Prop 8 Sparks Gay-Black Divide
Wanda Sykes Comes Out Amid Black Homophobia and Interracial Division Between Gays
By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
Nov. 19, 2008
When comedian Wanda Sykes disclosed during a rally in Las Vegas this week that she had been in a same-sex marriage since October, no one cheered louder than those who face the double jeopardy of being black and gay.
"You know, I don't really talk about my sexual orientation," said Sykes, 44, who stars in the television series "Adventures of Old Christine." "I didn't feel like I had to. I was just living my life, not necessarily in the closet, but I was living my life."
But living life in the spotlight -- as black and gay -- is twice as hard, according to other blacks who say they are stigmatized by society at large for their sexual orientation and again by their own homophobic culture.
Sykes, who was unavailable for comment, is one of only a handful of black, gay celebrities to protest California's Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban that was passed with the help of a coalition of religious groups, many of them black.
For blacks, the victory of President-elect Obama signaled the promise of a new era of racial equality, but gays like Sykes see Proposition 8 as an assault on their civil rights. And the aftermath of the vote has opened old wounds between gays and blacks.
Being black and gay is "pervasive in the entertainment industry," said Terrance Dean, who worked for MTV and other networks. "I've know many celebrities who are on the DL lifestyle."
"For people of color, they are not as accepting as they are for Ellen [DeGeneres], Rosie [O'Donnell], Lance Bass [former of In Sync], George Michael and Elton John. I haven't seen anyone [who is black and openly gay] on the national celebrity A list."
"We also get it at home from our parents and grandparents and don't want to bring shame to the family name," Dean told ABCNews.com. "We know who we are, but we don't out them."
Dean, who is 40 and wrote about coming out in his book "Hiding in Hip Hop," said he had to buck the popular black culture that worships "machismo, the whole bling thing and the gangsta thug lifestyle."
But, he said Sykes sets a more accepting stage for other black celebrities who are gay.
"Good for her," said Connecticut's Jason Bartlett, the nation's only state representative who is black and openly gay. "She gets it. You can be in love and be a success and still be black and gay. Too many of us are still in the closet and not really sharing our story."
"Being a minority is hard enough," Bartlett, who was elected in 2006 and only came out this year, told ABCNews.com. "We rationalize that it's easier to stay in the closet and survive."
ABC News exit polls found that blacks voted in support of Prop 8 and to ban gay marriage by heavier margins than other ethnic groups. The exit polls indicated that 70 percent of black voters supported Prop 8, while 49 percent of whites and Asian Americans voted for it and 53 percent of Latinos supported the ban.
Some charged that socially conservative blacks were responsible for the demise of gay marriage. Others said that largely white gay advocacy groups didn't do enough to persuade them.
And many blacks say that gay groups -- in six legal challenges -- have unjustly labeled their cause a civil rights issue.
Hiding the 'Down Low'
Bartlett's struggle mirrors that of many black gays. A successful mortgage broker with two adopted sons, he always planned to go into politics, but feared coming out might destroy that dream.
"You just don't," he said. "You have a lot of other things to overcome in life and you don't want that to be the one thing that holds you back."
Religious beliefs, the "machismo" of the hip-hop culture and a history of losing men to incarceration and health disparities all stigmatize black gay men, according to Bartlett.
So does homophobia, and an identity among black men known as the "DL" -- or "down low," black men who engage in homosexual behavior but otherwise lead straight lives.
In the midst of the gay marriage discussions in Connecticut, Bartlett finally came out in February and was reelected for a second term. Today, he also serves as deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition.
"We are at the intersection of race and sexual orientation and we needed an advocacy group that gives voice to that," he said. "We take it from all sides and white community doesn't get it."
The coalition, which has surveyed attitudes toward gays, reports that blacks are "more likely than other groups to believe that homosexuality is wrong, that sexual orientation is a choice and that sexual orientation can be changed."
Being black is part of one's race and therefore one's character. "I was born black. I can't change that," one California man reportedly said after voting for Proposition 8. "They weren't born gay; they chose it."
