Rights era; that not just gay rights but civil rights are special rights, and that the contest for special rights is one with winners and losers; that we can’t all be protected at the same time.

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