Local African American GLBT leaders talk about organizing for change
Stereotyping and invisibility often dog the lives of African American gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Either the public sees only the “down low brotha” of AIDS hysteria, or they don’t see Black GLBTs at all.
However, the Twin Cities is home to a number of African Americans who not only are out as GLBT people, but also are active as organizers who combat the dual threats of homophobia and racism and seek to build bridges between Black GLBTs and the straight Black community. The MSR has talked to four of these activists about their lives and work; part one of this story includes our conversations with two activists, Roderick Southhall and Kim Coleman.
Southhall is currently a board member of PFund, a Minneapolis foundation that supports GLBT programs and services. He is also a director of Obsidian Arts, a Minneapolis organization that supports the work of African American artists. Southhall has lived in the Twin Cities area since 1992, but he first became active in a Black GLBT HIV/AIDS organization in Denver in the late 1980s-early 1990s.
MSR: You’ve been involved with a lot of organizations that have “gone away.” What are the challenges to organizing or having organized things for GLBTs of color?
RS: I think that some of the frustration…is that some in our community don’t feel like they deserve things specifically for them. And tied to that is that sometimes they don’t come out for it. And so, what I find a lot is they go, “Oh, we need this. We need that,” but they won’t come to do the work around it.
They won’t come to it, and it’s like, you say you want this, you say you want to be affirmed, you say we need this; [then] we do it, and you don’t show up. That, I think, is a big frustration. …I think us organizers need to be mindful about what people say they want and need and what they actually need and want.
The other thing, I think, is that sometimes we go, “Well, am I going to see the same old people, all these Black people?” And we go, “Child, I don’t feel like that today,” and instead go to something that’s mixed, which I think is interesting.
MSR: Do you think internalized racism has something to do with that?
RS: I think in that specific case, where you make a decision that “I don’t want to be around a bunch of Black folks,” and “I’ll go out of my way to be around a mixed crowd if they’re doing pretty much the same thing,” I think that some of our internalized homophobia and racism can arise.
MSR: Give me your general impression of what the Twin Cities Black GLBT community looks like.
RS: It’s really, really diverse, I think. I think it’s amazing, the diversity. And I think that it’s, I want to say, not cohesive…
MSR: Message to the White community, straight and GLBT — what would you like them to know about the Twin Cities Black GLBT community?
RS: We…want to be valued. And valued doesn’t just mean invited. Valued means that I don’t have to be the one to bring up an issue. I don’t have to sit here and advocate for myself. If that means you’re kind of silent while the conversation’s going on and trying to figure out how you can be supportive, great. But too often I think they don’t help advocate for us.
MSR: What’s your message to the Black straight community?
RS: My message to the Black straight community is that you need to understand that you would be no place without the Black GLBT community. Period. You simply would be no place. And we would be no place, either. And so to act as if we don’t matter, or we haven’t done anything, is an insult.
MSR: True or false: “The Black community is more homophobic than the White community.”
RS: It’s really funny, because a lot of Black people say that we are. And I think they’re always dead wrong. So, absolutely we’re not more homophobic than the general White community. At all. In no way, shape or form. So that’s a myth…
One example that can help people think about it is to look at your national political Black organizations — the NAACP, whatever. Those folks are saying, “Child, quit all this mess about this… You need to put all that stuff about worrying about where somebody sleeps at someplace else.”
…And I read this [Black GLBT activist] Keith Boykin’s blog sometimes, and he talked about the bill that’s in Congress — a reframing of the hate crimes bill. [The Matthew Shepard Act, which would expand federal hate crime law to include sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and disability was passed by the House in May and is expected to be voted on by the Senate this month.]
And Boykin said, “You know what? It may not pass, but you need to know that every Black senator and congressperson voted for it.” It had sexual orientation and gender [included in] it. [Boykin] said — and I agree with him — “That’s a huge statement!” This is Black people with…power, and they are of one mind.
MSR: Do you get a lot of that from people from all sides who are surprised you’re gay and out and publicly active?
