Adventures in the Race Trade
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Adventures in the Race Trade

by Richard J. Rosendall
Originally published on April 1, 2002 in Liberty Education Forum

Whenever my life as a gay activist has too much drama, I like to change my Windows wallpaper to a reproduction of Nicolas Poussin's 17th Century masterpiece, "The Rape of the Sabine Women." [See] I have always loved this painting because of the way everyone in it is striking a comically histrionic pose. Come to think of it, I would like to commission a similar painting on a more contemporary subject like the House Judiciary Committee, and give it a title like "Maxine Waters Raises a Point of Order."

So I'm shopping for an artist. Life as an activist provides a wealth of occasions for dramatic tableaux, especially here in Washington where political drama is a major industry, and even a negative book review can be the fodder for hysterical scandalmongering. One of the most fruitful areas for drama is racial politics. But before you set up your easel, you should take out a sketch pad and make sure that you get the details right. Allow me to offer a few notes. The key point is that if no one has called you either a racist or a sellout (depending on your degree of negritude), then you haven't done anything. This business is not for the faint of heart. You have to be tough, or you will never make it.

My ancestry, through no fault of my own, happens to be European. In the eyes of the race hustlers who seem to be glutting the market lately, this makes me a marked man. I am in need of getting in touch with my inner racist. This I am disinclined to do, as I have an aversion to pandering, along with an honest devotion to the principle that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to behave dreadfully and to be held accountable for it. I don't go in for designated victims. To paraphrase my friend Barney Frank (who has an admirable penchant for telling his constituents things they don't want to hear), some of us want to change things, but some people just want to be dramatic. Out of a vast subject with many colors, permit me to offer some few scenes from gay politics in black and white.


A dispute arose a few years ago, both in DC and nationally, over whether HIV surveillance data should be based on patients' names or on unique identifiers that would better protect privacy. Ron Simmons, Executive Director of the DC black AIDS organization Us Helping Us, told The Washington Blade [] in December 1998 that "The idea of having a name reported may make some folks stay away from testing. Black people have had more than enough [negative] experience with the health system in this country. It won't go away just because Ron Simmons and Us Helping Us says it is OK." [See] My colleagues and I in the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA) [] agreed, arguing (like AIDS groups across the racial spectrum) that ignoring the privacy concerns of high-risk populations would only discourage them from getting tested. Shortly thereafter, however, Ron Lewis, Director of DC's HIV/AIDS Administration, succeeded in frightening local AIDS service providers with the false claim that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) would block federal AIDS funding for jurisdictions that did not adopt names reporting. Simmons was among those who succumbed to Lewis' scaremongering.

Nearly three years after GLAA and our allies (including 11 out of 13 DC Council members) persuaded Mayor Anthony Williams to choose unique identifiers, Simmons still pushes names reporting against the overwhelming consensus of national AIDS groups and the recommendations of the Institute of Medicine's report to the CDC [See]. But Simmons does not merely disagree, he questions the motives of GLAA and our colleagues in ACT UP DC []. In a letter to The Washington Blade in October 2001, he referred to our "alleged concern about the privacy rights of immigrants and low-income people of color (whom their organizations do not represent)," and asserted that "GLAA and ACT UP serve a political agenda and not one of public health." He also said that we "are representing the interests of a small affluent minority and not the health care needs of the District's less-affluent majority." This prompts the question of exactly whom Simmons himself represents - black men with HIV/AIDS, whose privacy concerns he once defended, or the people who approve his grant money?

Simmons' territorialism and class warfare do not alter the evidence that GLAA's privacy concerns (real, not alleged) are widely shared by African Americans, Latinos, and other high-risk populations. For several years, Simmons' group, using a public grant, has placed the same ad every week in The Washington Blade targeting black men "on the Down Low" - that is, closeted men who are in denial about their sexuality. When I asked him how realistic it was to expect these Down-Low brothers to be reading the Blade, he responded with indignation that I as a white person should question his judgment or presume to use the word "brothers." But his attempt to change the subject does not alter my suspicion that he keeps running those stale Blade ads primarily to avoid losing thousands of dollars in grant money. I could be wrong, but his race-baiting doesn't prove it. As to affluence, GLAA, an all-volunteer organization, has a budget barely into five figures, while Us Helping Us was recently reported to be spending nearly half a million dollars to purchase a building in the District; and in August 2001, Simmons attended a $500-a-ticket river-cruise fundraiser for Mayor Williams on the former Presidential yacht Sequoia. (Not that I can't empathize; as Jackie Kennedy once said, I'm tired of staring at these same four hundred walls.)

