A fundraiser for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is scheduled in D.C. for Sunday, May 16. I am not normally in the business of discouraging support for gay rights groups, but in this case I am making an exception.
Last August, at a Lincoln Memorial rally marking the 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, NGLTF Executive Director Matt Foreman -- who was one of the speakers -- deliberately avoided any mention of the gay marriage fight. This despite the fact that, at a D.C. Gay Pride Month town meeting the previous June, he had called the Federal Marriage Amendment a blazing inferno that threatened to race through Congress. There he stood, a few feet away from rally organizer and former D.C. congressman Rev. Walter Fauntroy -- a leading supporter of the anti-gay amendment -- and Foreman said not a word to challenge him on it or to explain this civil-rights issue to a civil rights gathering. The reason was simple: Fauntroy was black. How pathetic, how insulting, how redolent of self-defeating double standards and pandering.
Few white gay activists are willing to talk about this, because they are uncomfortable dealing with issues involving race. I can well understand that, as those are treacherous shoals to navigate. But these are challenging times. We are big boys and girls. Activist leaders need to be prepared to talk to us as adults and speak the truth about our lives where it most needs to be heard. For gay rights advocates to trim their message or eliminate it altogether, out of either political correctness or lack of nerve, is to practice what President Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." (He was talking about equal educational opportunity, though his fine words were not followed by adequate funding.)
On May 4, Foreman released a hard-hitting op-ed entitled, "Where are Democrats on the Federal Marriage Amendment?" He makes some good points. But the whole piece rings hollow in light of Foreman's utter silence on Fauntroy and other black ministers who wrap themselves in the civil rights tradition while being in bed with the radical right.
Fauntroy is a leading front man for the anti-gay Alliance for Marriage, and was prominently featured at its 2001 news conference announcing the proposed amendment. He is not alone; several AME ministers are listed on the Alliance for Marriage board of advisors. There is no way that only black people should be expected or permitted to address this problem. Either we believe our own high-sounding words or we don't, and if we do then we need to treat people equally.
The religious right has been shopping in the black community for years to find camouflage for the culture war. Fauntroy, our own former congressman, is a leader among those providing that camouflage. It is disgraceful, and any gay activist who was ever moved by hearing Martin Luther King quote Jefferson that "all men are created equal" has no excuse for failing to step up to the plate when it comes time to challenge those who betray that vision. King's widow Coretta Scott King is a strong ally of our community, as is another civil rights veteran, Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, and of course D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Fauntroy's advocacy on the other side should be treated as a scandal.
When the leader of NGLTF refuses to say a peep about any of this -- or even mention our fight for equal marriage rights and against the right-wing's effort to scapegoat gay families -- at a civil rights gathering where every other conceivable issue is aired, then those with limited activist dollars should seriously consider directing their funds elsewhere. To be sure, NGLTF is not the only group timid on this score, but the failure is most glaring in Mr. Foreman's case. May I suggest other worthy groups: Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org), Lambda Legal Defense (www.lambdalegal.org), National Black Justice Coalition (www.nbjcoalition.org), Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (www.glad.org), Equality Virginia (www.equalityvirginia.org), and Equality Maryland (www.equalitymaryland.org).
To be honest, NGLTF was always too far to the left for me, using self-righteous rhetoric about all oppressions being linked as a cover for their refusal to focus on gay rights just as their coalition partners in other civil rights groups have a focus. Over the years, the Task Force has deemed it necessary to take a position on the Gulf War, on newspaper strikes in Detroit, on welfare, and on the death penalty -- all issues about which gay people legitimately disagree. To take one example, NGLTF denounced the death penalty against Wanda Jean Allen because she was a lesbian, despite the fact that the two women she had murdered were also lesbians. If the concern was that she was railroaded or sentenced differently due to homophobia, then that should have been the emphasis, not the penalty itself. But why was the Task Force involved in the first place? It is not a legal services group. Once again, it has trouble focusing.
I realize that different groups are bound to define their mission and scope differently, but it seems reasonable at least to expect a gay rights group to fight for gay rights. In its refusal to do so in its relations with African American leaders, NGLTF has flagrantly failed.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and gay rights activist in Washington, D.C.
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