RS: Recently, I was with…somebody I work with outside of the job, and he apparently didn’t know I was gay. And so I presented it as sort of a matter-of-fact, and…this guy just kind of sat there and was like, I kind of saw him process it. And I was like, “You know, fine, do your thing. You need to process, but understand that I have no time for you.”
Like Roderick Southhall, Coleman is a board member of PFund. She is also a board member of Minnesota Soul Essence, an African American GLBT organization that holds an annual Black GLBT pride celebration every August. Originally from New York, Coleman’s first GLBT activist work was as part of a lesbians-of-color organization in Milwaukee a decade ago.
MSR: What are the challenges to Black GLBT organizing?
KC: I think specifically, number one is the mentality of the Midwest, because I’ve been involved or have friends and know people who have been involved in the South and the East and West, and it’s a whole different ballgame.
I know that here, Minnesota as well as a lot of Midwestern areas are very sheltered ways of thinking, so African Americans or people of color are not always so willing to come out and experience their own worth…as far as seeing people of color and knowing that you can have your own experience, but you don’t always have to be a part of what the norm is — that there is something special for you.
So it’s that, as well as economic restraints. A lot of financial difficulty since 9/11…
MSR: When you think of the Black GLBT community in the Twin Cities, what does it look like to you?
KC: I kind of see them as individuals who are always interested, but more or less they have their own reasons behind their interests instead of being interested for the right reasons, or maybe being interested for the cause or the purpose — it’s more “Okay, we have a chance to get together and drink,” or “We have a chance to get together and socialize.” They’re very highly [interested] in social activity rather than purpose activity, or fundraising activity, or whatever the true meaning of the event would be…
Even at Juneteenth — it doesn’t have to be a GLBT [event], it’s an Afrocentric, people-of-color type of scene. I noticed a lot of times that Latino, Hmong, indigenous, all other different types of groups when they go, they know why they’re going. They have identity and purpose. And I think we lack that.
MSR: What are the strengths of the African American Twin Cities GLBT community?
KC: I think the same thing that’s a weakness is also a strength: our unity and our togetherness — that we can come together and socialize, even though we may not always have the reasoning, the real reason why we’re there. I think our structure in being together and coming out says a lot for us in that we do continue to try to support each other, and we also try to support other cultures of color. Whereas we don’t get the same thing — it’s not reciprocated by European cultures.
MSR: Do you see that kind of support being reciprocated by the Black straight community?
KC: I think from my experience I’ve had a little 50/50 where sometimes I think the support is there in the community, and other times it’s not. So it could be kind of half and half, almost, from what I’ve seen in the Twin Cities.
MSR: Do you think lack of support marks the relationship between the Black and White GLBT communities?
KC: I think [the issue is a] lack of outreach and effort from the Twin Cities [White GLBT community]… I think if there were more outreach effort from that political standpoint of their organization into other organizations of color, then it would not be a problem with us coming together…
MSR: True or false: “The Black community is more homophobic than the White community.”
KC: That’s a tough one. I want to say more false. I feel like it’s going more toward false. But I’m on the fence… I see it everywhere; it’s just a “people-phobic” kind of thing to me.
MSR: Do you think that homophobia has a different effect on Black GLBTs?
KC: Yeah, I think it’s kind of a divide-and-conquer type of [thing]. Like I said, I don’t know about the Black-and-White issue when it comes to that; I think that in general it’s more directed toward the phobia and not toward the culture. I’d say that the experience I’ve had is that of GLBT, not of Black.
MSR: So in your experience, you’ve had to battle homophobia more than racism, from Black folks and White folks?
MSR: As a Black woman who is out and active, have you experienced Black GLBT and straight people who are astounded that you’re out?
KC: Yeah, definitely. I had a real big problem last year with my own sister, actually, and I have a problem with individuals in the forefront saying, “Oh, that’s wonderful, invite me to your affairs.” And you invite them, and invite them, and invite them, and you never see them. They always have an excuse why they can’t come instead of just being upfront and saying, “I’m really not comfortable…” And this is within my own family.
Next week: Former Twin Cities P-FLAG president Roxanne Anderson and Andrea Jenkins, Minneapolis Eighth Ward policy aide.
Stephani Booker welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.