Karen Ocamb

Tavis Smiley's Big Day Without Gays

Filed By Karen Ocamb | March 07, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, Black AIDS Institute, CDC, gay marriage, HIV/AIDS, James Baldwin, Kevin Fenton, Michael Eric Dyson, NAACP, Phill Wilson, Prop 8, Sojourner Truth, State of the Black Union, Tavis Smiley

It's been a week since Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union. I don't know if anything concrete came of it - but I was fixated with the event even before it happened. Why? Because in celebrating the 10th anniversary of his annual think tank-fest, he completely ignored LGBT people - and even more worrisome given HIV/AIDS in the Black community - there was no discussion of HIV prevention.

I had to do something with my frustration - so I wrote about it, naming a few people you might recognize......

At a woman's right convention in Akron, Ohio 158 years ago, a former slave named Sojourner Truth rose to speak, much to the consternation of many of the white participants.

Frances Dana Gage, the presiding officer, later described what happened:

"The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows...."

What Sojourner Truth said then survives today as her "Ain't I A Woman" speech.

"....That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?..."

Watching Tavis Smiley's 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOTBU) all day on C-SPAN last Saturday, I wondered if Sojourner Truth would have ever been invited to be a panelist if she said, "Ain't I A Lesbian?"

Every year, Tavis' SOTBU is appointment television for me. I find it informative and incredibly inspirational. This year was no exception.

But every year - other than 2005 when AIDS activist Phill Wlison and politico Keith Boykin appeared during Tavis' "healthcare" summit in Atlanta - I come away disappointed that there are no openly LGBT African American participants. Notice I say "open" because there have been occasions when my "gaydar" went "boing!" - but truthfully, I'm not good at spotting closeted gays, especially among those who have "passed" as straight for so long.

Since the Feb. 28 SOTBU summit followed Barack Obama's historic election as the first African American president - ushering in the promise of progressive change - I figured Tavis would surely bend toward inclusion and include LGBTs among the representatives from Black America.

This year's theme was "Making America As Good As It's Promise" - something the LGBT community in California (and nationwide) have been fighting for well before Proposition 8 stripped same sex couples of their "fundamental" constitutional right to marry.

And there is no bigger constitutional case than the one before the California Supreme Court on whether to invalidate Prop 8. Many civil rights groups (including the 100-year old NAACP - Raymond C. Marshall argued for them before the high court) have filed amicus briefs supporting the challenge brought by gay rights groups on the premise that NO minority should have their fundamental rights put up to a vote and eliminated by a slim majority. What then becomes of the Equal Protection Clause of the US and California Constitutions? And - who's next?

Surely this is a discussion worth having: should fundamental religious beliefs trump constitutional civil liberties? That is, after all, what the argument comes down to. Obama, once a professor of constitutional law, changed his position from fully supporting marriage equality in 1996 to now favoring marriage only between a man and a woman because, as he told Rick Warren, "God is in the mix." After Obama thumbed his nose at LGBT people by inviting Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, I asked if Obama even sees LGBT people, let alone cares - comparing LGBT people to Ralph Ellison's invisible man.

So what would Sojourner Truth say, if she had been invited to be a panelist on Tavis' SOTBU? An abolitionist, a suffragette, a free-thinking Christian, she wandered from town to town talking about freedom, despite the obstacles to her personal safety - challenging the conventional wisdom of everyone clinging to stereotypes that obstructed another's opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Would she introduce herself by saying, "Ain't I A Lesbian?" - whether she was or wasn't - as a matter of conscience and social justice and identification with a largely invisible minority within a minority, oppressed by the mainstream and their own family?

Would Tavis have invited author and radical thinker James Baldwin to SOTBU? Surely no one today thinks Baldwin went into self-imposed exile in Paris simply because of racism in America. He wasn't a coward. He wanted the freedom to be who he really was - a gay man. Imagine if folks had accepted his version of "Ain't I a Gay Black Man?" - - "Giovanni's Room"- when he was alive?

So this year's SOTBU promoted Tavis' new book - "Accountable: Making America As Good As Its Promise" - the final in his Covenant trilogy. And during the discussion, he asked that he, too, be held accountable. So, Tavis, we will.

This year, there was a lot of focus rightfully placed on economics. But here, too, don't we LGBT people matter? Today it is legal to fire, harass or deny promotions to people in 30 states based solely on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and in 38 states, based on gender identity or gender expression. Barack
supports a law that would end such discrimination - but it may take awhile to get that through Congress and onto his desk.

