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Karen Ocamb

Karen Ocamb

Posted March 9, 2009 | 08:05 AM (EST)

Tavis Smiley's Big Day


At a woman's rights convention in Akron, Ohio 158 years ago, a former slave named Sojourner Truth rose to speak, much to the consternation of many of the white participants.

Frances Dana Gage, the presiding officer, later described what happened:


The tumult subsided at once, and every eye was fixed on this almost Amazon form, which stood nearly six feet high, head erect, and eyes piercing the upper air like one in a dream. At her first word there was a profound hush. She spoke in deep tones, which, though not loud, reached every ear in the house, and away through the throng at the doors and windows....

What Sojourner Truth said then survives today as her "Ain't I A Woman" speech.

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?..."

Watching Tavis Smiley's 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOTBU) all day on C-SPAN last Saturday, I wondered if Sojourner Truth would have ever been invited to be a panelist if she said, "Ain't I A Lesbian?"

Every year, Tavis' SOTBU is appointment television for me. I find it informative and incredibly inspirational. This year was no exception.

But every year -- other than 2005 when AIDS activist Phill Wlison and politico Keith Boykin appeared during Tavis' "healthcare" summit in Atlanta -- I come away disappointed that there are no openly LGBT African American participants. Notice I say "open" because there have been occasions when my "gaydar" went "boing!" -- but truthfully, I'm not good at spotting closeted gays, especially among those who have "passed" as straight for so long.

Since the Feb. 28, SOTBU summit followed Barack Obama's historic election as the first African American president -- ushering in the promise of progressive change -- I figured Tavis would surely bend toward inclusion and include LGBTs among the representatives from Black America.

This year's theme was "Making America As Good As It's Promise" -- something the LGBT community in California (and nationwide) have been fighting for well before Proposition 8 stripped same sex couples of their "fundamental" constitutional right to marry.

And there is no bigger constitutional case than the one before the California Supreme Court on whether to invalidate Prop 8. Many civil rights groups (including the 100-year old NAACP -- Raymond C. Marshall argued for them before the high court) have filed amicus briefs supporting the challenge brought by gay rights groups on the premise that NO minority should have their fundamental rights put up to a vote and eliminated by a slim majority. What then becomes of the Equal Protection Clause of the US and California Constitutions? And -- who's next?

Surely this is a discussion worth having: should fundamental religious beliefs trump constitutional civil liberties? That is, after all, what the argument comes down to. Obama, once a professor of constitutional law, changed his position from fully supporting marriage equality in 1996 to now favoring marriage only between a man and a woman because, as he told Rick Warren, "God is in the mix." After Obama thumbed his nose at LGBT people by inviting Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, I asked if Obama even sees LGBT people, let alone cares - comparing LGBT people to Ralph Ellison's invisible man.

So what would Sojourner Truth say, if she had been invited to be a panelist on Tavis' SOTBU? An abolitionist, a suffragette, a free-thinking Christian, she wandered from town to town talking about freedom, despite the obstacles to her personal safety -- challenging the conventional wisdom of everyone clinging to stereotypes that obstructed another's opportunity to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Would she introduce herself by saying, "Ain't I A Lesbian?" -- whether she was or wasn't -- as a matter of conscience and social justice and identification with a largely invisible minority within a minority, oppressed by the mainstream and their own family?

Would Tavis have invited author and radical thinker James Baldwin to SOTBU? Surely no one today thinks Baldwin went into self-imposed exile in Paris simply because of racism in America. He wasn't a coward. He wanted the freedom to be who he really was - a gay man. Imagine if folks had accepted his version of "Ain't I a Gay Black Man?" -- -- "Giovanni's Room"- when he was alive?

So this year's SOTBU promoted Tavis' new book -- "Accountable: Making America As Good As Its Promise" -- the final in his Covenant trilogy. And during the discussion, he asked that he, too, be held accountable. So, Tavis, we will.

This year, there was a lot of focus rightfully placed on economics. But here, too, don't we LGBT people matter? Today it is legal to fire, harass or deny promotions to people in 30 states based solely on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and in 38 states, based on gender identity or gender expression. Barack
Obama
supports a law that would end such discrimination -- but it may take awhile to get that through Congress and onto his desk.

Meanwhile, the Williams institute at UCLA School of Law released a report last October showing the wide gap between straight and same sex African American couples in California, which the Institute says is home to the second-largest percentage of the nation's coupled black men and women. The study also shows that nearly 55 percent of black women and 11 percent of back men in same-sex couples in California are raising children.

But -- as someone else said during Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union: "Do you know who we are? We are the children of the one's who would not die."

And Ain't We LGBT?