Guest Blogger

Segregation Is Part & Parcel of the LGBT Experience

Filed By Guest Blogger | January 18, 2011 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: Derek Washington, Gay & Lesbian Center of Las Vegas, Las Vegas, LGBT segregation, racial politics, Stonewall Democrats

Editors' Note: In addition to being named one of AOL's "Top Ten Bloggers in Las Vegas", guest blogger Derek Washington is Chairman of Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada, the largest LGBT political organization in Nevada. He is also the New Media and Diversity Outreach Consultant for Aid For AIDS Nevada (AFAN)

It really makes me feel good that so many LGBT organizations seemed to celebrate the Martin Luther King Jr federal holiday the way it's supposed to be done. His speeches and sayings were all over Facebook and Twitter. derek-washington.jpegI received dozens of emails from my nationwide network of LGBT friends and allies extolling King's virtues. All of this is focused on what the man stood and died for instead of a new movie's 3 day record box office weekend or a Macy's clearance sale.

Makes me proud.

In theory.

I feel that the minute we in the LGBT community understand and embrace our current struggle as the modern civil rights struggle, we will have the nation's hearts and minds. I think instead of trying to have Melissa Etheridge or the Indigo Girls come up with a new "soul stirring" anthem, we should just go with the tried and true, "We Shall Overcome" by Charles Albert Tindley.

The problem is that so very many LGBT media outlets and organizations may as well have a "Whites Only" sign outside their boardrooms and all of the other places they make the big decisions that affect us all.

Case in point: OUT Magazine puts out a yearly "OUT 100". It should be called "The Kids Are All White." With the exception of one or two faces of color, it seems that OUT has a real problem finding folks who are doing anything who aren't white (male mostly). The few faces of color feel like someone in a production meeting said, "Uh, there's no black people." (Latinos don't even register, yet.) So, someone gets a friend on the phone and voila, a couple of colored faces make the cut.


Here's a story I tell all the time to illustrate how ridiculous the situation is here in Las Vegas. The following is a verbatim quote from a board member of the organization that puts on our "Pride" festival. "Derek, you're the only one who is ever talking about diversity. You really need to give it a rest."


Our own Gay & Lesbian Center has no people of color on its board whatsoever. When you walk into the Center's lobby all you see are poor and homeless people of color and transgender people. (Trans folk, see: latinos above.) Yet, there's no one on the board who has any idea of what it's like to be a poor person of color. Needless to say, there's no real outreach targeted at the African-American community. When the subject is brought up the standard answer is, "We can't find any."

Have ya looked?

I am proud to be the Chairman of Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada. My one legacy that I hope carries on long after I've left this mortal coil is that upon becoming Chair, we went into our bylaws and found provisions that allowed me to appoint voting Outreach Directors to serve the communities that the LGBT leadership in Nevada had ignored for so long. Our board has black, white, straight, gay, transgender (A first around these parts. Shameful!), latino, young people and senior citizens. We have been so successful in diversifying that Stonewall is now attracting young straight latino activists who want to be with an organization that doesn't just talk about diversity.

At Stonewall, we have diversity.

And how did we get that diversity that no one else in town seems to be able to find?

We picked up the phone and called people. If the people we asked to join us didn't have time, we asked for referrals. We are now the most diverse board of an LGBT organization is the state of Nevada.

It wasn't that damn hard.

Stop making excuses and pick up the damn phone.

By the way, even though I am a nationally known black LGBT activist, no LGBT organization here has ever asked me to serve or have I had any referrals.

I'm jes sayin'....

Until such time that we in the LGBT community locally and nationally start picking up the phone more often, we don't have the right to call our movement the modern civil rights movement. We shouldn't dare sing "We Shall Overcome." We can't overcome as long as huge portions of our "community" are routinely shut out of the very organizations that are meant to strive for equality for all of us.

Until no LGBT board dares use the tiresome excuse, "We can't find any," we have no right to invoke Martin Luther King in our struggle. Until LGBT media understands that people of color exist outside of stories on MLK Day and HIV stories, we don't dare compare the LGBT movement to that of those who were beaten in Selma. Until our LGBT activists mention Bayard Rustin every single time they mention Harvey Milk, we can have no expectations of being anything other than a queer Tower of Babel.

And we know how that ended up.

So my LGBT brothers and sisters in arms, do me a favor. YouTube the videos of the great civil rights marches and notice something. In every shot. In the front row. In every march and demonstration. In all of these events, the front row is a rainbow.

Let's take a look at that and promise ourselves to strive for that rainbow instead of the fictional one we fly now.