Meanwhile, the Williams institute at UCLA School of Law released a report last October showing the wide gap between straight and same sex African American couples in California, which the Institute says is home to the second-largest percentage of the nation's coupled black men and women. The study also shows that nearly 55 percent of black women and 11 percent of back men in same-sex couples in California are raising children.

Study co-author Christopher Ramos said:

"We find that gay and bisexual black men in California have household incomes that are 44 percent lower than their heterosexual counterparts."

Williams Institute Senior Research Fellow and study co-author Gary Gates said:

"African-American men and women raising children in same-sex couples experience economic disadvantage compared to their different-sex married counterparts with lower household incomes and home ownership rates."

And the LGBT people said, "Ain't we disadvantaged, too?"

Does the church say "Amen?"

But one of the most haunting missed opportunities was the failure to address the epidemic of STDs and HIV/AIDS. There was one hurried mention towards the end of the long day by Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu.

As Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute who has been living with HIV for over 27 years, repeatedly says - AIDS is a Black disease.

Recently, Wilson released their annual State of AIDS in the Black Community entitled "Left Behind! Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic."

Here are some of the conclusions:

- Black Americans represented 45 percent of people newly infected in 2006, despite being just 13 percent of the population;

- In certain areas such as Detroit, Newark, New York, Washington D.C. and the Deep South, HIV levels among segments of the Black community approach those of many severely affected countries in Africa. For example, HIV prevalence among middle-aged Black men in Manhattan is almost as high as overall prevalence in South Africa.

- AIDS is still the leading cause of death for Black women aged 24-34; 65% of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses among women in the U.S. are Black; and Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women

- Men who have sex with men accounted for 53 percent of all new infections in 2006, and young Black men were particularly hard hit.

- In 2006, Black gay and bisexual men between the ages of 13 and 29 accounted for more new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men than any other race or age group. And more than half, or 52 percent, of all Black gay and bi men infected that year were under 30 years old.

- The CDC's annual HIV-prevention budget has never topped $800 million--a fraction of what the U.S. spends on the Iraq war in a week.

Kevin Fenton, who is a medical doctor, a Ph.D., and a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health, is the openly gay African American director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. Think he would have been a good SOTBU panelist?

Or how about Phill Wilson and Bishop T.D. Jakes on setting aside ideologue and the saving of souls on hold to develop a strategic plan to save Black lives?

And how about taking on the deeper issue that people authentically adhere to more than one Christian belief or denomination? Actually, that was humorously underscored during this year's SOTBU. After Michelle Singletary, a financial columnist for the Washington Post, noted that though she makes more money than her husband she is a "submitted" woman, that wonderful progressive Dr. Michael Eric Dyson casually tossed out that he was a "submitted man," as did host Raymond Brown later. No one suggested that these two august men were practicing the wrong version of Christianity.

The point of all this is not just the "political accountability" to which Tavis regularly referred. It is how, as Dr. Dyson said in relation to Obama's reach beyond the Black community, there is "no more excuse to hold Black men down so you might miss a Barack Obama."

LGBT African Americans have been fighting and surviving and failing and succeeding, just like their heterosexual counterparts - but with considerably less general support and often hostility from within the Black family and church - inducing tremendous private emotional, spiritual and psychic trauma. It takes tremendous courage to come out in the face of possibly losing everything and everyone one loves. What if we had missed a Sojourner Truth or a James Baldwin or a Phill Wilson or a Dr. Kevin Fenton? And how many are holding themselves back now as the secret of who they are eats at their soul?

But - as someone else said during Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union:

"Do you know who we are? We are the children of the one's who would not die."

And Ain't We LGBT?

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Great piece Karen; your words echo in the form of a conscience for that part of humanity who would sweep knwledge of even the existence of our Black LGBT brothers and sisters out of existence

PhoenixWright | March 7, 2009 6:17 PM

This is sort of awkward coming from a white person but I'm glad you did it!

Sojourner Truth wouldn't say "Ain't I Lesbian" in that context since the original ("Ain't I A Woman?") was directed towards white feminist.

She'd probably say "Ain't I A Negro?" but that might not be the most appropriate thing to say :p

Good piece.

