SEIZING THE DIALOGUE ON RACIAL IDENTITY: BLACK GAY MALE DISCOURSE ON THE MILLION MAN MARCH
The discourse of black gay men on the politics of the March evidences a diversity of viewpoints. Because the press—with only a few excep – tions—failed to report the opinions of black gay men with respect to the March, I have based some of my observations upon anecdotal evidence.
Some black gay men believed that gays should participate in the March—despite the homophobia of its organizers and the heterosexist tone of its purpose—because "sexuality" is separate from the issue of black male solidarity that March organizers claimed as their goal. These men affirmed their belief in the problematic notion that race and sexuality are inherently separate. They also appeared willing to subordinate their interests in sexual justice for the sake of achieving a fragile and exclusive notion of racial unity. Because race and sexual identity—heterosexual or otherwise—are inextricably intertwined, I do not agree with the reasoning of the black gay men who chose to march but who remained silent regarding issues of homophobia. Nevertheless, given the virulent homophobia and racism of American society and the heterosexist construction of racial identity, I am sympathetic toward black men who took this ultimately harmful position. Coming out and being black, in a world of racial and sexual hierarchy, requires both courage and privilege. Thus, it is not surprising that many black gays and lesbians choose to remain silent about their sexuality and about black homophobia.
Black gay male discourse reveals two other widely held, competing opinions with respect to the March: participation will increase black gay and lesbian visibility, and participation will constitute an acquiesence to the homophobic ideology underlying the politics of the March. For example, Dennis Holmes, a member of the board of directors of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, argued that black gay "[participation in the march [provided] an opportunity to demonstrate that we are members of the black family, that we are brothers, sons and fathers, as well as caretakers, counselors, supporters, benefactors and leaders within our black communities."47 Holmes also urged blacks to understand that black homophobia stifles and precludes antiracist struggle. He argued that
[h]omophobia and misunderstandings about sexual orientation have impaired our ability to work honestly and effectively toward the betterment of our lives, our families and our communities. . . .
We. . . must challenge the hypocrisy, divisiveness and violence that result from the refusal of the black community to acknowledge and value all of its members.48
Holmes thus envisions a black politics committed to sexual equality, linking the "betterment" of the black community to the eradication of homophobia.
The National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum also considered gay participation in the March necessary to increase the visibility of gays and lesbians in the black community. While the Forum declined to endorse the March officially, it nevertheless encouraged black gays and lesbians to participate, arguing that "[o]ur presence as openly gay men and lesbians will counter the assumption that we do not exist in or do not contribute to our community. Staying home or marching incognito colludes with those who wish to keep us invisi – ble."49 Finally, Keith Boykin, the executive director of the Forum, who, along with a group of gays and lesbians, participated in the March, hoped that an "openly gay contingent. . . [would] help to begin the much needed dialogue on black sexuality and to teach the [March] organizers what the vast majority of rank and file marchers already know: Black gay men and lesbians are not a threat to black unity, they are a key to it."50
As this commentary reveals, the black gay individuals who favored openly gay participation in the March viewed the eradication of black homophobia and the visibility of black gays and lesbians as crucial to the effectiveness of antiracist politics and to the development of racial unity. The discourse of black gay men who were ambivalent about participating—or who refused to participate—in the March because of the homophobia of its leaders evidences a similar concern for the integration of gay and lesbian equality within racial struggle. Many black gay men considered going to the March but decided that they could not participate in the event due to the homophobia of its organizers. For example, Steve Wakefield, a black gay Chicago resident, stated that he could not participate in the March because of Farrakhan’s involvement.51 Wakefield likened his refusal to participate in the March to his refusal to attend churches with homophobic ministries: "I do not go to churches that preach ‘hate the sin but love the sinner,’ because hate is the operative word."52 Similarly, L. Scott Rosemond, a San Francisco resident, declined to march because "[t]he message ha[d] been sent that gay black men are not welcome."53 These comments, like the statements of the black gay men who went to the March, challenge black homophobia and narrow constructions of black identity and antiracist politics. Black gay men were wary of joining the March because the March organizers premised black "unity" and political organizing on heterosexism and the silence of black gays and lesbians. As Rodney Johnson, a member of Ujima, a black gay and lesbian organization in Milwaukee, stated, many black gay men believed that the March’s themes of black male unity and mutual support were "worthy causes,"54 but many black gay men were nevertheless "conflicted" over the March’s positive potential and its heterosexist overlay.55
My examination of black gay male discourse on the March demonstrates that, despite their apparent differences, black gay men who urged openly black gay participation in the March and those who did not participate in the March because of its heterosexist and sexist themes were unified in a broader political purpose. Both groups of men rejected and politically challenged the fallacy that blackness, gay identity, and politics occupy completely separate spheres. The groups simply employed different forms of activism to challenge this fallacy: one group marched in protest; the other "stayed home" in protest. Ultimately, however, their protests had a common aim—to challenge the narrow, heterosexist construction of blackness and black politics and to deploy an integrated black gay identity.
Because both sides of the debate furthered the important project of increasing black gay visibility and of creating a more multidimensional construction of black identity, neither side was "right" or "wrong" for its decision on whether to march. A decision to avoid the March to protest its heterosexist and sexist themes is no less political than a decision to join the March and make the political statement that black gays exist and are an integral part of the black community. The former action places black political organizers on notice of the disunity that results from narrow, homophobic, and sexist political agendas, while the latter action makes black gay identity visible.56 Both of these messages are critical elements in the ongoing project of reshaping black identity. The reconstruction of black identity and black politics will require the black community to discover that homophobia leads to discord and political fragmentation. If blacks do not believe that homophobia negatively impacts their ability to mount collective efforts for racial justice, then they will have no incentive to discard homophobia. Furthermore, unless black heterosexuals encounter open and integrated black gay and lesbian identities, they will invariably continue to dismiss gay and lesbian statuses as products of white culture.