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Chitown Kev | January 18, 2011 7:23 PM

Amen, Derek.

It seems easier for white gays to invoke MLK's dream than to actually practice what that dream is.

Chitown Kev | January 18, 2011 7:25 PM

Having said that, I am just cynical enough to predict that this thread will dissolve into some sort of black homophobia vs. white racism thread.

You're quite right, Derek, and all of what you have said needs to be said. For as long as I've been out of the closet, I've been aware that many of my peers think nothing of openly exhibiting racist attitudes. I speak up as much as I possibly can, though this supposes I'm even attuned to it (I'm certain that's not always the case). It's relatively easy to confront overt discrimination when it's taking place, at least to the extent of point it out; dealing with attitudes is much more challenging. Since I am a white male I've no doubt that there are things I'm simply oblivious to. But as far as I am able to notice things, the evident racism I've observed in the community over the years is a reminder that we have plenty of work to do even amongst ourselves.

bigolpoofter | January 18, 2011 8:29 PM

Preach! Being inclusive requires intentionality, not casting a figurative net with not much reach: the latter approach only leads to pathetic claims that "no [fill in marginalized group] people answered the call."

ChiKev: I'd bet we'll sink to ranking our oppressions first!

Maybe, but I do not play that ranking oppressions shit.

As far as that is concerned, I think that the LGBT community is better off talking about our own oppressions and making our own case instead of outright oppression olympics.

i have had the pleasure of working with the folks at stonewall recently and can truly say they are one of the few all inclusive organizations in las vegas. we have the tendency as human beings to flock with 'our own' but in issues of the lgbt community i have seen that our own means EVERYONE! i am proud to work with them and say that i have developed some of the greatest friends through this organization and hang in there derek, latinos will one day make an impact too..;) | January 18, 2011 9:57 PM

To "Until our LGBT activists mention Bayard Rustin every single time they mention Harvey Milk, we can have no expectations of being anything other than a queer Tower of Babel," I'd add, "until nongays of ALL colors mention Bayard Rustin every single time they mention MLK...."

I've long dreamed of the having the resources to research and publish a book on various LGBTs who were active in the classic black civil rights movement period. Everytime I look a photos of the "Freedom Riders" my Gaydar goes off.

There was James Baldwin, of course, and the publicly closeted Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry. Also the publicly closeted BI Josephine Baker and apparently BI Allard Lowenstein. Two others of some repute I know of [tho also very publicly closeted at the time] were gay writer and Episcopal priest Malcolm Boyd, Freedom Rider, etc., and the late Lillian Smith, lesbian author of "Strange Fruit" [1944] and "Killers of the Dream" [1949], who was a confidant of King's and became one of the earliest prominent white Southern critics of Jim Crow laws often ostracized for her books and saying such things as, "Segregation is spiritual lynching."

Michael, there are so many resources that are scattered out.

Uh, for one, there's damn near an entire literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (with black and white lgbt participants...albeit just about all of them were closeted).

2) There's a very recent book (still in hardback) about the SNCC and the book does make mention of the gay activists that worked with the SNCC.

There is a LOT of information out there but it does all need to be gathered in one place.

Michael@LeonardMatlovich.como | January 19, 2011 4:24 AM

I'm well aware of the Harlem Renaissance with its drag balls and sometimes X-rated flat parties, but they don't fit into the direct action black civil rights movement I was talking about.

But thanks for alerting me to the book on SNCC, Kev. I'll have to explore that.

This is a serious problem. While I understand that many LGBTQ organizations have pressing issues right now with "The Great Recession" taking its toll on fundraising, certain state legislatures threatening to roll back recent equal rights gains, and a somewhat hostile Congress causing problems at the federal level, we nonetheless can not afford to ignore what's plaguing us in our own community. After all, how can we expect our entire community to care about our civil rights if many in our own community don't think our "civil rights leaders" are even paying attention to them? And how can we claim to be working for equality for all of us if so many of us are being excluded from the organizations that are supposed to be pushing for our equality?

Stonewall Girl Stonewall Girl | January 19, 2011 1:43 AM

Thanks for the great post, and you, yourself, set a great example and I hope will inspire more LGBT leaders in general and people of color in particular. I can point to my friend Marisa Richmond, who heads a LGBT organization in Tennessee and was the first and only voting LGBT delegate from Tennessee to the DNC and is an African American transwoman! She is an inspiration!

But in all honesty when I've reached out, I think there is a lot of mistrust by some activists of color who are out. I don't have the answers, but we do need more people "out" and working for equality.