Awkward - hell, yes. But I was so angry, I just couldn't remain silent. In fact, I wrote this piece over the course of several days because of interruptions from my "paying" gig - and every time I came back to it, my passion heated up again.

It sprang from my need to stand up for all our LGBT tribe - especially to call out a progressive who said he wanted to be held accountable. It started early in the day when Tavis said he knew Barack Obama before he was "Barack Obama" (one draft of this piece even went into that whole mess) - and then he said that many folk had given brother Barack a pass when he was running so he could win. But now Barack must be held accountable, just like any other elected or civic leader, - hell, including him.

So I praised him for what he's done -but I have given Tavis so many "passes" at his "benign neglect" of our community - especially Black LGBT folks - that I decided to stop doing that.

BTW - in my reading of Sojourner Truth's speech - she's talking to the white ministers who were disrupting the women's convention.

Thanks for commenting.

Yeah, this was strange to see and I am not sure what's going to come out here.

Granted, there needs to be much more visibility of LGBTs of color in the gay community, there is even less visibility of black LGBTs in the black community, IMHO. I hardly watch TV, to be honest, and did not see this.

We were discussing the very issue of how to approach the black straight community on another blog and, for the most part, those of us participating in the discussion are in fear of the black straight community. I don't think we discussed why at that time.

Here is that discussion for what it's worth:

I leave it right there for now.


You see a fair representation of LGBT people of color in LOGO.

Tell me again how many LGBT we see portrayed-- and if so, POSITIVELY-- in BET, Jet, or Essence?

My point exactly, you see it in the blogosphere also. In national LGBT leadership you dont't.

Black academics, on the other hand, are to be applauded for pleading our cause as well as some ministers. But even then, it rarely happens at institutional levels (the NAACP being a notable exception).

Andrea Shorter,  Co-Chair Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition Andrea Shorter, Co-Chair Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition | March 9, 2009 12:02 AM

Good point. Scroll down -- see my response.

Great piece Karen. Even if one gets an OpEd published in the NYT as did Mary Francis Berry the fight for civil rights for LGBT's seemingly gets nowhre in the Obama admin.


Gay but Equal?
Published: January 15, 2009

AS the country prepares to enter the Obama era, anxiety over the legal status and rights of gays and lesbians is growing. Barack Obama’s invitation to the Rev. Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor who opposes same-sex marriage, to give the invocation at his inauguration comes just as the hit movie “Milk” reminds us of the gay rights activism of the 1970s. Supporters of gay rights wonder if the California Supreme Court might soon confirm the legitimacy of Proposition 8, passed by state voters in November, which declares same-sex marriage illegal — leaving them no alternative but to take to the streets.

To help resolve the issue of gay rights, President-elect Obama should abolish the now moribund Commission on Civil Rights and replace it with a new commission that would address the rights of many groups, including gays.

The fault lines beneath the debate over gay rights are jagged and deep. Federal Social Security and tax benefits from marriage that straight people take for granted are denied to most gays in committed relationships. And because Congress has failed to enact a federal employment nondiscrimination act, bias against gays in the workplace remains a constant threat.

Gays are at risk under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. And people who are only assumed to be homosexual have been subject to hate crimes. José and Romel Sucuzhañay, two brothers, were attacked in New York City last month by men yelling anti-gay and anti-Latino epithets. José Sucuzhañay died from being beaten with a bottle and a baseball bat. Yet the effort in Congress to enact a law that would increase the punishment for hate crimes against gays and lesbians is going nowhere.

Only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, permit gay marriage. New York acknowledges marriages from those states and from other countries, despite the federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, which was meant to allow other states not to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire permit civil unions, which provide gay partners the rights, protections and responsibilities of marriage. On the other hand, a referendum that just passed in Arkansas goes beyond banning gay marriage to prohibit the adoption of children by unmarried couples. Mississippi, Florida and Utah have similar bans. And many Americans believe their religion forbids gay marriage or even civil unions.

In the 1950s, race relations in America generated escalating tension and strife. As Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told President Dwight Eisenhower, other nations vilified us for our treatment of “negroes” as less-than-first-class citizens. It was in this context that Congress, in 1957, granted Eisenhower’s request for an independent civil rights commission to “put the facts on top of the table.”

The commission conducted interviews and public hearings, prepared detailed reports and recommended new protections that would ultimately be passed in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These laws embodied the goals of the protestors who marched, went to jail and died to end racial discrimination.

