The question of the hour that everyone seems to be asking, from some Prop 8 white supremacists to Queen Latifah on VH1’s “Single Ladies.” Is gay the new black? One can’t help but wonder what motivates a person, or entire groups, to suggest that gay is supposedly the new black. Perhaps it is because, like the Jim Crow lynchings and barbeques, people who identify (or are perceived as) LGBTQ run the risk of having their face smashed in, being brutally, physically and/or verbally assaulted or even dragged by the back of a pick-up
One complication there is that Black folks are still physically and brutally terrorized in this country, it’s just that no one wants to talk about it. But perhaps it is the marriage debate that connects Black and gay communities; for just as slaves were prohibited and then encouraged to marry (eventually leading to “jumping the broom” ceremonies), and then laws prohibiting interracial marriage, gay and lesbian couples are eager to jump in on the privileges of marriage (at least in some states). Or maybe it is the code-switching that some Black folks engage in that mirrors the code-switching of our gender performance, mysteriously hiding or revealing what some see as a marker of our sexuality. After all, isn’t that what sexuality is all about—what I’m wearing and how I’m walking?
Despite the many parallels between Black history and culture to LGBTQ history and culture, it would appear the strongest link to these communities, in my humble opinion, are the Black, LGBTQ-identified persons. That’s right! Imagine that: someone being gay and Black. It is mindboggling, isn’t it (read: sarcasm)? As a supposedly progressive society, how can we even ride out on the idea that gay is the new Black when we have folks who occupy both of these identities?
The only way I can see gay being the new black, is through the eyes of a fashionista. Black is the ever-popular staple in the fashion world. There is always a way to make it fresh and current. But unfortunately, that is rarely what this metaphor aims to do. This metaphor is aimed at nullifying the impact, experiences, history and power of Black history, culture and oppression to pour its energy into the gay rights movement. To say, look: we experience oppression like “the Blacks” too. Though, isn’t it ironic that in a white supremacist nation where it’s socially unacceptable to be Black, so many people want to be Black? Hmph.
Imagine for one minute that you are gay and Black. Someone asks you: is gay the new Black? Wouldn’t a question like that have the potential to force you into feeling you have to choose—being gay versus being Black? Why are we talking about the “gay Harlem Renaissance” as if it is something separate from the Harlem Renaissance? And why aren’t we talking loudly about rumors that the founders of Spelman College were queer Black women? The relationship between Black and LGBTQ communities is intertwined. We shouldn’t have to separate them to acknowledge the dissimilarities.
Oddly enough, I have yet to hear a single supporter of “gay is the new black” reach back into the time capsule of Black and queer history to find a very useful quote from Bayard Rustin. In 1986, one of the primary organizers for the 1963 March on Washington, this openly gay man stated in his essay, “The New Niggers Are The Gays”:
While I respect and appreciate Brother Rustin’s perspective, I cannot adopt this victimological perspective that seems to run rampant in a significant amount of gay rights activism. It is imperative to understand that Bayard Rustin was an openly gay man fighting for racial equality during a time where homosexuality was still taboo to discuss in public. Without getting into too many details, his sexuality was exploited by other leaders. Not only did he face the brunt of racism but also homophobia. To me, it makes sense that he would write gays are the most vulnerable group. Those may have been his experiences and no one can take them from him. *cues Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong*
This type of divisive rhetoric, pitting gay versus Black, further divides communities that should be working together; communities that are tied not only in a common quest for liberation, but also tied by the insightful individuals who experience more than one side of things. It not only refuses access to an acknowledgement of lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered folks but also of other people of color plagued by white supremacy. It ignores the work of folks like James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Barbara Jordan and many others fighting on behalf of human rights (Note: human should not disregard or ignore difference).
So yes, Rustin may be correct in alluding to queer activism needing more Black allies. But I believe he would be extremely disappointed by the lack of “queer activists” who are not challenging white supremacy. Again, let’s imagine a world where the work of anti-racism was intertwined with a LGBTQ rights movement. Just imagine.
In the era of media sound bites that suggest “Black people are more homophobic” than everyone else, where are the people holding queer communities accountable for the racism they spew so venomously? If gay really is the new Black, why is white supremacy running rampant throughout queer spaces? Where are the public stories and experiences of queer people of color who have been tormented by racism at the hands of other queers? If we’re going to ask if gay is the new Black, perhaps we should also ask if Black is the new gay.