In the 21st Century, the Gay Experience is the American Experience

Michelle Obama addresses the DNC, bringing gay Americans into the fold of the American dream.

“…and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love, then surely, surely, we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American dream.”

After a series of equally moving assertions that paid tribute to how women, labor workers, immigrants, and African Americans have augmented the American experience, Michelle Obama finally brought LGBT people into the national fold with these words. Uttered by the First Lady during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, their inclusion in a prime-time address proved that the contributions of gay Americans have now become part of our public consciousness. It was an understated moment that capsized a history of our collective story unfolding in the shadows. In the 21st century, the gay experience is the American experience.

We are a renegade nation, set free by our own will from a regime that once oppressed the essence of who we are. When the thirteen colonies rebelled against England and fought the Revolutionary War, we established a precedent no one alive in 1776 could have begun to comprehend. In winning independence from our mother country, we unknowingly won the war on self-determination for all groups of people. Of course, the white, Angelo men of that time never dreamed that this feat would one day foster a nation where a black man would lead the free world only after dislodging a powerful, savvy woman as his primary competitor. Though immigrants themselves, our founders could not have fathomed that two centuries later we would be a multi-hued nation where people of all races and cultures inter-mingle, inter-marry, and melt together to form one united front. It goes without saying that this same group of men, many of whom helped author the original sodomy laws, would not have understood the concept of gay rights. There in lines the true American experience: the capability of a smart and determined people to evolve.

When we shift collectively, we allow for transformation individually. Though a student of American government and an active participant in the democratic process for well over a decade, I’ve never felt that I was part of that coveted American dream. Accepting the fact that I’m gay meant coming to terms with the reality that I’d be shortchanged the ability to have my own family. Sure, in a free society individuals can make whatever arrangements they want, but most honest gay people will tell you that legal equality and social acceptance are fundamental to basic feelings of self-worth. No one should ever believe that they need the approval of others to live their life; nobody should ever live knowing that their life in an anathema to the very fundamentals of their family or their community, though.

For too long, that was the gay experience. Being out meant you were an outsider. That basic American ideal that we can come from anywhere and build our own success—with the people want to share it with—has long eluded us. Legally it still does. Only six states offer marriage equality.  It’s legal to be fired from your job because of your sexual orientation or your gender identity in many locales.  Socially, though, America seems to be having a rendezvous with our own destiny when it comes to LGBT folks. There’s a reason Michelle said those words in her address: she knows they finally resonate.

Today, gay rights don’t just matter to people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. They matter to our parents, who watched us struggle to come to terms with who we are and just want us to be happy. They matter to our siblings, who want our families to be seen as equal to theirs. They matter to our grandparents, who might not understand everything about our lives, but who nonetheless understand the meaning of unconditional love. They matter to our co-workers, who value our talents and contributions and want us to have the same quality life they are afforded. And they matter to our friends, who choose to be in our life because they celebrate the unique sparkle that makes us who we are perhaps better than anyone else.

We are still very much in the troughs of this transformation. We have a long way to go before we are truly able to fully claim the American dream. We have, however, reached a critical point where that dream is within sight. I never believed I would have the chance to boldly stand at an altar with the person that I love. In fact, I never really believed I was worthy of love. When you aren’t included in the collective value of your community, it’s easy to downgrade yourself and your potential. That’s why collective shifts are so important; they can alter the tectonic platelets of individual’s psyches. Today, I look forward to one day standing at my own altar with pride.  I hope you do, too.


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.