A thinly veiled attack on marriage equality

I always worry when someone starts a talk by explaining how much they “really really care about marriage equality” but

The Center for American Progress held a panel discussion yesterday titled “Why Black Gay and Transgender Americans Need More than Marriage Equality.” My ears immediately perked on hearing the title, since it sounded as if it were echoing the argument making the rounds of late that the battle for marriage equality is somehow anti-trans because it doesn’t help the trans community, even though it does – those trans people who are straight can already get married, those trans people who are gay cannot. The larger point being made is that it’s wrong for our community to push for marriage.

With that in mind, I started listening to CAP’s panel, which is still on the Web, and within the first minute and a half the moderator said the following:

Marriage alone is not the silver bullet to deal with all the disparities black LGBT people face. So it’s important for us to think outside the box, and to work on more, and to multi-task in order to address the quality of life issues that the population faces. In fact, when you think about marriage equality, it didn’t save poor Carl Walker up in Connecticut who was a ten year old African-American boy who took his own life under the stress of being bullied because people thought he was gay. And marriage equality in the District of Columbia is not going to slash the high rates of HIV and AIDS that the black LGBT population here faces. So we must think bigger, and we must think of other policy priorities.


Gay marriage didn’t save a ten year old boy who killed himself after being bullied.  Was it supposed to? The Dream Act wouldn’t have saved him from being bullied either.  Nor did the stimulus.  Nor did the 2008 election of Barack Obama, apparently.  So should we back away from our support of those issues as well? This feels like misdirection, and I’m trying to understand what’s really going on here.

Then there’s her second argument, that gay marriage won’t decrease the HIV/AIDS rate.  I suspect that too was intended to be a red herring, as gay marriage wasn’t specifically intended to cure HIV. Having said that, can we really say that marriage equality won’t help at all?   Why do you think some gay men are promiscuous and have unsafe sex?  A) We’re men.  And, B) we’ve been told from the beginning of time that we will never, ever ever find love, and any love we find will be an abomination to our families and to our God.  Do you think that just might affect our ability to find love and settle into monogamous relationships, and more generally, our self-worth?  And do you think that a lesser ability to settle down, and low self-esteem, just might make us somewhat more willing to find love wherever we can get it, and in whatever form we can get it?

The next speaker talked about how marriage equality should not be “the” goal of the community (who said it was?), because “LGBT people of color” need education, health care, economic security, housing and feeling safe.  And white gay and trans people aren’t in sorry need of health care, economic security, housing and feeling safe (and I suspect for those with less money, education too)?  Again, this feels like a straw man.  It doesn’t sound like a gay rights (or trans rights) argument, it sounds like someone working with another non-gay organization or interest (say, a housing group, or welfare group) trying to get our community to work on their issues, rather than our issues.  Unless the argument is, perhaps, that we should have found a gay/trans angle to the stimulus bill, to the health care bill, and to mortgage reform – to get special amendments that would have particularly helped our community in those bills – then I’m all with them.  Our groups should have carved something out from each bill for our community and they didn’t. But I’m still not convinced that I want HRC’s top priority to be the stimulus bill or health care reform, when we already have “straight” groups working on those not-gay issues.

But are we really suggesting that millions of gay couples getting the opportunity to receive over 1100 federal benefits, not to mention the imprimatur of the state condoning our relationships, wouldn’t be a hugely important deal affecting our community on nearly every challenge we face?

And in any case, since when wasn’t the hate crimes bill about trying to make things safer for people?  Dan Savage’s anti-bulling “It Gets Better” campaign wasn’t about the same?  How exactly is the issue of safety for gay/trans kids, for example, not being addressed as a national priority in our community?  It is.  Perhaps not sufficiently, since we still have a lot more to be done, but it clearly is a priority for the community.  And how wasn’t “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – another huge priority the last few years – about economic security for gays and lesbians, black and white, in the military?  The US military is the largest single employer in the United States.  Military service is a huge opportunity for less fortunate kids to get a college education, and a job.  And now it has been opened up to gay and lesbians.  That’s great for the economic security of blacks and whites.

Next up, there was a mention of how the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate didn’t include a lot of discussion of the particular problems black lesbians face in the military.  And again, I have to ask how that set the fight to repeal DADT back?  The number one goal of the DADT battle was not to educate America about black lesbians.  It was to get the ban lifted, which would ultimately benefit black lesbians, white lesbians, white gay men, black gay men etc.  I’m just not understanding why the DADT battle somehow fell short because America didn’t learn more about black lesbians.  That wasn’t the point of the campaign.  And we won.  And now everyone, including black lesbians, is better off.

Next up, ENDA.  She argues that in the ENDA discussion, people aren’t talking enough about black trans women who face high unemployment.  So making black trans women the face of ENDA is the number one thing we need to do to help the bill’s passage in the US Congress?  Again, the question is what the ultimate goal is here, and what strategies further that goal.  Is it to get the bill passed so that black trans women, and all gay and trans people, have job protections, or is it to make black trans women the focal point of the campaign regardless of whether that helps or hurts final passage of the legislation, and regardless of whether that helps or hurts black trans women in the workplace?  I’d have been fine if they never mentioned white gay men being kicked out of the military at all, had it been show that that is what would have been needed to get the bill repealed.  If you’re going to argue that the strategy was wrong, then explain how your strategy would have better furthered passage of the repeal – because that was the ultimate goal, not simply giving everyone a fair chance to be heard, regardless of whether it advanced repeal.

