Browse Tag: race

Racism and LGBT Rights: Where are the African Films in the South African LGBT Film Festival?

Originally posted at Gender Across Borders.

Today marks the 19th Out in Africa film festival, a South-African Gay and Lesbian film festival launched to celebrate the inclusion of the clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the South African constitution.

Headlining the festival is triple Oscar nominee Albert Nobbs, a film about a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Additionally, A Marine Story, an award-winning drama about the US military’s invidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy told through the eyes of a white American female soldier, and Kyss Mig (Kiss Me), a lekker lesbofliek which was named Best Breakthrough Film by the American Film Institute last year, will make their African film festival debuts.

There is, obviously, no shortage of films about women in the festival — an achievement worthy of note given how often the LGBT community is depicted as male. Yet, within the context of Africa, the LGBT community is also frequently perceived (and depicted) as white and western. So, the question is: where are all the black South African films in this African LGBT festival?

Out in Africa — which runs from March 23rd to April 1st, 2012 — states that its mission is to address the lack of visibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex individuals (LGBTIs) in South African social and cultural life in order to counter negative images of LGBTIs that prevail in traditional and religious communities after decades of apartheid repression i.e. segregation by skin color. Given the historical context of their mission statement, it’s hard not to wonder about the lack of racial diversity in the feature films.

Out of 9 feature films, just one of them is based on a black South African narrative: The Secret, a film about a married man in denial about his sexuality. This feature film is being paired with Paving Forward, a 16-minute short about the evolution of gay rights through the eyes of a lesbian love story. The pickings are slim for black South Africans eager to see their experiences reflected on film, but to be fair, these selections are part of just the first installment of the festival’s three-part format.

Last year,  rather than showcase new films in one long weekend (as is typical for many film festivals), Out in Africa implemented a new format of hosting three mini-festivals spread out over the course of the year in different parts of the country in order to optimize their outreach efforts (perhaps also to include more racial and class diversity?).  The 2012 second edition is planned from 27 July-5 August, with the third edition scheduled for 17-28 October 2012. So there’s still a chance that future installments will showcase narratives from South Africa’s black community, which faces marginalization not just along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity, but race and class as well.

The task of depicting LGBTI Africans in a manner that presents multiple and intersecting facets of their experiences is far from easy. But Out in Africa was the only LGBTI film festival shouldering this burden until Kenya made its debut with its OUT Film Festival in Nairobi last year. Originally meant to cater to just 60 people, the Kenyan festival ended up having to turn people away after over 200 people showed up, proving that there is a thirst for Africans (straight and LGBT alike) to see the lives of LGBT Africans reflected on screen.

However, film festivals can’t meet this need alone; the world needs more filmmakers to brave the relatively uncharted territory of producing films for and about LGBT Africa, a sure challenge given that many African countries have outlawed homosexuality, not just reinforcing the subject as taboo but threatening the lives of those who dare to even broach the subject with imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Hence, documentary films like Call Me Kuchu (about David Kato, the prominent Ugandan LGBT activist who was murdered last year), along with other South African films such as The Sisterhood (which follows transgender women farmers competing in a beauty pageant) and Waiting For (which explores the controversial issue of white lesbian couples adopting black children) are rare gems, which we should never take for granted; the filmmakers have taken huge risks in order to give LGBT Africans — whose identities are too often silenced and erased  — a chance to feel seen, a chance to feel hope.

From across the ocean in the US, a country with a deep-rooted history with racism and thus similar in context to South Africa, an African-American actress comments on the importance of seeing one’s identity reflected on screen:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself, and I don’t get to like myself enough…. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

To follow, Africans — perhaps even the ones who claim that “homosexuality is unAfrican” — will know that LGBT Africans exist if they see their lives represented more frequently on screen. Thus, beyond empowerment for the individual, the potential for cultural shifts brought about by nuanced LGBT films makes pushing for greater inclusion of African and Diaspora LGBT films in film festivals absolutely critical, especially if they’re taking place in Africa.

For its constitutional protections based on sexual orientation, South Africa is often hailed as the leader of gay rights in Africa. But it’s deep-rooted issues with racism and segregation, including the continued marginalization of black South Africans (LGBT or not), warrants that LGBT activists and filmmakers go the extra mile to ensure black South Africans are included in this post-apartheid’s picture of freedom.

