Gay Marriage Activists Consider Actually Encouraging Racial Diversity, Admitting White People Made Prop 8

A brief recap, for those who weren’t up on the details back in the fall of 2008: when the realization first came that, along with Obama’s election, Prop 8 was almost certainly passing in California, over-excited journalists reported that preliminary exit polls placed the responsibility for Prop 8 with black and African-American voters. A dozen theories were bandied about; the black community’s high rates of church attendance meant they were religious bigots, or that this was an expression of rampant homophobia.

In large part, the enthusiasm for speculating about these theories was so strong that it wasn’t mitigated by the news, weeks later, that the statistics were misleading; black and African-American people make up only ~14% of America’s total citizenship. While it is true that black voters are statistically more likely to be churchgoing, the facts were that with roughly 80% voter turnout in California, Prop 8 passed with 52.24% of the vote. Prop 8 was not “the fault” of black voters, even if we pretend that every black voter in California did vote for Prop 8 – because of course none of them are gay, or have gay family members. Prop 8 was almost entirely the result of the work of wealthy religiously affiliated organizations, especially Mormons – predominately white people.

Afterwards, when looking at the ways that the campaign could have been handled better, at mistakes that the No on 8 side may have made, the issue of race came up again – did the No on 8 campaign effectively court voters of color? Michael Robinson of GETEqual Now has said that “No on 8 organizers didn’t approach the black community until a mere 5 days before the vote.” Was there any real outreach done? Where does the issue of gay marriage actually stand with black voters? Almost four years later, the same questions are still being asked.

Of course, on a basic level, that’s because they don’t have cut-and-dried answers. Black voters (or people) aren’t a monolithic bloc; gay marriage stands in a variety of complicated places, and it depends on the individual’s opinions. Case in point: Cornel West, Princeton University Professor, and Tavis Smiley, “one of America’s biggest African-American radio personalities,” co-host a radio show, “Smiley & West.”

This week, Smiley publicly stated his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman; West was filmed along with friend and civil rights activist Carl Dix stating his support for marriage equality. (Skip to 2:00 to hear West speak.)

The idea that the struggles of gay people in our time and the civil rights movement have parallels is a compelling one – one that many organizers come back to again and again, leading to controversy around language like marriage equality being a ‘civil right.’ It’s true, from the levels of shared experiences of marginalization and the opportunity to take strength from others’ stories to the level of organizing and activist techniques. But the black community has long been treated as either unimportant or a hindrance, a stubborn and prejudiced demographic, by many mainstream gay organizations. The fight at the ballot for Prop 8 is over, but other struggles in states like New York and Minnesota aren’t. Will gay organizations make the same mistake again of focusing on a stereotypical white and middle-class demographic?

…looking at the HRC’s video campaign for New York marriage equality, you get the sense that gay organizations still do a poor job reaching out to people of color. Out of the HRC’s 35 celebrity endorsements (way to connect with the common man) a whopping four come from African-Americans (Whoopi Goldberg, Russell Simmons, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, and Bill T. Jones), two from Asian-Americans (Lucy Lui and David Chang) and one from a Hispanic (Daphne Rubin-Vega).

In the fight against Prop 8, Equality California didn’t use anything like the strategies of the civil rights movement, opting instead to pay for expensive political consultants (although their budget would never have been able to match that of the Mormon Church’s). Since then, EQCA has issued statements saying that it regrets that decision; in its future struggles for marriage in California, it will work by “community engagement initiative,” focusing on the needs and opinions of the community they serve. In April, Los Angels Gay and Lesbian Center CEO Lorri Jean said:

And I think one of our challenges as a community, given that issues of relevance to our community are different than anything else that goes on the ballot because of the emotion and the other things that are associated with them, we have got to find a completely different way than business as usual to do this work.

