07/24/2012 10:32 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Racial Privilege and Common Struggle

I have been a gay rights activist in Washington, D.C. for 32 years. On July 20, Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy called me on a referral from my friend, black gay activist Philip Pannell. Milloy wanted my thoughts on the disparity in political clout between black gay groups and white gay groups, as the International AIDS Conference was about to convene in Washington for the first time since 1990. Faced with this potential minefield, I naturally threw caution aside and blabbed for an hour about whatever came to mind. The connections Milloy's inquiry provoked in my mind made me decide to write some of them down.

Over the years, black gay colleagues have spoken to me many times about the greater influence white gays held. At one point in the 1980s, some of them asked Mayor Marion Barry why this was so, and he told them that white gays were better organized. So this has been a sore point for a long time. The reasons for such a disparity are not so surprising. The LGBT community reflects the diversity of society as a whole: white gays have more wealth and privilege and less history of oppression to overcome than their black counterparts. Greater privilege brings greater expectations. When you are born to certain privileges, you take them for granted. That gives you a confidence that is hard to acquire later in life.

Another factor is that most white gays came to Washington from elsewhere (I am an exception), while black gays are likelier to have grown up in the area. Many still attend the same churches they did as children. The proximity of family, if they are not supportive, can cramp anyone's style and cause them to avoid the limelight. Activism by its nature draws attention. Though I have joked about it, there is no Gay Activists Anonymous.

Many black gays, especially those from other places, especially the Deep South, have told me they lack support in their network of family and friends, which makes it harder for them to be open and public. There are heartbreaking stories; see my June 2007 article, "Before He Can Marry," about a black gay friend struggling with his identity.

Part of Washington's story is people of greater privilege spending it for the cause. Many people have approached me over the years who were not ready to step forward publicly but brought their concerns to me. In the long run, people's liberation requires them to step up for themselves. I cannot speak for a lesbian or a black person or a transgender person. I can, however, be less ignorant and more inclusive in my own advocacy by listening to them. Collaboration with others unlike oneself is not easy. Trust takes long cultivation, and harvesting an effective political alliance takes toughness and perseverance.

Building trust requires bridging cultural differences. Repasts, libations, and singing the Black National Anthem are not familiar features of predominantly white political meetings. Then again, cultural differences can be refreshing. I do not protest when a church lady insists on giving me a plate piled high with food. Starting a political meeting with a prayer and a hymn took more adjusting for me. On the other hand, I hear nothing controversial in "Lift Every Voice And Sing."

There are differences in priorities, though the wedding and anniversary photos from black friends appearing on Facebook contradict the claim by blogger Jasmyne Cannick that marriage is a white gay concern. Similarly, I have heard few black people use the expression "same gender loving," coined by activist Cleo Manago, who claims that "gay" is a white cultural construct. Oddly, social constructionism as applied to homosexuality is the product of white academics like Michel Foucault. By contrast, the term MSM, for men who have sex with men, is crucial to HIV surveillance because that is about behaviors, not how men self-identify.

If someone rejects marriage equality as a priority, saying she is more concerned about basics like obtaining health care, the answer is not to be dismissive but to make the case that legal marriage improves access to health insurance and other things that straight families take for granted. In D.C., the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance (GLAA) explained in our talking points on Defending D.C. Marriage Equality, "Marriage ... provides the most help to couples with the fewest financial resources."

Respect, however, means more listening and less explaining. It takes a lot of listening and learning for a white person who is not wealthy and who has to work for a living to recognize his or her privilege. I have heard first-hand accounts from black friends and coworkers about the manifold ways in which they can suddenly have second-class social status imposed on them, from "Driving While Black" highway stops to long waits for service in restaurants to being followed around department stores. That people who are subjected to this are not in a constant state of rage suggests remarkable discipline. It is easier to make excuses for stopping and frisking if you are never targeted by police based on your skin color.

While I think the divide between white and black in D.C.'s gay community is less stark than the verbal dichotomy makes it sound, it is true that many LGBT groups over the years have reflected a certain amount of monochromatic clustering, like people at a company picnic tending to gather with others like themselves. GLAA's leadership has been mostly white over the years, but there have been exceptions — most notably our late former president Mel Boozer, who addressed the Democratic National Convention in 1980 about being black and gay. But such exceptions hardly conceal the fact that there remains a lot of self-segregation.