Check out the Synopsis of The Secret and Paving Forward (the two black South African films featured): 

The Secret (Imfhilo): The closet was never fashionable, but living the DL is super trendy. Down Low means living under the radar as a straight man having gay sex, or having two separate lives. In Fanney Tsimong’s soap opera-like story of a gay man’s affair with a closeted married man, it gets neatly transported across the Atlantic from the US into aspirant township life. Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe’s plays Mandla, openly gay, good looking and searching for love. He bumps into old college buddy Thoriso at a birthday party. Thoriso is married to the controlling Thuli, bent on nothing so much as getting ahead in the upwardly mobile world of the BEE nouveau riche. As Mandla chases Thoriso, worlds and assumptions are overturned and lives altered forever. The climax of the film is a credit to the writer – there’s no preachy quick-fix, rather a reality check of what’s really going on out there. Intriguing contemporary South African cinema. (Dir: Fanney Tsimong SA / 2011 / 45min)

Paving ForwardMosiuoa Lekota is hardly the man you’d expect to be headlining Lembethe’s snapshot of where black gay rights are today. But, keeping it real is Nosipho Mahola with a tale of lesbian love that has torn her family apart. (Dir: Mthokozisi Lembethe SA / 2011 / 16min)

For more information about the Out in Africa film festival, visit www.oia.co.za

Not (Just) Another Queer Movie: My Afrofeminist Review of Pariah

Originally published at Racialicious.com

Wait a minute, not all lesbians in movies are white, rich or middle-class with no bills to pay? You mean “life” doesn’t get put on pause so that all gay people can experience the thrill of coming out at summer camp? And, there are other LGBT issues worth talking about besides marriage? Gasp! And Hallelujah for Spike Lee protégé Dee Rees’ Pariaha film women of color (and other marginalized groups) can truly relate to.

On the surface, Pariah is a coming of age story about an African-American lesbian, Alike (pronounced “Ah-LEE-kay”) in Brooklyn. But dig deeper, and you’ll see a smart and layered tackling of gender, sexuality, religion, and even class — an essential layer of complexity needed to accurately portray the diverse experiences of queer people of color, long been absent from mainstream LGBT films. Rather than depicting homophobia as the only kind of oppression experienced by the LGBT community, Pariah’s world is a varied socio-cultural landscape in motion featuring an all-POC cast, led by Nigerian actress Adepero Oduye’s performance as 17-year old Alike.

Pariah’s urban setting almost eliminates the need to discuss race at all (or, as in popular case of experiencing race through white characters, explain it). The audience is plopped, un-apologetically, right in the middle of a story filled with black characters, making way for intersectional observations about class and gender roles within the story’s cultural context.

SPOILERS UNDER THE CUT

The film opens with an unfocused, low-level street shot of baggy jeans, dangling belt chains, hard-soled shoes, and the dirty pavements of Brooklyn. We hear the sound of women socializing, and then some unexpected song lyrics:All you ladies pop your p-ssy like this. We’re immediately placed in the scene of a nightclub, in front of a stripper who is somehow managing to slide up the pole, and slapped in the face by Rees’ over-the-top interpretation of coming of age as a young lesbian of color: loud club music, a hyper-sexualized social environment, a group of tomboys (“studs”, “butches”, “aggressives”) throwing money at a stripper in a bothersome (yet, admittedly, amusing) re-enactment of heterosexual masculinity, while a small voice in our heads may be wondering if we’re supposed to be down with all of this.

But just as we are beginning to question what we’re doing in the theater, we meet Alike and see that her world is upside down, too, literally. The frame is rotated upright to reveal a slender Alike, dressed awkwardly in a wide-striped, oversized polo, black do-rag, and fitted lid, staring at the pulsating pelvis of the stripper, and doing so with a confused, yet curious expression on her face.

Her discomfort is made even more apparent when we meet her best friend, Laura (Pernell Walker), a huskier and much more aggressive tomboy (who claims to “get more p-ssy than yo’ daddy”), acting as Alike’s enthusiastic chaperone in this bizarre rite of passage. Dressed in a red lid and popped-collar track jacket, Laura embodies masculinity more confidently; after she finally gives up trying to get Alike to “get that punani“, she proceeds to grind with a heteronormatively feminine (“high femme”) black lesbian in a gender-polarized mating dance.