There are poor, indigent white people as well-- let's cut the stereotype that only white people are frivolous, out of touch with the movement.

It simply cuts to class. In the Civil Rights Movement, everybody could participate. Churches participated-- it was not a tuxedo dinner party with 5k a ticket to lick some politician's boots or take pictures of "celebrities".

You can't take the current civil rights movement seriously when leaders are hiring a damned celebrity gossip comedian as a speaker. The gay community has become hostage to entertainment culture, and that's how our politics are being run. And who runs entertainment culture? Those at the top of the frivolity chain, i.e. filthy rich people who don't have a clue.

They have connections, they have access, they have fundraising money. But they lack the most powerful asset in politics-- mobilizing people. And in order to mobilize people, you have to be someone they're willing to listen to.

And while Kathy Griffin or some other Bravo reality TV star may appeal to some frivolous gay men; that's just not going to go well universally. This is why we have segments trying to dissociate with the label "gay/queer"-- because despite its intent, it's such a restrictive label in image.

Chitown Kev | January 19, 2011 9:44 AM

To add to what you're saying, Lucrece, I also think that it cuts a lot to geography as well (which would have a strong class component as well, but not necessarily so).

I also think that all of American culture (and maybe much of world culture) has become hostage to entertainment cultures, not simply the LGBT community...and I only say that to note that this is not something limited to LGBTs...indeed, I could say that much of the black community has become hostage to entertainment culture as well (and the black civil rights movement made very particular use celebrities and entertainment cultures, so entertainment culture CAN have utility).

It's weird how many times I see the "the Tea Party is too white... that's scary!" stuff without any mention of the people who represent the LGBT movement on TV, etc.

Of course, they're slobs and terrible human beings, probably racist because of their lack of minority representation. We, on the other hand, are noble and are really, really trying but it's just so hard working against black homophobia.

Great post, Derek. Feel free to stop by any time.

Rick Sutton | January 19, 2011 6:17 AM

The challenge for any strong organization is to represent its constituency in every way. Our LGBT organizations need to look like our community.

We've got to try every day to reach out. But we must also avoid the temptation to have one board member from each category, etc.

We need GOOD leaders first...and if we work hard, diversity should come.

What we don't need, is more bad leaders, who don't have long-term viability as a top goal. Of any color, or background.

A great post. We need to remember this clarion call every day. Thanks.

Justus Eisfeld Justus Eisfeld | January 19, 2011 6:30 AM

Of course people who have been marginalized in and by the gay movement are suspicious of tokenism: of being burned up as the 'token representative', the one and only nod to diversity put in place to get in the fundraising bucks, with no real say about how that money will be distributed to *actually* be used by and for the people who need it most. Because this has been the experience in the past. Trust has been abused, and it takes time to regain that trust. It is time for gay organizations to acknowledge that their abuse of power at the cost of the perceived margIns of the community has to come to an end. This change needs an investment in time and money an effort and willingness to change first before black and lationo and trans and poor queer people will regain their trust. Gay organizations have to show that they are willing to walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.
Funders have a role and responsibility to play as well - they have been way too uncritical in deciding who their money should go to.

Fantastic post, Derek! Sadly, it is just as true in Canada. I have put it up on the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project's FB wall. Thank you!!

John Rutledge | January 19, 2011 9:25 AM

I'm just asking, but is this a regional thing, or a cultural thing, maybe a bit of both?
The MCC churches I have been to have every color of the rainbow attending, but other churches are still mostly color segregated.
I live in Virginia. It has been my experience that a lot of the African Americans I know are closeted, or more likely to be closeted than others. One of my preacher friends is totally closeted, asks antigay Biblical questions at regional church meetings to cover, has lot of female cuties posting on his Facebook page, but he has had a hidden partner for years. He explains that African American culture is so much more antigay he is not able to be out. I am just asking, is that so, or is that more of a Southern thing?

Thanks Derek for reiterating what I've said in the trans community since 1998 and in various spaces in the blogosphere including this one.

It's vitally important to have diversity in any rights movement.

Not only ethnic diversity, but diversity of thought, ideas.....

Thanks, Derek. I think you nailed it with "we picked up the phone and called people." We also have to make sure that everyone's voice is really heard, that we're not reaching out to people just to say "come join our mostly-white group so we can feel like we're diverse"... it has to be real and intentional.

I think we're overlooking the elephant in the living room. As long as we're talking diversity, I think we need to be real about the need to get more actual gay people involved in gay rights activism.

