That wasn’t always the case. Consider Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist who was the key organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. “Bayard Rustin was an integral part of the civil rights movement,” Green says. “He was a gay Black man and worked closely with King. But when it came time to have him as a representative of the struggle, people were nervous.”
Green also says that African American author James Baldwin, a fervent activist who participated in the civil rights march, was also criticized for his sexual orientation. This schism has gradually shifted with organizations, such as the National Black Justice Coalition, that are committed to protecting the rights of Black LGBT people and bridging gaps between them and members of the straight community of color.
But as the gay rights movement gains momentum, some Black LGBT activists caution against making comparisons to the civil rights movement by predominantly White gay rights organizations. Kenyon Farrow is co-editing a book called Stand Up! The Shifting Politics of Racial Uplift, which will be published in the spring. “I’m often troubled by it, as someone who has worked in LGBT specific work,” Farrow says. “The people that are working in gay organizations say that the same people who don’t want us to get married are the same people who sent Rosa Parks to the back of the bus. They have zero to none practical experience working on racial justice movements. To me the problem is that they aren’t actually interested in racial justice and they’re only interested in using the narrative of the civil rights movement. The comparison is not right because there are different sets of issues.”
Farrow doesn’t discount the impact of homophobia on the Black LGBT community, but says that it manifests in different ways. “When you do the polling in the Black community around these issues, it’s unmistakable that the majority of Black folks in the U.S. are uncomfortable with same sex marriage, mostly for reasons that fall under religious terms, the Bible or the Koran. That is one piece,” he says. “But when you look at the polling around how Black people feel, they are overwhelmingly in favor of ending employment discrimination, they are overwhelmingly in support of people not being subjected to violence and not being discriminated against in terms of housing. You shouldn’t be able to mess with someone’s money or ability to provide. We need to work around those sets of issues.”
One area where progress is being made in the Black LGBT community is in preventing bullying of LGBT teens. The Out and UpFront Project is a youth leadership initiative organized by the Ruth Ellis Center to train LGBT youth in advocacy, leadership, and civic engagement to stop bullying of LGBT teens in Detroit, which will take place later this month. “Black and brown LGBT teens feel particularly targeted and have disproportionate drop out rates,” Farrow says. “That’s an issue you can have a conversation about. The fight in the Black community is a fight about culture, and not so much policy. How do we change and challenge the culture about homophobia? That to me is where the interesting work is happening. [Comedienne] Mo’Nique has LGBT folks on her show. We’re visible in ways that wasn’t happening five years ago.”