Conversely, as Alike heads home on the bus alone, we see her vulnerability exposed under fluorescent lights: she begins to slowly strip herself of the masculine lesbian identity she’s hiding from her family. She reluctantly slides the lid and do-rag off her head to put her natural hair (twisties) in a ponytail, pulls off the over-sized polo to reveal a fitted tank top hidden underneath, and finally, puts a pair of earrings back on her ears in a heart-breaking act of gender conformity.

Despite the nuanced depiction of gender and class, Pariah doesn’t hit us over the head with analysis: the characters don’t explain why they each dress differently (urban streetwear to preppy to chic, and more), why they are of different financial circumstances, or why their accents are different; they just are. Alike, for instance, is evidently a “softer” tomboy as described by some girls at her high school. She’s also an aspiring writer, and (most likely due to the part of the city in which she was raised) has very different diction from Laura, whose vernacular is filled with slang, curse words, and the N-word as a term of endearment. In turn, Laura’s friends behave in a manner that’s very similar to cisgendered masculinity: they wear all men’s clothing, drink beer, play poker, and (of course) have beautiful girls sit on their laps as trophies. Yes, lesbians can be sexist too, but Dee Rees’ thoughtful character development steers the screenplay away from the danger of telling a single story.

In the past, the dominant movie narrative that existed for lesbians on screen, for many, depicted an unrealistic social context: all lesbians are white and heteronormatively feminine (AKA “lipstick lesbians” like Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound), they have sex by making a performance of moaning the same way the women in straight porno films do (too many to name, but the most annoying sex scene for me comes from indie flick Chloe — an extended makeout session, really?). Meanwhile, no one seems to have any money problems as they can throw huge weddings they don’t even show up to (Imagine Me and Youthe infamous L Word non-wedding) and 2-dimensional side characters with no real lives of their own, exist simply to react (whether negatively or positively) to the “lesbian” issue (a la the saintly and unfortunate husband archetype in The Hours).

In many of these films, homophobia (besides the expected relationship drama) was often presented as the singular obstacle to the main characters’ happiness. Thus, the combination of the afore-mentioned archetypal elements and the perpetuation of single-issue hurdles for LGBT characters, for me, wove together a series of feel-good lezzie flicks that all said the same thing: “Please leave these two pretty and privileged white girls who just want to fall in love and live happily ever after in their color-blind world (which, by the way, contains no people of color) alone, okay?”

Considering what the film industry was like even just a decade ago, most people would concede that in the face of Hollywood’s focus on hegemonic straight relationships, movies that featured gay or lesbian characters at all were pushing the envelope. Indeed, many of us queer women were thrilled when The L Word came out. After all, it was on Showtime — widely accessible to our straight friends, who we eagerly organized viewing parties with so we could watch them experience what our lives as lesbians were like, sort of.

We didn’t all wear high heels and runway dresses; the lesbians at the clubs I went to certainly didn’t sport that level of Hollywood glam. Many of us were puzzled by the main characters’ financial means to spend lavish amounts of money eating out at fancy restaurants, throwing parties in LA mansions, and getting married, but we tuned in every week to follow the lives of a group of rich white feminine lesbians, because there weren’t any alternatives. Plus, sitting through a film with gay characters was a sure way to test a reaction from your friends before you came out. The show’s false sense of reality gave us hope that if we were to come out to our friends and decided to live our lives openly as gay people, life would remain relatively normal; we’d have girlfriends, get married (that’s what all gay people want to do, right?), adopt children, experience the occasional awkward family dinner, but ultimately, live happily ever after.

This is what sets Pariah apart from (white) singular-narrative LGBT films; it debunks the myth that life begins and ends between the point of self-acceptance… and a wedding.

The movie’s skillful orchestration of empathic story-telling and strong performances enables us to move beyond the scope of Gay and Lesbian 101 to tackle other kinds of oppression, including the further marginalization of LGBT people of color. Alike’s family lives comfortably, allowing her to spend most of her time socializing and pursuing her interest in the arts. But Laura, who is the same age as Alike, was forced to drop out of high school when her mother kicked her out, and works overtime to help her sister (who she lives with) pay the bills while studying for her GED. Through Laura’s narrative, the audience is given a glimpse into the experience of many LGBT youth, who are forced to seek refuge and community outside of their families, risk being homeless for being themselves, yet, must keep on.

