Race and the Politics of LGBT Communities of Color

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people of color face multiple oppressions based on race, ethnicity, language, national origin, and citizenship status as well as sexual orientation and gender identity, and we are marginalized both within the white-dominant LGBT community and within our own ethnic communities of origin. Within the LGBT community, we are often challenged when we form limited membership organizations.

I had to deal with charges of ‘reverse discrimination’ when I co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago (GAPIC) in 1994, when I co-founded Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997, and again when I served on the steering committee of Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) in 1998-99.  In October 1998, when I invited a leading gender activist to attend TransWorld I (the first conference by and for transgendered people of color), she denounced it as “racist” because we decided to invite only people of color as guest speakers, though the conference was open to everyone.  Out People of Color Political Action Club (OutPOCPAC), founded in the spring of 2001, may have to defend itself against similar charges.

The source of such accusations lies in a confusion between individual- and societal-level agency.  Many Americans understand racism as an individual-level phenomenon.  And it is true that there are not only white racists, but racists in communities of color, but those communities — at least in the United States -— lack the same degree of access to institutional power to enforce institutionalized racism. There is a fundamental difference between all-white private clubs whose members represent a wealthy elite and organizations of color formed to empower their members.  That difference resides in an asymmetry of economic and political power between the white majority and ‘minorities’ (who now constitute the majority in New York City).

But just as we need to address issues of racism and ethnocentrism in the LGBT community, we need to address issues of homophobia and transgenderphobia in communities of color.  Unfortunately, very few queer POC organizations actively pursue public education on such issues in their communities of origin.  For example, there is not a single queer API organization in New York City whose primary focus is on addressing issues of homophobia and transgenderphobia in API communities.

The impediments to such work are considerable. Many queer POCs come out in the white-dominant LGBT community but not in their own ethnic communities; our invisibility produces its own asymmetry of power in our communities.  A few years ago, I suggested at an Iban/QKNY meeting that we march in the annual Korean Day Parade.  Anxious members quickly shelved that suggestion in favor of marching in the annual Pride Parade.  In truth, it would have been difficult to put together a contingent to march in the Korean Day Parade.  Even if we had gotten the permission of the Korean American Association of Greater New York, we would have needed a minimum of three or four Korean-speaking individuals who were ‘out’ to everyone (including parents) to handle relations with the Korean-language media.

Mention of homophobia in communities of color sometimes provokes an insistence that they are no more homophobic than society as a whole.  An even more difficult topic is racism within communities of color, something that some queer activists of color are reluctant to address.   At a recent LGBT conference, one transgendered woman of color went so far as to assert that people of color could not be racist, at least in the United States.  I wonder what she would have thought of the Korean woman who approached me a few years ago in Chicago looking for help in flagging down a taxi, but who insisted that she didn’t want a black taxi driver.

We have to recognize that there are real tensions between and among communities of color, and these must be addressed honestly and forthrightly in order for our communities to move forward together with a progressive agenda for social change.  Unfortunately, in their zeal to stamp out racism in the LGBT community, some queer activists of color end up rearticulating a version of the discourse of the Noble Savage, one in which all queer people of color are progressive and anti-racist activists.  What we need now is not an update on Rousseau’s virtuous barbarian, but rather, honest and sincere dialogue.  We must recognize that racism and ethnocentrism — just like homophobia and transgenderphobia — exist in every community and every society, and we have an obligation to address bigotry in all its forms, wherever we may find it.

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