Thursday, July 16, 2009

No! "Gay Is Not the New Black," BUT. . . .

ESPN columnist LZ Granderson has published an essay on CNN.com that repudiates a slogan that has gained traction among (white) advocates of GLBT rights: "Gay is the new black." Granderson argues that most black gays and lesbians reject the sentiment underlying this phrase, which implies that GLBT people are marginalized like blacks "used" to be.

I have written numerous law review articles and blog entries on the subject of race and GLBT rights (see Google). Accordingly, I had a number of intellectual reactions to Granderson's essay when I first read it. Below, I have catalogued my primary reactions to his commentary. In sum, I find that his article makes some valid points, but Granderson fails to offer a useful and sophisticated analysis of the politics of race and sexual identity.

Gay Is Not the New Black
Although the slogan "gay is the new black" is relatively new, the sentiment it expresses is old. GLBT rights advocates have a long history of invoking racial justice and racism in their arguments. In many ways, legal culture encourages the comparisons of racism and heterosexism due to its fascination with precedent. Established doctrine compels lawyers to argue that courts should invalidate antigay policies because discrimination against GLBT people is sufficiently similar to racism.

This argument, however, ignores substantial differences between "GLBT people" and "blacks." Race and class advantage many GLBT people, while inherited inequality and ongoing discrimination continue to constrain persons of color. The analogies do not present this complexity. The comparisons also rest on a factually inaccurate assumption -- that "GLBT people" and "blacks" are distinct categories subject to comparison. Black GLBT people, however, shatter and fatally complicate this assumption.

The pitfalls associated with the analogies, however, do not doom the project of GLBT rights. Nonetheless, in their advocacy many GLBT activists and blacks refuse to acknowledge that homophobia and heterosexism warrant remedial action, notwithstanding the historical or contemporary experiences of blacks with racism. GLBT activists advance the troubling analogies to advocate gay rights, while blacks contest the analogies in order to dismiss gay rights. Despite their differences, both sides remain wedded to the analogies.

Civil rights by analogical reasoning is a bankrupt concept. Even today's blacks have not experienced the same type of racism as, say, slaves, but they still deserve civil rights protection. Holding GLBT people to a different standard is blatantly discriminatory.

The use of analogies in civil rights discourse unnecessarily limits civil rights protection to groups who have "the same" experiences as blacks (when no such group exists), which causes these groups to rely upon the misleading analogies. The analogies also rigidly portray civil rights as inapplicable to harmful social prejudices that do not mimic racism. Racism, however, is not the only form of oppression, and racism does not exist in a vacuum, detached from other types of discrimination. Granderson and other critics of the analogies never justify their narrow approach to equality.

Gay Is Not the New Black, BUT. . . .This Should Not Banish GLBT Rights to Obscurity
Even though gay is not the new black, this fact should not banish GLBT rights to obscurity. In addition, this observation cannot excuse or justify liberal politicians' inaction regarding or opposition to gay rights. This holds true even if the liberal politician is President Obama.

Granderson portrays GLBT criticism of Obama as coming almost exclusively from whites. Even if this were true (some blacks have indeed criticized Obama on GLBT issues), this does not mean that Obama has acted admirably on GLBT rights, and it does not disturb the fact that he has taken positions that differ from his campaign promises.

Obama created a lot of the excitement in the GLBT activist community with his numerous and sweeping campaign promises to undo blatant antigay discrimination encoded in federal law. But when Obama had his first opportunity to act consistently with his campaign promises, he took the exact opposite position and defended the Defense of Marriage Act as rational legislation -- despite his own assertion on the campaign trail that the law was unfair and that it should be repealed.

Although several commentators overreached in their criticism of the DOMA brief, the official governmental stance on the issue directly contradicts Obama's description of the law during his campaign. And while the Department of Justice normally defends the legality of existing federal law, Obama could have directed the lawyers to concede the issue (which he did in a subsequent case involving discrimination on the basis of gender identity). If Obama did not believe, perhaps reasonably, that defending DOMA would benefit him politically, he would not have done so.

