‘Rev. Al Sharpton abandoned the message of queer justice, but he took the money.’
The Jena 6 case — in which Southern white law enforcement in Jena, La., unabashedly doled out biased treatment against six African-American high school students — harkens back to this country’s era of Jim Crow. And it is a no-brainer as to why there was a mass protest.
What boggles my mind, however, is the protest from many in our queer community toward the LGBTQ individuals and organizations that showed up in solidarity.
For example, Chris Crain, the former editor of The Washington Blade and the man behind the popular blog and syndicated column “Citizen Crain,” balked at Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC) president, Joe Solmonese, appearing at the rally.
“Why pick this case? It doesn’t involve discrimination of the type suffered historically by gay Americans. I would agree completely that there is racial discrimination in this country and that the criminal justice system suffers from prosecutorial abuse, biased jury verdicts and lopsided sentences based on race,” Crain wrote. “But … why pick the Jena 6, … a case of six bullies who beat, kicked and stomped a defenseless teen unconscious in a schoolyard, as the one for the GLBT movement to take a stand?”
When your identity, like mine, is the intersection of these two marginalized groups, the question is moot. Crain’s question is similar to the mindset of Alveda King, the niece of Martin Luther King, who said gays never had to sit in the back of the bus.
Alexander Robinson of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), the only national African-American LGBTQ organization in the country, showed his solidarity in a statement: “Earlier this summer, NBJC joined the NAACP in its effort to right the wrongs against the Jena 6. We cannot allow the injustice in Jena, La., or anywhere else in the country to go unnoticed or unchallenged and we need your support to do it!!”
Crain’s question, however, cannot be summarily dismissed, because it is an important one. But his question should be hurled at the Goliaths leading the Jena 6 protest and not at the Davids who followed African-American leadership.
For a different reason than Crain’s, I too, ask a question: Why a rally in support of these six black boys but not the seven black lesbians who defended themselves against an anti-gay attack and were charged with beating and stabbing a white filmmaker? The filmmaker instigated the violence by threatening them and actually trying to choke one of them in Greenwich Village in August 2006.
Because of poor legal representation, three of the women pleaded guilty to attempted assault and were sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation. Again, Jim Crow, noted for its residency “down South,” also shows its face here “up North.”
So why not a similar outrage coming from the African-American leadership? Is this also a no-brainer?
Cornel West, an African-American scholar and professor at Princeton University, wrote in “Black Leadership and the Pitfalls of Racial Reasoning” that present-day black leadership fails African-Americans because it’s exclusive of women and needs a gender analysis. “What most disturbed me [is] the low level of political discussion in black America — [its] crude discourse about race and gender that bespeaks a failure of nerve of black leadership.”
But the “failure of nerve of black leadership” is embedded in our very own Civil Rights model, a paradigm historically unabashed about its exclusion of its women and LGBTQ people. And this model of leadership refuses to change from our revered Martin Luther King to our noted opportunist Al Sharpton.
Bayard Rustin, the gay man who was chief organizer and strategist for the 1963 March on Washington that further catapulted Martin Luther King onto the world stage, was not the beneficiary of King’s dream. And in a spring 1987 interview with Rustin in “Open Hands,” a resource for ministries affirming the diversity of human sexuality, Rustin stated that he pushed King to speak up on his behalf, but King refused.
In John D’Emilo’s book “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” D’Emilo wrote: “Rustin offered to resign in the hope that he would force the issue. Much to his chagrin, King did not reject the offer. At the time, King was also involved in a major challenge to the conservative leadership of the National Baptist Convention, and one of his ministerial lieutenants in the fight was also gay. Basically, King said, ‘I can’t take on two queers at one time.’”
And while Jesse Jackson adamantly feels that LGBTQ people deserve equal protection under the law and that the Constitution should not be amended to ban same-sex marriage, he does, however, think the comparison between gay rights and the black civil rights struggle is “a stretch,” as he mentioned at a talk in March 1998 at Harvard Law School. “Gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution,” Jackson told his audience.
Sharpton knows both personally and politically how the Civil Rights model excludes a member of his own family — his lesbian sister. In the October 2005 issue of The Advocate, he stated, “I understood the pain of having to lead a double life in the system [since] we grew up in the church.”
At the National Black Justice Coalition’s Black Church Summit on Gay Rights in January 2006, he made another reference to his sister: “Black, gay, and female. Imagine the social schizophrenia.” He promised to take his message of queer justice on the road. But instead, as one of NBJC’s and HRC’s paid speakers at the event, he abandoned the message but took the money.
Those LGBTQ individuals and organizations at the Jena 6 protest were joining a broad collation of national and local civil rights organizations. While many in our queer community may think these individuals and organizations were engaged in the wrong act for LGBTQ justice and for the wrong reason, they are the ones who are wrong.
These individuals and organizations were doing the right thing, but working within a flawed model of African-American leadership.