It’s a sad observation, but then again isn’t it high time that gay films which grab major distributor attention do more than just perpetuate extremely tragic or fairytale conclusions to a now-engaged and curious public, and present LGBT stories in all their diverse manifestations, which does include the narratives of people of color, working class people, homeless youth, and sometimes, people who are all of the above? It’s no wonder thatPariah — along with peer releases Circumstance and Gunhill Road — has received critical acclaim for its much-needed exploration of LGBT people of color living life at the intersection of many types of societal challenges.

But don’t get it twisted. Pariah is definitely not a sob story. In fact, the movie is filled with timely and endearing moments of humor and awkwardness that make the hold-no-punches backdrop easier to swallow; the familiar sibling banter that ensues when Alike’s younger (and brattier) sister threatens to tell on her for having a “gross” flesh-colored dildo, a cringe-ful dinner table scene during which her parents describe how they “hung out on prom night”, and Alike’s frequent and ill-timed giggle spells whenever she’s around the girl she likes. The film’s strong undercurrent of family and relationships guarantees that there is something in it for everyone (no need to fear the discomfort of watching a lesbian sex scene with your parents either — Dee Rees keeps it PG).

Dee Rees has created a motion picture that the larger LGBT community can be proud of, and in which people of color can see themselves carefully and sensitively projected. She may be the black lesbian Tyler Perry (in a good way). Let’s hope we see more of her.

An Immigrant’s Halloween: Blackface, Ghetto Parties, and Disney Princesses

Dear Readers,

I have a confession to make. But before I tell you my secret, you have to promise not to laugh at me. Okay? Alright, good. Here it goes:

I’m thirty years old and I’ve never once dressed up for Halloween.

There, I said it. Is that a big deal? Apparently, it is. I had someone go “Aww, you must have had a rough childhood!” and pout at me the other day. I felt so immigrant, in the way I’m sure many immigrants would understand. Kinda like the way you mispronounced words until someone finally corrected you, and you wondered how long you’d been mispronouncing them and why no one had ever said anything. Poor African. Funny accent. How unfortunate. Don’t laugh. Let her keep talking… and no Halloween? Oy. But I digress.

I’m from a place in the world (Nigeria) where black magic isn’t just found in the movies; stories of husbands attempting to poison their wives in order to sacrifice them to some Babalawo that promised riches in return aren’t told around a campfire; they’re relayed with the seriousness of a child kidnapping (which happened often for similar reasons) and a firm warning for everyone to keep praying for protection because you never know what spells, juju, or whatever else someone may be chanting about you.

Where I come from, Halloween only happened in the classrooms of white/foreign-run primary schools in which little white girls in swinging ponytails dressed up as sparkling fairies, bright-colored caterpillars, wealthy blond princesses, and an occasional culturally appropriated icon — Nefertiti, Cleopatra, a Geisha. Their mothers would sometimes bronze their faces with brown makeup — bought specially for the occasion? —  to make the costume appear more “authentic”. I remember wishing that I could be Nefertiti, or Cleopatra… they were beautiful African goddess, but usually portrayed as light-skinned (which both the cute mixed heritage boys and dark-skinned Nigerian boys at my primary school seemed to like).

I was one of the darkest skinned girls in my classroom, and though I had really long hair, I knew that I would never be able to get it to fall (or sway) like the swinging ponytail leads that dominated our school plays. I also knew that my parents would never have spent money on shiny gold material and Egyptian arm bracelets for a holiday they believed was just about “white people celebrating witchcraft”, so I looked forward to attending school in the United States, where I could fully immerse myself in Halloween, just like in the movies; I’d actually get to see, touch, and carve a real pumpkin, trick or treat without worrying about being kidnapped and sold for parts to juju people, and finally wear a witch costume — complete with a tall hat, green face, and yellow teeth — without teachers accusing me of selling my soul to the devil. I had such simple aspirations.

But during my first semester of prep school in the US, the costumes I saw were less childhood coloring book and a little more… R-Rated. My first Halloween weekend was freezing cold. Okay, it was just 60 degrees, but it felt like the Himalayas to me back then. So, there I was wrapped unfashionably and unfestively in heavy fleece layers of brown and black that resembled a moving laundry heap, while my classmates pranced around in adult-sized furry onesies and hormonal teenager garb. I remember the long line that stretched like a Noah’s arc procession of adult fairytale creatures from the the student assembly hall into the common grounds outside.