With new marriage battles looming on the horizon, the question remains: will abandoning “business as usual” mean seriously engaging communities of color on issues of marriage equality? New York State, where race demographics at the polls are more of a consideration than in less-diverse Minnesota, isn’t having a voter referendum. But the mainstream gay movement’s decision to engage with communities of color – and to engage especially with gay communities of color, who are so often forgotten and left out of the white-dominated political conversation – shouldn’t be based on a voter referendum. It should be based on Carl Dix’s words - “I come from this from a perspective that we need to emancipate all of humanity, and in going at it that way we need to see the linkages between all of the struggles against injustice, all of the struggles to uproot oppression.”

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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51 Comments

  1. Pingback: Gay Marriage Activists Consider Actually Encouraging Racial Diversity … – Autostraddle | Gay Marriage News Articles

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    Thanks for the post. This is something that I wish people talked about more. I do wonder/ fear to what degree same-sex marriage is a racialized/ white issue. Not that it doesn’t have material benefits that everyone can benefit from. It just seems sketchy to me considering the way, historically, in the U.S., the “good” nuclear family has been part of state-promoted racism (like since the Civil War) and also, specifically in the mid-1990s, how racialized family structures became a prominent part of public debate and partisan politics (in the context of welfare debates), and that was also the time that the same-sex marriage movement was gaining steam and itself becoming a central issue in partisan debates.

    I’m not sure what exactly to make of all of that. I for one don’t notice many pro-s.s. marriage ads that aren’t full of white people, so I can’t help but wonder if the whiteness is somehow being used to say “we’re pro (nuclear) family.” Not that it’s intentional, could just be what political strategists found appeals to largest number of voters. But it would nonetheless still reinforce racism.

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    Man, I’m disappointed with Tavis Smiley right now. The guy is a pretty smart guy. I watch his show quite a bit and agree with him on a number of things. He seems quite liberal and progressive and has said pro-gay things in the past so to hear that he really believes “based on his faith” that marriage is between a man and woman is just sad.

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    This is a really interesting article, thank you for it. The whole idea of LGBT rights groups not always being representative of people of colour is an interesting issue; my thoughts on it aren’t really fully formed (it’s pretty complex) but yes, I like this.

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    In my sphere of occupancy I’m usually fighting the fight in environmental issues, and it’s surprising how often the race thing comes up. Actually, there seems to be a perception that movements like same-sex marriage and environmentalism are chiefly spearheaded by white people (which may be true due to power and influence). However, where the environment was concerned, the widest support bases upon further research were found to be among non-whites, with white people showing the lowest support for environmental initiatives in the U.S… just going to show that you can never really know without the data.

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    There are two separate things going on here. There is the perception that these are “white” issues but which makes a “bone of contention” of race or racism. Then, separately, there are ANTI-GAY efforts, hysterical and obsessive in their urgency, to FRAME these issues as race issues *in order to perpetuate racism and fights between whites and blacks*. Before this issue were even dealt with, before I even gave it a blink of thought, I’d deal with #2, and nobody seems to want to deal with that. People flail their arms and blame the anti-gay but there’s no ACTION: strongly worded national condemnations from numerous groups, for instance. So, yeah, this is just another example of the anti-gay playing the pro-gay like puppets, and the pro-gay going along with it. That doesn’t mean the issue isn’t real; it’s been MADE INTO something it’s not, however.

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      The right-wing has a history of suddenly pretending to care about minorities when it allows them to paint their opponents in a bad light. See also: the abortion issue, where the latest tactic is using the fact that Black women have abortions at higher rates than White women to accuse the pro-choice movement of having some racist conspiracy against Blacks.

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        To be fair, the pro-choice movement started out with Margaret Sanger, who was tied with the eugenics movement and advocated using birth control as a form of population control to get rid of the Unwanted People. And pro-choice activists have frequently overlooked the fact that WOC have routinely been forced by the government to have abortions.

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          First of all, Margaret Sanger did not “start” the pro-choice movement. Women have been getting abortions since the beginning of time.

