Michael Crawford And Aisha Moodie-Mills Discuss Invisibility, Closeted Black Celebrities And More
In January Gay Voices began its Voice To Voice conversation series with a collection of interviews between LGBT authors discussing queer topics and issues related to writing.
Now we continue, in honor of Black History Month, asking prominent, accomplished and incisive people who are black and LGBT to join the Voice To Voice series to help foster a better understanding of the issues and challenges that arise at the intersection of both communities.
Today we bring you Michael Crawford and Aisha Moodie-Mills.
Michael Crawford is Director of Online Programs at Freedom to Marry where he manages the organization’s websites, email program, online fundraising, and social media presence. He was a leading strategist for the successful campaign to win freedom to marry in Washington, D.C. Michael was named as one of The Advocate magazine's 2009 People of the Year and one of The Washington Blade’s Ten People Who Make Us Proud. He was awarded the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance Distinguished Service Award in 2010 for his work to win marriage in Washington, D.C. He was a 2011 fellow in The Pipeline Project’s 21st Century Fellows Program.
Aisha C. Moodie-Mills is a political strategist who serves as the Advisor for LGBT policy and racial justice at the Center for American Progress (CAP). She has been recognized as one of the top “Forty Under 40” national gay and transgender leaders by The Advocate magazine, and as one of THE ROOT 100’s emerging and established leaders in the African-American community. Aisha was a key strategist and spokesperson who led the marriage equality campaign to victory last year in Washington, DC. She and her wife were among the first same-sex couples to receive a marriage license in the District, and their wedding was the first lesbian wedding to be featured by Essence magazine in their popular online “Bridal Bliss” column. The couple pens the political and lifestyle blog Living, Loving, and Laboring OUT Loud, or threeLOL.com.
Here, Michael and Aisha discuss invisibility, the lack of ties between the black and LGBT communities and closeted black celebrities.
Michael: We’ve known each other for a number of years and have recently spent more time engaged in conversation around LGBT people of color, politics, and media visibility as a result of being fellows in The Pipeline Project's 21st Century Fellows Program. I want to pick up on those conversations in light of some recent events.
To me, it's become increasingly clear that a key challenge to the advancement of black LGBT is our invisibility as black people within the LGBT community and movement and as LGBT people in the black community. Our inability, thus far, to show up in larger numbers enables the LGBT and black communities to largely ignore our existence. That becomes especially mind boggling when LGBT organizations talk about engaging the black community, but often fail to see black LGBT people as a natural bridge and conduit to making that happen.
One clear example of this, is when marriage advocates ask why hasn't the NAACP been more visibly supportive of the fight for the freedom to marry even as families headed by black gay couples are absent from the public education and media campaigns being used to build support for marriage. To me, it seems an obvious tactic to feature the very people who can serve to most effectively engage the black community because we are also part of it.
On the other hand, when you and I worked as part of the campaign to win marriage in Washington, D.C. in 2009, one somewhat surprising thing I found was the reluctance on the part of a lot of black LGBT to be visibly involved in the campaign. It's true that there were black gay people who had taken on leadership roles including amazing activists like Nick McCoy, Jeff Richardson, and Sultan Shakir, I had hoped that we would see and outpouring of activism by black LGBT people materialize.
To me, those things are two clear reasons why despite the strong support of black leaders such as Julian Bond, NAACP President Ben Jealous, and Rep. John Lewis, we haven't seen stronger ties between the black and LGBT communities.
Aisha: Michael you touch on what I believe to be the greatest hindrance in our quest to change hearts and minds and achieve full equality in America. The invisibility of the communities that suffer most from unequal laws and anti-gay policies. As I discuss in my new report "Jumping Beyond the Broom: Why Black Gay and Transgender Americans Need More than Marriage Equality," it is black LGBT people (along with low-income LGBT, and other LGBT people of color) that have the most at stake in our fight for equality, as they are the most marginalized by anti-gay bias. Families headed by black same-sex couples are more likely to raise their children in poverty, black lesbians are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, and black gay and transgender youth are more likely to end up homeless and living on the streets.
There's no question that black LGBT people have a key stake in moving equality forward, their livelihood and quality of life depends on it. So I, too, am miffed by the tendency of the broader LGBT movement to leave them behind. Doing so limits our ability to gain empathy and support from the black community which polling has showed has been slow to support marriage equality in particular. The LGBT movement thwarts their own progress by perpetrating the myth that LGBT issues are white, middle class issues -- and that is exactly what they do when they fail to highlight the diversity of the community. The case could be made that all of the LGBT priority headline issues would benefit black LGBT people most: employment protections would bridge the gap for black transgender women who suffer the highest rates of joblessness, marriage equality would offer economic security to vulnerable black gay families, and since black lesbians were most affected by "don't ask, don't tell," abolishing the policy helped them most.
Yet these facts, and the stories behind them are all but absent from the national dialogue. It is no wonder then that black LGBT people do not see the LGBT movement as the catalyst for change that will enhance their lives. And it is no wonder then that the black community in general is relatively disconnected from the LGBT movement since civil rights leaders' support of LGBT issues is most often billed as support for "those folks" from "that" movement, rather than support for "our folks" -- LGBT people of color within their own constituencies.
Michael: I wonder how much the lack of visibility and engagement of black LGBT people in advocating LGBT issues impacts what's seen as the LGBT agenda versus a disconnect between white LGBT people and black LGBT people because of race.
I think about marriage 24/7 partially because it's my job, but also I see how critical its benefits and responsibilities are to families including LGBT families of color. But, when we talk about the issues impacting black LGBT people, we sometimes downplay the role that marriage has in providing healthcare, reducing taxation, and enhancing protections for children. And, I have previously been accused of working for a "white gay agenda" because at this time I am focused on marriage.