But Leslie Fisher, a 44-year-old lesbian and marketing consultant from Oakland, Calif., said, "This isn't about choice, this is about who I am. It's like saying, 'I respect you, but I can't stand you as a black person.'"
Fisher's family is supportive -- a gay brother who died of AIDS was the trailblazer -- but is still reticent to address her sexual orientation directly.
She faced religious condemnation from a close college friend and a cousin who had taken on a maternal role when Fisher's mother died.
"I didn't expect it and was totally blindsided," she told ABCNews.com. Her cousin would not allow Fisher to bring her partner for Easter dinner, saying, "It's my house and my rules."
"That hurt so bad and is something that sticks in my heart. To this day, our relations have been tainted," she said.
It's Sin vs. Skin
Judy Gilbert, Fisher's partner of three years and a black woman, said her family also refused to acknowledge her sexual orientation.
"They may be in denial," said the 46-year old environmental consulting engineer. "My mum still refers to Leslie as my 'friend' and 'roommate,' and my brother just doesn't want to deal with it."
LaDoris Cordell, a former California judge who is a black lesbian, said the question of gay marriage "touches on a primitive nerve, a palpable fear."
"It's one of the elephants in the living room," Cordell, who is now special counselor to the president of Stanford University for campus relations, told ABCNews.com. "It's sin vs. skin."
But the "roots go deeper" than homophobia, according to Cordell. Proposition 8 hit a "sensitive nerve," she said.
"There is talk in the black community that this is not a civil rights issue," she said. "I am a bit shocked because since when did oppression become a competition and when did suffering have gradations -- my suffering is greater than yours and yours doesn't count."
This issue, she said, will not be fought in the churches, but in the courts. Already six lawsuits have been filed by three California cities, a lesbian couple and various civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Black and White Gays Don't Mix
All argue that Prop 8 was a constitutional revision, not an amendment and requires higher level scrutiny than just a popular vote.
Several of the civil rights groups are already on the defensive. LAMBDA Legal said in a prepared statement this week that the "racial scapegoating was destructive and unacceptable."
"Blaming African-American or any people of color voters is foolish," said executive director Kevin Cathcart. "If we had 400,000 more 'no' votes from any racial, ethnic, age and religious group -- or rather, from all groups together -- we would have won."
But Karin Wang, vice president of programs for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, agreed that the civil rights groups could have "done more" to engage people of color on the issue. "This is not to say that the 'No' on Prop 8 campaign did not do anything all, but clearly in the aftermath of the election, not enough was done and now we have to ensure that the right leaders and groups -- both within and outside the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community -- are involved," she told ABCNews.com.
Emil Wilbekin, who was named one of the Top 100 most influential gay men by Out magazine, acknowledges the homophobia but also blames the overwhelmingly white gay community for practicing a kind of "institutional racism" where blacks are not welcome.
"Black gay people are not always accepted in the hierarchy of gay society, which is successful, with disposable income and second homes," said Wilbekin, who caused a sensation when, as an openly gay man he was appointed editor of Vibe, a magazine that serves the hip-hop culture. "The gay community is not one big happy family."
"If you go to Fire Island [a gay New York resort] in the summer, there's not tons of black people and if there are, they are not integrated," said Wilbekin, who is now 41 and editor of Giant magazine. "There is no sense of belonging."
Dating Web sites still smack of segregation with postings from those who say they don't want to date black people. At a recent benefit for a gay high school in New York City, Wilbekin said he mingled with "largely white, handsome gay men."
"We are outsiders and we band together to support each other," he said. "It's a double-edged sword. You take the homophobia, lack of support by the black church and you throw in economic and social aspects and then a kind of racism, it's a challenging situation."
But Wilbekin, who now volunteers with gay youth, agrees with Bartlett that high-profile blacks who are also gay, can do much to change attitudes.
"You have to end up being a role model and live by example," said Wilbekin. "I have young people coming up to me all the time and thanking me for being out. It's really touching and moving. But it's a bit sad, too. It's 2008 and we have a black president and people are still living in the closet."