          Also, a lot of Margaret Sanger’s “ties to the eugenics movement” are exaggerated by the anti-choice movement. She was really not much more of a supporter of eugenics than the average White person at her time (which doesn’t make it okay, of course). And it wasn’t the main reason that she was involved with the pro-choice movement and started Planned Parenthood; that was based on what she had witnessed with women in low-income neighborhoods who were burdened by excess amounts of children. She was more of a believer in keeping people she saw as “inferior” from entering the U.S., not using birth control or abortions to keep their populations down. The anti-choice movement makes her out to basically be a Nazi, when she was actually quite outspoken about her opposition to Nazism.

          I’d also say that, while it doesn’t get the attention it deserves, that the pro-choice movement does not completely overlook the program of forced sterilization against WOC. Certainly, they do much more for it than the anti-choice movement does – which only suddenly becomes aware of this kind of institutionalized racism when they can twist it to make a case for pro-choicers being racist.

          In any case, none of this does anything to support the ad campaign’s assertions that racism from the modern pro-choice movement is the reason for higher rates of abortion in Black women. The reason there are racial discrepancies in abortion rates is due to the larger socioeconomic inequality between White women and women of color. WOC have less access to contraception, for starters.

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          Also, I re-read my comment and I’m not sure if I made this clear enough, but I just wanted to say the fact that Margaret Sanger was not as bad as she is often made out to be does not make her views in any way acceptable. I am not trying to eugenics, racism or ableism by any means.

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          And I also don’t want to deny that the sexual rights movement has the same issues that the rest of feminism has in often ignoring the concerns of women who are White and straight (I think they do do a lot to understand the concerns of low-income women). It’s part of the reason I’ve been less active in it since coming out as bisexual, as I get frustrated with how often they only seem to care about straight women. W/r/t the history of forced sterilization/abortions with Black women, though, most of what I have read about that awful history came from pro-choice blogs and other sources. I think they actually do a better job of acknowledging that history than other places.

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    What was interesting to me was how many young while gay men seemed to jump on the bandwagon of negativity. I’d read an article about Prop 8 voter demographics and there were so many prejudiced comments. I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I remembered that, even though no one really likes to talk about it, racism is still alive and kicking. Until people stop judging so quickly (and until LGBTQ groups start including us queers of color more often) that won’t change.

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    This was a great article and something I’ve thought about for a while and still think about. There are many issues that arise for LGBT people of color and often do not get highlighted, thus further dividing the overall LGBT community. And while I see this and have an issue with it, I dont necessarily have an answer on how to fix this great divide. I remember discussing it at school once, that being LGBT is not limited to caucasians. Nonetheless, I dont necessarily see this as purposeful racism. Though I would say, as soon as I read in the article that they tried to pin some of the Prop 8 outcome on Black voters, that that would be ridiculous simply due to the African American population percentage. I mean, we dont take up that much of the US population, among others issues and the black community’s own dealings with LGBT issues.

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    This is a very interesting topic. I have been working in the gay L.A. movement for over a year now and worked as a community organizer for a Latino LGBTQ organization. And this very topic about the lack of POC (people of color) inclusion in mainstream LGBTQ organizations such as HRC and Equality California came up again and again.

    From my observations, large scale LGBTQ organizations speak to their donors and membership. And since white gay men traditionally make more money than POC folk they had more money to give to such organizations and thus had more say in what was being done.

    With that being said, I was at the post-Prop 8 rally where I heard speakers saying to hundreds of angry LGBTQ folk that how could African-Americans vote for Prop 8 if they no more personally how it feels to have civil rights taken away from them. That was offensive, needless to say.

    So my feelings for why the race issue keeps on coming up in LGBTQ spaces is because mainstream organizations have not done their part in acknowledging how race always plays a role in LGBTQ issues.

    Race plays a role in almost every social justice movement. And to deny that is a critical mistake.

