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Is Marriage the Benchmark for Equality for LGBT People of Color?

by Michael K. Lavers
National News Editor
Saturday Jan 21, 2012
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Should marriage be the benchmark through which LGBT people of color measure equality?

A new report from the Center for American Progress concludes it will take more than marriage equality alone to effectively address long-standing inequities among black gay and transgender people. The report-"Jumping Beyond the Broom: Why Black Gay and Transgender Americans Need More than Marriage Equality"-specifically examines socio-economic, educational and health disparities among these groups.

The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 34 percent of trans people of color have an annual income of less than $10,000. Black LGBT parents have children at twice the rate as white LGBT adults, but they are twice as likely to live in poverty. Only 35 percent of black lesbians had mammograms over the last year, compared to 62 percent of white lesbians.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that new HIV infection rates among black men who have sex with men between the ages of 13-29 rose 48 percent between 2006 and 2009.

In the District of Columbia, more than 7 percent of black Washingtonians were living with HIV/AIDS at the end of 2008. Blacks were 52.2 percent of the District’s population during this period, but they comprised 75.6 percent of the total HIV/AIDS cases at the end of 2008. The District’s HIV/AIDS Administration further reported that 4.7 percent of black Washingtonians were living with the virus through the same period.

"All of these statistics together show us is that we need more than marriage," said CAP’s Aisha Moodie-Mills, who wrote the report. "We need more than marriage because over the last decade, in spite of the number of gains that we’ve had in the LGBT movement in general and the rights of LGBT people, we haven’t seen very much change in these disparities for black gay and transgender folks. So somehow they’re falling through the cracks and there’s something there that’s missing."

How does the movement effectively ensure that LGBT people of color do not fall through the cracks?

Activists, public policy officials and service providers who took part in a forum that Colorlines.com news editor Jamilah King moderated at CAP’s Washington, D.C., office on Jan. 19 stressed the need for LGBT-specific data that can provide a more accurate picture of the issues that this and other underrepresented groups face. They specifically called for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the U.S. census and other federal, state and local surveys.

"Most data collected from federal agencies-the data sets that I rely on to tell the story and uncover disparities and think about the resources that we need-do not do an adequate job of collecting sexual orientation and gender identity information," said Nicole Dixon, executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network at New York University. "As a result, we do not know what’s going on in communities and we do not understand the distance we have to go to close the gaps."

The report acknowledges a lack of data on black LGBT people, but it noted common themes found within existing research. These include health research that largely focused on HIV/AIDS among black MSM and the majority of recommendations to reduce disparities among LGBT people of color centered around marriage equality.

"That’s interesting because when we really dig deep into the statistics, we see that there are a whole lot of issues happening that are related to relationship recognition, but also economic insecurity, educational attainment issues and health and wellness disparities," said Moodie-Mills.

How can progressive organizations that serve people of color effectively incorporate LGBT-specific issues into their work?

"Reproductive justice and LGBTQ liberation, for us, is very much inter-connected and so we started those core values of bodily autonomy and integrity and self-determination and our membership really helps us to figure out a broader view of what does real justice looks like," said Kierra Johnson, executive director of Choice USA, a pro-choice organization based in Washington, D.C. "Everyone has an opportunity to have self-determination as it pertains to their ability to create family, their ability to access education, their ability to decide when and if to have sex, when and if to be pregnant, when and if to be a parent."

Gary Flowers, chief executive officer of the Black Leadership Forum, pointed to hate crimes as an issue on which LGBT and non-LGBT organizations can find common ground.

"Writing nigger on someone’s garage or writing an epithet that speaks to their gayness is a hate crime," he said. "If we advance our advocacy against hate crimes, than we are closer."

Framing the issue in a way that reaches a broader group of people is also important. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other advancements during the civil rights movement of the 1960s provide a potential road map.

"Out of that, we can say to the broader society, if you really are an American, then you let these folks be who they are in a self-determinant fashion," said Flowers. "That makes us American-not discriminating against people who are gay or discriminating against people who are black or for any other reason."

Michael Wilson, national director of Americans for Democratic Action, highlighted an LGBT person’s ability to have health insurance and visit their partner in the hospital to marriage equality opponents who said they oppose discrimination. "The only way you can do that and not discriminate is to evolve on marriage," he said, recalling those conversations. "If you want to discriminate, that’s what you say. If you want to be against discrimination, this is how you do it. There’s always a teachable moment."

While the message is certainly important, organizers and others who work among LGBT communities of color must acknowledge that those who live within them often carry a variety of identities. This is especially true among young people under 30.

"They absolutely expect to bring themselves as queer people, as women, as feminists, as environmentalists... into the room and expect policy and organizing and advocacy reflect all of who they are and who their communities are," said Johnson.

Dixon said this acknowledgment needs to trickle down to the policy level.

"Our policies should start from the intersections-if we design policies that lift up the most vulnerable in our society, everyone will benefit," she said, noting she believes marriage is a fundamental right. "Without an adequate education, access to affordable health care, economic security, housing and feeling safe, it is a right that many LGBT people of color will not be able to fully realize or enjoy."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.

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