Race, Class and Proposition 8

root - Posted on 06 May 2009

One Poverty Scholar's Race and Class Analysis of the LGBT Movement

by Thornton Kimes/PNN


Avoiding Gay Pride events is easy. I hate excessive commercialization and cooptation of any movement that is an engine driving real social justice change. Also, sexual minorities are non-white and poor too, though you wouldn’t know it the way the gay rights struggle is shaped and fought. However, looking in the mirror would be damned difficult if I didn’t go to San Francisco’s Dolores Park November 7th, 2008.

November 4th a majority of Californians voted against Gay Marriage. Both sides thought they could win, the vote was said to be close. The result wasn’t a surprise if you paid attention to the campaigns for and against, though the post-vote analysis was interesting.

Class, economics, and race—the three-legged elephant race to the voting booths. Voters younger than 40 are less troubled by gay civil rights than voters older than 50, who appear to be stuck in “the good old days”. Voters in their 40’s are hanging by their fingernails to financial stability and don’t want the boat rocked at all. Numbers don’t lie, mostly, but people can dance the Tango with them, so exit poll stats are being challenged.

Movements get results both from a tight focus on getting their problems solved and by making alliances with other injustice-plagued groups. Today, organizers hoping to defeat the anti-Gay Marriage Proposition 8 virtually ignored Black and Hispanic voters, expecting them to “get it” automatically and vote accordingly. It didn’t help that so much energy went into voter registration and vote-for-Obama efforts there wasn’t much left over. Five years ago non-white gay non-profit/activist organizations got 3.1% of the money given out to such groups in general by gay foundations.

In 2004, gay marriage and racism had their way with San Franciscans’ psyches, like the poltergeists in the movie, they’re baaaaaack. Les Natali, owner of the Badlands gay dance club/bar in the Castro neighborhood, found himself eyeballs-deep in controversy because black customers were getting the “we don’t want you here” vibe, something Black America has been all too familiar with from White America. Black gays, like comic Rodney Dangerfield, get their no respect everywhere.

Black Americans get pulled over for “Driving While Black”, are the largest ethnic group in the 2-million-strong population in our prisons—the whole dirty laundry hamper of stuff we know so well and do our best to ignore until the blowback explodes in our faces.

San Francisco is not friendly to or affordable for its Black population, which has been jumping ship for East Bay communities like Vallejo for years. Mayors, Gavin Newsome included, make appropriate faces and comments and do nothing meaningful to change the situation.

A San Francisco Gay Guardian editorial said there were plenty of progressive Black citizens on the right side of the Gay Marriage issue today. Amos Brown, senior Pastor of Third Baptist Church, the biggest Black church in the city, was the only face I recognized on a television news report, the gay press reported that Brown almost had the microphone torn from his hand during a passionate pre-November 4th pro-Gay Marriage sermon; the associate pastor responsible later apologized for his tactics, but not for being equally passionate and on the other side.

It was clear the Third Baptist congregation isn’t united on Gay Marriage. Traditional conservative Christian values and views are only part of the explanation for that. Black Americans are very practical, pragmatic, “show me the proof” and “what have you done for me lately” in their approach to life and activism. White Americans would be too if we were the ones only 40 years removed from getting the right to vote, live anywhere we want to, etc.

In the 1980’s I flirted with modern pagan religion. One of the major rules of thumb of, shall we say, very decentralized Wicca, is that whatever you do, for good or evil, comes back to you turbo-charged three times over. If Gay San Francisco was the best friend and ally Black San Francisco had, right now, fighting for their causes, “I scratch your back, will you scratch mine?” would get very real results.

In-your-face activism has its place, but geeeez, leave the straight Christians alone unless you plan a bottom-to-top campaign of coffee drinking, meal eating, door knocking, whatever gets you face-to-face. Recent gay newspaper letters to the editor express just that patient nose-to-the-grindstone focus.

Part II


Po’ folks, straight and otherwise, get jiggy with it whether or not their wallets are anorexic or fat. I do the math every day and it always comes out looking yucky. That old saying “No money, no honey” lurks in the back-brain shadows, making it tough to wrap my head around those cold equations.

Get married? It’s hard work enough just me taking care of me, much less having a wife or “domestic partner” along for the bumpy ride. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome rather suddenly, to me, started this round of the Gay Marriage Circus in 2004. I see at least a partial smokescreen to cover his moves to do more and more damage to poor and homeless citizens.

News stories then focused on how many more tourists would come to spend their money in tourist trappy San Francisco when Gay Marriage stuck to the wall. Get married? What about some of my neighbors, hanging by their painted fingernails to Polk Street, what used to be a very visible gay presence in the ‘hood, the place once called “Polk Gulch”, now known by the much more mundane monicker “Polk Village”.

Can low-income transsexuals, drag queens, et al, pay their ever-increasing rent, eat, and do whatever else is a necessity while the Tenderloin District is gentrified from both ends, creating a really truly hard place for the rock to squeeze?

Newsom is a businessman turned politician who defends the interests of wealthy San Franciscans (gay and straight) and nobody else. The fact that some poor and homeless citizens are gay won’t stop him from continuing to find ways to do damage, and the economic crisis freaking out the upper classes simply makes it easier.

Too bad the local gay movement doesn’t seem to care. Gay San Francisco can be an effective political weapon to use on some targets, but how can anyone trust someone who supports one oppressed group while throwing another under a bus?

It takes a village to raise a kid, a generation to forget where you came from. The “gay agenda”, driven from the East and West Coasts, has a population kept constant by folks from the heartland and less friendly parts of the coasts. Has becoming “Generation Big Disposable Income” been a good thing?

If it is true that the 3rd generations of immigrant populations, firmly embedded in American culture, stop speaking their mother tongue, it seems very true that native social immigrants lose their groove. Are we that easy?

