by John E. Teamer, National Co-Chair, <R>Black & White Men Together
It is rarely acknowledged or recognized that the key participants in the Stonewall riot in 1969 that began the modern Lesbian/Gay Liberation Movement in this country were mostly ‘Colored Girls’. Ethnically colored, and painted to boot! Think of the spectacle! They were mostly Black, Hispanic, and Puerto Rican drag queens who took to the streets that evening, defiantly putting up barricades and angrily fighting back against the racism and homophobia represented by the fair-skinned police in their official blue uniforms. “Enough was enough! No More of this Shit!” Like Rosa Parks who sat in the wrong seat on that pivotal bus ride in Birmingham Alabama, these unlikely drag queens provided a spark that grew into a flame that became the Lesbian/Gay Liberation Movement.
Undoubtedly, the spirit of resistance that led to the overt actions of those queens at Stonewall, and their supporters around the country including San Francisco, had some roots in the Black civil rights movement of the early 1960′s. The relative success of the Black civil rights struggles, along with the dynamics of an oppressed group spontaneously resisting society’s oppression, was a strong impetus for lesbians and gays to ‘come out’ and fight back for their own civil rights. As a forty-eight year old Black gay man, I still become filled up with pride, can feel the emotions–anger, frustration and determination that drove them into action. I salute them, and draw strength from their example.
As the Gay community enters upon this twenty year celebration of Stonewall, it is evident that the movement has been sustained and has made many accomplishments on its behalf. However, it is important that lesbians and gays of color realize, acknowledge, and point out the fact that our position and role within the Liberation Movement is sadly lacking. We are usually excluded, uninvolved, forgotten, ignored, uninvited, and ultimately invisible to the greater Lesbian/Gay community, society at large, and even to ourselves.
There are powerful and varied reasons why we have accepted this lowly position, allowing our roles as activists to be usurped. Racism, sexism, and discrimination are still significant within lesbian/gay communities as well as in the general society. Homophobia, internalized homophobia and low self-esteem have battered our every effort to exist and still do. Most importantly we have been disconnected from our roots, our cultures, and from each other as lesbians and gays of color. We have not, until recently come together to form support systems among and for ourselves.
One positive outcome of the AIDS epidemic, which is finally being recognized as more than just a ‘white, gay disease’, has been to force lesbian and gay people of color to organize and support each other, to recognize that no one else can or will do it for us, to realize that we are all in this thing together, that we can do what needs to be done, and that our solidarity can be powerful! We can empower ourselves individually and collectively by building and supporting people of color organizations within the lesbian/gay community, by sharing our skills and whatever economic resources are available to us, and by organizing our peoples to enhance our political clout. The white lesbian/gay community has done it, it is our turn to turn the same trick.
Acknowledging the defacto conditions that exist for us within this country, it will not be easy. But the genocidal threat of AIDS, and the desire to proclaim our human dignity demands that we do it. What the hell do we have to lose? Lonely suffering and deaths from AIDS? Being forced to live in fearful, closeted existences by homophobic friends and relatives pretending not to know that we are queer? As lesbians and gays of color, we are no less human than our heterosexual or white counterparts, deserving of full dignity and quality of life.
I challenge every lesbian and gay person of color who reads this to act upon what has to be within you a desire to see changes made. Don’t think about it, join an organization that focuses on people of color issues! Convince your friends and lovers to become active also. Create new families that will support you in being who you are. Get in touch with your cultural and ethnic heritage and be proud of your identity. Do it now!
It’s not about being wealthy, or having educational degrees. It is about caring and positive self image and growth.
I also challenge the white gay community to examine its role in the empowerment of lesbians and gays of color. We are not your enemies or competitors, we are your brothers and sisters in a very homophobic world. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; none of us are free until we all are free. It is incumbent upon progressive-thinking, white organizations and individuals to recognize the racism and discrimination within our communities and to be willing to change, to become sensitive to the conditions and needs of lesbians and gays of color, and to actively seek to support our efforts. It is up to all of us, for the good of the greater lesbian and gay community nation-wide, to put the colors back into the prideful legacy that is Stonewall.
I commend all of the members of NABWMT, past and present, for the stand you have taken and the vision this organization represents. I thank you with all of my heart for being the family that has supported my own growth during the past nine years.
(This article was first published in The BWMT Bridge, a newsletter of Black and White Men Together, San Francisco Bay Area, June, 1989.)