I recall the familiarity of the swinging blond ponytails — it seemed they ruled playgrounds even tens of thousands of miles away from my home across the Atlantic. I remember noting, however, that the innocence of their white privilege had re-branded itself post-puberty as intentionally provocative personas — naughty school girls, beauty queens, and virgin cheerleaders. The “pretty girls” of the world who once flit around small classrooms in bright pink Disney princess frocks, now strut down hallways in crimson lipstick and black fingernails, wearing ultra short booty shorts, pleated mini skirts that exposed un-aged butt cheeks, and baby Ts that said things like “Cherry Pop” and “Eat me, I’m Sweet”. Needless to say, to an African immigrant who was still trying to make sense of her surroundings, I was pretty sure that my parents would have placed Halloween on their Things That Will Destroy Us with Shame list, right at the top with drugs, prostitution, and MTV’s Spring Break.

So I searched to find space for myself on the flip-side of risque; the kids who fell outside the “cool” crowd — the politically inclined, the art geeks, the emo goths — all seemed to embrace Halloween as an excuse to make bold statements (usually against the dominant vanilla school culture) about who they were. I could have been down with this idea, but the only costume themes I surmised warranted presenting oneself as alien and/or depressed: dead presidents, political revolutionaries, witty takes on vegetables and/or fruit, and apathetic versions of “just myself since I’m always weird and scary anyway”. In college, however, costumes did more than make statements, they pushed buttons, and at times, caused so much controversy, the dean needed to send an email to quell the uprising of a student protest.

For instance, in my freshman year of college, a group of white (and queer) kids thought it would be funny to throw a “ghetto” party for Halloween, for which people were required to dress up as pimps, hos, drug dealers, and crackheads. Even “gangstuh” rap music was promised (by a white hipster DJ no less — Boston, don’t you dare act surprised).

That same weekend, a white friend of mine turned heads when he dressed up as Bob Marley, in full on brown body paint. I looked up the meaning of “blackface” after being the only person of color at the party in which he debuted the outfit, and having to smile as white people kept stealing glances at me for a reaction. But that experience doesn’t even compare to the party I attended the following day (80s themed) that included a room full of tall white guys wearing black Afro with pick combs in them, an even more R-Rated version of the swinging ponytails (now barenaked playboy bunnies), and an obnoxious prick that kept following me around all evening, demanding to know what I was supposed to be and drunkenly proclaiming that his Afro was bigger than mine. That experience wasn’t awkward — it was downright infuriating.

So, I vowed to wash my hands of the political farce that had become Halloween, and avoid the entire fiasco like the plague each year, because quite frankly, I had plenty of opportunities to remain angry at the stupid shit that ignorant white people said to me throughout the year — whether about my accent, my blackness, my African-ness, etc.  Too much of the other 364 days of the year contained insensitive, xenophobic, culturally appropriating, and downright racist incidents; I deserved at least one day off.

Incidentally, whenever I did entertain the idea of venturing out on Halloween weekend, I would fantasize about being reverse-offensive, culturally subversive, and extremely political — the angry fucking black woman that showed up with a blond wig and all white body paint talking in a valley girl accent, chewing gum with my mouth open, and humping the bar stool for attention (cause that’s how offensive it becomes when Halloween costumes insult entire cultures). One year, I actually thought of a black T-shirt for myself that said, “All the Bob Marley Costumes Were Taken by White People.” But plotting my reverse-offensiveness tactics for Halloween weekend didn’t make dealing with it any easier — it just kept making me angry. And who wants to spend a weekend that is supposed to be fun, angry? I don’t know what’s gotten into me this year (oh right, I just turned thirty), but I find myself yearning for the experiences I almost had in my youth.

For the first time in my life, for Halloween, I want to dress up, go trick or treating, and pose with a wicked pumpkin. I want to buy a sword and defend my woman’s honor like the dashing prince I always pretended to be when I was a kid and my siblings were asleep; I’d beg my girl to dress up as Xena Warrior princess so she can continually reject my grandiose displays of machismo, but make out with me in the car train when no one is looking.

