Excerpt from Urvashi Vaid’s Kessler Lecture: “What Can Brown Do For You? Race, Sexuality and the Future of LGBT Politics”

Tonight, I want to start with some broad and frank observations about three things— first, the state of the LGBT movement overall, and the state of racial justice, racial equity and racial privilege within the mainstream of that movement. Second, I want to consider why mainstream LGBT politics remains so absent on racial justice— what makes it so difficult for the LGBT movement to face race? Third, I’d like to suggest some principles that could orient a new and more productive course in addressing racial equity within and outside our communities.

State of the Movement
As the mid-term elections came and went, I found myself thinking of the memorable opening paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
This passage describes the perplexing dualism of the present moment—an age of remarkable technological change and human possibility, in which more wealth exists than ever before yet objectives like ending hunger and poverty seem unreachable. We live in an “epoch of belief”—millions upon millions of people fervently embrace their faith traditions filled with absolute certainty that they are on the Right path; yet at the same time, we live in an “epoch of incredulity” in which millions of others are so disillusioned and alienated by corruption or fear that they are apathetic. So, in the recent elections white Protestant and Catholic voters increased their turnout and voted overwhelmingly for Republicans; yet overall only 42% of eligible voters came to the polls. And voter turnout among young people 18-24 was 20.4% in 2010, down from 23.5% in 2006.It seemed we had everything before us in 2008 when President Obama won. I remember feeling that way in 1992 with Clinton as well, or even in 1968 (when I was 10 years old), only to watch that hope turn sour, as it did in 1994, or in 1968 when Bobby Kennedy was killed.

The merry-go-round of political promises keeps us bobbing up and down with excitement at each revolution, but our enjoyment and engagement in the process leaves us sad at the end of the ride, awake to the fact that we have only gone around in a circle. A similar dualism—of growth and inertia, progress and stagnation, optimism and frustration—exists today in the LGBT movement. The scale and size of the overall LGBT movement is enormous. This year, the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a national think tank on the LGBT movement, analyzed the most recent returns of all LGBT identified nonprofit organizations found on the Guidestar (www.guidestar. org) database. MAP tallied data from 553 LGBT advocacy, issue, social, cultural, legal, health and human service oriented, research and educational organizations whose 2009 expenses totaled $563.2 million dollars! MAP’s more detailed annual survey of the top 39 national LGBT advocacy, legal, issue based and research focused groups documented revenues by these 29 groups alone of more than $161 million dollars. These 39 organizations employed 808 people and had 689 board members. Our movement is a large infrastructure indeed. Yet, the LGBT political agenda at the national level, especially before Congress, is stalled. The largest LGBT advocacy organization, HRC (which had a 2010 budget of $37.3 million and a staff of more than 200 people)has managed to secure full passage and implementation of one LGBT rights bill in the past 17 years—the Shepard/Byrd Hate Crime Act, passed in October of 2009. The second largest national LGBT political organization, NGLTF (with a 2010 budget of $8.3 million and a staff of more than 50) seems great at process (managing coalitions, producing trainings and conferences, conducting research and policy analysis) but unable to turn those into muscular leadership for results. The legal movement, still our most successful strategy, remains an island onto itself—making its own decisions in small conclaves, rarely consulting in a meaningful way with grassroots activists, and rarely coordinating its efforts so that a powerful media, educational and organizing push could be made alongside each major new direction in litigation (exceptions include LLDEF’s work in New Jersey). Because of the inability of the existing larger infrastructures to represent the diverse constituencies and issues that LGBT people face, the movement has spawned a number of even more specialized, single issue-focused organizations at the national level over the past ten years, each focused on a particular subject or constituency (freedom to marry, health, immigration, military, transgender, family policy, youth, community centers, and even two Republican organizations— because the first was deemed too liberal by the second). Repeal of the military ban failed in the Senate in 2010 and will likely fail again in the lameduck session. