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An unfair attack on white gays

A recent Times Op-Ed article exploits a double standard that says it's OK for certain groups to openly express bigotry.

By Kevin Naff

November 12, 2008

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In all the post-election commentary about California's passage of Proposition 8, perhaps none was more offensive and wrong than Jasmyne A. Cannick's Times Op-Ed article, "No-on-8’s white bias.”

Cannick's piece raises important questions about the politically correct double standards that govern debate of gay rights issues. When white evangelical Christians (or Mormons, for that matter) attack gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender people, the response is loud and harsh: Bigots! Homophobes! Haters! But when black religious leaders attack gays, which is a regular occurrence in many churches, the response is muted because, well, it's a cultural thing and we white people just wouldn't understand. Bigotry is bigotry, whether emanating from the pulpits of white churches or black ones.

Cannick writes, "But even I wasn't inspired to encourage black people to vote against the proposition. ... I don't see why the right to marry should be a priority for me or other black people. Gay marriage? Please. At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue."

The argument that many black voters are too preoccupied with more practical matters to think too much about gay marriage is not entirely illegitimate. But it's an argument for apathy, not a rational or legitimate justification for actively supporting discriminatory laws.

She continues, "The white gay community never successfully communicated to blacks why it should matter to us above everything else." No one ever suggested that marriage should matter to blacks or anyone else above all other things. All that we suggested was that a tyrannical majority shouldn't strip away hard-fought rights from a minority group. That is never tolerated for any group in this country -- except for gays and lesbians. Cannick also puts the blame back on the dastardly rich white gays for not doing a better job of educating black voters. Yes, gay rights advocates (black and white) need to do a better job of educating voters about our issues, but that doesn't absolve individuals from their responsibility to educate themselves about the ballot initiatives on which they cast their votes.

Cannick also writes, "Does someone who is homeless or suffering from HIV but has no healthcare, or newly out of prison and unemployed, really benefit from the right to marry someone of the same sex?" The answer is yes. Partners in a legal marriage enjoy a support network with many built-in benefits, such as access to a spouse's healthcare plan.

Then Cannick's screed takes another unfortunate turn: "To many blacks, civil rights are grounded in Christianity -- not something separate and apart from religion but synonymous with it."

Of course, when white Christians make such statements, they are derided as bigots. Is Cannick immune from that charge because she happens to be black? I think not. This fight, as Cannick ought to know, has nothing to do with religion. It's about the civil right of marriage that conveys a host of benefits denied to an entire class of people. Cannick is merely parroting the worst propaganda of the Proposition 8 fight that led voters to erroneously believe their churches would be penalized for refusing to marry same-sex couples.

Perhaps the most egregious passage in Cannick's opinion is this: "There's nothing a white gay person can tell me when it comes to how I as a black lesbian should talk to my community about this issue. If and when I choose to, I know how to say what needs to be said." It would have been helpful for Cannick to share her all-knowing and powerfully influential ideas before Nov. 4. Cannick suggests that the marriage movement is about white gays who are "racist and clueless." Tell that to the multiple black gay and lesbian couples that have been plaintiffs in marriage lawsuits across the country. The lack of equality under the law for gay families leads to too many destructive consequences to enumerate here.

She concludes by stating, "Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally 'get it.' ... Until then, don't expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue -- including with this black lesbian."

I don't expect to make inroads with someone so closed-minded as Cannick. But maybe next time, she could define for all the racist and clueless white gays just what the "it" is. We understand perfectly well the sting of discrimination, and I certainly don't need a lecture from Cannick on that topic.

Cannick's diatribe aside, it's not fair or accurate to blame blacks for the outcome in California. There's plenty of blame to go around. Black voters overwhelmingly supported Proposition 8, but so did white Republicans in Southern California. Voter turnout in the gay Mecca of San Francisco was among the lowest in the state. The "No on 8" campaign didn't respond quickly or effectively enough to the other side's misleading attacks. Thanks to encouragement by their church leaders, Mormons pumped more than $20 million into the fight, putting the "No on 8" organizers at a huge disadvantage.

Despite all the bad news, there is a silver lining. Too many gay rights advocates, particularly younger supporters, expect Americans to embrace our cause just because it's fair. They are finally learning an important lesson: Civil rights struggles aren't won in 30 years. This fight for full equality is going to take a long time, and many of us won't be around to enjoy the fruits of the labor.

But make no mistake: Minds are changing, and fast. Just eight years ago, California passed Proposition 22 in a landslide vote -- 61.4% to 38.6%. Last week, 48% of voters said no to Proposition 8, a 10% swing in just eight years.

And best of all, voters overwhelmingly elected Barack Obama, who will be an ally in the fight for equality even if he's not there yet on marriage rights. Obama's views on the subject are far more progressive than Cannick's. Indeed, change is coming; it's too bad Cannick can't see it.

Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade, the nation's oldest newspaper that focuses on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues.