Can Black People Learn From The LGBTQ Community?

9 months ago Chad 6

Nothing is truly lost until you stop looking for it.

Have you watched Milk? No, I’m not referring to standing by the refrigerator door and watching the pasteurized yield of the cow’s teats settle at the bottom of a jug. The Milk I am referring to is the 2008 biographical movie starring Sean Penn based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. This invisible alien watched this film last night and it made me have a real serious think about the seeming ubiquity of the LGBTQ community across various platforms fighting for equality. It is everywhere. In schools; hospitals; highway billboards; adverts; government initiatives; church disputes; marriage equality; public restrooms. They even have a flag. And I say bloody brilliant and well done to them. Prejudice of all sorts needs to be eradicated. But what about black people and the deep-rooted prejudice we face?

And whilst instances of LGBTQ discrimination are still rife, the political and social impact of their activism is undeniable and lacks the feverish backlash Black Lives Matter has or the Black Panthers had. The invisible aliens are curious to understand why this is so?

What’s in a Word?

Let’s first examine the simple semantics. The LGBTQ community has taken ownership and colonized no one is freewords that were originally used pejoratively. Queer and gay were hurled at homosexuals as slurs and insults but examine that community today and these are now terms of endearment. To be sure, there are people who try to use the word gay (that’s so gay, for example) derogatively, but the gay community, the media, governments and the wider society have all made these terms value neutral. Black people, on the other hand, were labeled niggers and despite elements of the culture seeking to appropriate the term, in no way has the mass of the black population employed this a form of flattery. There are elements of the black community (hip hop, youth culture, for example) that have tried to appropriate the word nigger but this has been overwhelmingly rejected by mainstream society as a vulgar, self-hating, bigoted undertaking. Why couldn’t we do with nigger what homosexuals achieved with queer? Is there a double standard or did we go about it the wrong way? It is really important to understand why this is so.

Hard and Soft Power

I believe the gay community has excelled in two main ways: acquiring and exercising effective hard power and reshaping society’s attitudes through soft power. Firstly, hard power. From Barney Frank, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and Tammy Baldwin to Jared Polis, Peter Mandelson to Angela Eagle, gay politicians fight for their agenda. LGBT people are a force in every major political party in America and Britain. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, Tim Gill, Jann Wenner, Chris Hughes, Michael Kors, David Geffen and Georgio Armani are all multi millionaire gay businessmen who thankfully for the LGBT community, are not just wealthy scions, but philanthropic individuals who know the value of giving back and who fight for a political agenda that will empower their community. This is seen in, for example, the way they lobbied the NBA to move their All Star Game from Charlotte in 2016 to protest a law that discriminated against transgender people. They have backed their causes with cold hard cash, snazzy social media campaigns and direct civil protests.

Divide and Rule

Contrast this with black politicians and businessmen. Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, fight the powerMichael Steele, Diane Abbott and Chuka Ummuna are all politicians who approach the issue of race like a biologist in white plastic gloves examining a highly infectious disease in a lab petri dish, under a dodgy microscope. They won’t touch it, or discuss it with any passion and when they must, it is full of equivalence, faux diplomacy, tact and hand wringing. It’s like sending a UN peacekeeping force to fight Hitler and the SS or forks being used to drink soup. Not fit for purpose. Obama I’m sure comes from a good place in his heart but the actual concrete advocacy for black Americans was quite simply not there. And yes, he was the American president, not merely the president for black Americans but it is really hard to pinpoint policies that advanced the urban poor or that were critical of white privilege, key to unlocking black potential. He was christened America’s first gay president, acknowledging his strong support for gay folk. All this, whilst he equivocates and oftentimes chides the black community for their failures.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Thus, whilst one marginalized community has participants who use their influence in a politically effective way, the other adopts the capitalist imperative and makes personal enrichment their primary goal.

Wealthy black people such as Oprah Winfrey, Bob Johnson and Michael Jordan have never placed their political influence and advocacy forcefully behind black advancement. When challenged on this issue Jordan’s famous retort was, ‘Republicans buy sneakers too.’ Thus, whilst one marginalized community has participants who use their influence in a politically effective way, the other adopts the capitalist imperative and makes personal enrichment their primary goal. Now of course, this doesn’t mean Jordan or Oprah doesn’t give loads of cash and even much of their time to charities and even local communities. The point here is that micro level activity isn’t being translated into macro political activism which is harder to accomplish yet much more effective because it can change the course of an entire era of race relations (Brown vs. Board of Education, Montgomery Bus Boycott etc. demonstrates how forceful national activism can impact whole generations of people).

I was raised in Jamaica where the anti-gay sentiment was rabid and it infected my mind too. It was nigh on impossible to not adopt these sentiments when the music and society was infused with this anti-gay Jay Zparanoia. Then one day in 2004, flicking through the channels I encountered Will and Grace. I had no idea what this sitcom was about but I watched and laughed and laughed. Then I laughed some more. That’s soft power. And it is bloody effective. As I watched Will and Grace and laughed my head off, how many other bigots were watching Queer as Folk, Modern Family, Glee, The L Word and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? How many people have they converted?