Then comes as discussion of data.  She points out that black gay parents tend to be poorer than white gay parents.  And that black lesbians get fewer mammograms than white lesbians.  But is that an issue of sexual orientation or an issue of race?  Do white women, for example, get more mammograms than black women – generally?  (Here’s what I found on that: “The higher mortality rates for African-American women may result from barriers to getting
mammograms, include fewer board-certified physicians working in lower-income areas, providers who work in the area being less informed about preventive care, women being less likely to adhere to cancer screening recommendations, and time constraints that may limit patient education efforts, the researchers said.”) Again, a racial divide, not a sexual orientation divide.

As for poverty, are African-American parents statistically more likely to be less well off than white parents in America, regardless of sexual orientation?    Yes, they are:

“The poverty rate for all persons masks considerable variation between racial/ethnic subgroups. Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics greatly exceed the national average. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.”

So again this isn’t a question of sexual orientation, it’s a question of race in America.  Why wasn’t this mentioned in the talk?  Here’s more on poverty form the report CAP issued, tied to the panel discussion:

The existing research on black gay and transgender Americans reveals that this community is one of the most economically insecure in our society, despite the stereotype perpetuated by mainstream media images dominated by white, middle-class, gay and transgender people suggesting that gay people are more affluent than the general population.

Though black same-sex couples earn about the same median income (average of $41,500) as their black straight counterparts, they lag behind white same-sex couples ($63,500) in household income.

Households headed by black lesbian couples experience substantial disparities in earnings compared to their black married heterosexual counterparts, making $10,000 less. This gender wealth gap echoes analysis by the Williams Institute that shows black lesbian couples have poverty rates of 21.1 percent compared to just 4.3 percent for white lesbians and 14.4 percent for gay black men.

Further, black lesbians raising children are twice as likely to be living in poverty.

Compelling data, until you actually look at the data and see that the black community in the US has a higher poverty rate than the white community, and that women have a higher poverty rate than men.

So when you have a black woman married to another black woman the poverty impact is doubled because of race and gender, not necessarily because of sexual orientation.  Programs that help women in poverty will help two lesbian women in poverty the same as everyone else. And programs that help black people in poverty will also help two black women in poverty the same as everyone else. Why does this need to be a “gay” problem that gay groups focus on, when we already have poverty groups working on these issues, and it’s not entirely clear that the root of the poverty is their sexual orientation?

Take Sicle Cell Anemia.  It’s much more common in people of African or Mediterranean descent (that’d be me).  So it’s reasonable to assume that black gays and lesbians and Greek gays and lesbians suffer more from Sickle Cell Anemia than do their white gay counterparts.  Does that make Sickle Cell Anemia a gay issue?  She then goes on to talk about how black lesbians have higher rates of cancer, smoking and obesity than white lesbians.  Again, is that because they’re gay, or because of their race?

So I looked it up, and in fact, with breast cancer, for example, the problem appears to be one of race:

Life expectancy for women has nearly doubled over the past 100 years, from 48 in 1900 to 79.5 in 2000, yet minority women continue to lag about 5 years behind white women in life expectancy. For example, in the year 2003 white women could expect to live to 80.5 years compared with 76.1 years for black women.

Breast cancer mortality has been declining among U.S. women since 1990, but the decline has been much greater among white women than black women. For example, the 5-year breast cancer survival rate in 2008 was 69 percent for black women, compared with 85 percent for white women.

Although breast cancer death rates are falling, the incidence of new breast cancers continues to rise. Blacks and poor people are much more likely than whites and more affluent people to die from cancer. In addition, high blood pressure, lupus, and HIV/AIDS disproportionately affect women of color.

Female and black stroke patients are less likely than others to receive preventive care for subsequent strokes.

Then there’s obesity:

They were shocked to find that obesity related counseling was poor across the board, and even worse for black patients than white ones, regardless of their doctors’ racial identities.

Michelle Obama also recently warned about obesity being a particular problem in the black community. So the issue is not based solely on sexual orientation, if at all.  I’m happy to consider data that suggest sexual orientation plays a role – but that data is not what we’re being presented with here.

I’m going to give one more example, and then I’m going to stop, because the panel discussion goes on much longer than just this. She says that “44% of the LGBT homeless population are black LGBT youth.” What she doesn’t mention is that 42% of the nation’s total homeless population is black. So the LGBT numbers parallel that almost exactly. So once again, is sexual orientation causing this problem or is race? And what about homeless youth in particular?  I found this from SAMHSA: “Studies show differing compositions of race/ethnicity among homeless youth. Some show no difference among homeless youth and other youth in their surrounding areas; other found disproportionate representation among racial/ethnic minority youth who become homeless.” So maybe yes, may no.

This discussion, from the beginning, felt like a subtle dig at the marriage equality effort, and more generally a dig at the community’s other priorities, such as ENDA and DOMA. And watching the presentation, and hearing the speakers again and again fail to tell the audience that the “gay” problems they’re pointing to are actually the same problems faced by straight people in the black community as well, makes this entire presentation feel less than compelling.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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