In a syndicated column in June 2001, Phill Wilson, founder of the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute in Los Angeles, wrote accusingly, "What does it say about the gay community that AIDS advocacy has all but died, now that the majority of new cases are people of color?" [See] This racial spin overlooks people's exhaustion after two decades of an epidemic, their simple complacency since the advent of effective treatments, and the fact that a lot of people are doing a great deal to raise funds and provide services for people with AIDS. Perhaps Wilson thinks his insults will provide the extra motivation that people need. Wilson wrote, "Many of the leading organizations looked to as a model for AIDS services throughout the world — Gay Men's Health Crisis, AIDS Project Los Angeles, Whitman-Walker Clinic, and San Francisco AIDS Foundation — were begun by white gay men taking care of their own." The fact that for many years the majority of Whitman-Walker's clients have been black, that its staff is majority people of color, and its executive director is now black, goes unmentioned. Once the racial label is affixed, no further evidence is to be considered.

Wilson wrote, "Why is it that, when a black gay organization has a fundraiser, white gay donors are often missing in action?" As a featured speaker at fundraising roasts for Black Lesbian and Gay Pride Day two years in a row, I cannot say. Could the answer be that white gays have come to expect that, no matter what they do, someone like Phill Wilson is bound to accuse them of being uncaring racists? Wilson also wrote: "We do know — at least those of us who are black and gay — that the predominantly white AIDS prevention organizations need to offer African American men more than another lecture." Frankly, Mr. Wilson, the gay community of whatever color deserves more from black gay leaders than another hackneyed complaint against all white people. The reasons for the infection rates are undoubtedly many, but surely key to any progress is teaching these men self respect and self acceptance. We must confront the massive denial in the DL culture, the twin plagues of closetedness and homophobia in the black community that are killing these men and their partners, and stop making excuses for them.

Public Servants

In April 2001, GLAA criticized DC Fire Chief Ronnie Few after he began disciplining and threatening termination of Muslim and Rastafarian firefighters because of the length of their hair or beards. In addition to its First Amendment implications, this grooming policy violated the DC Human Rights Act's prohibition of discrimination based on personal appearance, a provision that also protects transgendered citizens. Chief Few claimed that this was for safety reasons, without conducting the formal fit tests required to prove that the hair interfered with the seal of face masks. The ACLU sued on behalf of the firefighters, and in June 2001, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled against the city, saying that there was no evidence that long beards and hair were safety hazards. As the case continued in the courts, Chief Few responded to GLAA with ten months of silence.

When Few finally met with gay community representatives in February, GLAA President Bob Summersgill spoke sternly to Few about the illegal policy and his unresponsiveness. The next day, another meeting participant, Darren Buckner of the black gay organization DC Coalition, complained to Wanda Alston, the Mayor's Special Assistant for GLBT Affairs, about "these white boys attack[ing] our black leaders." So even when GLAA is on the side of labor, the ACLU, and racial and religious minorities, our advocacy is still made the target of a racial grievance. Buckner wrote, "I don't think the meeting was designed to challenge, threaten, harass, or attack anyone's position, or action." Apparently we are supposed to educate public officials but not criticize them or give them a hard time. Why, the poor dears! If the fire chief were as delicate a creature as Buckner seems to imagine, he could hardly function in his job.

One wonders what public servants are for if the public can never challenge the way they are providing services. Buckner was particularly upset by Summersgill's threat to write a letter about the matter to DC Council Judiciary Committee Chair Kathy Patterson, who has legislative oversight authority over the Fire Department. Why, the impudence! You would think Summersgill had challenged Few to a duel. It is revealing that Buckner, a longtime ally who has praised GLAA's efforts, can refer to "our black leaders" as if the public servants in question are accountable only to members of one racial group. Apparently, as oppressive whites (and GLAA is not all white, by the way), we are expected to be more deferential. One would think that giving Chief Few ten months before lambasting him for his unresponsiveness was deference enough.

Ministerial Bigotry

In July 2001, a group called Alliance for Marriage [see] held a press conference at the National Press Building calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting gay marriage. The group included several black ministers, most prominently former D.C. Delegate to Congress and civil rights veteran Rev. Walter Fauntroy. (Fauntroy, incidentally, claims that he was the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, despite the well-documented fact that the lead organizer was the openly gay Bayard Rustin.) I responded to this by sending an alert to GLAA's email list urging people to call Rev. Fauntroy and register their objections to his collaborating with the enemies of our equal rights. I also suggested that Coretta Scott King, a longtime supporter of gay rights, should be urged to repudiate Fauntroy.

