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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Marriage and Racism and Queers, Oh My! (2009)

from UltraViolet, December 2008

It is no secret that we in LAGAI – Queer Insurrection, like many other grassroots queer activists, are not big advocates of gay marriage. As with queers in the military, we think the overall political institution is wrong, and therefore we should not be struggling to have an equal place in it. Through legal marriage, the state coerces people into nuclear families, statistically the most dangerous place in the country, through a system of rewards and punishments. People’s rights in society, whether to health care or immigration should not be affected by the type of relationship they are or are not in. We wish the energy that goes into gay marriage could instead go into the other issues that affect us all, like making queer youth safe in schools and on the streets, providing economic support for queers and all people, and building a society where people’s needs are met, and we are free to live and love as we choose.

However, we opposed proposition 8. Proposition 8 wasn’t about the de-establishment of marriage, it was plain and simple about homophobia, or the maintenance of heterosexual privilege, however you want to call it. It was about religion controlling access to benefits of what is supposed to be a secular state. So we were appalled to see the No on 8 ads put on by the “Human Rights Campaign” (HRC) and other mainstream gay groups, that at best missed the point and were ineffective, and at worst were racist. No On 8 never showed the diversity of gay people who wanted to be married and they never talked about the impact of denying these rights on how queers perceive themselves and their place in society.

The last ads were, instead, appropriative of the history of people of color in the u.s. They equated the history of slavery and the fight for civil rights for African Americans, the internment of Japanese residents and citizens, and the struggle for justice for Latino workers with the struggle for legal recognition of gay marriage. White Europeans exterminated millions of Native Americans, and killed at least two million Africans who were abducted and thrown in the holds of ships to be sold as slaves. Slavery was legally maintained for over 200 years. White supremacy was maintained through terrorism (including lynching), as well as law. Legally enforced segregation persisted until the 1960's. Although nominally able to vote after the Civil War, African Americans were effectively disenfranchised everywhere in the u.s., and legally disenfrancised in much of the south. The Civil Rights movement was about overturning this systematic legal oppression of African Americans, and thousands of people were injured and hundreds of people lost their lives in that struggle.

It is absurd to casually equate this experience with the experience of not getting state recognition for a marriage.

Racism is Not Over

Starting in the 1960's pollsters have been asking white and Black americans about their views on racism in America. For example, in December 2006, a CNN poll found that 49 percent of Black respondents said that racism is a serious problem, and an additional 35 percent said it was “somewhat serious.” Compare that to 18 percent of whites who thought it was a serious problem, (while 48 percent at least thought it was “somewhat serious”). This only a year after the federal government abandoned tens of thousands of Black people in Louisiana and Mississippi to die in flood waters, or to beg for help by the side of the road or in a filthy and and overcrowded sports arena.

It is beyond the ability of this statement to address all of the forms and examples of racism against people of color in this country. We just want to say that racism is not over. It is still the very root and core of u.s. society, as is the heterosexual nuclear family.

Perhaps one of the most offensive manifestations of racism in the Prop 8 aftermath is the statement, seen on signs, and now as the front page of the Advocate, “Gay is the New Black.” It is amazing how much wrong can be put into five words. It seems to imply that either Black people are gone, or possibly that Black people are no longer oppressed, because otherwise how could anyone be the “new” Black? It clearly negates the existence, and certainly the oppression of Black gay people. As we said above, it appropriates African American history.

Let’s get it clear, it wasn’t Black people who created Prop 8, it wasn’t Black people who funded Prop 8, and it wasn’t Black people who made Prop 8 win. The vast majority of people who voted for Prop 8 were white. Black people make up only 6 to 10 percent of the California electorate. The CNN exit poll on which the media built the idea that African Americans were responsible for Prop 8 winning was based on 154 Black voters.

The media, including the left media, is titillated by the “conflict” between Black people and gays just as they have been by the “conflict” between Jewish and Black people for decades. Democracy Now has had more gay content since Prop 8 than perhaps in its entire history. We hear on KPFA and Public Radio that white gay people have never done anything to support struggles against racism, and we know that isn’t true. We hear that no queer people of color support gay marriage, and we know that isn’t true either. The impression is given that the people of color who voted for Prop 8 weren’t doing it because they were homophobic, but because they were angry at the racism of the No on 8 ads or because they are generally anti-marriage, and we think that’s not true either. Because there are better ways of handling this contradiction than by participating in a vote that brings out the homophobia in all communities, and particularly places queer people of color at risk.

The mainstream gay organizations, particularly the HRC, waged this campaign as they have waged all others, completely divorced from the community they claim to represent, hiring ad agencies and conducting focus groups, putting out single message bullet points (“It’s unfair. It’s wrong”). We have heard that ads were made and not used with diverse gay couples explaining why they wanted to be married. Probably some of those ads would have been more persuasive, but we will never know.

We still oppose Prop 8, and we are glad that the mainstream civil rights organizations, Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Equal Justice Society, California NAACP and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. filed a petition on November 14 seeking to overturn Prop 8 on the basis that permitting a majority vote to eliminate rights for any group of people threatens the rights of every minority. “We would be making a grave mistake to view Proposition 8 as just affecting the LGBT community,” said Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society. “If the Supreme Court allows Proposition 8 to take effect, it would represent a threat to the rights of people of color and all minorities.”

Unfortunately, queer liberationists, and other progressive queers have a very low profile in both the straight and left media. On most issues, on any day, KPFA would rather put on the HRC than LAGAI or Gay Shame. Even though the HRC supports sweatshops, and sold out trannies on ENDA. But it is not fair to impute the history of the HRC to the many queers -- queers of color and white queers -- who fought in the civil rights movement, and continue to fight racism in our communities and elsewhere.

The campaign against 8 will move forward into the courts, and we can only hope the courts overturn it, because frankly we were sick of the gay marriage issue 10 years ago. But no matter how the court case goes, it is important that queer communities address the racism that has boiled to the surface in the Prop 8 aftermath.

We will never achieve equality as LGBT people until we join all the struggles for justice and liberation and against racism and class oppression. We need to honor and name the unique histories of queer people of color, not write them out of history, and out of the present for that matter.

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