Saturday, November 8, 2008

Letter to Jasmyne A. Cannick

Lesbian activist, Jasmyne A. Cannick, has a letter in today's Los Angeles Times - eEdition.

I have reprinted it here, followed by a response I posted on her blog.

No-on-8's white bias
The right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights.
By Jasmyne A. Cannick
November 8, 2008

I am a perfect example of why the fight against Proposition 8, which amends the state Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, failed to win black support.

I am black. I am a political activist who cares deeply about social justice issues. I am a lesbian. This year, I canvassed the streets of South Los Angeles and Compton, knocking on doors, talking politics to passers-by and working as I never had before to ensure a large voter turnout among African Americans. But even I wasn't inspired to encourage black people to vote against the proposition.

Why? Because I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue.

The first problem with Proposition 8 was the issue of marriage itself. The white gay community never successfully communicated to blacks why it should matter to us above everything else -- not just to me as a lesbian but to blacks generally. The way I see it, the white gay community is banging its head against the glass ceiling of a room called equality, believing that a breakthrough on marriage will bestow on it parity with heterosexuals. But the right to marry does nothing to address the problems faced by both black gays and black straights. Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no healthcare, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?

Maybe white gays could afford to be singularly focused, raising millions of dollars to fight for the luxury of same-sex marriage. But blacks were walking the streets of the projects and reaching out to small businesses, gang members, convicted felons and the spectrum of an entire community to ensure that we all were able to vote.

Second is the issue of civil rights. White gays often wonder aloud why blacks, of all people, won't support their civil rights. There is a real misunderstanding by the white gay community about the term. Proponents of gay marriage fling it around as if it is a one-size-fits-all catchphrase for issues of fairness.

But the black civil rights movement was essentially born out of and driven by the black church; social justice and religion are inextricably intertwined in the black community. To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity -- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it. To the extent that the issue of gay marriage seemed to be pitted against the church, it was going to be a losing battle in my community.

Then there was the poorly conceived campaign strategy. Opponents of Proposition 8 relied on an outdated civil rights model, engaging the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People to help win black support on the issue of gay marriage. This happened despite the warnings of black lesbians and gays that it wouldn't work. While the NAACP definitely should have been included in the strategy, it shouldn't have been the only group. Putting nearly a quarter of a million dollars into an outdated civil rights group that has very little influence on the black vote -- at least when it comes to gay issues -- will never work.

Likewise, holding the occasional town-hall meeting in Leimert Park -- the one part of the black community where they now feel safe thanks to gentrification -- to tell black people how to vote on something gay isn't effective outreach either.

There's nothing a white gay person can tell me when it comes to how I as a black lesbian should talk to my community about this issue. If and when I choose to, I know how to say what needs to be said. Many black gays just haven't been convinced that this movement for marriage is about anything more than the white gays who fund it (and who, we often find, are just as racist and clueless when it comes to blacks as they claim blacks are homophobic).

Some people seem to think that homophobia trumps racism, and that winning the battle for gay marriage will symbolically bring about equality for everyone. That may seem true to white gays, but as a black lesbian, let me tell you: There are still too many inequalities that exist as it relates to my race for that to ever be the case. Ever heard of "driving while black"? Ever looked at the difference between the dropout rates for blacks and for whites? Or test scores? Or wages? Or rates of incarceration?

And in the end, black voters in California voted against gay marriage by more than 2 to 1.

Maybe next time around -- because we all know this isn't over -- the gay community can demonstrate the capacity and willingness to change that America demonstrated when it went to the polls on Nov. 4. Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally "get it."

Until then, don't expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue -- including with this black lesbian.

Jasmyne A. Cannick is a writer in Los Angeles.


Dear Jasmyne:

You say, “I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people.” But nobody is asking that you make it first priority. Just that you not vote to remove it. No one with an ounce of sensitivity would ask you, if you had to choose between fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians and fighting for racial equality, not to prioritize racial equality. What Proposition 8 asked people to do – and what 52% of California voters did – was remove the constitutional right of gay and lesbian people to marry. It wasn’t about either/or. It was and remains both/and.