Gay Is Not the New Black, BUT. . .This Does Not Excuse Black Homophobia or Inattention to GLBT Rights Among Liberal Politicians
Granderson's argument ignores the operation of black homophobia in the lives of black GLBT people. For example, he rightfully condemns white gay racism, but he suggests that this alone explains the existence of separate clubs and pride celebrations along the lines of race within GLBT communities. Although I agree with Granderson on the existence of racism within GLBT communities, racism alone cannot explain the popularity of separate black gay clubs and festivals. Black homophobia plays a role as well.

If the black community was a Utopia where black GLBT people could live their lives openly without fear of reprisal, then, applying Granderson's logic, these separate clubs would not exist apart from other black cultural institutions. This Utopia, however, does not exist. Black homophobia is an important social problem (just like white homophobia). Responding only to racism (but not homophobia, sexism and poverty) paints an incomplete picture.

Granderson also argues that some of Obama's critics seem impatient and unable to appreciate the fact that equality comes from sustained political activity. I agree. But part of this sustained activity must include open criticism, dissent and debate. Frederick Douglass, a leading black abolitionist, was invited to speak at the dedication of Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Park, which is named in honor of the late President Lincoln. During his speech, Douglass called Lincoln a racist and said that he was a president to whites, not blacks. I suspect that he said even stronger things to Lincoln privately. Regardless, Obama's GLBT critics seem pretty soft in comparison.

Rather than asking GLBT advocates to tone down their criticism to mirror blacks (who largely remain exuberant regarding Obama), I encourage all progressives, including antiracist activists, to treat Obama as a president. His election is imbued with great symbolism, but this does not change the fact that he is a living, breathing politician who will only take risky and tough positions if he is pushed to do so. No progressive social movement in the United States has succeeded by giving politicians, including allies, a free pass. It seems highly unlikely that the GLBT and racial justice movements can defy these odds. Although social movement actors should act strategically, being strategic does not mean accepting complacency and silence.

Stonewall and Race
Finally, Granderson argues that the Stonewall Riots, which many GLBT activists mark as the the beginning of the "gay rights movement," only happened 40 years ago, but that blacks (by comparison) have struggled against racism for much longer. I agree with his assertion that the formal gay rights movement is "younger" than the antiracism movement in the United States. But to the extent that Granderson believes that antigay discrimination only began 40 years ago, his argument fails. Antigay discrimination predated Stonewall (as did pro-gay advocacy).

More importantly, Granderson fails to mention that a substantial number of the participants in the Stonewall Riots were poor people, people of color, and gender non-conforming men and women who were the most vulnerable to the police raids and other abuses. They were tired of waiting and enduring hostility in silence.

Although Stonewall was a moment of racial and gay activism, neither the black (heterosexual) community nor the (white) gay community seems to appreciate its complexity. While Granderson's article comes close to unveiling the richness of gay experience, his failure to confront black homophobia as well as white gay racism leaves many gaping holes in his analysis.

Update: The responses to Granderson are coming in, and the early count suggests that "we are not amused":

My answer to L.Z. Granderson - There should be no pride in comparing forms of oppression

ESPN's LZ Granderson Comments That Gay Isn't The New Black

Gays and Blacks Attempt to Compare Penis Size. Ruler Found Lacking. Jews Miffed About Not Being Invited to the Circle Jerk of Misery. « Trey Givens

Sigh

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Hutchinson: As a warmup to a long bombardment, let me point out this sentence you wrote, start of the third paragraph after the subheading GAY IS NOT THE NEW BLACK:

"Many GLBT activists and blacks refuse to concede that homophobia and heterosexism warrant remedial action..."

I have read this sentence seven million times and still remain astonished. GLBT activisits and blacks are satisfied WITH THE PRESENT SYSTEM, no gay marriage etc. and don't think it needs changing?!?!! This is not what I was expecting from you, and a little thought persuades me that no one could really mean what you wrote. If GLBTers don't concede the present system "needs remedial action" what are they activating for?