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      Wow. Saying that in public is just plain rude and really NOT the way to make blacks want to vote for LGBTQ-positive legislation. This makes me extra sad because all of the black people I know who live in California are strongly in favor of gay marriage, so they are completely wrong too. Ugh.

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    I was wondering how homosexual politics would incorporate race-baiting and scapegoating. It’s not surprising the argument is so crude and illogical, especially when most white countries treat homosexuals better than African and Asian countries.

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      Whaaaa? That’s like saying, “you didn’t get raped, you only got fondled”. Just because as a generalization “white countries” are safer for homosexuals doesn’t mean that it’s safe. People are killed and brutalized because they want to share their love. No one should have to settle for what rights they are deemed worthy of. And no human is so superior that they should have the authority to allow basic human rights.

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        Exactly. Gay relationships were more acceptable (generally speaking) in Africa pre-colonisation (Arab and Western). And it was the British who brought in laws specifically to persecute the hijra in India because they disapproved.

        I’m not suggesting that any society is or was perfect, just that colonialism has definitely left a legacy of discrimination – and in particular, the idea that discrimination is a ‘superior’ or ‘more civilized’ attitude than acceptance. It’s particularly difficult to overcome in countries where many people are impoverished and have limited or no access to education, except through their churches (which tend to be less progressive in their thinking than those of more advantaged countries).

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    “But the mainstream gay movement’s decision to engage with communities of color – and to engage especially with gay communities of color, who are so often forgotten and left out of the white-dominated political conversation – shouldn’t be based on a voter referendum.”

    Yes yes yes! There definitely needs to be more engaging with communities of color in all levels and nooks and crannies of homogay politics, regardless of whether we need votes on a certain issue or not. Challenges faced by homos of color in particular need a lot more attention than they’ve been getting. We don’t have an accurate understanding of our own community if we ignore the needs of such a large number of its members!

    Also, that scapegoating of African-American voters for Prop 8 that was going around after it got passed just set my teeth on edge. The numbers just don’t work like that!

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    Blacks did not drive prop 8 to success – the videos of fear and hatred of gays did move 400,000 people to change their minds and support this hate filled proposition.

    Mormons – people who were murdered for who they are, and driven to the hinterlands of what was not the USA at that time in the late 1800s.

    And the catholic church of Adolph hitler , still not excommunicated though he was the wworst murderer in history, and the Pope who in 2009 UNexcommunicated a bishop williamson, who is a holocaust denier kicked out of hte church or England for denying the holocaust.

    the same church which for centuries hid the endless molelstation of children for centuries

    They are the guilty ones.

    http://Www.catholicarrogance.org http://www.nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

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    Yeah, all of that bullshit talk about “black and Latino antigay voters passing Prop 8″ made me pretty angry, too. I hope HRC and Equality California are really genuinely committed to addressing their problems w/r/t race, but I can’t say I’m super optimistic. It’d be far easier for them to say “Oh we want to reach out more to black and Latino communities, let’s have a $100-a-plate gala where Wanda Sykes speaks!” than to take a hard look at organizational structure and privilege and intersectionality and then commit to real fundamental changes.

    There’s a relevant article on Daily Kos–about white privilege in feminist groups, but I think it applies to gay rights organizations as well: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/05/22/957012/-White-Privilege-Diary-Series-#1White-Feminist-Privilege-in-Organizations

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    I was just thinking about this the other day: how there seems to be a widespread assumption that a person can only be a member of one underprivileged group at a time. Like if you’re black, you’re unlikely to be also gay and disabled. And that contributes to making those of us in more than one category even more invisible as LGBTIA, even to fellow LGBTIA people.

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    Your assuming that I need the approval of the black community in order to have my civil rights? I don’t. This “changing hearts and minds” crap is just that. I don’t go door to door begging for something that is my birthright as an American. Grow a spine, stand up for who you are and don’t take this crap. sue their ass off!!!

