Monica Roberts

The Color Line Is a GLBT Issue, Too

Filed By Monica Roberts | January 28, 2008 3:50 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: African-American, GLBT, Monica Roberts, race relations, SGL community

A century ago W.E.B. Du Bois once stated 'that the problem of the twentieth century will be the problem of the color line'. He was not only dead on target with his assessment, but eight years into the twenty-first century it's still a problem.

It's also a problem in the GLBT community as well.

One thing I have constantly stressed is that the GLBT community is a microcosm of our society at large. It's unrealistic to think that if the parent society is wracked by the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, that our GLBT subset of it would be free of the same issues.

For those of you who are in denial about that, may I suggest that you pick up or download a copy of a March 25, 2002, Task Force report entitled, Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud. It was a collaborative effort of the Task Force, a team of African-American researchers and nine Black Pride organizations.

In the summer of 2000 the Black Pride Survey was distributed to 2,645 attendees at nine Black Pride celebrations in Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. It represents the largest statistical sample of Black GLBT people ever surveyed on a wide variety of issues.

And if you're wondering, there was a significantly large enough group of Black transgender people (2%) who took part in this BPS survey to have our stats quoted in the report. It was authored by lead researchers Dr. Juan Battle and Dr. Cathy Cohen with Dorian Warren, Dr. Gerard Fergerson, and Suzette Audam joining them as report authors.

One of the key findings of the report I want to touch on was this.

Half of the respondents say racism is a problem in the White GLBT community.

48% of the BPS 2000 Survey respondents agreed that when dealing with the White GLBT community, the racism of whites was a problem. An even higher percentage of transgender respondents (57%) agreed with that statement.

The percentage gets higher if the person experienced negativity while interacting at predominately white GLBT community events, in predominately white GLBT bars and clubs, and predominately white GLBT community organizations.

I can cosign on that one. I've been called the n-word more times since I transitioned in GLBT/transgender spaces than I have when I'm interacting in the world at large during the same time period. In 2005, when I was part of a team of African-American transpeeps organizing the first Transsistahs-Transbrothas Conference we held in Louisville, we were stunned at the level of negativity we received from some elements in the white transgender community.

One person wrote at the time on a transgender Yahoo list criticizing the effort, 'it'll make it easier for them to service their tricks.'.

The differing reactions to Shirley Q. Liquor is another issue in which the GLBT community color line affects perceptions of it. Some White GLBT people find it funny, some Black GLBT people (myself included) find this new jack minstrel show offensive.

That unaddressed prejudice and racism is a major factor as to why we have Black GLBT clubs, Black Pride celebrations, Black GLBT social and political organizations and even Black GLBT pageant circuits.

One key piece to understanding me or any African-American GLBT person is that race, gender, sexuality and class are not separate identities for us. There is interplay and intersections with each of those identities in various combinations in our lives.

The color line has been around longer than the United States has been in existence as a nation, and to downplay or ignore it will not help it magically go away. Neither did 40 years of affrimative action policies erase a problem that took 200 years to make. Only a sustained, head-on assault by all parties affected by it will make it permanently go away, and it can't be just African-Americans working to dismantle it..

The way I see it, we GLBT peeps should strive to be better than our opponents and the parent society. I realize that our parent society is still in denial about it, much less won't even take the first steps in solving the problem by acknowledging it exists.

We have an opportunity to lead on this issue. We can take the rainbow of diversity that exists in our GLBT community and mold it into a society that comes close to realizing Dr. King's dream.

But the question is, will all of us step out of our separate Americas, meet each other halfway, and do the hard work and honest soul searching dialogue that's necessary to achieve it?

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Monica - loved this article. I am black AND gay. And though life may be easier if I could, I cannot take my blackness with me and leave my gayness behind when I show up at the family reunion. And I cannot take my gayness with me and leave my blacknes behind when I go to the club. And unless you wear both these hats, you can't comprehend the difficulty involved in navigating both worlds (and still being true to self).

I'm interested in whether you think that racism among LGBT's is a reflection of society-at-large or whether it's something endemic in the community?

We have an oppotunity to lead on this issue. We can take the rainbow of diversity that exists in our GLBT community and mold it into a society that comes close to realizing Dr. King's dream.

I hope we can!

The differing reactions to Shirley Q. Liquor is another issue in which the GLBT community color line affects perceptions of it. Some White GLBT people find it funny, some Black GLBT people (myself included) find this new jack minstrel show offensive.

I have to admit, when I first saw the Shirley Q Liquor videos I didn't think of them as racist. I'd seen her other videos where she plays an uptight evangelical and I just assumed, "Oh. She does characters." It left me feeling uneasy, but just didn't click.

Later, I saw where someone called her out. I just thought to myself, "It left me feeling uneasy to start with. While it may not have stood out as racist to me right away, I'm not African-American. I'm just gonna guess they can tell me what racism is in the same way I can explain homophobia to a straight person that just doesn't see it."

End of story.

(Although in my own defense, I'd only seen one Shirley Q Liquor video that was badly lit and didn't realize it was blackface. I just thought the lighting was bad. That was the part that really put it over the top for me.)