I went outside, but the sun still is setting in the West. I think it likely that this may be a slip. If not, then that ringing in your ears you've been hearing since 5:01 your time is not high blood pressure, but Clarence Thomas ringing your doorbell. He rushed right from the Court and stands ready to give you a bear hug, exclaiming, "Brother! We've waited so long!" before he leads you up the center aisle, while William F. Buckley leads the choir in "Amazing Grace!" No no, such a thought leaves me dizzy. Could be that this is my normal state, but do let us know if that sentence is what you meant.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Greg: The problem with your entire argument is that you chopped off part of the sentence. The full sentence says that neither group can imagine the attainment of gay rights without reference to racism. GLBT advocates use racial analogies to advance gay rights, while blacks clobber the analogies to defeat gay rights. Both groups, however, are committed to the idea that in order for a class of individuals to receive civil rights protection, it must show that it has the "same" experiences as blacks. Hence, neither group can appreciate gay rights, notwithstanding the experiences of blacks.

PS: I edited the paragraph before I read your comment. The edit is unreleated to your comment.

Thomas said...

It seems to me that a lot of confusion (and antipathy) has emerged simply from the legal principle or "doctrine of sameness" espoused by the court, the principle that "in order for a class of individuals to receive civil rights protection, it must show that is has the "same" experiences as blacks."

Why cannot a group merit access to civil rights of its own accord? Why must they COMPARE struggles? It is this silliness that gives rise to the current ever widening schizm between Blacks and the LGBT community. White LGBT are simply following the requirements of the law as established by the courts. Can you blame them?

A civil right is a civil right. According to the constitution the only qualification necessary to enjoy a civil right is American citizenship.

It sickens me with disgust that an individual deprived by discrimination ( based on race, sex, sexual orientation, handicap, age, etc.) has to force the country to remedy that discrimination and then get taken through the ringer in the process. We need to lessen the gap between what America is and what America should be.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Thomas: Thanks for your post. Although I share your opposition to the search for sameness in the law, I do not believe that the law is solely responsible for the analogies. Culturally, the race and civil rights are synonymous in the United States. Groups who seek civil rights protection have advanced the analogies in order to tap into this cultural reality. The process, however, does more harm than good.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Greg: I have edited the essay again. Just cleaning it up. No edit was made in response to your comment.

Anonymous said...

Is gay the new black? In terms of discrimination yes, everything else NO!!!!!!!! You cannot compare being gay to being black. Years ago blacks were slaves working for the white man getting beat up, tied to trees, dragged on the road on the back of cars JUST because of the color of their skin nothing more. Being gay is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT; Being gay is liking a member of the same sex group. Even though I accept it(not gay) it is going against natures natural course. The anatomy of a man and a women is designed to be together. A man and a women being together is how our human race reproduces and survives. A man deciding to be with a man and a women deciding to be with a women is not the same as a human having darker skin. They are both discriminated a against yes but apart from that its NOT THE SAME AND CANNOT BE COMPARED!!! Its insulting that gays compare themselves to blacks. They have a little bit of struggle trying to get people to accept them and they are saying that they are treated like blacks. Blacks put up with WAY MORE than that for a very long time over 400 years to be exact. They must be very strong men and women to come all the way from being slaves to becoming president of the united states.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Anonymous: Saying gay is not black does not answer the question about anti-gay discrimination. I do not believe that people have to have identical experiences as blacks to qualify for equal protection. Also, blacks, like Obama, do not come from a slave lineage. Do you believe he should simply take discrimination?

Men and women do not have to come together to reproduce. I am sure you have heard of artificial insemination/In-vitro fertilization. Finally, sex is not about reproduction exclusively. There are enough people on the Earth (probably too many). The way you describe sex makes it sound like dogs mating in the animal kingdom. Does love and emotion mean anything to you?

Hippi Chicki Niki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
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