An African American Lesbian Reflects on Black History Month
|by Donna Payne|
|Black History Month celebrates the triumphant journey that African-Americans have had in facing entrenched racial discrimination in our country. As an African-American lesbian, it is an especially sacred time because I know personally how important it is for the work for justice to continue. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated over 30 years ago, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Those eloquent words still ring true today for countless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Today, I think about the fact that I lack full protection under the law in my home or in the workplace because I am a lesbian. And, because of my dual identity, Black History Month reminds me of that discrimination even more. You see, I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. King was killed April 4, 1968. I was 5 years old, watching television with my mother and grandmother when a news bulletin flashed across the screen: "Dr. Martin L. King has been killed at the Lorraine Motel." My grandmother and mother wept.
My entire family participated in the civil rights movement. My mother always said she was sitting at the retail stores practicing nonviolence so that I wouldn't ever have to ask for the right to be treated equally. My father attended NAACP meetings faithfully, looking forward to a better future for us all.
While I celebrate the accomplishments of the civil rights movement this month, I also continue the legacy of those who came before me by working for GLBT civil rights. And the fight for equality continues on all frontsblack, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Many in the opposition want to make the African-American and GLBT communities enemies of one anotherapparently forgetting those of us who find homes in both communities. This came to the surface recently when the far-right employed a divide-and-conquer strategy by asking black churches to support the fight against the GLBT community. Some ministers joined their side, but mainstream civil rights organizations understand that the fight for justice doesn't stop halfway. There are differences among the struggles my ancestors faced during slavery and the civil rights movement, and the modern GLBT civil rights movement. However there are some basic inequalities that cannot be overlooked.
How we are treated is important. Everyone deserves the right to be treated equally and with fairness. In the past, my history has taught me that I have a right to have a decent job and to choose where I live. I grew up thinking I was protected because my ancestors secured that right for me as an African-American woman. But then I found out that I could be fired because of my sexual orientation. As it stands, only a part of my identity is protectedthe African-American part. There should be coverage for all parts of my life. That acknowledgment would be treating me equally.
Hate crimes have also been a major focus for the GLBT community and we have relied on the guidance of civil rights allies in working toward legislation that would assist both communities. I recall the murder in 2000 of J.R. Warren, a black, gay man in West Virginia. In discussing the case with our allies, we stressed that we could only bring a federal investigation because he was covered by race, not by sexual orientation. His murder didn't receive equal treatment because there was no law to protect the gay part of him.
Our nation's civil rights movement is a tribute to everlasting liberty and the supreme triumph of freedom. The movement ensured that human rights are central in defining America's identity, character and destiny. The enactment of race-based anti-discrimination laws is one of the greatest achievements in contemporary American history. Not only because it liberated African-Americans, but also because it inspired people across the globe to dream of a better world and to act in the noble quest for equality. This is why I work for justice. I cannot separate the African-American part of me and the lesbian part of me. They make up my whole being. Let us all continue the work for equality by recognizing the importance of Black History Month and carrying on with the legacy of the civil rights movement until the day we reach true equality. The day when all of our whole beings are treated equally.
Donna Payne is a constituency field organizer for the Human Rights Campaign.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 13, No. 1, February 7, 2003