What happens when you get relatively fat and happy? A little history lesson may be in order. Start with the 1970’s. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are dead, some civil rights victories happened while Chapter One of the assault on Great Society welfare policies is being written. Gay rights is burning the fuse too short to put out, especially after Harvey Milk’s life and amazing political career end in assassination in San Francisco City Hall.

Later, Black America got drugs, black-on-black crime, teen pregnancy and other interesting things in under the Christmas tree; Gay America got AIDS, ACT UP (AIDS COALITION TO UNLEASH POWER), Queer Nation, et al. Gay activism got louder, more in-your-face. Black and Gay culture lurched in parallel into everyone’s televisions, i-Pods, etc, whether Tipper Gore or other folks liked it or not.

Gay America started out outlaw, edgy, alive and on the sharp end of the stick when it came to deep-pocketed corporations like Coors. Now Gay Pride and other things gets corporate mega-bucks sponsorships, etc.

Gay Pride parades may frighten the horses back home in Iowa, but it looks like an ever-escalating “cutting edge” merry-go-round to me (“Look Ma, no hands!”). I’ll watch (or walk in) the parades when the floats are gone and the same energy that burst back into the streets after November 4th after being gone way too long is the vibe all the time.



For the fourth time in 19 years I’m enrolled in San Francisco’s Welfare program, called General Assistance (the “better” version, that is, a little more money trickles down, is called PAES—Personal Assisted Employment Service). In 2003, the third bite of the tiny GA apple, I went to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to see if I could do my Workfare assignment there instead of sweeping streets or cleaning public transit buses.

The AIDS Foundation (which is still on the alternative Workfare list…) interviewer turned me down without explanation. Being concerned that your Workfare “volunteer” is willing, able, and isn’t using some mind-expanding substance on premises is only intelligent and necessary (a concern recently discusses at my current assignment site…).

Speculation is one of the oldest mind games and one of my guesses involved the man’s gaydar being turned off that day, but being relatively fat and happy can kill empathy for other folks under the thumb of our society. Was that it? I’m also not even close to being the second coming of Joe Montana, built more along the lines of Babe Ruth, though I can’t hit, pitch, or drink like him.

I moved on. The California gay movement needs to move on to what is really important, fix what’s broken, and maybe even take those icky dollar sign-shaped glasses off. It never pays to jump into the deep end without looking and thinking first.

Is Gay Marriage vitally important, or the fact that the President of Iran doesn’t even believe homosexuals exist there, where they are stoned to death if exposed? The police in Thailand parade transsexuals and others from go-go bars and other tourist establishments in front of television cameras to reveal them as “frauds”. Other parts of the world are just as bad, or worse. America is a teddy bear compared to that.

The gay movement and some of its allies (the San Francisco Bay Guardian…) treat Gay Marriage as an inevitable progression from where we were 30 years ago to today, despite the fact that “Gay Marriage” could replace “Democracy” in George W. Bush’s mouth and mostly the same attitude towards changing the world would be working for what many of us want with the worst strategy.

I’m on both sides of the fence. I get Gay Marriage, I essentially agree—Marriage is one of those Big Deals almost everyone thinks about and wants to do. Be careful what you ask for, you may get it.

Half of straight marriages fail, the other half don’t. I’m a child of divorce, my sister married three times, my father remarried once, my mother never remarried and I haven’t hitched-up yet. I almost got a Black step-father (and step-brother) in the 1970’s, but rural Texas wouldn’t have liked that very much. My sister is hangin’ tough with her third marriage, mostly, I think, because she doesn’t want to do damage to the dreams of her two teen sons and much younger daughter.

Our parents divorced before I hit high school. Sticking with jobs longer than 5 years is a challenge for me. Marriage?

I think if the fundamentals under and around Gay Marriage aren’t there—strong basic equal protections from sea to polluted fish-depleted sea, not just California—Gay Marriage will become just another check on the list for folks who can pay for it.

Consensus isn’t easy, and the bigger the group looking for it the more time it takes to get it. Right now that is California, with everyone still playing by the “all the cool stuff comes from Cali” playbook—in this age of YouTube, 24/7 news, blogging, etc—a court will have the last word for a while in a few months.

Is this the best we can do? Winner take all campaigns and elections lead to attitudes I’ve had in-my-face (and read about): “You lost, get over it!”

Feh! We use courts to administer woefully bad justice and protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority mostly because too many of us, including me, are too busy surviving—and too fundamentally lazy (in some cases scared—that could also be me…) to BE the kind of society we want so badly.

Consensus? Whose consensus, and what kind of consensus-building? Lefty political folks and those on the center and right mean different things when “Consensus” and “Consensus Builder” get buzzworded about. I’m sick of “you lost, get over it!” even when it benefits me. How about you?

Back to Dolores Park. I loved it. It was no frills, it was no corporate excess (it was apparently text-message-and-e-mail organized by two teenagers and I still don’t know who they are…), it was hard to get to because thousands of people were in the street getting to the park. There was chanting, dance music, lots of people dancing.

I later read that the drag queen who spoke to the crowd soon after I arrived realized that if he didn’t do something nobody would. After inspiring most of the crowd to return to the streets and the Castro neighborhood, he participated in an all-night sit-in at 18th Street and Castro and called his father to talk about being gay for the first time. His father was okay with it. November 7th was a lot more interesting than I originally thought.

Years after her death, anarchist Emma Goldman was drafted into saying, “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution” (in her autobiography she talks about apparently scandalizing a sense-of-humor-challenged young man who tried to confront her about being a good and energetic dancer…). Protests usually aren’t much fun, especially if the police don’t like you, but dancing for social justice change is my kinda revolutionizing—even if I do suck as a dancer.


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