Contrary to the conventional wisdom, gays and blacks are working together.
This week in Jackson Heights, Queens in New York City, gay rights groups protested the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, which targets mostly black and Latino men. Civil rights and civil liberties groups such as the NYCLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights claim the practice is racially discriminatory. Last year, New York’s finest targeted nearly 700,000 people for the stop-and-frisk policy, resulting in no arrests for 80 percent of those subjected to the practice. And the LGBT community is concerned that transgender Latinos and others are targeted as well.
Despite some complaints among blacks over the years regarding the lack of support they received from the LGBT community, the Jackson Heights protest is proof to the contrary. And at a time when black homophobia and the rift between gays and African-Americans has received much attention — and much has been made of the disconnect between the two groups on civil rights issues — this provides a blueprint for future collaborations.
As for the LGBT community, this latest move against heavy-handed police tactics makes sense, particularly if you take a look at the history of their movement. The Stonewall rebellion marked the birth of the LGBT movement, 43 years ago. On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan.
The routine raid, in which transvestites were arrested and customers harassed, erupted in violence as customers decided to fight back. The NYPD officers responded by beating and arresting patrons. Throughout the city, protests continued for days. Stonewall was a turning point because it enabled gay and lesbian groups to organize around their rights. After all, like black demonstrators who had faced water hoses, police dogs and batons throughout that decade, they were being targeted as a group by the legal system and by the majority society because of what they were.
But like any social movement, the LGBT movement has experienced conflicts along race, class and gender lines, with domination by privileged white gay men. Meanwhile, black gays and lesbians were left feeling as if their multi-issue concerns over racism, economic injustice and sexual exploitation were not welcome in the movement because they were not “gay” issues. Meanwhile, members of the gay community have felt as if straight groups have done little to fight homophobia, which strains community and family relationships, and makes it more difficult to fight the HIV/AIDS crisis. Further, the black church has come under fire for its perceived homophobia and failure to address sexuality head on, even as black LGBT churchgoers sit in the pews or sing in the choir, and anti-gay clergy are accused of living in the closet.
However, there are hopeful signs of progress between traditional African-American civil rights groups and gay rights organizations. As Steven Thrasher writes in the Village Voice, a new alliance between black and LGBT rights groups around stop and frisk is a smart political move for the gay rights establishment. Stop and frisk is an important issue to New York’s communities of color, as it implicates marijuana arrests and the war on drugs. Aside from the reality that gay young men are affected by heavy-handed police tactics, focusing on police abuse challenges the image of gay men living a wealthy, white Will and Grace existence.
In addition, The NAACP, the nation’s preeminent black civil rights organization, made history recently when it officially endorsed same-sex marriage. In a resolution passed by the NAACP board of directors, the organization affirmed the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
“The NAACP Constitution affirmatively states our objective to ensure the ‘political, education, social and economic equality’ of all people,” the resolution reads. “Therefore, the NAACP has opposed and will continue to oppose any national, state, local policy or legislative initiative that seeks to codify discrimination or hatred into the law or to remove the Constitutional rights of LGBT citizens. We support marriage equality consistent with equal protection under the law provided under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
This move came less than two weeks after President Obama came out as the first U.S. chief executive in support of marriage equality. After “evolving” for so long on the issue, the president drew a line in the sand and also provided a space for others to express their support. As a result, a host of politicians, celebrities and notables followed Obama’s lead.
Responding to the decision by his organization, an emotional Ben Jealous, NAACP CEO and president noted that the resolution was personal for him. “You have to excuse me,” Jealous said, choking up. “I’m a bit moved. My parents’ own marriage was against the law at the time and they had to return here to Baltimore after getting married in Washington, D.C. And the procession back was mistaken for a funeral procession because it was so quixotic to people to see all these cars with these headlights on, having to go from one city all the way to the next just so they could have a party after they got married in their own home. This is an important day.”
Jealous was not concerned about backlash from religious NAACP members to the resolution, a sign of a major shift in the black civil rights establishment. And yet, as Keith Boykin commented in the Huffington Post this week, blacks did not suddenly shift on the issue of LGBT rights; rather, they were evolving over the years. Moreover, despite an internal clash between social conservatism and liberalism on political issues — not to mention a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on homosexuality in the black church — black folks are more embracing of gay rights and marriage than their white brothers and sisters. In other words, so much for the notion of rampant black homophobia.
Yet, there is some fallout in the black community over the issue of gay rights, as the Martin Luther King, civil rights wing of the black church vocalizes its support. One African-American pastor who marched in the civil rights movement has lost much of his congregation after expressing his support of gay marriage. Now, Reverend Oliver White of the Grace Community United Church of Christ — located in a black section of St. Paul, Minnesota — is attempting to save his church from foreclosure after meeting resistance from his congregation.
Meanwhile, a coalition of groups including the Human Rights Campaign and Empire State Pride Agenda are joining forces with Jealous and Rev. Al Sharpton for a June 17 march to protest stop and frisk. The silent march will take place at the Stonewall Inn, where it all began over four decades ago. The times are changing, indeed.