The president of the Howard University gay student group, who is on GLAA's list, forwarded my alert to others, including black gay writer and former Clinton appointee Keith Boykin. Boykin said he too was troubled by Fauntroy's anti-gay activities and had called Fauntroy to express his concern. He encouraged others to contact Fauntroy as well. But he objected to my suggestion that Mrs. King should rebuke Fauntroy. He wrote, "I do not think it's wise to pit one black civil rights leader against another. Nor do I think black civil rights leaders should be manipulated by white gay activists to turn on one another. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the black gay community to exercise leadership. Surely, we can find more creative ways to protest without generating more black-on-black attacks." Even when he agrees with me, he finds something to complain about. It was not clear why my advocacy was manipulation while Boykin's was just advocacy. Neither was it clear why encouraging leadership in the black gay community requires Boykin to insult his white allies. With regard to black-on-black attacks, I wrote to Boykin that I agreed that the treatment of Ward Connerly by other blacks has been appalling; but that, of course, was not what Boykin meant.

While the amendment proposed by the Alliance for Marriage has gone nowhere - it hasn't even joined the dozens of dead-on-arrival proposed amendments that have been introduced in Congress - black ministers continue to insult gay people from their pulpits, including at funerals, with little organized effort against them. (It is not as if the problem is only among blacks; to date, the most widely repudiated homophobic ministers have been white, as witness Revs. Falwell and Robertson. It is, rather, that black ministers all too often have been able to hide their bigotry behind the mantle of civil rights.) During his half-hour speech from the stage of the Millennium March on Washington (MMOW) in April 2000, Boykin eloquently addressed this:

"I Speak so that
one more black gay man or woman may find the courage
to rise up in church today and challenge a minister
who spews out the vicious bile of religious-based homophobia"

Despite initial resistance from conservative ministers, Rev. Candace Shultis of the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington and Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks of Inner Light Unity Fellowship were recently inducted into the Mayor's newly constituted Interfaith Council as representatives of the gay faith community. That group remains dominated by homophobic ministers, so Shultis and Cheeks have their work cut out for them. They cannot be expected to overcome all that hostility and ignorance alone, and they are only in one city. This challenge must be taken up not only by enlightened ministers but by the faithful. As Frederick Douglass said, "The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."

Beyond Queer

In his MMOW speech, and in a recent column on, Boykin rejected the use of the word "queer." He has plenty of company. The Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently released a survey of black gays called Black Pride Survey 2000 [See] which reveals that only one percent of respondents identified as "queer." Boykin, on the other hand, identifies as "same gender loving," which apparently is supposed to be a less White and Western term than "gay." But "same gender loving" is such a ponderous phrase that people quickly shorten it to "SGL," whose meaning is known only to insiders, while others are left guessing as to whether SGL stands for Simon & Garfunkel Lover or Silenced Gun Loader or Sir Galahad's Lorikeet. Unhappily for Boykin, only eight percent of survey respondents identified as SGL. By contrast, 42 percent identified as gay, and 24 percent identified as lesbian. Apparently, efforts by some black leaders to portray "gay" as a white cultural artifact and tool of hegemony are not finding much fertile soil.

Curiously, Boykin makes no mention of the many prominent non-leftist gay writers who share his resistance to "queer" identity and whose essays were collected by Bruce Bawer in the book Beyond Queer. Many of these writers are also represented on the Independent Gay Forum, at If Boykin is troubled by queer conformity, he might find some stimulating alternatives there, even if many of the authors are not black enough.

Yale Professor Cathy Cohen, one of the researchers behind the Black Pride Survey 2000, said: "If the Human Rights Campaign or NGLTF do not address the needs and the issues affecting black gay people, we need to force them to change their agenda or build our own national gay organizations for gay folks of color." This seems sensible, but is Cohen not aware that such organizations already exist? If sisters like Professor Cohen don't even know that they exist, no wonder the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum has had trouble raising money. A few years ago, NBLGLF had no sooner opened an office in DC and hired an executive director than they were forced to let him go due to financial difficulties. Sadly, the website has since become a porn site called the Japanese School Girl Upskirt Site. Surely people can support their own organizations better than that.

