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#WeCouldntBreatheEither: Should LGBT Groups Join the Race Fight? 

Tuesday, Dec 30 2014
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Last month, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT organization in the nation, issued a statement expressing solidarity with the family of Michael Brown — and the protesters calling for no more police brutality. It followed an open letter, from August, signed by dozens of LGBT organizations. Both times, the HRC explicitly endorsed nonviolent protest.

The group's reaction was rather anodyne, really, especially when read against the comparatively fiery press release circulated by the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights.

However, it caused some controversy online. Members, or at least the overwhelming majority of commenters on the HRC's blog, took serious offense to the organization's stepping out of strict LGBT advocacy and into the territory of racial justice. They even used rhetoric that one might overhear on Fox News.

Without relitigating the Michael Brown or Eric Garner episodes, the underlying question is a valid one: Don't LGBT organizations have the social responsibility to voice solidarity with other civil rights causes?

#ICantBreathe may be blowing up, but many LGBT Americans are breathing more easily than ever. Although 2014 was a great year for same-sex marriage, gay professional athletes, and trans-visibility, it feels almost perverse to crow about it all in light of the judicial system's reignited battle with race. LGBT rights are often taken as the definitive civil rights crusade of early 21st century America, yet even as institutional homophobia is losing its foothold, the emotionally charged rhetoric targeting African-Americans has intensified. So would it appear mealy-mouthed for one marginal group who once fought its own battles with cops to ignore the pleas of another?

It's important to remember that the HRC's call for solidarity is just words. It isn't as though the group altered its legislative strategy or retooled its Capitol Hill lobbying apparatus. The HRC's own "Year in Review" made no mention of anything pertaining to #BlackLivesMatter or to the violence queer people of color routinely endure; instead it opted to focus on rosier stories, including Tim Cook's coming out story and Elton John's wedding.

But André Carrington, assistant professor of African-American Literature at Drexel University, thinks the HRC should take its small overture and make it bigger. "In the aftermath of prosecutors and juries refusing to hold police accountable for killing black people, organizations like New York's Anti-Violence Project, SAGE, and FIERCE have made strong pronouncements opposing police brutality and incarceration that affirm their continued support for the most vulnerable within the LGBT community," he says. "The organization I work with, CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies, reminded us that when we see national gay and lesbian groups who advocate for marriage and mainstream representation say, 'Black lives matter,' it may be compassionate, but that isn't enough until it's reflected in their policy agenda."

That's not to say the HRC should take the lead on racial justice issues in America. Christopher White, director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Networks Safe and Supportive Schools Project, pointed out that LGBT organizations are for the most part run by white leaders. "White liberals have a history of taking issues such as this and making it about ourselves," he says. "#CrimingWhileWhite and #AllLivesMatter are examples of this. When this happens, we diminish the movement and dilute the message, in essence demonstrating how black lives don't matter in the LGBT movement."

Nonetheless, if there were ever a moment for the HRC and its ilk to highlight the injustices LGBT people of color face — it's right now. The community would be remiss to not connect the nuanced struggles for equality. "Single-issue movements are a thing of the past, if they ever existed in the first place," White says.

After the 2008 election gave America a black president but curtailed same-sex marriage in California, the bitterness was palpable. People blamed the passage of Prop. 8, California's ban on same-sex marriage, on the phantom hordes of homophobic African-Americans. Yet progressive, cosmopolitan Los Angeles County barely passed Prop. 8, and the region is less than 9 percent black. In short: The us-versus-them divide is nonexistent, not just because there are many more black allies and white homophobes, but also because there are millions of LGBT people of color, a reality that should temper if not nullify the tribalism.

Solidarity isn't without practical limitations, either. Even well-funded organizations such as the HRC or the ACLU are still nonprofits that rely on donations. The ACLU punches above its weight, but there are only so many resources a social justice organization can throw at noble causes without jeopardizing its core mission. Cynics might accuse them (or the HRC, or anyone) of shying away from offending major donors — who tend not to be bomb-lobbing revolutionaries — but mission creep isn't just about brand dilution. It can also be about keeping the lights on and the printers full of ink.

It's clear that there is a solidarity gap among minority communities that needs to be closed. An editorial in HIV Plus magazine, printed alongside an archival image of an ostensibly gay young man gripped by four cops, wondered if there was such a thing as "gay privilege." Next magazine went further, asking "Do black lives matter to gays?" These two polemics took apathetic LGBT individuals (not organizations) to task, but the pushback they generated echoes the sentiments of a white lesbian cop angrily promising to cancel her membership in the Human Rights Campaign over a press release. Unquestionably, there is racism in the LGBT community, but what's even more widespread is complacency over combating that racism. Genuine solidarity is necessary. Equality demands no less of us.

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Pete Kane

Pete Kane

Bio:
Pete Kane is a total gaylord who is trying to get to every national park before age 40

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