Alan Carr. Graham Norton. Ellen Degeneres. These are great comedians who use their likeability and charm to advance LGBT causes. They call out discrimination frequently and their activism isn’t dependent on shock value or isolated acts of prejudice. It is ever present because they are passionate. Their shows are inclusive and often support the black community on race issues. Most black comedians, on the other hand, are really quite funny but provide little real, sustained fight to racial injustice. Of course when the police kill black men, as has occurred quite frequently over the past few years, some black actors, singers, athletes and politicians speak out. A few groups such as the toothless NAACP speak out or the more militant Black Lives Matter germinates. But this is rarely sustained and more importantly tend to have little or no political impact.

What Are We Fighting For?

The Cosby Show. The Fresh Prince of Belair. Desmonds. Whilst these had cross-cultural impact in softening racist attitudes it hasn’t led to the same policy, money-backed initiatives that the LGBT community has summoned. Maybe this is because black people are too disparate a group, unable to focus on one or two discrete issues. Is it urban crime? Or poverty? Or police abuse? Equality of opportunity? Or more Oscar nominations? Or more TV presenters and shows where the lawyer is a lawyer and not cast as a black lawyer? Is it about Africa and reparations? Or West Indians, Brazilians, Black Americans and the diaspora moving past the holocaust of their past? Is it about these Negro people erasing colorism and its pernicious effects? Does it even matter? The LGBTQ community knows exactly what they are fighting.

But, But…. We Are Talking About Race Here

Is discrimination on account of race a harder barrier to break than that of allegedly ‘deviant’ sexuality?

Or is it because blacks pose a more existential threat to the system? The backlash against ‘political correctness’ has long been underway. When a black person cries foul against any form of racism, it’s now being summarily dismissed as playing ‘the race card.’ Is it a zero sum game?

For example, I’m an avid BBC Newsnight viewer. The host Evan Davis is a prominent gay news broadcaster. In one week (5 days) this February, I counted stories on AIDS in the gay community, a profile of the gay inspiration behind the film Moonlight and gay discrimination in the Anglican Church. I applaud this but can you imagine the backlash if a black news broadcaster on the BBC (if they had the heart to hire one) profiled stories on the importance of Black Lives Matter, ‘law and order’ racial discrimination and the racial disparity in school exclusions over the course of one week. He would have been condemned as a race baiter, parodied and censured across the land.

Does the LGBTQ Community Have a Race Problem?

Owen Jones, the excellent Guardian columnist wrote that the gay flag is whiter than the gay colors that adorn. He argued that gays themselves having fought discrimination for decades suffer from a troubling tolerance to racism themselves. He notes that on dating sites and apps, profiles abound that say “no Asians” or “no black people”, causally excluding entire ethnic groups. It’s like a bastardised ‘no dogs, no blacks, no Irish’ signs, as Anthony Lorenzo notes.

LGBT publications are guilty too. Historically, they’ve been dominated by white men, have neglected issues Hangmanof race, and have portrayed white men as objects of beauty (as heterosexual magazines do with white women). Jones notes that the only time they would write about people of color is when they had done something homophobic in Jamaica or Nigeria. The gay media is completely whitewashed.

Many of the rights and freedoms that all LGBT people won were down to the struggles of black and minority ethnic people: at the Stonewall riots, for example, non-white protesters demonstrated their solidarity. The least that white LGBT people can do is to reciprocate and confront racism within their own ranks. One unnamed young actor tells the invisible aliens that racism from the LGBT community “hurts more because it’s coming from people that I’m meant to share a kinship with.”

Fight The Power

People discriminate against gays for a way of life or a lifestyle choice. They discriminate against blacks for seemingly having a life. It’s undoubtedly a harder road to travel.

People discriminate against gays for a way of life or a lifestyle choice. They discriminate against blacks for seemingly having a life. It’s undoubtedly a harder road to travel.

But what can we learn from the LGBTQ community? I don’t like giving prescriptions for how other people should behave yet:

‘we need to see each other as brothers instead of two distant strangers’Tupac Shakur.

The gay community has a role to play here too. It is easy when progress is being made for a minority group to be inward looking and myopic. But it is really important for all minority groups to remember the most powerful thing one can do as a minority is to recognise your interconnectedness with other minority groups. LGBTQ agenda rose up the policy ranks and gained attention not because they rose up in isolated enclaves but rather by working with the fellow oppressed racial minorities, oppressed workers and Unions, etc. It was part of a broader fairness agenda.

Minority groups need other to succeed, for example, at the ballot box.  It was the building of coalitions that created the progress. When I first moved to the UK in 2004, I lived in Bristol. When I saw a black man or woman across the street, almost like electromagnets, we’d seek each other out and wave, nod or say hello from across the street. It was so powerful and self-affirming. Michaela saw my mother and I looking confused, came across the street and politely asked if she could help. We quickly became best friends. We need more of this.

See the differenceIn addition, we all need to have a sense of humanity. As we argued here and here, rich or poor we all need to grow a social conscience. Being materially successful gives us the means to affect change but by simply being curious and attentive to our surroundings, gives us the will to do so. For those of us lacking finance and political influence, the best we can and should do is to be better fathers and mothers; start businesses (the absolute ridiculousness of black women buying hair and beauty products almost exclusively from Asian shops, where they hound us like common thieves around the store grinds my gears like no other) because it’s the only real way to generate wealth. The LGBTQ community has made huge strides politically, economically and socially. There are lessons here for black folk if we look close enough.