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is not moving, leading some to assert that it will magically move if gender identity is removed. It will not—because that transobstacle is simply a pretext for the lack of support for LGBT equality. Immigration equality is stalled, and with the election of an anti-immigrant Tea Party minority the chances of comprehensive immigration reform are minimal. As basic a measure of progress as the appointment of talented, openly LGBT leaders to key positions in a friendly Administration is a goal stymied by hostile and vigorous opposition. The only gains made during the Obama years have come as they did in the Reagan and Bush years, a time when the national LGBT movement was considerably smaller, through the efforts of a coalition of groups lobbying behind the scenes within the Executive branch—making quiet and significant changes in agency issued regulations at places like the State Department and the HHS. It could be argued that there are at least two movements fighting for LGBT equality and freedom today—one explicitly anti-racist and the other doggedly single issue. One consists of locally based, grassroots advocacy, organizing and service-oriented groups (like Queers for Economic Justice, Audre Lorde Project, Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Southerners On New Ground , the Community Centers, the HIV AIDS organizations, the youth groups, and key foundations like Astraea), and the other consists of larger, more national organizations (like HRC, NGLTF, ACLU, LLDEF, GLAAD and others). Both movements share history, they share institutions, they overlap, they coexist, they cooperate, and at times they compete. But they are not coterminous: their endpoint differs dramatically. It is my contention, however, that neither of these movements has yet meaningfully tackled structural racism and racial privilege. Neither has made more than a superficial dent in the way racial separation exists in our communities. Neither has convinced the majority of LGBT people who are active in the movement that race is and must be “our” issue. Indeed, advocates of racial justice in the LGBT movement still find ourselves having to make the case again and again, year after year, about why race matters to the achievement of LGBT equality. Here, for example, is a summary of the “What Can Brown Do For You?” speech, which I have given for two decades. The LGBT movement should work on racial justice, I’ve argued, because it is a matter of justice and we are about a fairer society; because we need to reciprocate—so when we ask communities of color to support us around sexuality, we need to show up on issues of race; because there are LGBT people of color in our communities and racism affects us, so our movement must deal with it; and because dealing with race is in our own self-interest, and brown will help us win at the ballot box. Not only am I tired of having to make this speech, what saddens me is that most of the audiences to whom I have made this presentation have no problem hearing the argument framed as “what can Brown do for LGBT people” but they always resist the reverse proposition that the LGBT movement needs to work on racial justice issues that affect Brown and Black people too. The existence of LGBT people of color is simply not really considered, nor deemed significant enough to justify engagement with racial justice—something that most white gay people see as a “diversion” of the LGBT agenda to address race. As a result, race in our movement is seen primarily as an issue of diversity or outreach, not as an issue of equity or fundamental justice that it is our business as a movement to achieve. The key structural reason why neither branch of the LGBT movements has operationalized its stated intersectional politics, is quite simple: the default definition for what “Gay” means has been set by, and remains dominated by, the ideas and experiences of those in our communities who are white and this really has not changed in more than fifty years. Issues, identities, problems that are not “purely” gay—read as affecting white gay men and women—are always defined as not the concern of “our” LGBT movement—they are dismissed as “non-gay” issues, as divisive, as the issues that some ‘other movement’ is more suited to champion. We have our hands full we are told. We need to single-mindedly focus on one thing. This is an argument that many LGBT liberationists and gay-equality focused activists have made to each other and bought wholesale for decade—without malice, without prejudice—just because there has been an unquestioned assumption that this narrow focus works, that we are getting results because we are making a “gay rights” argument, that this is smart and successful political strategy. My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement. The gayrights focus was historically needed but is a vestigial burden we need to shed. It leads to an unsuccessful political strategy where we try to win on one issue at a time, it narrows our imagination and vision, it does not serve large numbers of our own people, and it feeds the perception that we are generally privileged and powerful, and not in need of civil equality. Single issue-gay-rights-politics, rooted in the interest group approach, was adopted by most US social movements after the 1950’s. It has provided coherence, helped us build infrastructure and visibility, and certainly helped us achieve progress; but it has done so at the expense of people of color, transgender people, the working class, youth, and those who are less empowered in our communities. And its success has reached a limit. Single issue politics leads to singular issue results. So, we created HIV specific remedies in the 1980’s that did not help other people with life threatening illnesses facing the same mismanaged health care system. Or we are working on school bullying as if gay kids are the primary targets, when its a much larger and more pervasive problem of in-groups and out-groups, gender performance by insecure young people, or prejudice stoked by structures of religion-based ostracism of the other. A holistic policy response is