At the end of Mautner Project’s gala last year, the mistress of ceremonies exhorted those present to go out hand in hand and change the world. She meant for lesbians, gays, African Americans, Asians, Latinos and other minorities to help each other gain their rightful place in society. It was a forum tailored to her message. That evening, Mautner Project, a national health organization catering to lesbians, bisexual and transgender women and their families, had honored the first openly gay congresswoman; one of the first Black female medical graduates; and a trans woman volunteer. The audience was mostly female, but there were a handful of gay men and straight allies.
Her appeal makes common sense. If minority groups worked together for what they all desire and deserve, namely equality, then things would change. After all, a third of Americans are of color and by mid-century, more than half (CNN, 2008). Estimates for the percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) Americans range from 5 to 11 percent.
Sadly, the disparate groups rarely come together.
A friend gave an example (albeit an English one). Recently, a band of male clergy released an open letter to their leaders, lamenting movement towards the ordination of female bishops. Simply, they do not see women as their equal and refuse to fall under the authority of a she-bishop.
What leaves me indignant is not the institutional misogyny which is to be expected, but the hypocrisy and bigotry of some signatories, two I personally know. The young men with whom I am familiar are gay, as are other priests and bishops who signed the letter. Like other upstanding presbyters, they are not celibate just discrete. Rather than support women and in the process make the church more open to all including homosexuals like themselves, they choose to be complicit in maintaining inequity and injustice. In the United States, gay priests and bishops opt to stay within the comforts and privilege of their closets rather than challenge the status quo and labor against discrimination.
Within the LGBT community, conflict has always been an undercurrent. The trans woman honored at the gala had told me of the rift between some lesbians and transgendered individuals. Apparently, there are those born biologically correct who do not appreciate the appropriation of female identity by those who transition. Among transgendered people themselves, there is a divide among race and class. Studies by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in turn reveal the tension between White gays and gays of color, as well as among LGBT African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
Though the LGBT movement is part of the larger struggle for equality and freedom in the United States, some African Americans cringe whenever the LGBT fight is likened to their own. A Washington Blade article gives an example. Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson “considers some former leaders of the civil rights movement — including Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta and Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow — ‘a disgrace to blacks, whites and Jews who died [during that time]’” for drawing comparisons between Black people’s fight for social and economic justice and gay people’s fight for social and economic justice. Peterson is disgusted.
There is nothing new to all this and it is understandable why minorities rarely collaborate. They find little in common with the next group, have their own interests to promote and see others as competition or obstacles. Moreover, some are less disadvantaged than others. A few even delude themselves, believing that they are truly accepted by those in power or that they can somehow, miraculously, “make change from within” (it amazes me how lesbians and gays remain within institutions and parties that clearly do not welcome them). And there are those who are scared of change and progress, even when it is painfully apparent that they stand to benefit.
At the end of the day we all want the same thing – equality. But we need each other. Until each and every minority – lesbian, gay, transgendered, African American, Asian, Latino – is guaranteed equality, dignity and freedom, it makes all the sense to reach out and work together.