Like it or not, parallels exist between the two separate-but-similar battles for civil rights. I received some flack the other day for posting the title statement on my Facebook page (“Gay is the new black.”), and in turn, learned there is some resistance against aligning the two movements for civil rights primarily because of fear that in so doing 1) the history of the black civil rights movement will somehow be erased (or usurped via a shift in media focus on the GLBT fight) and 2) more Americans will fall under the illusion that we are living in a “post-racial” society, especially, I was told, now that we have a “black president”, thus obliterating any attention to the racism that still runs rampant in our society. A field of other arguments against the gay civil rights movement in general came to my attention such as the middle class nature of fighting for civil rights like marriage equality and the freedom to serve in the military without hiding one’s identity, while other needs from the two communities supposedly remain undiscussed like access to health care and the need for protection from transgender persecution.
Not an excuse but I cannot account for the gaps in local chapters of the movement when it comes to a lack of community member representation, except to say that folks feeling underrepresented should critique what they see, send letters, post blog demands, and join those local groups if they’re invested in the cause and able. Hopefully if enough voices rise, they will be heard and those who are in charge will begin to take notice and account for the exclusions to date. Based on a quick scan of a few national GLBT organizations, those needs are given attention (check The National GLBT Taskforce here). One positive aspect of the LGBT movement is that it continues to, however slowly, be aware of the need for growth and inclusion and is open to broadening definitions and work on behalf of members of the community who have thus far been ignored and/or rendered invisible. For example, transgendered people were not always considered part of the community; a change was made that rectified that lack, even as changes continue to evolve.
But back to the task at hand: addressing what seems to be a polarizing response from a few who resist the alignment of the two movements. Renee from “Womanist Musings” states in her article, “Gay Is Not the New Black But Gay Rights Are Civil Rights,” “You see, Blacks are more than aware that this so-called attempt to identify with us, is not because of a supposed kinship, rather; it is a plea to general society that the White members of the LGBT community not be reduced to the same level as Blacks on the hierarchy pyramid.” This type of response, one based on ranking oppressions in terms of hierarchies (a very capitalist measuring system) undermines the fact that, objectively, one group has won their civil rights while the other group is still fighting for our civil rights. Civil rights themselves are neither black nor gay. To note who has them, aloud, does not somehow magically erase the history of the struggle for rights that African Americans have fought nor does it obliterate the racism that still exists. To imply ill intent (i.e. “Please don’t ‘lower’ us to the status of blacks,” as Renee claims) 1) distracts and undermines any power that comes from pointing out how oppressions may be connected and work in similar ways and 2) points a finger based on an assumption that doesn’t fit an entire group of people, even if one can find GLBT members who tout the racist fear Renee notes (much like no one should blame blacks for the passage of Prop 8 as Renee also points out). It also negates the fact that some members of the GLBT community are black who also see similarities in the communities’ struggles. Renee’s accusation of intent serves to simplify and polarize groups of oppressed people (in this case, blacks versus gays) in historically-based terms that create strife between the groups by distracting with arguments waged over who has been hurt the worst and who continues to be hurt, going so far as to imply that such an alignment can further hurt blacks. None of these arguments truly deals with the bigger problem: the trend towards pitting ourselves against each other, as though if we linked and associated, our oppressions might bring us down that much farther and our identities would become muddled, our separate histories and struggles rendered invisible. Renee herself also goes on to note, “Until all members of the LGBT community and all African Americans, learn that supporting the oppression of others maintain the mechanisms that embolden and inform hierarchy, there can be no progress. My brothers oppression is my oppression.”
None of this is even so simple that using the inherited terminology of hierarchy (i.e.“to be brought down even further”) can fully represent the complexity of our situations. I mean, we are no more in a “post-racial” society than we have a “black president.” President Obama has been dubbed “black” based on a rule created in the south that served to identify and further oppress – the one-eighth rule (excellent incident related by James Baldwin here). He is of a variety of ethnic heritages, both black and white (one does not cancel the the other out), and was raised in a “white culture,” to superficially state the matter. Even these terms limit experience and politics as well as how we go about addressing these oppressions. Unfortunately, black GLBT people may feel similar to the way black women felt when they were told to choose between the black civil rights movement and the women’s movement based on notions of loyalty. This divisive strategy is not unknown to the powers that be, those who continue to sit atop that elite pyramid, unscathed, invisible, and undiscussed. They rely on the system that drives wedges between those of us in oppressed groups—a system we don’t seem to try to identify for the purposes of obliteration, though it affects us all however separate and distinctly different our experiences feel. From an article by Paul D’Amato, “Where oppression comes from”:
While it is certainly true that individuals can be and are the bearers of racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic ideas and behavior, all of these oppressions are systemic—that is, legally, institutionally or in some other systematic form, they are part of the fabric of the societies in which we live.
