Public forum engages black community, LGBT people of color for common cause

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March 3, 2011
By: Chuck Colbert/TRT Reporter
The headline for a recent public forum was as provocative as it was unsettling.

Even the event’s keynote speaker acknowledged that the title “Aren’t I Black Too? “disturbed me.”

The question refers to a common experience among LGBT people of color, that of having to choose between racial identity and sexual orientation.

And yet Sharon Lettman-Hicks, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), left no doubt about the answer.

“No one should have to ask that question to themselves or to their community” she told a gathering of more than 125 people on Saturday afternoon, Feb. 19, at First Church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston.

Lettman-Hicks was clear on another point.  The fight for racial and economic justice includes LGBT equality.  “All of us grew up and live in a world where being gay in America, especially black America was and is considered to be taboo,” she said.  “Black America invented ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ so far as I can tell.’”

The line drew spirited applause.

“The problem is often described as fear, but fear of what?” she continued.  “Do you think you can catch being gay?  It’s time to have a real conversation in America about our hypocrisy and ignorance of sexuality.”

The occasion of Lettman-Hicks remarks was a two-hour panel discussion exploring race and homophobia. The Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC), a local non-profit organization, dedicated to inspiring and empowering the black and Hispanic/Latino LGBTQ population, organized and hosted the event for Black History Month.

NBJC is a civil-rights organization dedicated to empowering African-American lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Panelists included Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts; longtime gay activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Mandy Carter; the Rev. Michael Walker, minister of Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton; Ben Perkins, project director at the Fenway Institute; and Christopher Goodwin, a student and LGBTQ activist.  Dr. Kim Parker, an educator in the Newton Public Schools, served as moderator.

Just how do gay people of color experience the dilemma of double identity?

“LGBT people of color are often faced with the pressure of embracing the LGBT community at the expense of leaving their ethnic community behind,” explained Corey Yarbrough, HBGC’s executive director.

“The black LGBT community has been so invisible, particularly in Boston,” he added.  “If you are a part of the straight community, you would almost think that being gay is synonymous with being white.”

“By having the event, our goal was to take a major first step towards tackling that stereotype and engaging communities of color on the common challenges faced by both LGBT and black populations,” Yarbrough said.  “We do exist in Boston.  We have a growing community and have a desire not only to be apart of the LGBT community, but fully incorporated in the black community as well.”

For audience members and panelists alike, HIV/AIDS and black churches were key issues of concern.

“What must be done to end HIV among people of color?” asked moderator Parker.

“Denial kills” and “truth telling is scary,” replied project director Perkins.  “But based on my work and a lot of public-health research, it all suggests that denial and secrecy are a breeding ground for HIV, so we are going to have to get real and get honest about sexual practices.”

At Fenway, “Research teams meet with black men, some of whom have never told a soul about their sexual practices.  The fact that we ask questions about their lives and behavior is the first time  someone has ever expressed an interest,” he said.  “That’s the beginning of the journey for some of the men.  Truth happens.”

High rates of other sexually transmitted disease are also problematic.  “Let me be clear,” said keynote speaker Lettman-Hicks, “African American young ladies have the highest teenage STD rates, and I can guarantee they did not get [STD’s] from black lesbians.”

The moderator asked about religion. “Why do you think hostility exists in black churches regarding homosexuality?”

“It’s unfortunate,” said Rev. Walker, “and not just in the black community. It’s exacerbated in the black church” insofar as “the history of Christianity has fueled anti-sexual rhetoric, anti-sexual condemnation, and anti-sexual pleasure,” adding, “But that’s not Christianity.”

A woman in the audience pressed Walker further about creating safe spaces for LGBT youth.

> MOREHBGC continued

“Within the Church there is a divide between sensuality and spirituality,” he replied. “Not only do we not have a place for LGBT children to talk about sex, we don’t have a place for anyone to talk about sex.  I would welcome this conversation.”

“But, reverend, that’s conversation you can bring,” she said.

“I welcome that,” said Walker.

“I hear that you welcome it, but that’s a conversation you can bring to the congregation.”

Walker agreed.

Roxbury resident Soledad Boyd pressed even further.

“Would you be willing to go to the Black Ministerial Alliance, Gene Rivers, Gil Thompson, Ray Hammond, and Willie Dickerson, who managed to drive down Blue Hill Avenue to the State House to say gay marriage is a threat to the black community,” while along the way “passing the all the violence, all the homelessness, and all the decrepit buildings to speak out against us?”

Boyd was referring to the outspoken opposition marriage-equality advocates faced from some black pastors as lawmakers, from 2003 to 2007, considered a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

“I’ve only been out a few years,” she said afterwards, when asked what prompted the question.  “It was difficult for me to come out in Grove Hill,  the heart of Roxbury’s black churches,” she said.  “I am tired of hearing the hate perpetuated: ‘Love the sinner, but hate the sin.’  What is this?”

The event concluded with breakout sessions where attendees discussed next steps for working with the HBGC in continuing to engage the black community on LGBT issues and other issues of concern to LGBT people of color.

“This topic is not one that can be resolved with one public forum,” said Yarbrough. “It is going to take persistent action that will require us reaching across the aisle to engage new faces and organizations that share a collaborative spirit for reaching common goals.”

For more information on HBGC, including ways to get involved with the organization, visit www.hbgc-boston.org.