Playing the Blame Game: Prop 8 Rears Its Head

Shortly after the November 2008 election I wrote the following essay in response to the tensions flaring between various communities in California around the issue of the passage of Proposition 8 (banning gay marriage).

Recently The Atlantic published this article about new data that has become available.

In response, or at least in the interest of continuing the conversation, I have decided to post the essay that I wrote in November.

The Blame Game

Whenever loss occurs it is natural to look for an explanation. Ever since the election last week figures have been thrown around about what percentage of black constituents in California voted for Prop 8. Some estimates were as high as 70%. Later that figure was disputed and estimated to be much closer to the statewide average of 52%. Regardless of the exact number, fierce debate has been sparked between the black and gay community in terms of voting reciprocity around issues of civil rights. Many op-ed articles that I’ve read have been venomous. But, predictably, voices of ‘reason’ have begun calling for an end to the ‘blame game,’ alleging that it only serves to divide our communities.

Here’s an example that I received via email yesterday:

“But in recent days there has been a tendency to assign blame to specific communities, in particular, the African American community. The fact is, 52 percent of all Californians, the vast majority of whom were not African Americans, voted against us. In addition, the most recent analysis of the exit poll that drove much of this speculation determined that it was too small to draw any conclusion on the African American vote, and further polling shows that the margin was much closer than first reported. Most importantly, though, none of this discourse changes the outcome of the vote. It only serves to divide our community and hinder our ability to create a stronger and more diverse coalition to help us overturn Proposition 8 and restore full equality and human rights to LGBT people.”

- Letter sent by NCLR (on 11/14/08) and signed by numerous GLBT and people of color community leaders

I wholeheartedly disagree that this line of discourse should cease. We have long known that large groups of people working in concert are usually able to affect more change than small groups operating without allies. But the fervent desire of various coalitions to work together without honestly discussing points of friction has resulted in smoldering rage that can flare dangerously in times of crisis. This is one of those times, and it would be to everyone’s benefit to seize this as an opportunity rather than continuing to idealistically assert that communities can become better allies by intentionally ignoring points of tension.

An op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on November 8th articulated some of these frustrations. Jasmyne A. Cannick, who identifies as a black lesbian, wrote:

“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.”

She goes on to say that it is a mark of privilege that white gay people can spend so much time and money on an issue that isn’t a matter of survival. While there is much to be said in regards to the importance of marriage insomuch as it allows people to protect themselves and their families both financially and psychologically, this is not the aspect of her piece that I would like to focus on.

Cannick clearly views the fight for marriage equality as one being waged by and for middle and upper class white people. She does not see herself as a part of this homosexual community, despite being a lesbian, because she feels a racial and class divide. While she conflates race and class in her argument, it is important to look at each of these factors in tandem as well as separately, and the issue of gender should not be ignored.

The movement for gay rights began with gender normative middle and upper class white men. This is not to say that people outside of this demographic weren’t trying to fight for rights, but being that they didn’t have the same access to resources that the rich white men had, they gained traction much more slowly. Many of them tried to join forces with the well to do white men. However, the fathers of the gay movement had a huge stake in keeping other people out. Their plan for attaining rights was to convince the American public that they were just like everyone else, and therefore not a threat to the mainstream way of life.

Any body that didn’t embody these normative values was a threat to the gay men’s argument. This meant that they refused entrance to effeminate men, almost all women and definitely all butches, people of color, those with disabilities, and the poor. Whether we’d like people to remember this or not, the gay movement as we know it was birthed from bigotry.

While other factions of the GLBT community have fought tirelessly to empower themselves and join the larger movement, there continues to be a co-opting and morphing that happens to the narratives of divergent bodies. For example, the conflict at Stonewall has become a national story of resistance for gay and lesbians. The Pride celebrations that take place in June are scheduled loosely around the anniversary of the uprising. What very few resources on the subject will reveal is that the people who fought against the police at Stonewall were primarily homeless transgender youth of color who were completely fed up with the impossibility of survival.

Similarly, the feminist movement, which informed the lesbian feminist movement, has a long history of speaking for all women without allowing all women to speak. When white women decided that they were tired of staying home and wanted to enter the workplace, they imagined that all women had the same experiences as them. They failed to recognize that women of color had always been working jobs out of necessity. In order to go to work the white women had to find someone to take care of their children and houses. These domestic responsibilities fell to the women of color who were not being invited to apply for the jobs that the white feminists were creating for themselves.

The tactic of gaining rights on the back of the rest of the community continues today. At the federal level there is still no employment protection for gay and lesbian people. Likewise, there are no protections for transgender individuals. While it would make sense to fight for both protections simultaneously, many gay and lesbian people have been vehemently opposed to combining efforts. They argue that American people aren’t ready to protect transgender people, but they may be ready to protect gay and lesbian people, so instead of transgender people jeopardizing the gays’ and lesbians’ chances to have protection, the transgender people should stop demanding rights for themselves.

