Diversity, Race & the Pursuit of a Progressive LGBT Agenda
for Social Justice & Social Change
keynote speech to the
27th Annual Convention of the
National Association of Black & White Men Together (NABWMT)
4 August 2007
I feel deeply honored to be asked to keynote the 2007 Annual Convention of the National Association of Black and White Men Together (NABWMT) and I would like to begin by thanking John Bush and his convention co-chair Mike Kelley for organizing this wonderful conference and inviting me to speak here. I would especially like to thank Jacob Nash and all the members of People of All Colors Together (PACT) Cleveland for hosting me as well as this conference and for all their wonderful hospitality. This is only my second time in Cleveland and it’s great to be back.
The last time I was in Cleveland was in April 2005, when I spoke at the LGBT Community Center of Cleveland, which at the time was known as the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center. I took the opportunity on that occasion to encourage them to adopt a more inclusive name, and it would be gratifying to think that my suggestion may have had something to do with the Center’s adoption of the bisexual- and transgender-inclusive name that it now bears.
In any case, I commend the Community Center for doing the right thing. In New York City, what is the largest LGBT community center in the United States was founded as the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center. Members of my organization, NYAGRA – the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy – helped form the Coalition for Unity & Inclusion and pressure from us as well as years of internal work by the Center’s Gender Identity Project helped persuade the Center’s board to change the name of the organization to ‘LGBT Community Center.’ Our coalition also helped persuade Heritage of Pride to change the name of the New York City Lesbian & Gay Pride March – the country’s oldest and largest – to ‘LGBT Pride March.’ We were also successful in persuading the New York Gay & Lesbian Film Festival to change its name to ‘LGBT Film Festival.’ Adoption of bisexual- and transgender-inclusive nomenclature is an important statement of what our community institutions stand for as well as a signal to those groups – including bisexual and transgendered people – who have not always felt fully included in our community, that they are welcome, too.
I am sometimes asked if I as a transgendered woman of color have ever experienced discrimination within the LGBT community. I am happy to say that I have experienced very little such discrimination, but I am sad to say that one such incident of discrimination occurred here when I was in Cleveland in April 2005. The Clevelanders who offered such warm hospitality – Kathy Harvey, Jacob Nash and Erin Barr – asked me if I would like to check out the local nightlife here. And so we headed for one of the local gay bars here, one that I was told drew a small transgender clientele as well. But when we arrived, the man at the door told me that the bar was open only to men and that not only would my ID have to have male sex indicated on it but that I would also have to be dressed like a man as well. What was particularly perplexing was that there was a bevy of drag queens inside only about 10 feet from the entrance. I can only assume that they were the ‘entertainment.’ How else to explain the apparent contradiction between their presence and the bar’s discriminatory policy?
I must admit that it was disappointing as it was ironic to be experiencing such an incident discrimination only a few hours after speaking at what is now the LGBT Community Center of Cleveland. In that talk, I discussed the campaign for Int. No. 24 – the transgender rights ordinance enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002 by the New York City Council – and encouraged members of the community here to pursue a campaign for a transgender rights bill here in Cleveland – the need for that legislation made so obvious when I was turned away at the door to the gay bar with the drag queens. I would say that if transgendered women are good enough to be the ‘entertainment’ at local gay bars here, we and transgendered men should not have to face discrimination either in gay bars or anywhere else in the city of Cleveland.
And that leads me to the theme of this conference, “Diversity, a Mosaic in Motion.” I think that’s a wonderful theme, because it stresses the dynamic, and I would like to offer a variation on that theme in my talk today, which I have entitled, “Diversity, Race & the Pursuit of a Progressive LGBT Agenda for Social Justice & Social Change.”
Let me suggest three principles that I hope that we can all embrace. It seems to me that in order to make ‘diversity’ real, we need to address racism and ethnocentrism in the LGBT community. Second, in order to make ‘diversity’ real, we must also address homophobia and transgenderphobia in the LGBT community. Last but not least, we need to ‘do’ history ‘right by telling the stories of our lives in a way that communicates – to all our communities – the truths of our lives.
