Blacks and Gays: The Unexpected Divide

By Gallagher, John | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 9, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Blacks and Gays: The Unexpected Divide

Gallagher, John, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A right-wing radio host railing against the Walt Disney Co. for being pro-gay. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece, describing gay rights as an affront to the civil rights movement. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan preaching against the gay "lifestyle." Gospel singers Angie and Debbie Winans setting their condemnation of homosexuality to music.

Under most circumstances none of these antigay tirades, or others like them, would make headlines. But because in each instance the critics are African-American, the incidents suddenly seem more astonishing. The underlying message behind such attacks -- that gays are unfairly comparing their struggle for civil rights with that of blacks -- creates an impression of competing minority groups. It is, say some black gay men and lesbians, a false impression. "It shouldn't surprise people," says playwright Brian Freeman, who is on tour performing Civil Sex. The play, inspired by Bayard Rustin, a gay black man credited with organizing the 1963 civil rights march in Washington, D.C., speaks to the black gay experience. "There are a whole gang of black conservatives out there," he says. As for Alveda King, he adds, "She's the LaToya Jackson of the King family."

Some African-Americans say comparing the black and gay civil rights struggles somehow taints or belittles the black struggle. But Mark Johnson, communications director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, believes blacks should feel honored if gays want to pattern their movement after the 1960s civil rights movement. "[The black] community has written the book," says Johnson, who is black. "Why wouldn't that get to be a textbook for others? For people to say `This is ours; it's demeaning our struggle to adapt it' is a little shortsighted. What's really being said there, whether they're saying it or not, is a tribute to the black community. It's more a fraternal issue than a fractious issue."

Still, the attacks play on a recurrent fear among some minorities. "On some level we really do believe that equality and justice are matters of choices," says Phill Wilson, founder of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. "We don't believe it's possible for all of us to be treated fairly. What black people see is if gays and lesbians use the language of the civil rights movement to fight for their civil lights at the same time that our civil rights are being eroded, there is a connection between one group ascending and the other being attacked. That's a myth."

There's also a religious component to some of the antipathy, one example of which are the Winanses, who made a publicity splash with their song "Not Natural." Among the forums the sisters have won for themselves have been two appearances on the Black Entertainment Television cable network. Keith Boykin, executive director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, criticized the network for giving the sisters "not one but two televised opportunities to spew out their bigotry." Boykin appeared on one of the BET shows as a counterpoint to the sisters' argument.

Conservative activist Alveda King would not have attracted much attention if it weren't for her uncle. In the past several months, King has been making appearances around the country condemning gay rights. While she said during a Seattle appearance in September that she was not representing her uncle, she added, "I am very familiar with how he felt about the Bible and the standards of the Bible, and he upheld those." Gay people, Alveda King said, lack the "innate and immutable" characteristics of racial minorities.

Talk-show host Alan Keyes, failed Republican presidential candidate in 1996, regularly attacks gay rights. In a June program about the Southern Baptists' Disney boycott, Keyes put the company "squarely in the camp of those who are tearing down the moral fabric of this country, culminating in their hoopla over the coming-out episode of Ellen `Degenerate.

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