needed, not merely single-issue solutions. From a broad liberationist agenda, in which LGBT groups marched to end US intervention in El Salvador, in which lesbians led the peace movements and the antinuke movement, in which lesbians and gay men spoke out passionately in support of black civil rights, and against racist drug and sentencing laws—in which we demanded that government save our lives and that we get our fair share from it—we have become an ever narrower, individual rights movement, where the “freedom” to assert our individual right to marry is argued by some to be the most radical thing we could ever seek. Issues of challenging the patriarchal nuclear family, support for working families, ending violence against women, prison reform, poverty, redistribution—all once critical parts of our LGBT liberation movement’s agenda have disappeared in the national LGBT movement discourse. As these issues have receded in our movement, we have lost our past alliance with the feminist movement, with peace movement, with anti-poverty movements, with the environmental movement and even with the labor movement. We never had much of an alliance with the civil rights movement. Because we cannot win on our own, weak alliances are a critical obstacle to our movement’s ability to enact pro-LGBT policies at every level of government. The absence of racial justice, economic justice and gender justice from our national movement’s objectives results in our being wrongly seen, even by our allies and certainly by most straight people, as a relatively small, very narrowly focused, largely white mostly male and deeply selfinterested group of people. Frankly, the LGBT movement rarely if ever expends political or financial capital to support so-called “non-gay” issues—we don’t do anything but a token press release or appearance at a rally. As a result, we are not functioning as valuable partners to our allies in any coalition that we join; we offer them very little positive help, and we generate powerful anti-gay opposition to boot. It is a measure of their principles that key LGBT allies have not abandoned us despite our weakness, and despite the pressure they sometimes face from constituencies they serve. So, for example, in the late 1980’s the Hate Crime Coalition working for passage of the Hate Crime Statistics Act was repeatedly pressured by members of Congress to dump the gay community and move a Statistics Bill that did not include data collection on sexual orientation. The coalition resisted and the statistics Bill passed in 1989. In the past year, the immigrant rights coalition working on Comprehensive Immigration Reform has resisted strong pressure from the Catholic Church to exclude the LGBT permanent partners bill from the CIR agenda. Across the country, LGBT rights initiatives have failed precisely because we have not organized to forthrightly case for justice effectively to working mothers of all colors. We lost Proposition 8 in California in part BECAUSE we took the POC vote for granted and did not mount any effective organizing campaign in black and brown communities. We also lost Prop 8 because we did not organize seriously within progressive religious communities. We lost the judicial election in Iowa because we mounted no defense of the notion of an independent and nonpoliticized judiciary, a broad principle bigger than the pro-marriage equality votes of these judges. It is in this broad context of national LGBT movement’s ineffectiveness, and the larger increase in racial and economic disparities overall, that we need to look more closely at the LGBT movement’s difficulties with claiming racial justice as a central and core issue. What are obstacles to LGBT movement adopting race? What challenges does the movement confront in addressing race? While I want to focus on resistance to the inclusion of racial equity as a core mainstream LGBT movement demand, and the impact this resistance has on our movement, it is important to acknowledge that there are parts of our movement that are working for racial justice. These efforts are primarily being initiated by the queer people of color groups I’ve mentioned already and non-gay progressive groups (like Applied Research Center, Astraea Foundation, Center for Community Change, Highlander Center). Groundbreaking work is being done by grassroots progressive groups in arenas like the criminal justice and prison systems, welfare organizing, homelessness, housing, youth development and leadership, immigrant rights, detention of immigrants, and schools. Creative work is also underway to strengthen investment in LGBT POC organizations (Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues’ Campaign for Racial Equity) and to build POC leadership (The Pipeline Project). Fascinating potential exists in the global LGBT movement for linkages across national boundaries, linkages that might illuminate ways that the US movement’s framing of identity is more limited than that of activists say in Nepal or Africa. The Applied Research Center’s newly released report (Better Together) on the relationship between racial justice organizations and LGBT communities throws more doubt on the notion of the allegedly unsurpassable homophobia in communities of color, when it details that the majority of groups and leaders it surveyed the racial justice movement, reported working in support of LGBT rights. The report identifies three key obstacles identified by racial justice organizations in their work on LGBT issues. The biggest barrier