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Amidst Prop 8 Fallout, Queer Blacks and Latinos Wonder Where They Fit

19 November 2008 No Comment

By Casey Miner  — 

When Chris Norberg arrived at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza to demonstrate against Proposition 8 last Saturday, he knew what point he wanted to make.

“A lot of my friends are really pissed off at minority groups in this city right now,” he said. “They voted against us.”

Norberg, 26 and white, is a furniture builder who married his same-sex partner last June.

Standing on the grass outside City Hall, he held a banner displaying the names of high-profile gay crime victims like Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk, both of whom were murdered.

“I’m really hoping that minorities catch on that this isn’t just a gay issue,” said Norberg.

“Us” and “Them” have become the de facto terms of engagement for many angry activists since Prop 8 passed on November 4th, following the release of exit polls suggesting that black and Latino voters overwhelmingly supported the measure. In editorials, blog posts and Facebook messages, white gays and lesbians have expressed dismay that other historically oppressed groups would vote to overturn the law permitting same-sex marriage.

It’s an argument that’s frustrating to nonwhite gays and lesbians, many of whom say they feel invisible.

Rafael Delgado, 21, a senior at UC Berkeley, said he was disappointed when Prop 8 passed. But what hurt more, he said, was the reaction of the white gay community.

“A lot of internalized racism came out,” he said.

Delgado said he identifies strongly as both gay and Latino, but that neither community feels completely comfortable to him.

“I feel like I’m invisible in both,” he said. The gay movement, he said, is “a very white movement” with which he has trouble identifying. On the other hand, he said, in Latino communities, his gay identity is not always tolerated.

“I identify strongly with my race,” he said. “But then my queerness gets ignored.”

Delgado said he thought the campaign against Prop 8 was dominated by white gays, and did not adequately address the concerns of communities of color. For them, he said, same-sex marriage is not a high priority.

That sentiment was echoed by Dejanira Cruz, who along with Delgado is a member of YQUE, a queer Latino student organization. Both Cruz and Delgado said that while they support marriage rights, they think that the issue can distract from more pressing social-justice goals.

“YQUE didn’t spend a lot of time phonebanking for Prop 8,” said Cruz, 23. “We spent more time on the propositions affecting our communities.” The ballot measures dealing with abortion rights and prison law, she said, were the most relevant to low-income, nonwhite communities.

The schism between white and nonwhite gay communities is not new, says Reverend Roland Stringfellow of the Pacific School of Religion. Rev. Stringfellow, who is black and openly gay, organized against Prop 8 but said he found many gay blacks unwilling to join his cause.

The reasons, he said, trace all the way back to the 1960s Stonewall riots, which are widely considered to have kicked off the modern gay rights movement. “It was Latino and African-American drag queens who began those protests. They were the ones arrested, they were the ones who suffered beatings and were thrown in jail,” said Stringfellow.

Black gays, he said, felt that white people “jumped on board afterward” and co-opted the movement.

When the AIDS crisis hit, said Stringfellow, blacks felt a similar betrayal. “[AIDS awareness] was largely driven by white gay men. And when cocktails became available for patients, they went to those who could afford it, largely white gay men as opposed to gays of color.”

The same issues, he said, affected the debate over Prop 8.

“Folks of color have many other issues to deal with in terms of survival,” he said. “Gay marriage isn’t even on the radar screen.”

For young, queer people of color, said Stringfellow, finding a supportive community is crucial to navigating the complicated politics of race and sexuality. For Delgado, that community is YQUE, which he said would probably end up being more important to his life than any other experience at Berkeley.

“So many people of color assume gayness is a white thing,” he said. “My job is to say no, it’s in every community. And if you disenfranchise them, you’re disenfranchising someone in your community.”

Stringfellow, Cruz and Delgado all expressed hope that the ultimate result of the Prop 8 debate would be positive.

“Nobody wants to be discriminatory,” said Cruz. “They just need another human being to talk to them about these things.”

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