The commission became what the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was the chairman from 1969 to 1972, called the “conscience of the government” on civil rights issues.

There is no need to analogize the battle for the rights of gay and lesbian people to the struggle of African Americans to overcome slavery, Jim Crow and continued discrimination. But as Coretta Scott King said to me as she tried to imagine what position the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would take on “don’t ask, don’t tell”: “What’s the yardstick by which we should decide that gay rights are less important than other human rights we care about?”

The Commission on Civil Rights has been crippled since the Reagan years by the appointments of commissioners who see themselves as agents of the presidential administration rather than as independent watchdogs. The creation of a new, independent human and civil rights commission could help us determine our next steps in the pursuit of freedom and justice in our society. A number of explosive issues like immigration reform await such a commission, but recommendations for resolving the controversies over the rights of gays, lesbians and transgendered people should be its first order of business.

Mary Frances Berry, the chairwoman of the Commission on Civil Rights from 1993 to 2004, is the author of “And Justice for All: The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America.”

Right - this part in particular:
"But as Coretta Scott King said to me as she tried to imagine what position the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would take on ?don?t ask, don?t tell?: ?What?s the yardstick by which we should decide that gay rights are less important than other human rights we care about??

A number of civil rights leaders have said the same - from King to John Lewis to Julian Bond to Maxine Waters - and even Tavis' friends Dr. Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson.

But the point I was trying to make is that Tavis missed a huge opportunity to really wrestle with this for all our sakes.

A small history lesson here...

Black people have always been burdened with the stereotype of "wild and loose" sexuality, there are any number of tracts, photographs, and examples of this going back to slavery. The black community has fought long and hard against these stereotypes.

That's one of the reasons that W.E.B. Dubois criticized the (mostly gay) Harlem Renaissance writers in the 1920's as "degenerate." Mant of those writers were unashamed of their sexuality and wrote about it, though this may have been what their mostly white patrons wanted to see. DuBois (ever the Victorian) did not think that those works were conducive to racial progress.

In many ways, the open display of sexuality is still seen by many as playing into old racist critiques by the majority. In spite of a slight explosion and fearlessness in expressing sexuality in the late 60's and early 70's (here's a linkage between gays and blacks) the fear of exposure to racism by the dominant culture has largely resulted in a bit of a "new Victoriasm" in many black communities and in black culture (with some exceptions, hip hop videos, for example).

In discussing AIDS, you have to discuss sexuality and that brings up a hornet's
nests of issues relating to the racist sexual explotation of blacks.

As LGBTs, we are largely defined by our sexuality. Hence part of the problem and the strain in identity. On one hand, there is the free expression of our sexuality symbolized in "coming out" (the gay side). On the other hand there is the collective experience of exploitation, ridicule, and racism (the black side).

This is by no means a perfect explanation, but it is an attempt to situate some of this historically.

Thanks so much for this!

Geez - all this time I've been thinking of DuBois as this incredible Harvard intellectual - sort of the counter-point to Booker T. Washington - who I always thought of as the "conservative one."

I never realized DuBois was such a "Victorian" - but this makes sense, put in this context.

And I thought the new wave of conservative values - so to speak - was a result of a more public religiosity and the Black clergy trying to "save" the Black family. I understand that this is also the underpinning of Black opposition to abortion, for instance.

But I still don't understand how Black Gays in loving relationships are considered depraved while hip-hop flaunting of sexuality and the denigration of women is excused or even seen as something to applaud.

Anyway - thanks for the conversation....BTW - my neighbor is playing Billie Holiday's "Summertime" right now -

Simple. Hip hop is a form of economic mobility for some. As long as someone is "getting their coin on" there will be a certain amount of tolerance for the denigration of women. Compare that with that stats you cited above about the earning power of black LGBTs.

Now if a "David Geffen" type were to come out in the hip hop community, you would see more black LGBT visibility in the black communities.

Easy. For the same reason Rock and Pop videos have degrade women, yet all LGBT people are still fighting to love who they love openly.

Degrading women is consistent with mainstream society, seeing LGBT persons as human is not. I'm not sure why you would expect hiphop to be any different.

