Standing on the steps of the United States Supreme Court, in the midst of the joyous roar that greeted the court’s decisions on DOMA and Prop 8, Rep. Mark Takano of California was beaming. “I feel jubilation, I feel fabulous, I feel every gay word I can think of.”
Takano, the first out member of Congress from California, and so many others have earned those “gay words” and all the glittering adjectives they can find to describe the hard-won joy countless Americans are experiencing today. Sitting in my hotel room here in Charlotte, North Carolina — a state that just last year passed a ban on same-sex marriages — I kept staring at the bright, blank sky outside my window, hoping to latch onto a word of my own. I was happy, yes, but also heartsick. The much welcomed end of DOMA and Prop 8 comes just 24 hours after the Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act. As such, many queer people of color — myself included — feel conflicted, to say the least. (I won’t even entertain the word “bittersweet” here.)
The Voting Rights Act, essentially a cornerstone of the civil rights movement, is arguably as significant an issue for African-Americans as marriage equality is for LGBT Americans. My grandfather was one of the first black men in Memphis to drive buses for the city. When the daily clashes between civil rights activists and police began, he kept driving buses downtown, against my family’s wishes, so that marchers could get to the protest. My grandmother, one of the first black nurses in Memphis, was cutting coconut cake on her birthday when the radio in the living room announced that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot. The civil rights movement and the significance of the Voting Rights Act are as viscerally significant to my identity as the blood that connects me to my grandparents. As writer Michael Arceneaux, a black gay man, put it this morning on Twitter: “Shorter SCOTUS: Gays up, Blacks down.” If such a blunt assessment makes you uncomfortable, imagine what it feels like to be a queer person of color today.
Though it’s a coincidence that the court would issue rulings impacting both causes in the same week, the tension between influential LGBT leaders and minority voices within the LGBT community predates the Stonewall riots. Even the “official” memory of Stonewall tends to sanitize the image of the hustlers, drag queens, effeminate gay men, and trans people who were among the first to start fighting that fateful night at the Stonewall Inn. The task of balancing identities and causes, then, isn’t new to us, only more grating.
Frankly, I still marvel that a group of people with identities, lifestyles, and needs as diverse as the LGBT community ever manages to come together at all. The tension between race and sexuality is just as intense, for example, as the tension between how the LGBT community prioritizes the needs of cis gay men over those of transgender people.
Will the LGBT community, which so often has attempted, sometimes clumsily, to draw parallels between the fight for LGBT rights and the black civil rights movement, now champion the issue of voter rights? The back-and-forth over immigration reform and binational LGBT couples certainly illustrates just how complicated a prospect this can be.
As Audre Lorde writes in “Who Said It Was Simple,” a poem that examines the intersection of race, gender, and sex politics, “which me will survive / all these liberations.” Which me, indeed. There is so much work left to do, but I really was hoping that maybe, just once, I could dance without having to look over my shoulder.