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      Unfortunately when you have people as high up as the president unwilling to stand up for the people’s civil rights, which is their job and many of them staunchly doing their utmost to deny me my civil rights, it makes it a little more complicated than growing a spine.

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        Obama has stood up for gay rights, unlike his competition on the right. I guess some people will ignore that he is against any form of DOMA and even said that he doesn’t think that gay people should be denied the right to marry regardless of his personal beliefs on the matter. The President has also stood up for the rights of womens, and other minority groups. So the idea that the President has not stood up for civil rights is crap.

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          Politicians say a lot of things but what has he done? Standing up for something isn’t just verbal. It’s putting your money where your mouth is and actively making it happen. The right is so ridiculous on the subject that he easily shines when compared.

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          How about nominating 2 women to the Supreme Court, or him ordering the White House lawyers to stop defending DOMA, or The Children’s Health Reauthorization Act, those are pretty good examples of fighting for civil rights.

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          Valid. And my point originally wasn’t to just hate on Obama. I think he’s done some great things but I think what he’s done in regards to DOMA is chump change. That’s great that he’s told the lawyers to stop defending but where is the action? I dont think me and my loved ones not having their rights is Obama’s fault but I do think it is his job to be a greater, if not the greatest, part of the solution. This shouldn’t be about personal opinion. I don’t care what his personal opinion is. But unfortunately, thanks to religious zealots, it is about personal opinion. I think I’m getting off topic and frankly I have a lot feelings about this as I’m sure you do but it seems that all that’s ever done is talk, talk, talk. And I want action. And yes, I expect more from him. Not as a person, I could give two sexual encounters about his personal opinion, but as the fucking president FOR the people.

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          I stand corrected. Just read Sarah’s piece. That’s more than I thought he was doing. I learn something new everyday with AutoStraddle. I apologize.

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      I don’t think it’s the black community you have to woory about. They are not the ones who championed and poored money into Prop 8. A whole lot of white folks did that and then white gays like Dan Savage put the blame on us uppity black folk.

      It amazes me that all these white politicians and anti-gay groups can get on tv every damn day and say how gay people are ruining this country and even try to get laws passed like the “Don’t Say Gay” one but no it’s the black people who are so much more homophobic. Even if you really believe that it’s not like black people are really in that much of a high position do much about it in comparision to the powerful whites of this country.

      BTW, black people only make up about 6% of California’s population and latinos(who you could also are argue aren’t that in love with the gays) make up about 40%. And white folks are still the majority there and everywhere else for that matter. But yeah, it was totally the black people who ruined marriage equality for us in the state of California.

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        When did Dan Savage blame black people? I’m not doubting he did, just curious. Was it in an article? Podcast? I know everyone and their gay mother loves him but besides the It Gets Better project which was admittedly genius and needed to be done, I don’t care for him.

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          In an article. Just google “Dan Savage prop 8″ and their are lots of articles that took him to task for it. But their are also articles that say he took what he said back and no longer think African-American’s were to blame but older voters.

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          No voters, people who did or didn’t, should be to blame. This shouldn’t be a voting issue. I’ll google about Savage but at least he retracted it. People are bound to say and do stupid things, too few people are willing to openly admit it and correct their error. I give him credit for that.

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          As much as I appreciate the It Gets Better campaign, I don’t think it makes up for Dan Savage’s divisive presence as a gay icon. He’s made problematic comments in his columns for years without acknowledging the privilege that comes with whiteness, and his retraction just strikes me as too little, too late. And the IGB campaign’s greatest weakness is that it doesn’t address the fact that for certain queers (cisgendered, middle class, white) it gets a lot better than it does for others (trans, POC, poorer people) because homophobia also functions in tandem with other types of oppression.

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          I completely agree. However, the IGB positives out weigh any negative. And the intention of the campaign, despite any shortcomings, is absolutely beautiful.

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          Not just with race, but he also has a long history of biphobia, transphobia and lesbophobia (the latter of which he has tried to backpedal on lately with IGB, but if you look in his earlier columns it’s clearly there). He’s the classic example of the gay man who sees LGBT as really just being all about the G.