You even see a bit of "prudery" similar to in the gay community since the 80's, especially with the emphasis on families and gay marriage and adoptions, etc.
In a way, it's a bit of a reaction to counteract stereotypes of being wild and loose and sexually free and promiscuious. There are superficial similarities with the AAs, though, there's the extra racial baggage of sexual explotation with AAs. That's a big reason why sexuality is difficult to talk about, in spite of the necessity to do so.

Well, but Engles was Victorian in his attitudes of homosexuality (Marx, if I remember correctly, was more liberal on the homosexual issue). I wish I remebered the reference where, in his analysis of ancient Roman society, Engles said the homosexuality and the influence of elite Roman society was a cause for the oppression and separation of families. You can still hear a lot echoes of this meme in Jasmayne Cannick's work. So actually, DuBois' critique was in keeping with the tenets of Marxism and Communism.

Hmmm. Black Geffen - got anyone in mind?????

BTW - the SDS boys used to crack on me in college because I talked Women's Lib to them - including Engle's Treatise on the Family and Property - where he said woman was born the first slave because of her reproductive capacity....

Around we go....

A. J. Lopp | March 8, 2009 12:47 PM

First off, I must say that I greatly admire my fellow Hoosier Tavis Smiley and what he has accomplished in his career. Having grown up in an Indiana town even smaller than the one I grew up in, he truly has done well. Tavis and I were on the IU campus simultaneously in 1983, and I came close to calling him and joining his actions regarding the police shooting of IU football player Denver Smith. (I now wish I had.)

But having said that, I've kept my eye on him through the years, and Tavis has walked a very careful line of neutrality on the LGBT issue, and my guess about this comes easy: While his career virtually requires that he interact with LGBT people in the entertainment world of Los Angeles, Tavis comes from a very conservative Pentecostal childhood, and although he is not homophobic himself (well, more about that in a bit), he probably has influencial family members who are.

Most notably, his Mom, who he is still very close to. (Tavis was her first-born at a young age, and fits a pattern I've seen with other black men in that situation, that their mother is so close to him age-wise that she becomes both a mother and an older sister.) Karen, you mention the inclusion of Phill Wilson and Keith Boykin in SOTBU-2005, but you don't mention a part of the fall-out: In Tavis's autobiography What I Know For Sure, he writes about his mom (pages 252-3):

When she believes something, you cannot sway her or change her mind. And she will not compromise, whatever the setting. ... This particular year [at SOTBU], we focused on health in the black community. A number of prominent figures, gay and straight, spoke on the topic of sexuality and health. At the end of the conference, as usual I asked Mama, in her role as an evengelist, to give the closing prayer.

"Father God," she prayed before the church and the world-wide television audience, "we thank you for this opportunity to gather together and give you glory. We thank you, Father, for bringing in these leaders who have enlightened our minds with their thinking and their learning, But we also remember, Father, that you created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and so we pray that the practice of homosexuality be understood as the sin that it is. We pray that all your people turn away from sin and live a life pleasing to you. In Jesus' name, amen."

You could hear a pin drop. Without thinking twice, Mama took all the political correctness and tolerance that had been espoused and turned it on its ear.

So, in Tavis's one attempt at LGBT inclusion, he got burned pretty badly. I'm not saying that he isn't willing to disagree with his family --- but we all know that on some issues, when we stand up, those who disagree with us can erect a difficult wall. I suspect that Tavis might be in this situation, not to mention all the anti-gay lobbying he receives from the conservative black sector at large.

Even so, if Tavis is willing to say that even he should be held accountable, then it is high time that we do so. My guess is that he has adopted the position, "I'll interact amicably with LGBT people, but theirs is not my fight." However, that attitude is highly problematic when you spearhead events such as SOTBU, which cannot be complete if segments of the black population are categorically excluded.

The LGBT issue impedes Tavis's ability to take on the HIV/AIDS issue effectively. Although he has had guests on his PBS show address the issue, sometimes planned and sometimes impromptu, he has consistently ignored the Black AIDS Day that many observe on February 7th.

You mentioned Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson, Karen, but missed mentioning that no one has appeared on Tavis's PBS show more often than Maya Angelou --- and I have never seen her appear without putting in a good word for the rights of LGBT people to be who they are. Tavis adores Maya, and if Tavis isn't an outspoken political ally of ours, it is not because he has not been lobbied by influential folks who agree with us.