Nevertheless, functioning diversity — of the kind where people are actually willing to work their way through uncomfortable conversations — can be found beyond the Benetton ads, interracial couples, racially diverse neighborhoods and restaurants like Busboys and Poets. As former Washington Blade reporter Rhonda Smith once put it, if individual groups lack diversity, we can have a diversity of groups that talk to one another. This in fact has happened, albeit imperfectly, in the Washington LGBT community's long history of coalition work, which has made victories possible on domestic partnership, hate crimes, condom distribution, and confronting bullying.

Black allies, both gay and straight, were critical to the success of D.C.'s marriage equality law, our movement's single greatest victory in D.C. The broad-based nature of that effort was reflected in GLAA's Distinguished Service Award citations from April 2010.

A wedding photo of Rocky Galloway and Reggie Stanley, one of the first same-sex couples married in D.C., was shown on the front page of the Washington Post on March 10, 2010. See my blog entry, "A News Photo That Says It All," from that day.

Also important to remember is that, unlike four decades ago, there are hundreds of LGBT groups in the D.C. metropolitan area now, thanks to our community's maturation. LGBT activism in D.C. is not only political but cultural, social, medical, athletic, and entrepreneurial. It would be hopelessly distorted to view such a well-developed community from the perspective of one specialty.

Effective advocacy is built on decades of relationships and learning and collaboration and studying past struggles. It is not a solo effort. You can see that from the acknowledgments on the inside cover of GLAA's latest policy brief, "Agenda: 2012." Its content stems from discussions among GLAA stalwarts, but is significantly enhanced by people from other groups lending us their expertise and insight.

President Obama is right: each of us who has achieved worthwhile things has had help from other people and the community as a whole. D.C.'s diverse LGBT community could never have come so far without hundreds of stalwart black community leaders, from HIV/AIDS activists and educators to community organizers, administrators and artists. Nor would our advances have been possible without allies like the local chapters of NAACP and ACLU, opinion leaders, and affirming ministers. Many of the latter formed D.C. Clergy United for Marriage Equality, which was launched at Howard University School of Divinity and played a crucial role in D.C.'s successful push for marriage equality.

Last September, on the Anacostia Coordinating Council's Annual Boat Ride, I sat at GLBT Affairs Director Jeffrey Richardson's table next to Ron Simmons of Us Helping Us. Ron and I have had our arguments over the years, but that day we just chatted and dished and laughed and enjoyed the day, and I thought here we are, still standing, still doing our best to serve our brothers and sisters after all these years. We owe it to those we've lost to keep the faith — and also to give one another credit for helping make a difference. There's always so much more to do, and we've endured such grief, that it's easy to lose sight of how far we've come. I think of a line from Cinque in Amistad, about summoning his ancestors in a crisis: "At this moment, I am the only reason they ever existed." Our familiar spirits guide us forward.

The pioneers, in fact, are still among us. While the pre-Stonewall generation of people like Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny have mostly passed on, their spirits — like those who fell to HIV/AIDS — are echoed in men and women everywhere around us, doing wonderful work and lifting up countless people. The twenty thousand delegates to the XIX International AIDS Conference are an awesome collection of talent, knowledge, determination and imagination. We carry on the struggle even as we teach its history to the younger generation.

Our remaining challenges are many, as is made clear by the continued need for an International AIDS Conference. Washington has the highest incidence of HIV infection in the country, and we are still struggling to find effective prevention messages. Many people of my generation have grown exhausted from the fight against AIDS and shifted to other priorities. Bullying continues to fuel the tragedy of youth suicides, which I addressed in my April 2009 article, "Strange Fruit." The connection of our work to other struggles, including those of religious minorities and immigrants, is something I explored in my August 2010 column, "In the Same Boat."

But despite so much unfinished work, there are exciting signs of a generational shift. During the past school year I volunteered as an advisor to several seniors at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools on their senior theses. They were wonderful kids, gay and non-gay. I got a sense of an eager new generation that takes LGBT equality pretty much for granted, walking on ground paved by the past two generations of activists. If they are at all representative, their generation's increased expectations will make a big difference.

That Washington Post front page from March 2010 speaks volumes about how our nation's capital has changed in a fairly short period of time. There is this already intact family — Reggie and Rocky with their beautiful little girls in their arms — and that picture and headline about their wedding opened a world of hope and possibility to the next generation, two years before the President and the NAACP endorsed our equality. They and the other pioneering couples, confidently facing a phalanx of news cameras, were the very picture of empowerment. That picture said to young gay people, who are coming out at younger and younger ages, "Here is your future." Or an option for their future. At those high schools, I saw kids ready to seize it.