Racism & Ethnocentrism in the LGBT Community
Let me begin with a story that seems to me to illustrate the compelling need to address racism and ethnocentrism in the LGBT community. In October 1998, the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) and the Gender Identity Project of what was then the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center worked together to organize TransWorld I, the first conference specifically by and for transgendered people of color.
The Center GIP had held three previous conferences known as ‘Transgender/Transsexual Health Empowerment Conferences.’ While providing useful information about hormone replacement therapy (HRT), sex reassignment surgery (SRS), and other procedures to those pursuing a medical transition, these conferences had featured a roster of speakers who were almost all non-transgendered white men – mostly endocrinologists, surgeons, psychiatrists and others in the ‘gender industry.’
Those of us who were members of the organizing committee for TransWorld I decided that we would invite only people of color to play formal roles in speaking at the conference, in an effort to make TransWorld truly a ‘speak-out’ for transgendered people of color. I decided to call up Riki Anne Wilchins, the executive director of GenderPAC, to invite her to attend TransWorld. Riki had been, after all, instrumental in helping set up the GIP with Barbara Warren several years before as well as organizing the first Transgender/
Transsexual Health Empowerment Conference. And I had taken Riki’s bona fides as an ‘anti-racist’ seriously when she had asked me to talk to participants in GenderPAC’s annual lobby day in Washington, D.C. in May 1998 on the subject of how to address issues of discrimination based on gender identity and expression when speaking with members of Congress and their staff members who were people of color.
I was all the more shocked by Riki’s response to my invitation, then, when she denounced TransWorld as a “racist” conference for “excluding white people.” I pointed out to Riki that everyone was invited to attend and even to speak from the floor during plenary sessions and workshops, but that we had made a point of inviting only those who identified as people of color to speak as presenters in order to make the conference truly a conversation among transgendered and gender-variant people of color.
It seemed to me that Riki’s characterization of TransWorld as a “racist” event was based on a failure to understand the difference between the historic exclusion of people of color – not to mention women and LGBT people – from positions of power and privilege and the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for members of disadvantaged and oppressed communities.
There is a fundamental difference between the exclusion of people of color as well as women and LGBT people from all-white and all-male private clubs and the construction of spaces for discussion and support for such people. The difference lies in the asymmetry of power between conventionally gendered heterosexual white men and all those deemed ‘other’ in this society based on their race, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, or other characteristic. There have been organizations for LGBT/queer Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) for at least 20 years, but there are still people – mainly gay white men – who still label such groups as ‘racist’ if and when they insist on limiting some of their events (usually discussion groups) to queer APIs.
This is not to suggest, of course, that there are not at the very least boundary issues – for example, what constitutes ‘Asian/Pacific Islander’ for API groups or what qualifies one as a ‘person of color’ for POC organizations or who counts as a ‘woman’ in ‘women-only’ spaces. In truth, all identities and identity formations are social constructs. But those social constructions that take into account relations of power – and crucially those asymmetries of power that exist in this society as in every society – would seem to me to be the most useful.
It is when members of our community sorely uninformed on issues or race and ethnicity bring their prejudices into the public arena in campaigns for LGBT rights legislation that those prejudices can have potentially still greater consequence, as another story will illustrate. In February 2000, NYAGRA – working in partnership with the Empire State Pride Agenda, the largest lesbian and gay political organization in the state – launched the public phase of our campaign for Int. No. 24 – the transgender rights bill enacted by the New York City Council four years later. Standing on the steps of New York City Hall between two African American members of the City Council – one straight, one gay – and next to a Latina Lesbian member of the Council, I was struck by the important symbolism of having a transgendered woman of color lead the campaign for that legislation, in a city that is two-thirds people of color. Following my speech, a white transsexual activist named Melissa Sklarz spoke, loudly declaring, “When I transitioned, I lost my white skin and my white skin privilege.” Truth be told, she still looked pretty white to me. I was mortified that Melissa would make such a statement – standing on the steps of City Hall with two African American Council Members, a Latina Council Member, the executive director of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund, and a representative of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund – and that her statement would be quoted in the news story on our press conference in Lesbian & Gay New York, the leading LGBT weekly in the city.
