Black working class gays left out of national gay rights agenda

When Obama delivered his “gay agenda” speech to the well-fed, well-scrubbed mostly white crowd of gays and lesbians at the Human Rights Campaign’s Annual Dinner on Saturday night, anyone outside of the LGBT community would have assumed by the applause that the entire “gay community” is in agreement that access to serve in the military, gay marriage, and hate crimes legislation are our primary issues. But in reality, HRC’s political agenda is not what I want. It does not speak for me, nor for the lives of many other black, poor and working class LGBT people.

Given the fact that we’re in a long recession where hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost in almost every month of 2009, and national unemployment numbers are at nearly 10 percent, why are we not talking about the issues that most people are concerned about – health care and the economy – and their impact on the LGBT community? The truth is, for many people at that dinner who could afford the cheapest ticket at $250 a plate, jobs and wages are of little concern.

It’s not as though there is a lack of evidence that supports the idea that LGBT folks are impacted by poverty. A report on lesbian and gay poverty in the US by the Williams Institute this spring showed that lesbian and gay couples were as likely to be poor as straight couples, mostly due to the impact of race and gender.


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The study showed that black gay and lesbian couples had higher poverty rates than their black straight counterparts, and three times higher than white gay couples. White gay male couples with jobs and no children had higher incomes than all compared groups – even heterosexual couples.

We see that race and gender are more likely to determine one’s economic status, something that the 1000+ benefits given to married couples will not solve. Even if it did, do we want to live in a society where only married couples can ensure not being poor? Living wages, affordable housing, and universal, single-payer health care access would go much further towards stabilizing poor and working class people than marriage, military service or hate-crimes protections would ever do.

Some might point to HRC’s lobbying hard for the passage of Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) as a major win to protect LGBT employees. The law would add sexual orientation and gender identity to national employment discrimination laws. On the surface this would seem like a good thing – after all, in most states, you can still be fired from a job with no legal recourse for your sexual orientation or gender identity. While discrimination is clearly wrong, we know that unemployment in the black community is usually twice the national average, even though race already exists as a “protected” category in employment discrimination laws. Currently unemployment among blacks is at a staggering 15 percent.

Other studies have shown that people of color with “ethnic sounding” names are less likely to even get a call for an interview. If you’re a black lesbian or transgender woman named Keyana Brown and you’re looking for work but your name prevents you from getting an interview, ENDA won’t help you. The chances of proving discrimination took place, finding a lawyer to take on your case, and winning a judgment in the courts are very thin.

It seems it took a while for HRC to support another important employment legislation, The Employee Free Choice Act, which if enacted in its original form would make it much easier for workers to unionize and would provide job security, higher wages, and health care for workers in so-called “Right to Work” states where unions have been historically dissuaded. Many of these states are also the same ones with no protections for LGBT people from workplace discrimination. It was originally reported by that HRC’s Business Council (gay and lesbian reps from major corporations), tried to dissuade the organization from endorsing EFCA. HRC did ultimately endorse, but that endorsement can only be found only the websites of labor unions, not on HRC’s website.

In short, HRC doesn’t have a progressive vision of justice for the LGBT community. And their work does not represent the needs of all LGBT people, certainly not those who are not wealthy and white.

Black lesbian blogger Pam Spalding of Pam’s House Blend, on a North Carolina NPR show this week noted the tensions that exist between HRC and other members of the LGBT community. She stated, “The fact that [President Obama] will speak before the nationally known, official, gay rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, sort of brings up the schism between those who are the well-to do insiders within the community and those of the grassroots who will be outside or even not able to go to the march itself. While it is important to talk to that group of people who are the movers and shakers on the Hill, there are also voices out there that don’t have a [direct line] to the president.”

President Obama, who once named the black gay character Omar as his favorite on the HBO hit series, The Wire, needs to listen less to the HRC, and to find the Omar’s of the world to find out what a true LGBT agenda might look like.

The October episode of the PBS show In The Life, which deals with the lives of low-income LGBT folks, would be a good place to start.