It's Not a Black Thing

A common complaint that arises in the black gay community is that people are tired of white activists claiming to speak for them. The trouble is, I have never heard a white person make such a claim. Does this actually happen, or are the complainers simply tired of seeing white people show up to do most of the work? Last year, Rhonda Smith, a black reporter for The Washington Blade, actually volunteered me as a black gay spokesperson, suggesting that if blacks wouldn't speak up, then she guessed it was okay for Rick Rosendall to do it. I appreciated this vote of confidence, but I declined the appointment. While we don't claim to represent anyone but our own members (who include blacks), GLAA has always done its best to defend the rights of all gay people in the District. If there is to be a black position and a white position on various issues, the advocates should spell it out in print so that it can be discussed publicly. I am not aware of anything GLAA has done that benefits only white people. Winning domestic partnership rights, defending the DC Human Rights Act, combating regulatory abuse against gay clubs, fighting for greater accountability on the spending of public AIDS funds, working with the NAACP-DC Police Task Force to fight illegal police profiling of transgenders and others - none of these is a peculiarly white concern.

Just as, in one wag's words, the trouble with minimalism is that it isn't minimal enough, one could say that the trouble with the separatism running through so many of these complaints is that it isn't separate enough. Just as occasional pilgrimages to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival do not sever all of one's economic ties to the Patriarchy, posing as a thug while wearing fashions and listening to music created and marketed with substantial amounts of white-owned capital does not Fight the Power. If you believe it does, you'll believe that the cowboy in the Village People herded cows. If you really want to drop out, then cut up your ATM card, throw away your cell phone and Palm Pilot, cancel your gas, cable TV, sewage, electricity, water, and Internet service, don't use U.S. Mail, and avoid using fire, police, or emergency medical services. All of that would just be a start. The pseudo separatists, like armchair revolutionaries generally, have no intention of giving up these Western privileges, any more than anti-globalization activists are renouncing the proceeds of capitalist greed that subsidize their tuition at Oberlin. You can be a hip-hop poseur by night, but your bourgie self still stares back at you in the mirror the next morning.

As Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights hero, said in condemning the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in July 1996, "We are talking about human beings, people like you...." Black racemongers, like queer anti-assimilationists, want us to believe that this is not true, that true liberation requires us to live as a people apart. First, the separation in question is largely illusory. Second, I find nothing liberating in the prospect of a nation of mutually alienated ghettos.

In his MMOW speech, Keith Boykin said:

"I Speak to Say, unequivocally, once and for all,
that blacks and gays are not the same,
that racism is not the same as homophobia,
and that the civil rights struggles are not identical"

Well of course there are differences, but Boykin is fundamentally wrong here. Twenty-two years ago, when I attended my first GLAA meeting (it was GAA at the time), the president was Mel Boozer, who later that year gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention in which he had this to say:

"Would you ask me how I'd dare to compare the civil rights struggle with the struggle for lesbian and gay rights? I can compare, and I do compare them. I know what it means to be called a nigger. I know what it means to be called a faggot. And I can sum up the difference in one word: none."

Boykin himself has been shown on the television program "In the Life" quoting this same passage approvingly. He appears to have boldly seized both sides of the issue.

Whatever the injustice at hand, calling on our nation to live up to its founding principles is far more resonant with far more people - and therefore a far more powerful approach to seeking change - than prejudicial accusations and strident claims about what a terrible country this is. Those who tell you what you want to hear are not necessarily your friends. Those who challenge you are not necessarily your enemies.

We are responsible for the consequences of our own choices and priorities. We can choose to build and support and innovate, or just sit back and complain. There are certainly legitimate complaints to be made, and public as well as private responses to be pressed. But if the truth is on your side, then you shouldn't have to distort the facts. If you want people to cooperate with you, then you should treat them with respect as equals. If we all have a stake in racial justice, then one group cannot have exclusive ownership of the issue. The civil rights struggle, like the earlier struggles that formed and shaped this country, is the heritage and responsibility of all Americans, not just those with an historic grievance. No one has a monopoly on anger. While it may be valid and understandable, anger is not a political program, and is often misdirected. We need to work through our anger and use words that encourage discussion rather than shut it down. Accomplishing change requires us to expand our coalitions, not undermine them out of jealousy and exclusivity.

From time to time, we hear complaints that various people are "self-appointed leaders." This charge is usually true. If you are talking about volunteer activism, who else is going to appoint you except yourself? In my city, at least, the ranks of community volunteers are remarkably thin. So go ahead and appoint yourself. You'll be surprised at how quickly you find yourself in charge of something. Then you can join the ranks of those who have been called racists or sellouts. It's an occupational hazard.

Copyright 2002 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.