Astonishing to me how many activists are involved with LGBT and other issue-based causes and how few of them are actually gay.

I participate in a variety of community and cultural activist/awareness type events. Too few gay people at the gay events. Too few Latinos at the Latino events. A mixture of political perspectives at Democratic events. And so on.

More important than the color of the organizer's skin, activists should be looking at how to re-engage those for whom they are fighting for. Once LGBT individuals start returning to the fold, the color and culture dynamics will take care of itself.


Thank you for speaking out Derek, and for making a difference in your part of the world. I *get* diversity, have seen its value play out in front of me, and have lived in places like San Francisco where differences are at least respected and often celebrated. Here in the nation's capital where I have lived for three years, however, locals seem to have a resigned sense of powerlessness about them, leading them toward assimilation and hanging out with others like them. Crime is ridiculous here. Fear governs the stores we shop at, the streets we travel, and the people we talk to. It extinguishes individuality, stifles creativity, and it chips away at our sense of security and safety. Maybe if we were represented by a vote in Congress, and maybe if someone like the Mayor or the Chief of Police was held accountable for the continued rate of crime here, we could graduate to intermediate life concerns like diversity.

Donna Tara Lee | January 19, 2011 8:58 PM

Hi Derek, great to see you posting a blog here. And what you say is so very true. An Afro-American friend of mine where i worked after transitioning before i retired said to me after my coworkers ostrocized me " Well Donna, now you know how it feels." So true. Here where i live i am called the radical transsexual bitch. i don't fit into the boardrooms of the gay male white elite power structure either, just like people of color don't either.

When we marched together in DC this elite gay white male power structure sat upstairs and had dinner with the President. If they were with us they would have marched with us. But they didn't.

So what do we do now? We start a group that is made up of average GLBTQ persons of diverse colors, nationalities, religions etc. i am also looked down upon because i am not a member of a traditional religion, rather i am a pagan witch. And that leaves me outside the mainstream also.

What we must do in the GLBTQ civil rights struggle is to make the mainstream all. We lose a lot of supporters that think the only people that count is upper class gay white men. We lose so many fighters for equality that fee they don't count because they are not "in" This is our task and let us not fail at it because we can't and expect to win our equality.

Incredible post. It's a constant struggle when so many mostly white organizations fail to recognize that people of color don't feel safe in their groups. It's the privilege of not noticing, the fear of two much things changing, the unwillingness to admit subconscious racism, etc. that render so many organizations ineffective in their mission. It's a huge issue here at the University of Wisconsin.

Stonewall Dems of Southern Nevada is an active organization in our community, and the work of Derek and others does not go unnoticed. It is great to see bridges be built across community lines, and I look forward to the inclusiveness continuing. Keep on fighting the good fight!

Thanks for highlighting this important point yet again!

It's absolutely shameful how obvious it is that when most people discuss the LGBT agenda, they really mean the white male G agenda.

Back when I lived in NC, a white gay male friend of mine and I discussed this issue and he told me about his experiences approaching several gay organizations. In one, they were approached to support an HIV/AIDS fundraiser for gay Latino men and was absolutely shocked when the members of the board (all white) basically looked at each other and asked "What does that have to do with us?"

And trans communities being as vulnerable as they are, are still treated with so much derision and patronizing behavior. It disgusts me how hierarchical the movement is, with trans individuals and people of color shoved into the closet when space needs to be made for white gay male issues.

My break from Lady Gaga after her racially problematic lyrics from "Born This Way" and the numerous fans of hers who utilized every trick in the "defending white privilege" handbook to excuse it showed me that pretty obviously. I even spoke to young queer Asian youth who discussed how they're totally okay with being called "chinks, lol". Use of the term "Chola" was defended with the argument that "Latinos use 'fag' all the time, so whatever" or even that maybe the use of racially offensive terms was okay for Gaga, a white woman, to use because she was just "reclaiming the pejorative"...which she can't do if she's not part of the group targeted by the pejorative. It's insane.

And whenever the issue of racism is brought up in bigger circumstances than some pop song, it's always "Well that race is so homophobic so it's okay" or even more offensively "You're just too sensitive" (this from a community that continually wets itself over the same exact use of careless and thoughtless language against gay men). It even usually devolves into tired "oppression olympics".

Is it too much to ask that the queer movement acknowledge institutionalized and active racism in our own community? Is it too much to ask that in being progressive on LGBT issues, we ALSO be standing on a platform of diversity and racial sensitivity?

Apparently it is. True progress comes from building off of the progressive action of the past, not starting from square one.