This brings me back to Cannick’s assertion that the gay people who want marriage equality are all privileged and white and don’t have more significant civil rights concerns for themselves. This conceptualization is indicative not of the actual demographic, but of the image that the GLBT movement continues to project about its constituency.

In fact, many of the same oppressions and hurdles that plague the black community are also continuing to destroy transgender people. (Transgender in its broadest definition describes someone whose gender presentation does not align with the traditional expectations of their biological sex. This includes people who cross-dress, transsexuals, masculine women, effeminate men, and many other permutations of human identity.) Recent figures have reported that over 60% of transgender people have never made more than $19,000 in a year. This percentage is certainly in line with my personal experience of employment as a transgender person. In addition, we have no right to job or housing protection. We are profiled and arrested disproportionately. We are refused health insurance and care. And many of us can’t get married, so not only can’t we protect ourselves, we can’t protect our families.

Among this list of disparities that are enforced through federal action (or inaction as the case may be), marriage is not the right that I would choose on my own to fight hardest for. But the opportunity to have even a sliver more protection is better than none at all, and I’ve clung to it. I recognize that there is more interest for this right within the GLBT community because it affects all of us, rather than just those of us who are transgender. This was why the passing of Prop 8 was so upsetting for me. If even marriage can’t pass, then I know that my right to safe housing, a job that pays a cost of living wage, healthcare so I can protect my body, and dissipation of police brutality will be a long time in coming.

On election night I cried with grief during Obama’s acceptance speech because the change that he so impassionedly spoke of seemed not to have come for me. The political pundits for days afterward were asking everyone whether prejudice in the U.S. was dead. The general consensus seemed to be that as a nation we had defeated our demons. This alarmed me in light of the struggles that continue in much of the GLBT community, and it also alarmed me in light of what I know about the dire situation that continues in communities of color. At this time when we are balancing on the precipice of possibility for a real alteration in the social landscape of the U.S., I am concerned about who will be forgotten.

The gay movement has been effective in creating and sustaining a myth that all GLBT people are well off and white. This story has been so deeply ingrained that someone who is a lesbian, but black, can feel that gay people who want rights are so privileged that their concerns should be secondary. Will the myth of a black president connoting the end of racism be just as damaging to movements within people of color communities?

These fears lead me to feel that people of color should be my closest allies at this point in history. The transgender community and black community share many of the same oppressions, although the ways that we have arrived at this juncture are different. When I hear or read that black people disproportionately, or even proportionately, voted against my rights, I do feel betrayed. I cannot understand why the people who I have lived on the streets with, and starved with, and worked the minimum wage jobs with, would want to deny me rights.

What it takes for me to find the answer is not the conciliatory words of leaders who are in power, but the desperately angry words of people who aren’t in the most privileged positions. Cannick’s dismissive stance on any rights as secondary, and positioning of gay marriage as so unimportant that she didn’t feel black people should vote for it, made me wonder about the origins of this anger. It wasn’t until I read her piece that I began synthesizing what I knew of the history of the gay rights movement with her reaction. Why would someone who has constantly been degraded, used, dismissed and rendered invisible by a movement that claims to be about her, want to collude in any way with that movement’s objectives? And what is meant as a rhetorical question suddenly becomes very personal. Wait a minute, why do I?

This is what the leaders of most movements want to avoid. It is safer to pledge alliances and promise to work for each other’s causes without admitting that all movements have histories of exclusion and subjugation. It is difficult to apologize and atone while struggling with oppression that threatens your survival. It is easier to tack terms like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ onto the mission statement than it is to take responsibility for the origins of movements that began before any of us were alive. But studiously avoiding the blame game will never solve this problem.

What we need is honesty, and oftentimes we are trying so valiantly to embody the ideals that we believe in, that we don’t realize our subconscious fears and rage. Sometimes it takes periods of conflict, with accusations flying in every direction, for us to articulate the beliefs and feelings that we want so badly to repress out of existence. How can I know that people really view the GLBT community as being rich and privileged, when I have been chronically homeless for six years as a result of being transgender? How can the black community recognize that GLBT people don’t get the difference between their civil rights movement and ours, until we’re shouting about it?

We cannot waste this opportunity to actually learn from one another. Let’s articulate our anger, quote the information we think we have, and express the betrayal we feel. Then let us listen and be willing to seek out the correct information. Obama’s election does not indicate the end of a journey to reach safer ground. His presidency is only the inertia we need to begin running. Let’s not squander the force he has enacted on our country’s body. The marathon will of necessity be painful, but at the finish line we will truly be able to say, “We have won.”

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