From that same article, how ‘divide and conquer works’ among various groups:
The British deliberately fostered enmity between Hindus and Muslims as a means of maintaining their rule in India. “I am sorry to hear of the increasing friction between Hindus and Mohameddans,” wrote a British official to Lord Elgin in 1897. “One hardly knows what to wish for; unity of ideas and action would be very dangerous politically. Divergence of ideas and collision are administratively troublesome. Of the two the latter is the least risky.”
Karl Marx wrote of how in Britain itself, the capitalist class stoked the fires of hatred between English and poorly paid Irish workers, the English worker being encouraged to see the Irish worker as a “competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.”
Marx compares the attitude of the English worker to the Irish worker to that of poor whites in the South to the former Black slaves:
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.
And so on. Better for that ruling class to keep our attentions focused on each other rather than turning our sights to the higher ups, no?
It bears repeating – as things currently stand, one group has won their civil rights, not so long ago, while the other group is currently fighting for civil rights. Some people identify with both groups. Those are just facts, again, which don’t occlude or erase the obvious: that racism and sexism are as rampant as homophobia in U.S. society and often work hand-in-hand. Instead of being afraid of ‘talking over’ each other’s oppressions (i.e. don’t erase my struggle by associating it with yours!), we should be talking together, cooperatively, not combatively. Instead of concentrating on just how different our specific histories of struggle are separate and different, why aren’t we discussing how the hierarchy systemically maintains its power and how a small group of people stands on our shoulders in the top tiers. How do we dismantle the hierarchy of power? How are our histories and struggles similar? How do we come together and share power to undermine and undo the entire system? Does asking automatically negate how our histories are different? Does asking about similarities mean we cannot note differences too? I don’t think so, but there should be a shift in focus that allows both tasks to be accomplished and even more.
I realize there are homophobic blacks and racist GLBT people. This sad fact should not mean that every association and link made between the groups is somehow going to undermine what’s currently taking place with the struggles we deal with. We can also discuss how our separate-but-sometimes overlapping groups enjoy a range of privileges that others don’t. These privileges function to sustain feelings of separateness and higher positioning. I contend though that such positionings are false and the privileges are fleeting. They are the dangling carrots that block the view that we’re all in the pit together. The elite powers are few and are the richest of the rich. They share resources that we all need such as top-notch health care, freedom from fear of bodily harm and lack of resources via elite and complete police protection, access to means of mobility and shelter and other perks bought on the backs of those who labor for fractional wages. Class, sexuality, race, gender, religion—these are just a few of the premises that bias works through, fragments people into groups, and helps those on top maintain a top to sit upon unscathed.
Gay may not be the new black, but similarities continue to come into focus such as arguments against whites and blacks marrying; these unions were characterized as “unnatural,” even as dedicated gay couples are dubbed as much. Anti miscegenation laws evolved on that basis. Next, we’ve got the “separate but equal” claims of civil unions that are akin to the earlier calls for segregation. You can have a few rights if you’re gay, but not the full protections or benefits of marriage. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not under the illusion/delusion that these similarities make us the same nor are they, in terms of repercussions, of the same caliber. I am not denying that shameful history of African American segregation or any other related oppressions. But echoes of that statement resound, and we do share similar threats physically simply for being who we are, though GLBT members usually have the option of hiding sexual orientation while hiding race is not possible. This is just the tip of the iceberg; extensions of such discussions may include how blue collar Americans are similarly pitted against illegal (and legal) immigrants, better to ensure the subjugation of both, while in reality whole ecosystems of affluent neighborhoods, restaurant rows, and office buildings across the nation rely on ‘illegal’ labor for their profits. Additionally, the new trend in outsourcing aids in the continued oppression of middle and lower class people by farming out work to less-paid workers abroad, which in turn creates xenophobia among displaced American workers. These tensions created by the elite ruling class work in their favor as they remain invisible and legally protected; we then turn our attentions to each other, separated by various groups, and accuse groups-who-are-not-us of having better means and privileges, and the cycle of grabbing what little resources and rights are left is sustained, buoying those we should instead be focused on as well as how their system keeps them empowered.
I’ll end with a link to a poem I love by Ray A. Young Bear, “A Season of Provocations and Other Ethnic Dreams.” Young Bear hints at the work of undoing the damage naming can do; the term “people of color” comes to mind in relation to the poet’s own use of “a group of ethnics.” The reader is made to realize that, despite the poet toying with how naming works throughout the poem, we are unable to identify which ethnic group the persona observes, thus opening the concept to possibly include white people, a group we don’t consider to be “of color” or “ethnic” because white is a primary, required facet of the power elite. And thus we are invited to consider how power remains invisible, uncritiqued and untouched. I invite you to move away from denying gays the right to marry and complicate this discussion with me by figuring out just what “equal under the eyes of the law” should include and deciphering what fairness must account and be responsible for in our society, because I am not just one gay, one woman, one middle class able-bodied person – I am a complex web of relationships, beliefs, values and actions that cannot be reduced to one loyalty and one separate alliance from the rest of the society I move within and am sustained by.
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Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.