by Howard Israel and Henry Grix
The enemies of the LGBT community are so many, so well organized and so amply funded that our own LGBT organizations need all the support we can muster. With increasing concern and dismay, we have read recent impassioned columns in BTL that describe Affirmations as a fatally flawed and racist organization. In the wake of the passage of the constitutional ban on affirmative action, it remains clear that racism continues to plague our state and country, and these charges of racism against Affirmations demand our attention. People of color and white people, whether LGBT or straight, have vastly different life experiences, and this controversy exposes the differences that arise due to racial divisions.
In evaluating the controversy, however, it should be noted that Affirmations is a refuge from the storm and a pathway for growth for many members of our LGBT community. Week in, week out, individuals of diverse races, ages, genders and cultural and social backgrounds utilize the services of Affirmations. Affirmations is not – and cannot be – all things to all people, but it means a great deal to a great number of people in our community. Although some characterize Affirmations as racist and worthless, others intentionally seek out Affirmations as a vital lifeline.
Can this gap be bridged, and, if so, how? Between 2000-2004, a discussion group called Race Matters existed with the goal of opening a frank and constructive dialogue between LGBT people of different races and genders. The founding members aimed to build a diverse, trusting and respectful group that could safely explore potentially explosive and complicated topics in a safe, non-judgmental setting. Given the history of racism and sexism in the LGBT community and our history of troubled interracial communication, we were both hopeful about, and daunted by our lofty mission.
During early Race Matters discussions, some members voiced complaints about particular local LGBT organizations and about how those organizations approached the issue of race. Although it was important to express and to hear these concerns, Race Matters participants who supported the organizations under discussion were hurt or angered by charges that they regarded as misleading or false. Members recognized that attacking specific groups was detrimental to the overall value of the discussions. After all, organizations can mean different things to different people. One person may benefit greatly from an organization with which another person may have genuine difficulties. As a result, Race Matters members agreed to discuss examples of institutional racism but to refrain from targeting specific organizations. If we allowed our discussions to lapse into gossip and vilification, we would not do ourselves or the community any beneficial service.
Several years ago, Torrie Osborn, then Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, came to Detroit to address community activists. In response to a question about why lesbian and gay people are sometimes our own worst enemies, Osborn identified the phenomenon of “horizontal aggression”. By “horizontal aggression”, she referred to the infighting that too often weakens relatively powerless minority groups. Horizontal aggression occurs when people within an oppressed group attack other members within the same group rather than seek common ground to fight the forces that keep the entire minority group oppressed.
Our LGBT community cannot afford to squander our meager resources, financial and human, on horizontal aggression if we expect to win full social and legal equality. We all have a civic duty to join and to invest our energies and resources in those organizations that reflect our values and interests. Each and every LGBT group – including Affirmations Lesbian/Gay Community Center and Karibu House Community Center for LGBT Persons of Color – is starving for additional committed volunteers and donors. If members of an organization disagree with the course that the organization is taking, they may express their concerns, but we have a corresponding obligation to strengthen the organizations that have the most meaning to us. Imagine how much stronger our entire community would be if the passion devoted to the Affirmations controversy instead were channeled into building and empowering our organizations and creating workable alliances. It is in our mutual interest as LGBT citizens to contribute our individual and collective talents to our common struggle against those who seek to oppress us all.