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    NGL, a large reason why I don’t associate myself with queer groups anymore is because of how white/middle-class/gay male focused they are. In my experience, the queer community is disgustingly racist. Not that other communities that I’ve been haven’t been racist/other form of discriminatory (i.e. ableist, etc.), but when I look at my involvement in queer activism next to the other forms of activism I have been involved in, the queer community is far more racist.

    I haven’t been a very good white ally in that instead of confronting these acts of racism, I’ve avoided these communities. I need to change that.

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    You know XXX those groups are made up of the people who decided to make an effort and join. Have you ever though of getting your ass off the couch and joining? You think maybe if you and others like you did that those groups wouldn’t look so white? Huh?

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      Why do you assume her criticism comes from inactivity? Most people I know who criticize the LGBT rights movement on racial grounds are people who TRIED to get involved and just couldn’t take all the racism.

      Take your privileged assumptions elsewhere.

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    Ace that’s swell but don’t complain organizations don’t have the racial mix you prefer. They accept the people who join. If you don’t join your not reflected in the makeup of that group. See?

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      Hi Mike! I just wanted to drop by and let you know how absolutely and totally I disagree with you, and how insane it seems to me to blame POC for the fact that mainstream gay organizations don’t serve communities of color. People of color, especially people of color with an intersecting marginalized identity like being queer or trans, have been consistently and systematically deprived of as much power and agency as possible; to then claim it’s their own fault for not using their almost-nonexistent power or agency to fix the system so that they can have more power or agency is totally absurd and not un-racist. Mainstream gay organizations do have people of color in them; they are supported both monetarily and on the ground by people of color. That hasn’t fixed anything. POC are a minority, literally, in that their numbers and influence are low; there will never be a simple incentive for mainstream organizations to take their interests to heart, unless they decide to do it on their own.

      Furthermore, there are excellent reasons for people of color to not join mainstream gay organizations or, as you charmingly put it, ‘get their ass of the couch.’ First and foremost being that they’ll almost definitely end up going to a meeting and sitting next to someone like you. To be honest, if it was me you were addressing like this, why would I ever want to join something you represent? Why would I ever believe that if I did, you would listen to what I had to say and work for my values and community’s needs as well as yours? Second of all, speaking of this, the needs and values of communities of color are often different from “the mainstream.” The mainstream movement is obsessed with marriage equality; if you’re underemployed, undereducated, possibly abandoned by your family and church, and have no support from mainstream culture, that’s really not going to be a priority for you. Why would you put your time and effort to solve the problems of middle-class white queers, when experience has shown time and time again that they’re not going to do the same for you?

      The bottom line is that your idea that lazy, whining people of color just need to join HRC and all their problems will be solved works on the premise that people of color need the mainstream gay movement to succeed. They don’t. We are the ones who need them. A revolutionary movement that only addresses its most privileged members won’t work. What Cornel West is talking about – the daring, dangerous and integrated strategies of the Civil Rights movement, that were enacted by people who were broke and embattled and had nothing left to lose – that’s what works. That’s why the civil rights movement has been the most successful and inspiring movement in American history, and why it’s still legal to fire gay people from even government-supplied jobs in the army just for being gay. So maybe you ought to think about getting off the couch and joining something more like that?

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    Where did I complain about them not having the racial mix I prefer? I was talking about why some POC would prefer not to join those groups. All because a group lets you join doesn’t mean that they accept you. The fallout of Prop 8 proved that.

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    “Your assuming that I need the approval of the black community in order to have my civil rights? I don’t. This “changing hearts and minds” crap is just that.” quoting Mike Kilpatrick

    Maybe that’s how POC feel in regards to joining those groups. That they don’t need the approval of the white gay community in order to fight for their civil rights. There are various lgbt groups for POC that do their own stuff in an effort to fight for their civil rights.

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