The working group coordinating the campaign had decided on a strategy of securing the support of people of color in the City Council and Melissa’s statement could only put into question the credibility of our commitment to forefronting the discrimination faced by transgendered people of color in the five boroughs. Fortunately, the African American who was the lead sponsor of the bill did not make an issue of Melissa’s comment.
But I am dismayed to see activists of the prominence of Riki Anne Wilchins and Melissa Sklarz make comments that clearly show a failure to understand fundamental differences between and among different forms of exclusion and oppression, and such comments and the attitudes that are made manifest by them demonstrate the need to address issues of racism and ethnocentrism within the white-dominant LGBT community.
Homophobia & Transgenderphobia in Communities of Color
At the same time, I am dismayed by the apparent lack of enthusiasm on the part of at least some LGBT people of color for addressing the homophobia and transgenderphobia that is prevalent in our communities of color. I recall one occasion when I raised the issue of homophobia and transgenderphobia in API communities at a public forum on organizing in queer API communities. At this event at the Brecht Forum in Manhattan in September 2001, my comment elicited a response from Joo-Hyun Kang, then executive director of the Audre Lorde Project, a center for LGBTST people of color based in Brooklyn. “Are you saying that people of color are more homophobic than white people?,”Joo-Hyun asked. It seemed to me a somewhat rhetorical question, to which the response was simply, “no.” I was making no comparison, but rather simply asking if we as queer APIs thought it as important to address homophobia and transgenderphobia that is prevalent in our communities of color as it is to address racism and ethnocentrism in the white-dominant LGBT community. And I would answer my own question with a definitive “yes.” Indeed, to fail to do so is to abdicate our responsibility as LGBT people of color. To fail to do so would also concede our right to live openly as LGBT people in our communities of origin.
I am struck by the defensive tone of some LGBT people of color when I raise the issue of homophobia and transgenderphobia in our communities of color and the accusation implicit in their defensive response, “Are you saying that people of color are more homophobic than white people?,” that we are somehow “letting down the side” even to be admitting to the presence let alone the prevalence of homophobia and transgenderphobia in our communities of color. Such an implicit accusation is based on a binary opposition of ‘good/bad’ that suggests that we are somehow condemning our communities altogether by raising the question of anti-LGBT sentiment in those communities. But it seems to me that if we care about our communities of origin, we have both a right and an obligation to challenge homophobia and transgenderphobia in them; after all, if we don’t, who will?
The perfect example of the consequences of failing to challenge homophobia and transgenderphobia in our communities of color and countries of origin involves the arrival in New York of Chuck Knipp and Robert Mugabe in September 2002.
Chuck Knipp created a firestorm of protest when he accepted an invitation to perform at The View, a popular gay bar in Manhattan. The Audre Lorde Project and People of Color In Crisis (POCC) joined with the New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, FIERCE (Fabulous Independent Educated Radicals for Community Empowerment), and a host of other LGBT community organizations to protest Knipp’s act, in which he donned blackface to play a character he called ‘Shirley Q. Liquor.’
While I myself did not see Knipp’s act, it was clear to me from descriptions of his act on his own website as well as in the media as it was to any intelligent member of the community with race consciousness that this act was a grotesquely offensive caricature.
But the management at The View must have assumed that the white Chelsea boys who are regulars at that bar would be amused rather than offended by this patently racist minstrelsy. The View should be ashamed for having even considered inviting Knipp. But what I found dismaying was that neither ALP nor any of the other organizations that demonstrated against Shirley Q. Liquor raised even the smallest hint of objection to the New York City Council’s fete for Robert Mugabe.