identified by ARC was a perception pervasive in racial justice organizations—that most LGBT people are white and that our movement is not interested in race. Low visibility and weakness of LGBT people of color leaders, and the limited agendas of our LGBT organizations fuels this perception and informs remedial actions that ARC recommends to funders: a call for a greater investment in POC organizations working on both sexuality and race, an increased investment in the development of LGBT POC leaders, and an increased investment in media and other outlets that can engage people in communities of color. A second barrier identified by ARC is a lack of understanding about how to apply a sexuality lens to racial justice issues. We need to make clear how LGBT people are affected in particular ways by issues seen primarily through a racial lens (e.g. police violence, homelessness, immigration, prison and incarceration, schools and harassment to name a few). A third barrier identified was the fear of community resistance (both actual and perceived). Interviewees cited fear of religious organizations’ reaction to working on LGBT issues, fear of causing internal divisions in racial communities, lack of demand for work on LGBT rights from communities of color. All of the above-named challenges reveal additional and possible work for the LGBT movement to do, but there is a threshold question that this data begs: what explains the resistance of the mainstream movement to a deeper incorporation of racial justice into the LGBT agenda? When I was appointed head of NGLTF in 1989, a prominent donor called the Task Force offices and said to a development director there, that he could not believe the Task Force board had hired that radical woman who was “practically a nigger.” More than once, I have had people, primarily white gay activists question my claim of being a person of color, as one colleague noted, I was “practically white.” Brown is an intermediate state that occupies a different place in the American racial consciousness, but after 9/11 and the past decade of anti-immigrant bashing, brown and black are both more stigmatized than I imagined they would be twenty years ago. Over the years, I have experienced viscerally the awkwardness and discomfort of some male donors with me because I am a woman; an awkwardness that increases when I do anything that reminds them I am also not white. My girlfriend, for example, always loves me to wear kurta pajamas or saris to LGBT formal dress events, but my experience in them is uncomfortable—not just because I am more used to wearing jeans, but also because I already feel so highly conspicuous in the largely white and largely male gatherings I attend regularly, and wearing Indian clothes makes me feel even more so. My discomfort has been confirmed on more than one occasion, where well-meaning colleagues have joked that I am “going native” or “putting out the Kinte cloth” on occasions when I have worn Indian clothes. Throughout my time in the movement, I have raised issues of racism (and sexism), economic equality and privilege—with very mixed response. Sometimes I have succeeded in creating innovative new programs to impact racial disparities in our communities, at other times, I have had my suggestions ignored, and ideas marginalized. Some doors were opened to me because I was a woman of color and the movement wanted “representation,” others were not opened far enough, or simply never pointed out. Yet, I have succeeded in large measure because of the class privilege that my over-education gives me, and the social capital that I have cultivated and that also comes from being successful, and being backed by people with money and resources. But I never deluded myself into believing that my success proved anything more than the exception to the general experience of most of my colleagues— which is that because so many major donors are most comfortable giving to people like themselves, that women and POC have a hard time raising funds in our community of donors, that any honest Executive Director or Board Chair will tell you that they try to hire at least one cute white guy to help out with their development departments, that making people in the middle, upper middle and wealthy class in the LGBT movement comfortable is critical to one’s success as a leader. The funder community will need to take a good look at itself, and will need significant education if we are to re-orient the LGBT movement towards new issues and leadership. In an excellent two-part series on the racism of liberals and progressives, author and anti-racist activist Tim Wise discusses several mechanisms he believes allow liberals and progressives to avoid taking up racial justice and allow them to “reinforce the notion that persons of color are less important, their concerns less central to the larger justice cause, and that ultimately they are to be viewed as inferior junior partners in the movement for social change.” Each of these mechanisms of avoidance are ones I have had experience with in my work in the LGBT movement. They are: 1) colorblindness; 2) color muteness; 3) white privilege. Wise also identifies something he calls Class Reductionism—or the notion that its economics more than racism that need to be addressed. In the LGBT movement, this operates primarily as Class Denial—we act as if all of our people are upper middle class.

For the rest of this lecture please visit http://urvashivaid.net/wp/?p=709

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