“They let us go to war. Now we want peace.”
So says Dr. Jasmine Waddell, when asked, “What is the gay black agenda?”
Waddell, a young African-American professor at Brandeis University in Boston, was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University in Oxford in England, and completed her PhD research specializing in child and human development globally and social welfare policy in South Africa. She is openly lesbian, and lives with her life partner and two-year old child in Massachusetts. For her, the world is changing, but the questions remain the same.
Waddell’s statement reflects the incredible progress that has been made since President Obama took the reins at the White House. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) has been repealed, federal employee benefits were expanded to include gay partners and their families, and Eric Holder’s Justice Department has announced it will no longer support the legal standing of the Defense of Marriage Act, which was designed to deny gays the right to legally recognized marriages.
“What do we want?” Waddell asks rhetorically, “We want national co-parent adoption rights regardless of marriage status, national anti-bullying legislation, and PEACE.” Her tone strikes a common cord among gays and lesbians nationally, and those in the black community specifically. Her clarity reflects the underlying truth that the struggle for civil rights never ends.
With so much to fight for, it is important to establish priorities, but cast a broad net. In 2009, in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign, the former NAACP Chairman Julian Bond addressed these issues head on.
“When someone asks me, ‘Are gay rights civil rights?’ my answer is always, ‘Of course, they are,’” Bond told the group. “Civil rights are positive legal prerogatives: the right to equal treatment before the law. These are the rights shared by everyone. There is no one in the United States who does not, or should not, enjoy or share in enjoying these rights. Gay and lesbian rights are not special rights in any way. It isn’t ‘special’ to be free from discrimination. It is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship.”
Gay rights remain a controversial issue in the African-American community. Though most progressives would agree with Bond, there is a very vocal contingent who will not.
As I have written before, the black experience in America has been so uniquely shaped by our religious experience that is often difficult to separate Christian principles from political ideology. To that end, the African-American church whether Baptist, Pentecostal or non-denominational, remains a deeply homophobic institution, and the black community often reflects antiquated thinking often espoused from the pulpit. Instead of accepting and embracing one’s neighbor, the way Christ taught, black gays and lesbians are derided, reviled and outcast.
“For me, the church was a place I went to feel bad about myself,” said Ty Hill, a prominent attorney who served in the US Army. Hill now lives with his partner of 6 years in Westchester County New York and reflects on his experiences growing up as the son of an African-American minister.
Hill granted me an interview to discuss the state of gay black America, and it quickly became a commentary on years of feeling alienated by the one institution where we expect to find sanctuary. “The black church is an institutional shackle,” Hill said. “We come seeking guidance, but there is no guidance. We come to find support, and there is no support.”
Hill explained that he still has deep faith in God, but has lost much of his connection to the church as an institution. “The black church still governs our choices and our conceptions. Black gays and lesbians are trying to form families and get married, but other black people refuse to accept them.”
It seems the church remains the central, most important institution in African-American life and as such, sets the socio-political agenda. But if the ministers are preaching a message of intolerance, how can we expect children to not be bullied on the playground? The two are inadvertently connected.
Terry Wynn, a television producer and blogger who lives in Harlem, recalls his school days saying, “It was a good day if I didn’t get called ‘f**.’ I went to an all-black high school, and I don’t need to attend any reunions. I don’t want to know any of those people.” The pain is still evident, but so is the subtle relief that at the very least, it is over.
Wynn expressed his concern for young black youth growing up today. “At least I didn’t grow up in the age of the internet. I can’t imagine what it would be like to go home, and be called ‘f**’ on Facebook. I think it’s much more difficult for young kids now.”
It is encouraging that President Barack Obama lent his support to the recent anti-bullying campaign which was sparked by a series of suicides of gay youth across the country. African-Americans in general are particularly understanding because of their unique history and sensitivity toward harassment. Perhaps change comes slowly, but surely. This truth presents both pros and cons. In an America which is ever-changing and increasingly diverse, many black Americans, both straight and gay, are finding positive, progressive ways to unite beyond borders of class and social demographics. But for those who seek freedom from a past often tethered with antiquated and discriminatory attitudes, the issue of equal rights for gay Americans – and the acceptance of gay rights as civil rights – provides a conundrum of self-identification and familial acceptance. It turns out, that there are closets within the closet. And many black, gay Americans are suffocating for lack of emotional oxygen and spiritual life support.
So is there a gay agenda? Or a black agenda? Probably not. It seems to be a common goal of family, love, peace of mind, equal opportunity, equal access and equal protections. The conversation becomes less about the areas in which we differ, and more about the things we have in common. Humanity is universal.