Organizers of Aug. 6 event say they reached out to national gay groups

By DYANA BAGBY of Southern Voice
Friday, August 05, 2005

JessejacksonBlack gay rights activists plan to take part in Rev. Jesse Jackson’s “Keep the Vote Alive!” march on Saturday, but expressed disappointment that organizers didn’t aggressively reach out to them or include any openly gay speakers in a post-march rally.

Jackson announced in late April that his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition would march in Atlanta on Aug. 6 to urge Congress to renew the 1965 Voting Rights Act on the anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing it into law.

Organizers of the event chose Atlanta, in part, to also call attention to a voter identification law passed earlier this year in Georgia that critics say is the most restrictive of its kind in the nation. The new law requires voters to present state-issued identification before casting a vote, but loosens restrictions on absentee voting.

Numerous progressive, gay-friendly organizations are taking part in the Aug. 6 event, including the National Organization for Women, the Service Employees International Union and the Concerned Black Clergy of Georgia. Speakers include Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta) and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, public figures who vocally support gay issues.

But there are no speakers from local or national gay organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force or the National Black Justice Coalition.

“There are a number of powerful black non-gay allies attending, and that’s not to be overlooked, but it’s high-time black social justice organizers up the ante and be more proactive and intentional in including black gays and lesbians,” said Craig Washington, a black gay activist and writer in Atlanta.

“It’s clear gays and lesbians, specifically gays and lesbians of color, are in the crossfire in the real suppression of rights and we need to be present. I hope gay people who attend challenge folks there, too. This is just another glaring omission. You’re going to have a civil rights discussion in 2005 and not speak to the issue of homophobia? That doesn’t wash,” Washington said.

‘Wanted on the front line’
Marc Loveless, the national director for community services for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, said he reached out to gay groups at the direct request of Jackson, but received no real response.

“I made earnest efforts and it needs to be noted that I called HRC and the Task Force, but got no response,” said Loveless, who is gay. “In some sense, it’s woeful. We wanted them there on the front line.”

Matt Foreman, executive director of NGLTF, said the organization receives several requests a month to participate in events and while Loveless may have contacted his office, there was no record of it.

But Foreman said it is crucial that gay men and lesbians support all civil rights issues whether or not they deal directly with gay rights. Only by building alliances with other discriminated-against groups can gay rights be approved, he added.

“It’s impossible — and wrong — to ask these members of our community to compartmentalize the injustices they face or separate their LGBT identity from and racial and gender identities,” Foreman said. “All LGBT people should understand that we simply cannot win equality by ourselves — we are too small of a minority.”

Jay Smith Brown, an HRC spokesperson, was unaware of any contact from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition about the march. After an inquiry from this newspaper, Brown said Wednesday that HRC members in Atlanta were now planning to take part and that it is important for gay groups to support other civil rights causes.

“While definitely different fights, both share a broader goal of achieving fairness,” he said.

AID Atlanta, which has partnered with Rainbow/PUSH for about a year, is taking part in the march, according to Kim Anderson, AID Atlanta’s executive director. The group will distribute safe-sex kits and coupons for free HIV testing during the event, she said.

Barriers to voting
Jeff Graham, a long-time Atlanta activist and executive director of AIDS Survival Project, said he is joining the march to demonstrated that all issues of discrimination should be of concern to gay men and lesbians.

“The Voting Rights Act is definitely of importance to the queer community, not just from a fairness and social justice angle, but it’s important we not forget the many LGBT individuals who may experience barriers to voting,” Graham said.

All civil rights — whether gay or straight — start at the ballot box, said Larry Pellegrini, a gay lobbyist and executive director of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit.

Georgia’s new voter ID law, which is being reviewed by the U.S. Justice Department, will severely limit the right to vote for the elderly, the poor and gay people, he said.

“An attack on voting access affects everyone,” Pellegrini said. “Gay people know nothing really changes until it’s made law. And if we can’t go to the ballot box, our chances are diminished.”

Deepali Gokhale, an organizer with the Queer Progressive Agenda in Atlanta, said voting rights and gay rights are interconnected. When conservative lawmakers try to limit the rights of one minority, then other minorities are also impacted, she said.

“More than one-half of our community is affected; it is essential our community be there,” Gokhale said.

‘Make it happen’
Washington said Rainbow/PUSH should have tried harder to include gay groups in the “Keep the Vote Alive!” march.

“All I know is what I see on the roster. If they want to be intentional in including gays and lesbians in black forums, they need to make it happen,” he said.

The National Black Justice Coalition, a national black gay rights organization, said this week that while the organization was not directly contacted to participate in the march, its members were aware of the demonstration and plan to participate.

“Though NBJC was not contacted directly, we have discussed the importance of the reauthorization effort and believe that LGBT solidarity is important,” said H. Alexander Robinson, executive director of NBJC.

“I have recommended to HRC, NGLTF and other LGBT colleagues that this should be an issue of common concern and a way to demonstrate the solidarity of the racial justice and LGBT civil rights movements,” he added. “Unfortunately, some states still try to use official means to discourage people of color from registering and voting. It is no coincidence that these are some of the very same states that would deny gay and lesbian families the protections of marriage.”

‘They don’t see us’
Jasmyne Cannick, a black lesbian in Los Angeles, agreed with Washington that it was disappointing Rainbow/PUSH did not make more of an effort to include gays of color in the march and rally.

“Our so-called [black] leaders can’t see the greater picture. They’ll always see me as a just a lesbian,” Cannick said.

When black civil rights groups seek out gay supporters, they tend to talk to gay groups with mostly white members, such as the HRC or NGLTF, Cannick said.

“They don’t see us,” she said. “African Americans need to understand the black LGBT leadership so we can work together.”

In fact, Loveless, when asked by this newspaper if he contacted the NBJC, said he thought its executive director was an HRC staff person, which is not the case.

The criticism of Jackson’s march by some gay African Americans comes as similar complaints have been simmering about the Millions More Movement march set for October in Washington, D.C.

Louis Farrakhan, organizer of the Millions More Movement march, and its executive director, Rev. Willie Wilson, have said they want to include gay people. But Wilson is under fire for a sermon against lesbians he delivered July 3 at his 8,000-member church.

Jackson on gay issues
Jackson raised the eyebrows of some gay men and lesbians last year when he disputed the position of gay rights supporters who equate their fight for same-sex marriage with the civil rights movement.

In a speech at Harvard Law School last year, Jackson also said comparing gay rights to civil rights was a “stretch.”

“The comparison with slavery is a stretch in that some slave masters were gay, in that gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution and in that they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote,” he said.

In a February 2004 appearance at Holy Cross Church in Worcester, Mass., Jackson made sure others knew that he did support some rights for same-sex couples, noting “gays deserve the right of choice to choose their own partners.”

“If you don’t agree, don’t participate and don’t perform the service,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

But Jackson reiterated his support for the heterosexual definition of marriage, saying, “In my culture, marriage is a man-woman relationship.”

In the waning days of the 2004 presidential campaign, Jackson — accompanied by Democratic candidate John Kerry — told black voters at a church in Miami to ignore the president’s call for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and urged them to focus instead on Medicare, education and jobs.