I want to be Elphaba from Wicked, and represent the experience of every black girl that was called ugly by their white school teachers, who felt green with envy over the fact that they weren’t pretty white princesses with glittered wings and minions, yet who discovered their inner magic, their inner will to defy gravity and lead uprisings that made the world better, and less vanilla. And goddamnit, I want to be Storm. Yes, Storm. I know ti’s cliche — a black girl wanting to be Storm, but I don’t care. Storm was the one African superhero I had as a child. I woke up every Saturday to watch her kick ass in the X-men cartoon series. I still pretend Angela Basset played her (and that Halle Berry didn’t completely destroy my favorite afrofeminist heroine with her weak ass performance — ugh, I can’t even talk about it). I should be able to want to be a black female character on Halloween without worrying that I’m being ‘typical’, because goddamnit, Storm kicks ass!

But now what? After thirty years of getting no practice being creative for Halloween, I am stumped for ideas for a costume. Moreover, I’m no longer limited to the middle class earnings of my parents, but to the emptiness of my do-gooder wallet; purchasing a costume isn’t an option. And even if it were, there’s no way I could pull off a costume a la carte e.g. the latest, Nathalie Portman’s Black Swan, the classic Marilyn Monroe, or sexy swinging ponytail school girl. And yes, yes, I know Disney finally gave us poor little black girls a princess (and a racially ambiguous frog, I mean prince), but I’m not twelve anymore so I’m not sure that’s going to work for me.

Am I the only person of color and/or immigrant in this predicament? I’m still doing some research, but in the meantime, I’d really like to know: What costume choices are available to people of color on Halloween (besides Barack and Michelle Obama)?

[box type=”shadow”]Is race still a hot button issue during Halloween? Or is everyone just being way too sensitive? I’d love to hear what you think. Meanwhile, I am thinking about compiling a list of Top 10 Halloween Costume Ideas for POC, so please comment with your suggestions, both for the post, and for me, ‘cause this immigrant African girl is on a mission to get some candy this year.

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Obama, Apparently Your Gay Card Has Expired Due to Inactivity

Politics is not my cup of tea, but I just read a series of Facebook posts about an article posted on the Advocate about the LGBT community’s “Disappointment” with Obama that kinda got to me today. This article is certainly not the first of its kind that I’ve come across; negative commentary on news is always current news these days and I’ve tried to ignore all the political jargon that’s been flying back and forth in cyberspace.

To be sure, these politically polarized online conversations often find ways to invade neutral social spaces offline. I should be used to this by now, but lately — perhaps due to the heightened sensitivity around hte political climate — it’s become even more difficult to avoid (or at least compartmentalize) the experience of becoming an accidental participant, much less an incidental spectator. Despite “Hiding” all the Facebook perpetrator Boo-Obama status updates in my News Feeds and RSVPing “(Hell) No” to radical political action committee meetings where at least two people are bound to punctuate their rhetoric with fist thumping on a non-profit budgeted table, I’ve found myself stumped for words on more than one occasion.

No one — gay or straight, liberal or conservative — should be so presumptuous as to slip in a last minute toast to “Electing a president with some balls the next time around” right before a first round of drinks, or offer the lean-in-with-deep-earnest-eyes-and-place-hand-on-one-shoulder gesture while they try to convince you that, “He’s just like all the others.” I don’t sport any visible Proud Obama Supporter merchandise, so I’ve often been confused about what typically prompts the latter (It’s cause I’m black, init?), but I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I should invest in a “Back Off, I Love Obama!” T-Shirt, lest I get taken by surprise when I’m having a really bad day and respond less than tactfully.

To cut to the chase, I’m not another queer liberal who’s angry with Obama. However, today, as I scrolled through Facebook News, digesting bits and pieces of social commentary in the anger, disappointment, humor, and hate categories, I was forced to think about whether or not I should be.

Is there evidence that members and supporters of the LGBT community should be angry? Yes. Is there evidence that Obama has made promises (ENDA, DADT) that he’s (so far) failed to keep? Yes. Should we hold our leaders accountable at any and all costs? Most definitely.

I whole-heartedly understand and empathize with where people are coming from. We certainly all have the right to be mad for one reason or the other. However, I’m losing patience with people that presume to think that I’m down with taking down “the Man” on a single issue just because I’m part of the LGBT community at large. “Do you think Obama has kept his promises to the gay community?” I answer, No. But…

Dear angry (and mainly white) liberal gay community, I’m more than just a single poll vote — I’m many polls and many votes. Shoot, I’m a database of hard facts about privilege in this country. I’m one of you, one of “them”, many of “other” — a whole and complex being — so please remember that there are too many other political and social issues at stake (for me, for my family, and for my community) for me to burn Obama for side-stepping a hot potato that’s been baking for far too long in the granite-counter-topped kitchens of rich white gay men.