Good posting but being white and from the deep south I know what the race issue is all about.Being B and T many who have no use for folks of the wrong color dont care for me either.Then some of my better friends in the GLBT at large are black.So we can mix within our own little community then maybe in time theres hope for the community at large.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | January 28, 2008 11:18 PM

I've been called the n-word more times since I transitioned in GLBT/transgender spaces than I have when I'm interacting in the world at large during the same time period.

That is unconscionable!!! And I am so sorry to hear it. As a white, queer-identified FtM, I am committed to fighting racism wherever I see it. Please know, we are out there, too.

And shame on anyone, especially in our community, who treats another person so disrespectfully.

I hear you loud and clear Monica. I'm a transplant from NYC to the Bay Area. I remember very clearly one illustrative instance in which I brought a visiting not-queer-but-very-much-allied friend to the Castro for dinner. Talk about first impressions -- we hadn't been seated for five minutes and one "neighbor" leaned over and, among other things, asked her to pronounce the letter "R" and a number of words because "black people talk funny!" He then tried to ameliorate the situation by claiming he grew up in the South, knows all about Black people, etc., and his thirty-plus-years-younger date happens to be Mexican-American. If only this were an isolated incident in the land of the SF Badlands.

Race is an issue in the LGBT community. It's an issue of particular importance within this community for two reasons: 1) because it is all too easy and, shall we say at times satisfying, for the majority within a marginalized group to target other "others" for marginalization; 2) because, as I'm sure has been said many times before, for the _visible_ majority of the American LGBT community to preach & plead tolerance while practicing ignorance against mostly _invisible_ black, brown, azn, TS/TG, & differing-ability "others" constitutes hypocrisy in the highest degree. Ahem... HRC.

Action (or the lack thereof) boils down to two choices -- be proactive in peer education on the deleterious effects of the -isms, or sit back and help perpetuate the problem by pretending it doesn't exist.

I think it's a reflection of our socialization in the parent society being transferred to our GLBT subset of it.

The Shirley Q Liquor example is oddly problematic. I, and most of my white liberal acquaintances, were appalled at that character, recognizing that even if the history and presentation were "authentic", it drew on a tradition that had far too much baggage to be rehabilitated.

And then we learned that Ru Paul thought we were being ignorant and patronizing.

Very confusing.

Yeah, Val. I remember that now... I think that had something to do with not getting Shirley too - that was around the time she stood up for her so I looked her up.

She used to do a churchlady routine too - it was pretty darn funny - and a LOT less offensive. She should have kept that routine and ditched Shirley.

One thing I've noticed in local organizing is how stand-offish the black and white LGBT community have become. In Indianapolis it's reached crisis level. There are no people of color in the leadership of Indiana Equality, Indy Pride, PFLAG, ICON, STA, or even my group IFN... From working with most of the groups, it's not that they're excluding African-Americans, it's just none volunteer to assist.

Of course, the million dollar question is "Why?"

bil, is there an attempt to ask and seriously listen to the potential black LGBT leaders' opinions of what the white-dominant organization can (or can't) do for the black LGBT constituency? No-one wants to be a token, with the organization not willing to change one iota.

Is there a problem for the black LGBT leaders in working with organizations that may get media attention, are they able to be out enough in their own families and community to risk being outed in the media?

Do the black LGBT leaders think their time is better spent in peer-to-peer activity in the black community? Are they more involved in non-LGBT activism?

I think it is an issue of the parent culture showing through in regards to the racisim among GLBT people. I have been dating a african-american lesbian, and my parents, if they were alive, would have disowned me for it. Of course they might have disowned me for being trans anyway, but that is another story.

As children, we pick up so many cues from our parents, and in times of stress and strong emotions, we revert at times to our more base instincts. If our parents were racist, then it is likely that we at least have some of that ideology within us. As much as I swore to myself that I would never be like my father, I still at times of stress find myself falling into those old stereotypes and prejudices that I learned from him.

It is not something I am proud of, and I try my best not to fall into those mistakes, and for the most part I succeed. But I am not perfect, and I don't think there are many others who are.

I met more People of Color at last year's Southern Comfort Conference than in all of my years of activism combined. I think it is a good thing that SCC welcomes everyone, and those who work on it are to be commended for that.

In the city where I live, rarely do I see an African-American at any of the activities or events that I go to. Monica, I really wish that you would address the issue of how we can work to bring about racial unity in the LGBT community. I believe that we would be a stronger voice if we can be one community regardless of our racial and sexual/gender differences. We can be diverse, yet unified.
But how?

a_black_transguy | January 30, 2008 2:49 AM

Making a difference in this and any other issue can be as simple as making the effort to speak out. Sometimes I may feel at a loss for words because I don't have all my information lined up. But I always have the option & ability to educate myself and share what I've learned. Ignorantia non excusat.

I'd just like to add that today's post at transadvocate illustrates your point.

Scroll down to "The two faces of transgenderism in Chicago", or watch it on you-tube:

Or let me sum it up for you if you're lazy: the black girls are young and working on the street; the white women are middle aged and, well, they have enough money for sending the kids to college and getting makeovers, yeah?

Erm. On the other hand, my comment was more appropriate to Monica's previous contribution here, m'afraid... the one about how transitioning is a class thing and so a race thing too.

Er. The one where she coined the term "neo-coochie?"

That one?