The dictator and president-for-life who has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for decades has plunged his country – the breadbasket of Southern Africa – through his corruption. Mugabe has ordered brutal attacks on dissidents and opposition leaders. And he has referred to homosexuals as “sexual perverts” and “worse than dogs and pigs.”
According to Gays & Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) “Gay and lesbian people are one of the most stigmatized groups in Zimbabwe” (statement by GALZ director Keith Goddard, 9 October 2006).
“The President, government officials and church leaders have whipped up a climate of hysterical homophobia.”
Incredibly, the New York City Council chose to honor Mugabe at a reception in September 2002 – at taxpayers’ expense – hosted by the Black & Latino Caucus at the instigation of Council Member Charles Barron (“An Invisible Reception,” Gay City News, 20 September 2002.
Of the three openly lesbian or gay Council Members, only one (Christine Quinn) responded to a request from Gay City News for comment, and while indicating displeasure with the reception for Mugabe, even she refused to criticize Council Speaker Gifford Miller for approving the September 12 reception. The other two – both people of color (Margarita Lopez and Philip Reed) – refused comment on the reception.
Even more disappointing was the response from LGBT organizations in the city, only one of which had any comment on the affair. The New York City Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project issued a press release criticizing the City Hall reception for the dictator, but AVP did not organize any demonstration or protest. Neither the Audre Lorde Project, nor People of Color In Crisis (POCC), nor FIERCE – all of which were so fierce in their denunciation of Shirley Q. Liquor – uttered a word of criticism of the reception for Mugabe.
I think that ALP, POCC, FIERCE and AVP were right to try to shut down Shirley Q. Liquor; but why were they silent in the face of the New York City Council’s celebration of the homophobic and murderous dictator of Zimbabwe?
If you were to ask Amnesty International’s OUTfront program, Human Rights Watch’s LGBT project, and the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) or GALZ which of the two – Chuck Knipp or Robert Mugabe – holds more power over the lives of LGBT people of color and who is a greater threat to their rights and their well-being, I don’t think any of these organizations would hesitate to provide an answer. One does a grotesque blackface drag act that is grossly offensive. The other holds the power of life and death over 12 million people, a goodly number of whom must be LGBT. One insults African American women with an act that is seen by perhaps a few hundred people at a time. The other uses the power of the state to oppress tens of thousands of LGBT people, most of whom are black.
Why then the silence from LGBT organizations and LGBT organizations of color over Mugabe’s appearance in New York and the City Council’s reception for him? Could it be that some in our community are unwilling to take on (other) people of color on the issue of homophobia and transgenderphobia?
It seems to me that the failure or even outright refusal by some of our organizations to address homophobia and transgenderphobia in communities of color and in our countries and continents of origin is tantamount to an abdication of responsibility, and the consequences of that abdication of responsibility can be very real indeed for those who suffer such oppression, including the state-sanctioned oppression of LGBT people by the murderous regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.
Racism, Institutional Power and the Noble Savage Revisited
The failure to speak out in situations such as those involving Charles Barron’s reception for Robert Mugabe at New York City Hall bespeaks a lack of balance and perspective in certain quarters, I think. But that failure also speaks to another issue of signal importance, which is that of construction of racism and a discourse of anti-racism in this country.
Let us begin by acknowledging that the problem of race and racism goes back to the founding of the republic and even before. Slavery was recognized in the Constitution of 1787 and so deeply embedded in the constitutional order of the regime that it took a civil war to resolve the question and then another hundred years of struggle to end state-sanctioned segregation. But we would make a mistake if we regarded the issue of race as a regional problem. It would not surprise anyone to learn that a Southern city (Charleston, South Carolina) had the largest slave population before the Civil War. But do you know which city had the second largest slave population? It was New York. After Brown vs. Board of Education prompted the formal desegregation of public school systems in the South, many in the North remained segregated due to informal systems of control, often under the guise of ‘neighborhood schools.’ Growing up on the south side of Milwaukee, my brother and I were the only non-white children in our elementary school and Milwaukee, in fact, had one of the most thoroughly segregated public school systems in the country before court-ordered desegregation in 1977.