Now, about this article. Richard Just writes:

“Obama argues that he is against gay marriage while also opposing efforts like Prop 8 that would ban it,” he writes. “He justifies this by saying that state constitutions should not be used to reduce rights. (His exact words: ‘I am not in favor of gay marriage, but when you’re playing around with constitutions, just to prohibit somebody who cares about another person, it just seems to me that that is not what America is about.’) Obama appears to be saying that it is fine to prohibit gay people from getting married, as long as the vehicle for doing so is not a constitution.

Really? This sounds like a critical reasoning paragraph from the GREs (sorry I’m in grad school application mode). Perhaps I need to brush up on my reading comprehension skills but this sentiment doesn’t describe how I’ve been reading Obama at all. How do we go from a president who’s clearly come out against the amending of the constitution to further legislate taking away basic rights from gay people to trivializing his position with semantics? How do we call someone who’s actually been decent about providing transparency (even if it means we see/hear him go back and forth vs getting to hear PR-proofed-and-puppeteered statements) a liar? Didn’t we hear over and over again that he would not be pushing through gay marriage, but rather, working with us to ensure that civil unions were protected? (read: please don’t force me to jeopardize my candidacy, I’ll do what I can, since no one else is doing it anyway).

NEWS FLASH: Obama is a politician. This shouldn’t be surprising, and it certainly shouldn’t constantly be used to insult him (or anyone else for that matter), especially since politicians are the only pawns we can elect into office. (Outspoken freedom fighters like me do our job on the ground because we wouldn’t last 5 minutes in the world of politics, and that’s the TRUTH). We should try to remember that politicians are subject to politics, bureaucracy, endless debate, soap box fails, and most importantly, our conditional love and support at best. It shouldn’t be so hard for us to see — as leaders ourselves — that sometimes you’ve gotta walk the thin line between proponent and opponent to get to the other side: progress.

I started paying close attention when he didn’t make the daft mistake of running the presidential race on a “black agenda” platform despite pressure to come out and do/say more about the experience of African-Americans in this country. He’s clearly fence-sitting, trying not to cause too many ripples so as not to jeopardize a possible re-election (during a future period where increased tolerance and awareness would better aid us). To do so would mean that he won’t be there to continue digging out the shit from the hole we threw him into in the first place.

And yet, every other day I log into Facebook, some angry liberal is posting about not voting for him, throwing him in the same category as Bush (really? George Double-yuh??), and helping our real opponents, extreme right-wing conservatives, burn him at the stake. I can understand your disappointment. Hell, sometimes I want to wring his neck and shake him into taking a god damn position… like I would do. Sometimes, we need to kick and scream and throw tantrums because this simply isn’t fair… to “us.” But we must never lose sight of the big picture, which includes ALL of us, and I’m not talking about our neighbors or check-box mates. I’m talking about recognizing that we are a part of many different communities that Obama HAS been fighting for — the middle class who can’t afford insurance, small business owners, WOMEN, educators etc. We should Thank Him for his progress in those arenas, rather than continually put him down for areas where his record could show a little more improvement. Isn’t that what good mentors do? Isn’t that what smart citizens should do?

This single-issue approach to ratings and slandering politicians just isn’t helpful. Moreover, it’s hypocritical. If we’re still having discussions about negotiating when and where to come out (based on safety, the age of children in schools, appropriateness in the workplace, generational attitudes re: elders etc), then we shouldn’t expect our president to be excited about outing himself to a sea of still predominantly conservative political voices and media.

And before you retort with, “Well, I’m not the president, it’s his job to…” please think about whether or not you would switch positions with him today, if given the opportunity. If you won’t accept the offer to be Obama for just one day — to be required to listen and engage the voices of over three hundred million people — then fall in line, and support him, especially if you voted for him. If we don’t stand behind our choices, we’d be no better than conservatives who threw Bush to the dogs the minute they ran out of rhetoric to distract the country from his complete and utter failure.

If I lose my gay card because I don’t “hold Obama accountable to the marriage issue” then so be it. One card can’t define me, and shouldn’t define the president of (still) the most powerful country in the world, where citizens are a sum total of the issues they care about. I still choose any president that’s brave enough to approach leadership with this in mind.

