Gay Civil Rights. Black Civil Rights.

ImageGay civil rights, black civil rights. Same issue, same struggle, right? Not so according to one very introspective ICT African American lesbian. Though she had to conceal her real name and identity, “Gail” offers a stripped down glimpse into what it means to be gay and black in Wichita. She was kind enough to share her “naked” thoughts with all of us.

“Drawing parallels between the experiences of African Americans and those of gay Americans is a common misnomer made by white people,” Gail said. “We need to dig deeper to understand the differences in culture that result in different racial communities treating their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters differently.”

Gay people have never been systematically rounded up, loaded onto horrific boats, and sold into slavery. They haven’t suffered the same systemic economic and social inequalities throughout history. Gay people can also walk into a room without everyone knowing their sexual orientation.” When you’re black, you can never conceal your race. Gays can choose to hide, but when you’re black, there’s no hiding from prejudice,” Gail points out.

It’s no secret that the blacks and the gays don’t always peacefully coexist. Nationally, African Americans are far more resistant to accepting homosexuality than Caucasians. When Proposition 8 passed in California, 90% of black people voted for Obama, while at the same time 70% of them elected to outlaw gay weddings. Religion is a big factor in the divide. African Americans are a religious and church-centered bunch. Many sociologists contend that it’s socioeconomics, not race, though, that plays a central role in black homophobia. Gail concurs. “It’s about education. The more educated a person is, the more accepting they tend to be. The education rates are lower among blacks and that’s part of the problem. If we want to address homophobia, we need to also address access to education. We need to get serious about ending poverty,” she said.

“Gay people also need to stop being afraid to come and talk to us. Part of why Prop 8 passed was due to the fact that the white gay leaders were too scared to outreach to black communities. They viewed us as the enemy, and so we voted that way,” Gail said.

Gail believes, though, that an opportunity exists locally to move the dialogue forward…but she admits that some things have to change first.

She paints a picture of a Wichita black gay community marginalized and hidden. She believes that proportionally there are just as many black people in town who are gay as there are white people. The different is in how they deal with it. “There’s a lot of hiding, and a lot of fooling,” she said. “Some people hide it from their family, but are out to certain friends. They date, but keep it quiet. Then there’s that infamous “down low”—what I call the fooling! A lot of people just find the social pressures to hard so they fool everyone by pretending to be straight. Just last week I saw a man at church with his wife and kids…and the week before I saw him out at one of the bars kissing a dude!”

She characterizes Wichita African Americans in general to be a very tight-knit community. “Everyone knows everyone,” she said. “Most of us who are here grew up together. Our moms still talk to each other. Our kids play together. The closeness is good in the sense that it creates lifelong bonds and friendships. It has a dark side, though, in that it can lend itself to gossip. And let me tell you, when it comes to other people’s kids, black people love to gossip!”

It’s this close-knit spirit that Gail sees as the biggest opportunity for progress. She believes that local gay rights groups need to do a better job building relationships with black leaders. She says they shouldn’t be afraid to get into the churches and meet with the ministers, too. “Really, if more people were just honest and spoke from the heart, this issue would be go away. I know so many parents who have gay kids and they just hide it from their friends. When it comes to black gays, the parents are in the closet just as much as their kids,” she said.

Gail struck me as someone who could, herself, be a powerful communicator within the black community for the LGBT cause. She’s an active member of her church, a mom raising kids with her partner, and a dynamic professional. She’s out to her family and her congregation. She says most have accepted her. I was surprised when she requested that I conceal her identify. “This is Kansas, and where I work, we don’t have a non-discrimination policy. Until we do, I’ll have to be a bit on the down low myself, sadly,” she said.

Gay civil rights and black civil rights aren’t the same fight, but it seems they have bigotry as a common enemy.

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Honesty: A Latino Family Value

ImageJaron is patriotic, young, Hispanic, and gay. He’s a son, a brother, a friend, and possibly someone’s boyfriend.  He’s a student and an activist. He’s also a former soldier in the US army. Identity is a myriad of personal circumstances. Take one part of who someone is away and they’re not a whole person anymore. They’re compartmentalized and incomplete.  Mandate that someone keep a significant part of their life a secret, and you’re asking that person to be less than honest.