No matter what stance one takes on the LGBT issue, there is no excuse for completely ignoring us: even drugs and former drug users get their chance to speak, we don't just pretend they don't exist. Tavis might be homophobic in a sense: not afraid of gay people themselves, but afraid of the fallout after whatever stand, pro-gay or anti-gay, he might take. When one considers the ramifications both career-wise and personal, I can empathize that Tavis's tipping point is daunting.

But playing the role that he does, it is long overdue for Mr. Smiley to decide where he is, speak his mind, and quit playing diplomat --- if for no other reason than that one must deal with the issue of gay sex somehow if one is to effectively and actively address the HIV/AIDS problem in the black population.

I think you hit the nail on the head: Mama vs gays & PWAs - and Mama wins.

I did not know about the prayer (or that he had written about it) - but I heard about the dust-up with Keith Boykin afterwards.

And as for Maya Angelou - yes, yes - I have seen her on his show - which I watch semi-regularly. An aside here - I interviewed her last year and I got to tell her that I actually think of her almost every day - thanks to her inaugural poem, "On the Pulse of Morning" in which she mentioned gays. As I'm out walking my dogs, I say "Good morning" to my neighbors and I am instantly shot back to that crisp January morning when Bill Clinton was sworn in and we all thought we would have a new day:

"Here on the pulse of this new day/You may have the grace to look up and out/And into your sister's eyes, into/Your brother's face, your country/and say simply/Very simply/With hope/Good morning.

And THAT'S why I wrote this piece. LGBT people are part of the human family - and to ignore his Black gay brothers and sisters - and everyone who is at risk or impacted by HIV/AIDS - during the 10th annual State of the Black Union because he is afraid of his Mama is just inexcusable. He needs to grow up and become a man. And that takes courage.

We muster that courage every time one of us comes out as gay or living with HIV - we fear the loss of our family. But living an inauthentic life hurts more.

I don't think I'd feel this passionate about it if he didn't have such an important platform as a role model. Otherwise - it's his life. But he asked to be held accountable. And he specifically said Obama gets no more free passes. So that should apply to him, as well.

Thanks for your comment.

Or step outside of his mom's shadow. Maybe be LGBT friendly and not ask mom to deliver the closing prayer? Maybe Maya instead? LOL

A. J. Lopp | March 8, 2009 4:04 PM
We muster that courage every time one of us comes out as gay or living with HIV - we fear the loss of our family.

Exactly. After posting my comment, similar wording occurred to me: Even though he's straight, Tavis nonetheless still has a coming-out process to go through, and like so many of us, that process has both religious and political thorns to wrestle with.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | March 9, 2009 11:27 PM

Great post, Karen! I think maybe A.J. has hit the nail on the head. I happened upon the last hour or two of the SOTBU and stopped to watch. (I love Cornell West! And Lani Guinier! She makes me believe in marriage!!) But I had to turn the set off when Tavis brought his mother on for the closing prayer. Jesus this, and jesus that!!! I was immediately turned off. She could have offered a respectful, passionate, heartfelt AND inclusive prayer, but, no. Tavis' mother chose to be sectarian, divisive, and judgemental of Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and non-believers. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest to learn she's also homophobic.

Anthony in Nashville | March 8, 2009 1:21 PM

This was a good piece. I have been ambivalent towards Tavis Smiley for a few years now. I used to watch the State of the Black Union but all it seems to do is promote his latest book. There is a great deal of excitement the week before and after the event and then everything discussed is off the radar until the next gathering.

I don't recall Smiley ever being particularly friendly towards LGBT people. I am not saying he is homophobic but he may be a follower of the "don't ask don't tell" philosophy very common among the black community.

As an aside: I know black organizations are all about the Obama inspiration right now, but it must be said his experience/life has more in common with an immigrant that a native born African American.

Andrea Shorter,  Co-Chair Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition Andrea Shorter, Co-Chair Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition | March 8, 2009 10:51 PM

Andrea Shorter, Co-Chair
Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition

Bravo, Karen. Bravo.


Thank for your forward thinking advocacy on behalf of us ALL.

Tavis, do the right thing. You can -- and must -- do better.

It is simply inexcusable that not a singular openly LGBT brother or sister was part of the widely regarded State of the Black Union. In the truest interest of promoting reality via inclusion, your commentary can do everyone – including Brother Smiley – a great service by not giving him a ‘pass’ on this baffling blunder, or deliberate ‘oversight’. Whatever you call it, it is resoundingly clear that in 2009 we must continue to hold Tavis and other media powerhouses accountable to more fully representing the true, rich tapestry of our community, and that includes LGBT folks. For all of the issues you cited as having such a grave impact on the Black/Black LGBT communities – HIV/AIDS, economic disenfranchisement, etc. – how in the world can LGBT brothers and sisters not be included in the discussion? In 2009?