One of the difficulties in discussing racism is the way in which it is differently construed in different communities. To many white people, ‘racism’ is an individual-level issue and the charge of ‘racism’ is often read as an accusation of personal prejudice. Most people of color, on the other hand, recognize that racism involves institutional power as well as individual bigotry. And there are some who insist that people of color cannot be ‘racist’ because they do not exercise institutional power or control institutional resources; but a simple review of the facts will demonstrate that this is not in fact the case.
Last year, New York elected its first African American lieutenant governor, David Paterson, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with on a number of occasions. And in November, Massachusetts elected its first black governor, Deval Patrick. Both men are strongly pro-LGBT-supportive, I am happy to say. There are now so many African American mayors that they have formed a National Conference of Black Mayors, which counts 47 mayors of cities with a population over 50,000 – including Frank Jackson here in Cleveland.
And we are now on our second African American U.S. Secretary of State – though I doubt that her politics and the foreign policy that she is shaping could be described as representing a progressive vision informed by the history of the civil rights movement in the United.
Latinos and Asian Americans are also coming into political prominence, though here, too, there are to be found both progressive and exceedingly unprogressive figures. To the latter category we must surely assign Alberto Gonzalez, the Attorney General of the United States – at least for the moment – and John Choon Yoo and Diet D. Vinh. John Yoo served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General (in the Office of Legal Counsel) and Diet Vinh served as Assistant Attorney General under Gonzalez in George W. Bush’s first term.
Along with Robert J. Delahunty, John Yoo (now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law) co-authored “Legal Arguments for Avoiding the Jurisdiction of the Geneva Conventions,” the notorious 42-page memo that effectively authorized the use of indefinite detention without trial as well as the use of torture by US forces in Guantanamo and elsewhere (Neil A. Lewis, “Justice Memos Explained How to Skip Prisoner Rights,” New York Times, 21 May 2004).
And Diet Vinh was the central figure in drafting the USA Patriot Act (Eric Lichtblau, “At Home in War on Terror: Viet Dinh Has Gone from Academe to a Key Behind-the-Scenes Role”, Los Angeles Times, 18 September 2002), which surely must be accounted the most Orwellian legislation ever enacted by the US Congress, a frontal assault on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that sadly many leading Democrats such as Hillary Clinton voted for and continue to support.
It would be all too easy – and simply wrong – to dismiss figures such as Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo and Diet Vinh as mere ‘tokens.’ They are not tokens; in fact, they are much worse: they are people of color who exercise or have exercised real institutional power at the highest levels of government. And they have used that power largely to the detriment of people of color, both here in the United States and abroad.
As a direct result of the legal work that John Yoo did for Alberto Gonzalez, the Bush administration overturned the principle of habeas corpus, a central principle in the tradition of English common law that goes back to the signing of Magna Carta by King John in 1215. John Yoo’s work gave pseudo-legal cover for the Bush administration’s indefinite detention without charge of thousands of people in Guantanamo and in secret ‘black prisons’ in Eastern Europe. When the full record of this gross violation of human rights is finally written, it may well show that most of those detained without trial and even without legal counsel were completely innocent of the accusation of involvement with terrorism – one cannot say ‘charges’ of terrorism because most of these unfortunate individuals were never charged. Significantly, most of these individuals were and are people of color – mainly of Middle Eastern origin.
And so I would argue that the evidence shows that people of color at the highest levels of the Bush administration and the US government have participated in a concerted use of institutional power in a way that can only be described as ‘racist.’ It would seem to me that the attempt to deny our ability and capacity as people of color to commit acts of racism is to deny the reality of the complicity of at least some of us in the most unspeakable violations of human rights in decades. It hardly exonerates the likes of Rice, Gonzalez, Yoo, and Dinh that they served as the happy black, brown and yellow faces of a white administration.