You are angry that whites have not come out in the numbers they should have to work for racial equality, including gay and lesbian white people. That is a just criticism. They/we should be ashamed of ourselves for not working harder.

But consider that the overwhelming majority of people who voted for Prop. 8 were white people who are far less likely to support equality for all Americans than gay people are in general. You are giving in to the divide-and-conquer strategy of those who work against all minority groups when the latter try to find common cause against injustice.

African–Americans should not be collectively blamed for the outcome of Prop. 8. Those who voted for Prop. 8 did so on the basis of their religious identity, not their racial identity. It was religious folk, black, white, Samoan Mormon and others who thought they were simply expressing a personal preference for heterosexuality who turned the tide, not people who understood the devastating consequences of writing discrimination into the constitution. Not black people or white people, but people who carried their gut reaction to homosexuality into the polling booths.

We are tripped up once again in attributing behavior to race when we ought to be finding motivation in wealth-based class distinctions, or levels of education and degrees of experience with the larger world outside of American culture. When one group of people abuse another group of people, they do so not because of their racial classification, but because they are not fully developed moral beings. We need to be very careful about creating a category, labeling it, and then thinking we understand something we actually don’t.

I am truly sorry the weaknesses and failings of your white gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have made you believe you must work for racial equality at the expense of universal human rights.

What you say needs saying - particularly, in my opinion, your suggestion that by-passing people to work with agencies like the NAACP is the wrong way to go. We need repeated reminders that racial equality in America has been a story of justice long delayed. But when you continue to reflect on the need of white people to step up to the fight for the rights of their black brothers and sisters, please remember where the numbers came from that put this black family in the White House – and continue to feel the thrill of victory. It is not the end of injustice, unfortunately, but it is a mighty big step toward that end.

And consider how gays and lesbian white people voted. We deserve your scolding, but we are on your side.

Don’t make us wait till we are all on the right side of history before we engage in the battle against homophobia.

With all good wishes,

Alan McCornick


Dwight said...


Beautifully thought through and expressed.

It occurred to me that this is prime material for classes in conflict resolution or reconciliation: finding common ground, acknowledging shortcomings, asking for a broader view--and doing it all in respectful, engaging fashion.

Check further for a hidden Quaker strain in your family genealogy (not that Quakers necessarily rise to the occasion so thoughtfully and articulately).

Spark said...


Although I do not live in America, I followed the news closely regarding proposition 8 to see how much change we can *really* expect to see in the next 4 years. The entire world wants to see a more progressive America so other countries (such as Australia where I live) can realise that equal marriage rights are long overdue.

After reading your article today on the L.A Times website, I was stunned that a gay person would take such a twisted approach to the failings of the proposition 8 vote.

Although closeted gay people would have been able to sit at the front of the bus in the 50's. During the 30s & 40s the Nazis ranked gay people worse than Jews, they tortured and done horrific science experiments on people they accused of being gay. Gay people received electric shock therapy since it's inception and this continued until the late 70's. There are still countries where people are hung today for commiting homosexual acts based on a religious code.

How many black politians have won successful elections compared to gay politicians? You'll find that most gay politicians who won any elections were closeted and living a false life to appease the publics view of society.

People will vote for someone regardless of the clour of their skin, and that is a wonderful thing and I'm glad (and relieved) Obama is president. But what if he were gay? People would never have even given him the chance....

Because alot of the black population are religious, doesn't make the bigotry any more acceptable. It naive for gay people to think black folks are responsible for the outcome of proposition 8, but I think there was at least an assumption that other minorities would rise above religious bigotry, given that thier rights were also trampled on by a society that heavily out numbered them.

Seems that history is quickly forgotten...

You have large audience and you could have written something beautfil about this moment in time, you chose to pick a different team that was sharing it's own moment of glory.

Fair enough, but you didn't need to degrade others who actually still believe in equal marriage rights...