Furthermore, while we appreciate and support the determined advocacy of straight allies on our behalf as LGBT people, we cannot and should not be expected to always depend upon them to act as full time surrogates for our issues and perspectives. That is neither fair to us nor to them. Still, it is disheartening that trusted allies who promote LGBT inclusion such as Dr. Cornel West participate in an event that categorically ignores and silences Black LGBT voices.

To our dearest Dr. West, word up:

Black LGBT People Matter.

Moving forward, it must be understood that the overwhelming majority of issues facing Black LGBT folks are not of foreign matter to those concerns facing the larger Black community - education, crime, incarceration, economic justice, etc. impact us ALL. We are not a wholly separate or divorced entity from the larger Black community: we are and will always be part of our families, our communities, our places of worship, and the ongoing movement towards civil and human rights. While we continue to struggle for full civil rights such as marriage equality, LGBT brothers and sisters have always been and remain equally invested in moving the Black community towards realizing its fullest potential and promise.

One might try to put us out of sight, but intellectual honesty and integrity cannot keep us out of mind. Remember Bayard Rustin. His celebrated legacy and commitment to Black progress cannot stop at the long awaited election of the first Black President of the United States.

We can absolutely rejoice in the promise of President Barack Obama’s election. However, in these most harrowing times, we need the full compliment of resources and talents of our communities, society, and nation to move massive mountains forward. After all, isn’t that at the essence of the clarion call for ‘Change’ from our first Black Commander in Chief? In an all hands on deck climate, we simply cannot afford to discount anyone’s potential contributions towards much needed solutions to our greater challenges. Real change cannot afford to discount and exclude Black LGBT voices.

Aside from an understandable keen interest in ratings and using the State of the Black Union as a platform for promoting the next book, perhaps one of the most curious challenges here for Tavis is the inexplicable inability of even some of the most educated and accomplished persons such as himself to acknowledge, celebrate, and integrate the contributions of some of our most talented champions of Black history who also happen to be lesbian or gay into the broader discussions and vision regarding the way forward.

Tavis -- you could be a real groundbreaking Black television journalist -- since Tony Brown -- by boldly advancing the much needed dialogue between Black/Black LGBT folks. Until, then...well, your fullest potential as a Black community leader in this new century will not be realized.

Now, in the wake of the passage of Proposition 8 in California to deny same sex couples the right to civil marriage and coupled with the celebrated Academy Award wins for the bio-pic "MILK", inspired by the life and times of the iconic slain martyr Harvey Milk, the legacies and histories of a pantheon of LGBT iconic figures is experiencing a new wave of recognition and long overdue renaissance.

The Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition is declaring the week of March 16-20 "Bayard Rustin Week" in honor of his birthday on March 17 and a remarkable legacy as an essential and integral leader of the civil rights movement. During this week, we will work to advance the dialogue within the African American community about the immeasurable and enduring value added to Black progress by Bayard Rustin and other LGBT brothers and sisters.

It is my understanding that whether Tavis Smiley & Co. wants to acknowledge it or not, LGBT people make up a rather significant share of the viewer market for his particular media brand. Money and ratings talk. While we should continue to lovingly nudge, cajole, and help dear Brother Smiley towards LGBT inclusion in the next State of the Black Union and beyond, perhaps it is time that we consider producing other options:

The annual televised State of the LGBT People of Color Union.

Hello, LOGO? Are you listening?

Keith Boykin -- an appealing start as moderator.

Of course we must first and foremost continue our shared advocacy for real inclusion and representation, and not for a shortsighted separatists or second-class options. However, waiting for Tavis and others to muster up the fortitude and resolve to do the right thing to include Black LGBT folks could take a good long while. Unfortunately, with the fierce urgencies before the REAL State of the Black/Black LGBT Union, we simply cannot afford to wait. Waiting for Mr. Smiley to 'get it' is killing us softly– really.

Bravo to you, Karen. Bravo. Hmmm. Bravo – are you listening?

Andrea Shorter, Co-Chair
Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition
Northern California