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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Second thoughts on Cleo Manago and the Million More March

I intended to write something about last weekend's Million More March in Washington, D.C., and the last-minute barring of African-American gay activist Keith Boykin from the stage. I was hoping to write a blistering attack on controversial homophobic Washington minister Willie Wilson, the executive director of the event, who apparently decided to renege on an agreement to allow Boykin to speak. I even researched march organizer Louis Farrakhan's past homophobic comments in the hope of smearing him as well. And I had plenty of comments about the inclusion of Cleo Manago of Black Men's Xchange (BMX) who refuses to use the word "gay" in favor of describing himself as "same-gender loving" as a speaker at the march.

Manago would have made an easy target for criticism. Here was a man so uncomfortable with the word "gay" that he euphemistically couched his sexual orientation as "same-gender loving." Here was truly someone who could be the posterchild for internalized homophobia.

Or so I thought.

I'm glad now that I didn't take the easy route and dismiss Manago with sarcastic comments. He's got things to say that - as uncomfortable as they are - the LGBT establishment needs to hear.

First, there's his aversion to the word "gay." For Manago it's not a matter of internalized homophobia to reject the term. It's a matter of expressing pride in his African-American heritage. Manago believes that "gay" is a term that denotes the white, mostly male leadership of the LGBT community. For him, accepting the word "gay" means accepting membership in a class that seldom considers the issues faced by people of color.

"I, too, am often called a black nationalist, particularly by the white gay community because I don't identify with their way of framing us in this world," Manago said in his speech at the Million Man March, according to The Washington Blade.

He's not alone in his opinion. Take, for example, the following from a recent Associated Press story:

About 4 million gay or lesbian adults live in the United States, according to the Gay and Lesbian Atlas, compiled by the Urban Institute. In Los Angeles, the group found that Hispanics lead 32 percent of all same-sex households. In the South, black gays head more than a quarter of gay households in South Carolina and Mississippi.

If minorities are just as prevalent as whites, then why do their faces number so few at national gay-rights events?

In 2000, the Human Rights Campaign surveyed leaders in several communities of color across the country. "Their perceptions of us were rich, white male elitist organization with low investment in issues facing the multicultural community," said Donna Payne, the senior diversity organizer with the HRC, the nation's largest gay-rights advocacy organization.

It's good to see that organizations are beginning to acknowledge that LGBT blacks, Hispanics and other minorities have their own issues aside from from just being gay. It's also good that these organizations are actively working to recruit more minority representations.

But we must be able to view minorities as more than just window dressing to prove we aren't white elitists. We have to start asking them what it important to them and incorporating their issues into our agenda.

Issues of race are volatile within the LGBT community. As members of a minority group ourselves, we tend to think that other members of the same group will have the same issues. We think in terms of what it means to be LGBT, but seldom take the next step to think about what it means to be gay and black or lesbian and Latina or any other minority group that overlaps LGBT.

From my own experience in my political club, I know that I'm proud that we have African Americans, Hispanics and other minority members. It gives us bragging rights to being inclusive. But the past few days of reading up on Manago made me realize something else, too: when I interact with LGBT people of other races, I do so from a color-blind perspective. I don't see them as black or Latino or anything else except LGBT.

I'd like to think I do that because I am establishing common ground. Hey, I can say, we are all connected by our queerness. But in truth it's more because I'm uncomfortable talking about issues of race because I don't always know how to address the subject. In being eager not to offend, I create an even bigger offense: the failure to see someone as a complete person.

Despite his faults, Manago is right about something - the LGBT leadership hasn't done an adequate job addressing racial issues. We talk about marriage but not the poverty that undermines stable relationships. We talk about equal employment opportunities, but not the lack of jobs. We talk about affirming our rights, but we leave the issue of affirming the rights of other minorities up to those minorities' own groups. We talk about how we need to educate gay men about AIDS, but not how to address the issue of AIDS among other groups. We talk about the need for temporary housing for LGBT victims of domestic violence, but not the need for affordable housing in our cities.

And then we wonder why people like Manago view the LGBT movement with suspicion and distrust?

As a group that has been denied a place at the table, we cannot deny others a place at the table we have made. Without building coalitions with other minority groups, LGBT organizations risk alienating groups that should be natural allies. And allies are not something we can afford to squander.