I would argue that we owe it to the victims of Guantanamo to hold those responsible for such abuses accountable regardless of whether they are white or people of color. And I would also argue that we must reclaim our full humanity as people of color only by conceding the possibility of our doing evil as well as good. Only by acknowledging the bad that some people of color do in this world can we hope to have the good that some of us do as people of color fully appreciated.
There are those in our communities of color who would exempt their fellow people of color from the capacity for racism and for evil more generally; in doing so, they pay unwitting homage to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s celebration of the Noble Savage, incapable of evil as he is incapable of good. Writing in 1755 in A Discourse on Inequality Among Men, the French Enlightenment philosopher declared,
“Men in a state of nature do not know good and evil, but their independence, along with ‘the peacefulness of their passions, and their ignorance of vice,’ keep them from doing ill.”
It seems to me that there is behind the notion that people of color are incapable of racism the very white idea of the Noble Savage. So I see a rather enormous irony here, because those who follow Rousseau in exempting their fellow people of color from the capacity to commit this particular form of evil – namely, racism – I am certain would be among the loudest in criticizing colleges and universities for requiring the reading of the canonical texts of dead white men. And so those who limit the capacity for institutional racism only to white people unwittingly echo the words of Rousseau, among the deadest and whitest of dead white men.
I am sure that some would object that people of color do not exercise the same degree of institutional power in the United States as white people, even if they are willing to acknowledge access to institutional power by people of color at all. And I would agree. But the people of color who are suffering in indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere due to the actions of Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo and Diet Vinh most likely will not find it a comforting thought that they are denied legal redress as the result of by the actions of prominent people of color in the administration of George W. Bush.
I would urge us therefore to avoid falling into the trap of revisiting the discourse of the Noble Savage, which would deny us as people of color our capacity for good as surely as it would deny us our capacity for evil.
Rather than denying the evident reality that we as people of color are beginning to come into real institutional power in this country, I would urge us to embrace the possibility of attaining even greater institutional power. I would urge us to embrace the possibility of using that power responsibly on behalf of our communities, in order to further empower LGBT people, people of color, and especially LGBT people of color.
Rather than retreat into a discourse that would deny us our full humanity, I would urge us to embrace that full humanity. And rather than focusing exclusively or primarily on racism and ethnocentrism in the white-dominant LGBT community, I would urge us to address both racism and ethnocentrism in the LGBT community and homophobia and transgenderphobia in communities of color.
Just as those of us who are LGBT people of color cannot leave behind our racial or ethnic identities or skin color when we participate in the LGBT community, we also should not have to leave behind our LGBT identities when we participate in the life of communities of color. We owe it to our communities and we owe it to ourselves to pursue the broadest possible conception of social change and the most rigorous and inclusive as well as historically informed agenda of social justice. And that is what “Diversity, a Mosaic in Motion” means to me.
Pauline Park is chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA), the first statewide transgender advocacy organization in New York, which she co-founded in June 1998. Park led the campaign for the transgender rights law enacted by the New York City Council (Int. No. 24, enacted as Local Law 3 of 2002). She served on the working group that helped to draft guidelines — adopted by the Commission on Human Rights in December 2004 — for implementation of the new statute. Park negotiated inclusion of gender identity and expression in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA), a safe schools bill currently pending in the New York state legislature, and the first fully transgender-inclusive legislation introduced in that body. She also serves on the steering committee of the coalition that secured enactment of the Dignity in All Schools Act by the New York City Council in September 2004. In 2005, Park became the first openly transgendered person chosen to be grand marshal of the New York City LGBT Pride March, the country’s oldest and largest pride parade. She has written widely on LGBT issues and has conducted transgender sensitivity training sessions for a wide range of social service providers and community-based organizations. Park has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.