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