If more black LGBT people were involved in LGBT advocacy would that mean an expanded set of priorities as well as a better understanding of how issue such as marriage impact the black LGBT community? I think it might.
I admit that I tend to see things from a political perspective, which probably skews my thoughts on the issue.
Aisha: Indeed, we need to expand the priorities to include kitchen table quality of life issues you mentioned like health care, childcare, and family protections. That's exactly why the FIRE Initiative at CAP was born, to expand the conversation beyond just the politically expedient issues like marriage quality (which of course is critical to achieving full equality) to those that also boost people's lives.
There is definitely a cultural issue at hand that we need to address with regards to white LGBT and black LGBT people that ties into the lack of visibility issue we started discussing.
Michael: I'm also interested in how we expand the number of black LGBT activists whether doing work in the LGBT or black communities. I think we lose a lot in terms of agenda setting if we are not involved in visible ways.
Aisha: True, but it's not as simple as just finding a few token black gay folks to participate for diversity sake. Having a place at the table is important, but doesn't always translate into a place on the agenda. To do that we need to have a clearly sense of the priorities of black LGBT people and their families and the best ways to address them, but until recently we've only looked at LGBT issues through the mainstream, middle class lens. We also need to be more sensitive and responsive to the pressures black LGBT face within their own communities that make some slow to rise up and advocate on their own behalf. Poll after poll shows that black LGBT people often feel more socially and emotionally connected to the black community than they do the LGBT community, our identity is steeped more so in black culture than gay culture. So it would be naive of the LGBT movement to try and absorb them on their terms but not their culture, which is what I see happen time and time again.
Michael: I'm not talking about finding a few black LGBT activists to be tokens. I mean not just a place at the table, but also a place at the agenda setting and on the agenda. In the LGBT organizations I've been involved in, I have often been one of a few black people, but I never let that shape how and when I articulated my point of view. True, I come from more of a middle class situation, but that wasn't always so. My family was poor and I grew up in that environment. A key thing to challenging the overwhelming whiteness of the LGBT movement and political agenda will be black LGBT people making ourselves visibile and not being afraid to upset the applecart.
I admit that I have found it easier to challenge the LGBT movement on racial inclusion that to engage the black community around LGBT issues. That's probably because of fear of rejection that I don't worry about with the LGBT movement. I say that not because I think the LGBT movement is more tolerant, but instead, because I have less of a fear of not being included in the LGBT community.
Aisha: Thanks for sharing your psychological process on engaging the community, as I think it's an example of the fear that black LGBT people in general have of being excluded from the black community -- hence the hesitancy to stand front and center on LGBT issues even though they benefit them directly. That is a critical issue to unpack, and we saw that as a challenge in the District of Columbia when we were organizing support for marriage. In my own experience, having been raised by black grandparents from South Carolina, growing up in a black Baptist church, and then going on to work for the Congressional Black Caucus, I've felt the "don't ask, don't tell policy" on LGBT people and issues within the black community play out. The sheer silence around my sexual orientation and long-term relationship from those who otherwise cared about me and supported me as a black woman was deafening. And I admit that the fear of losing that support kept me in the closet much longer than I should have been. The LGBT community must be challenged but so must the black community.
Michael: It's been interesting seeing your growth and you becoming more confident in your identity as a lesbian. And, if there are people like you and me who are pretty confident, some would say "too confident," have fear around engaging African-American people around LGBT issues, I wonder what that means for efforts to encourage more black LGBT people to be open about the sexual orientation and gender identity, not just in the LGBT community, but also in the black community. More importantly, how can we change that dynamic.
Aisha: Isn't that the million dollar question? [Laughs] Well, I think that as with most issues we must work at a variety of levels to change hearts and minds. The most difficult work often is having conversations with the people closest to us -- our families, friends and faith community. But I think that popular culture is critical in paving the way for acceptance of LGBT issues, especially the black community. There are few black cultural icons, celebrities, political leaders, athletes or other public figures that have come out as LGBT. Queer black youth do not see themselves reflected in the popular culture they identify with: black culture has few positive and affirming images of black LGBT people, or black same-sex relationships -- images that are needed to demystify black LGBT people and challenge stereotypes. More visibility in popular culture will go a long way to change attitudes in the black community.
Michael: That brings up the issue of closeted black celebrities. I mean, we've all heard the rumors about this rapper and that actor being on the DL. Those rumors and those people, I think, do harm by remaining closeted. They further the notion that being gay is something to be embarrassed about or something that needs to remain hidden when they could play a vital role in changing attitudes in the black community about gay people. I get that people should be given space and time to come out on their own, but to whom much is given, much is expected.
Aisha: I agree 150%! We can't expect the black community, the LGBT community, or anyone else to respect and value us if we do respect and value ourselves. Visibility helps to change attitudes but information can help to change minds. That is why it is also important that the LGBT community -- as well as the civil rights community -- elevate the data we have on black LGBT people in our political and policy debates. It's difficult to ignore data and information that demonstrates disparities faced by a subset of the population. The challenge I see with the narrow focus of the LGBT community's priorities is that there is little thought about what we do once we "win." Winning marriage is not going to reduce the economic disparities poor LGBT face for example, so will we just abandoned ship and declare victory in equality once we win? Or will we continue to work on family policies, employment policies, etc. to ensure that marriage or no marriage; LGBT people are not left behind?
Michael: I agree. The LGBT movement has not thought about what happens once we've won. I think if we spent more time envisioning what that would look like, we'd have a radically transformed movement that would engage more people -- LGBT and straight.
For more information about Michael Crawford, follow him on Twitter.