Living in between the lines of truth and trickery is exactly where Jaron found himself, though, both in his family and career.  It’s a familiar place for people who serve in the US military under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Telling the truth means you’ll lose your job—and more importantly, your ability to defend the country you love. It’s also a familiar place for people who are Hispanic. Coming out in a Latino family means risking losing su familia, your family, the people who love you and the backbone of who you are as a person. Latino culture places a high value on family and extended family connections.  Because homosexuality is seen as being a threat to the family structure, many gay and lesbians within the Latino community take up don’t ask, don’t tell us their mantra. Their families learn not to ask about their love life. They discern how to keep their love a secret.

Secrets don’t settle well with Jaron, though. He came out at 16. He references the hindrance hyper-masculinity plays in Latinos being able to be themselves. Placing a high value on machismo, it makes being openly gay very difficult. “My coming out story was nothing short of turbulent. I came out the summer before my junior year in high school. I was very afraid of what my family and friends would think of me. My father was brought up in the old school way. He was a very devoted Baptist, and took the news very hard. My mother was no better. She held herself somehow accountable for me being gay,” he said.  “The rest of his family was equally aghast. “My immediate family met me with disbelief, and thought I was in a phase for awhile.”

Unlike clothes, you don’t try on a sexual orientation. Jaron knew he wasn’t in the middle of a phase.

One day after he graduated high school, though, he did try on a uniform. An interest to serve his country lead him to a new phase in his life—as a soldier of the US army. Having come out once, he didn’t want to step completely back in the closet. “It was more of an open secret to begin with. I just used gender neutral terms, never really talked about dating women specifically… that sort of thing. I came out when I was deployed to Iraq. When you’re in a place like that, no one really cared. There were many more important things to be worried about,” he said.

Jaron described a military culture that seems to be in transition on this issue. He pointed out that younger soldiers, most of who grew up around other people they knew to be gay, were a lot more comfortable. He is quick to note that his sexual orientation never affected his unit’s cohesiveness and ability to work well together. His honesty, actually, had the opposite effect. “There were some guys who didn’t really agree with me being gay at first. After awhile though, a lot of them came around and acknowledged that being gay has no real bearing on your character. They supported me no matter what. Ultimately, I found it brings you closer when you’re honest with each other,” he said.

Jaron’s service in the military ended last December. He’s now back in Wichita and involved locally as a political activist. He can be classified by many identities, but ultimately it’s his self-identity that matter most. The ability to be yourself and integrate who you are into the family dynamics and culture you were born into as well as the career you choose is the paramount of American heroism. It’s also an homage to the Kansas value of honesty.

If you’re a not-so-homogenous homo on the range, tell me you’re story! I want to hear from Wichitans from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. E-mail me at jasonaarondilts@gmail.com

Kansas White Boy, Interrupted.

ImageEvery wonder why the rainbow is synonymous with gay culture? Those six colors that fly proudly on flags and are affixed affectionately on bumper stickers are actually a representation of diversity. The gay community is unique as a minority group in that it has no monolithic ethnic, racial, religious, or cultural heritage. It’s simply a collection of people whose sexual orientation is, well, queer.

Although white isn’t a color in the “gay rainbow” it’s certainly the unofficially color of the gay community.  Just as with society at-large, gay Caucasians get the lion’s share of attention, power, and respect. Meanwhile LGBT people of color, many of whom come from cultural backgrounds averse to homosexuality, are marginalized two-fold. It’s not uncommon for them to lose their family because of their sexual orientation and then subsequently have difficulties finding acceptance from their gay peers because of their ethnicity.   If you’re openly gay and not white, you probably feel like you’re running with a double edged sword pointed at your abdomen.

Recently, I got to witness this pain up-close when I met a guy named O. He was born and still lives in New Jersey, but his parents immigrated to the US from Pakistan. O is about as American as you can get, insisting on eating a Wendy’s hamburger every time  I opine about the food at ICT’s Indo-Paki Bistro, Zaytun. The first time that we talked, I felt an instant spark. His personality was an enticing blend of intellectual brilliance, geeky precociousness, and political savviness.   I wanted him. He wanted me. Unfortunately, reality got in the way.

