February is Black History Month. It’s an opportunity to recognize the people and events that have shaped the African-American experience. It’s an opportunity to honor the significant civil rights milestones that have been achieved on behalf of the African-American community. And it’s an opportunity to acknowledge that true social justice and equality haven’t yet been achieved – particularly when it comes to the intersection between racism and homophobia. Homophobia exists in the Black community, particularly in the Black religious community. Racism, both overt and subtle, continues to be perpetrated in the LGBTQ community. And as a result, many LGBTQ people of color feel as if they exist on the margins, not feeling fully accepted by either the black community or the gay community.
So how does one find a sense of acceptance when neither community fully accepts you? Eduardo Morales, a clinical psychologist at the California School of Professional Psychology-San Francisco, has developed a multi-stage model chronicling the identity development process of LGBTQ people of color. Anchored in the fact that a strong polarization exists between the gay community and many communities of color, Morales focuses the crux of his model on the issue of selecting an allegiance. Should they align with their ethnic or cultural community, or should they side with the gay community? Some may cope with this conflict by compartmentalizing their identities – perhaps creating a circle of Black friends, and a circle of gay friends, but never allowing the two circles to intersect. Others may choose to side exclusively with one group, particularly if it proves to be too messy and challenging to keep various circles separate. According to Morales, the healthiest resolution to this dilemma involves being able to develop a more fluid and contingent identity, moving from one community to another and maintaining an intact yet flexible identity.
That last note sounds great, right? I think all of us would like to move freely through the world, experiencing acceptance from within, while adapting to the demands of whatever environment we happen to be in. And many of us learn to do exactly that. However, for members of historically marginalized groups, acceptance doesn’t just come from within – in fact, that’s why communities develop in the first place. We seek community because we want acceptance and validation from others. We seek community in order to bind together in solidarity. But the challenge for LGBTQ people of color is that no one community will necessarily guarantee unconditional acceptance. One aspect of identity is accepted and celebrated, while another is devalued and denigrated. It’s a huge challenge to develop a sense of internal integration when our external communities are far from integrated.
All that said, I think change is in the works. Consider these comments made by Joy Freeman-Coulbary, published last week in the Washington Post in honor of Black History Month:
“I am African-American. And . . . I find it highly ironic that such a large contingent of my fellow African Americans oppose another minority—those who identify as gays and lesbians—having the right to marry and access all of the benefits and rights this institution confers. Such opposition is counter to the basic tenants [sic] of equality and human rights.”
And consider the following, excerpted from a letter printed this week in the Kansas City Star, written by Rev. Gerald M. Palmer:
“Today I call for the church to be the voice of equality for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters. The same elements of the church that sheltered the weary from the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination are there to shelter and comfort those facing prejudice and discrimination because of their sexual orientation. They are ready to again serve as echo chambers of voices calling out for love, social justice, equality and the end of religious-based homophobia. Homophobia leads to anti-gay violence, the fueling of HIV, the high rate of suicide among LGBT teens and other social issues that make life difficult for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender neighbors. That is why during this Black History Month, I lend my voice to the others who are calling for a new day.”
I, too, lend my voice in the calling for a new day.