Now, don’t let me down, Obama.
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Harvard LGBT Students of Color and Allies Talk Race and Queerness, Gender Takes a Back Seat

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Haaavahd

Last night, I had the pleasure of facilitating a student discussion about the experience of being an LGBT person of color and/or ally on the Harvard campus. I was invited to speak about my work as the QWOC+ Boston founding organizer, and about the complexities of having multiple identities as a queer person of color. Read the article in the Crimson (Harvard’s student newspaper).

The event was hosted by the staff and interns of the Harvard Women’s Center, [correction: including Queer Students and Allies, and BlackOut. I originally thought there were no queer or of color student groups listed as co-sponsors or organizers of this discussion — a common tactic to draw out queer or questioning of color youth ].  A good number of students of color and allies showed up — this speaks to the power of collaboration and partnership-building as a method of creating diversity — and even if some of them were on what I heard referenced as “Harvard Time”, the event commenced promptly at 7:30PM and didn’t end till around 9:15PM, when we were all still chirping away about what we could do as individuals to improve the (social) support systems available across college campuses.

Facilitating discussions like these is never easy; for one, it takes a while for students (or anyone really) to warm up to the occasion, but then on top of that, with sensitive topics like race, culture, sexuality, and gender, you’re also asking that near complete strangers open up to sharing some very personal experiences — and strong opinions. Needless to say, it can get racey really quickly. So as the facilitator, I made sure to set some ground rules (e.g. no talking over each other, use the “I” form when sharing an opinion so as not to universalize it for everyone else etc.), and smile BIG as often as possible, to keep the atmosphere light, warm, and open. [Side Note: This picture caught me during an off, intensely cerebral moment!]

I must say that the 15-20 or so Harvard students that attended the event were so respectful of each other that I didn’t really need to enforce any rules. They were also really insightful students. Once or twice, I forgot that I was the facilitator — with the role of guiding the conversation and keeping it going — and would get lost in a student’s well-articulated description of their discontentment with the LGBTQ social landscape. I’d be nodding my head vigorously, then be jolted back into action by my sudden awareness of the  eager, questioning eyes that bore into my befuddled expression, expecting some kind of “answer”… from me. But the truth is, as many of us disillusioned adults know, there is no answer to the problem of diversity. No ‘one’ answer, at least. So that was my message: Diversity is constant, and shape-shifting, but more importantly, it is a collective of perspectives, which we much strive to hear as often as possible.

Take for instance, the great turnout of LGBT students of color and allies at the discussion last night. There were so many different cultural/identity groups represented in the room that it would be easy for the organizers (and facilitators) to boast success in achieving diversity as far as the turnout and quality of conversation. However, as someone who’s been self-trained to notice missing voices, I noted that most of the conversation was driven by the male-identified attendees, which, quite frankly, came as no real surprise; QWOC+ Boston exists as a space primarily for women-identified queer people of color in part because of the sexism and male privilege that women experience within the larger gay community.

As much as queer people of color can discuss feeling “left out” by a predominantly white, male driven gay rights movement, the same can be said of gay men of color leading a male-driven multicultural-within-LGBTQ sub-movement, and it was quite interesting to see this already budding at the collegiate level. To think that we were in the Women’s Center, yet a large number of women sat through the majority of the conversation without uttering but a few words. To be fair, there were a few white allies in the room (predominantly women-identified), who did disclose that they felt more comfortable listening than talking, but even their silence is food for thought.

I dream of a world in which white allies engage in conversation with people of color — not just with other white allies. (Another day, another post.) Moreover, I dream of a world in which queer people of color don’t simply acknowledge that race isn’t the only attribute by which people can be (and are) marginalized, but proactively incorporate this awareness into their LGBTQ organizing efforts. Forming new coalitions around race, compartmentalized, cannot be the answer to marginalization; the perspectives of women, trans and gender non-conforming must be integrated into any action plan if we are all to move towards unity and raise our voices, together.

Many, many thanks to the organizing interns — special thanks to Eva Rosenberg for her fierce, down-to-earth allyness — and the supportive staff of the Harvard’s Women’s Center for creating such an important space for their students (and providing the most delicious fruit dip! Finally, a very humble Thank You to the students for opening up to me and letting me be a part of their conversation. Much love to you all, see you on twitter! :)

[MIT Rules! ;)]

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