When we start a relationship, we usually bring our baggage with us. The luggage that O was carrying was given to him by others, though. His parents moved to a foreign country and brought the values from their mother land with them; meanwhile their kid grew up with an exclusively American experience, feeling detached from the traditions his parents held dear. He made a very brave move by coming out in high school—something South Asian kids don’t do because it scorns the family’s name. Right around the time he began getting harassed in school for being gay, September 11th happened. Suddenly, he was a fag and a terrorist.

One night, O tearfully confessed to me that he felt ugly, dirty, and disgusting.  He couldn’t be with me because he could barely tolerate himself. Everywhere he turned, he was being told that he was sub-human and less-than. At the intersection of personal freedom and cultural reality, he had become a dart board for all of the world’s social phobias.

I realized then that there are some things my white entitlement just can’t grab. Kansas white boy, interrupted.

This experience has also interrupted the focus on this column. It’s time to make Homo on the Range more reflective of not just the iconic rainbow that’s supposed to represent everyone in the gay community, but also more reflective of the rich cultural diversity within our city. So, I want to hear your stories! Over the next few months, I want to profile a gay Wichitan from a different racial/ethnic background. I’m particularly interested in finding a local Middle Eastern/Indian, African American, Latino, and Asian to talk to about the conflicts between personal honesty and cultural traditions. Identities can be concealed and will be held in the strictest of confidences.

E-mail me at jasonaarondilts@gmail.com.  Gays may be a divergent group of people united by a simple trait, but we can coalesce to increase understanding and awareness within all communities right here in The ICT.

Living Our Lives

Surrounded by friends, living our lives in Wichita.

I’m often asked why I write this column. After all, if gays want the same respect as everyone else, why single ourselves out by spreading our “homosexual agenda”. Shouldn’t we just shut up and keep queerly quiet? The problem is that what one person calls an agenda, we call our lives. No one should ever feel like they can’t talk about their life.

Over the years, the gay rights movement has often been characterized by hyper-sexuality. It’s a casualty of a cause that came to light in the heyday of the sexual revolution. While Middle America has understandably reeled over unsettling images of semi-nude men marching in parades, actual gay and lesbians in places like Kansas have focused on the throes of their ordinary, daily lives.  As certain politicians warn of radical plans to redefine marriage and as some preachers caution their congregations against accepting a “destructive lifestyle”, we’re all just trying to find a place in the communities we live. We can’t change the past, but we can create a better future. The fact is, most of us would rather have a life full of meaning and connection than a plastic, semi-pornographic existence.

Our lives are not any different than those lived by straight people; the problem is that if we don’t talk about them, people will assume that they are. “Talking about our lives” simply means we don’t change names or pronouns when describing who we went to the movies with. It means we don’t pretend to be single when we’re dating a person of the same sex. It means our relationships don’t have to be hidden from colleagues, friends, and family members. It means we as individuals don’t have to feel shame by or separation from the general populous. It means we can have a holistic, honest existence. Agendas are doctrines with systematic ways of achieving goals and objectives. Lives are adventures with indelible experiences and unexpected turns.  We all deserve to have the ability to live them to the fullest.

Some people have a problem with this, though. When we step out to be leaders within our cities or towns we’re sometimes accused of trying to promote maleficent schemes. The fact is, those of us who teach school just want to educate kids. Those of us in the medical field just want to aid people who suffer. Those of us who lead community groups just want a better city. Doing what you’re called to do and being surrounded by the people you love is what life is all about.  There’s nothing radical about that.

One day, we will live in a world where differences don’t matter. As we progress toward that day, though, it’s important that we have an open dialogue. The most basic way to do that is simply to be you.  Don’t be fool into thinking tacit tolerance via a request for silence is an authentic form of acceptance. It’s little more than a convenient way for people uncomfortable with us to not have to deal with their own uncomfortability. Straight or gay, our only agenda should be living our lives as full and as honest as possible.

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