Civil Rights For All: The Making Of “The New Black”

by Yoruba Richen

Here is perhaps the most salient lesson I learned in making the documentary The New Black.

What goes unspoken–and unheard–in our national conversations is equally as important as what is said.

When, in 2008, an erroneous CNN poll laid the blame for the passage of Proposition 8 squarely at the feet of California’s black voters, and by extrapolation, the African-American community in general, the stereotype of black homophobia became a key talking point in our national narrative.

In-depth analyses later concluded the numbers were grossly exaggerated, including a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study that found support among African-Americans was “no more than 59 percent, nowhere close to the 70 percent reported the night of the election.” Population calculations revealed that black Californians, who make up just 6 percent of the state’s residents, simply lacked the numbers to affect the bill’s outcome. And still, the myth of black America’s “gay problem” persisted, as it continues to, despite so much contradictory evidence.

The immediate backlash from some members of the “mainstream” LGBT community was unexpectedly swift and pointed, with instances of ugly racist rhetoric aimed at the black community. For so many African-Americans–particularly those of us who live at the intersection of black and LGBT–it was a disturbing and disheartening response; a low point in the struggle for civil rights for all.

At the heart of this scapegoating was the black church, the African-American community’s institutional pillar.

Seen as most supportive of Proposition 8’s passage, black Christians and other religious members of the black community were almost uniformly excoriated and vilified by those aforementioned voices of blame. But as the debates over responsibility and guilt reached a fevered pitch, what was almost consistently left unspoken in the national conversation about LGBT rights was the fact that the black community is not a monolith.

And as always, those whose voices were once again left unheard in the national dialogue were the very people who had the most to lose–members of the black LBGT community. In that deeply revealing moment, it became apparent that the “mainstream” gay community has great strides to make on inclusion and outreach.

That the intersectionality of sexual orientation and race is a topic that must be more broadly explored within “mainstream” gay organizations for the LGBT civil rights movement to be truly representative. That the fight for marriage equality specifically, and gay rights generally, must include outreach to every community.

And that the ascription of any singular political or moral ideology to African-Americans as a population is a fallacious idea and a surefire losing strategy.

Each of these points were driven home to me as I made The New Black

, a film which examines the African-American community’s diverse responses to the issue of marriage equality and the LGBT movement for civil rights. In making the film, I was brought into conversation with African-American stakeholders on both sides of the aisle.

I spoke at length with pro-LGBT clergy who used the pulpit to speak in support of marriage equality, and I spent time documenting the words of others who were fighting to stop it. I came to know Sharon Lettman-Hicks, a straight ally who heads up the National Black Justice Coalition–the largest black LGBT rights organization in the country–and met folks in Sharon’s own family who voiced strong opposition to gay rights.

I talked with young black LGBT activists who had dedicated their lives to the pursuit of civil rights for all. In some cases, this support persists despite the loss of their church communities. Again and again, in the case of so many of those working in support of LGBT rights, I realized their voices had been left out of the larger national debate about gay civil rights.

And yet, it is now clear that their contributions to the fight for LGBT rights have been indispensable to the recent gains we’ve seen be made. It is critical that we rectify the glaring omission of so many voices.

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision to defang both the primary hindrance to national recognition of gay marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the greatest gain of the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s, The Voting Rights Act, an all-inclusive conversation seems all the more needed and urgent.

As we celebrate National Coming Out Day, let’s remember that the frontlines of the fight for LGBT rights are filled with representatives from every community.

What’s more, it is worth noting that there are recent gains–like the 2010 win for same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C., and the 2012 passage of marriage equality in Maryland–made precisely because of African-American support.

These voices and stories must be included and recognized. Otherwise, our national narrative on LGBT rights is not so much a conversation as a monologue.

Photo via The New Black