By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly
In the past month, the unity of Portland’s LGBTQ community has been tested by a series of difficult conversations around race.
First, North Portland leather bar The Eagle booked (and then cancelled) a performance by blackface drag queen Shirley Q Liquor. Later, when Q Center scheduled a dialogue about race in conjunction with Face-2-Face (a series organized by facilitators from Process Sense), concerns about the lack of outreach to people of color led to a call to boycott the event and, ultimately, its postponement. (You can read more about these stories in News Briefs and PQ’s blog.)
To provide context for the debate about what racism looks like and how we can promote racial justice, we asked a few community leaders to share their thoughts about race and the LGBTQ community. Each one had a unique perspective, but all agreed that there is still work to be done.
Here’s who we chatted with:
Galadriel Mozee, 36, is a queer woman of color who identifies as “a fat, stemme, activist, and educator.”
Christian Baeff, 32, is a gay activist who works as the LGBT alliance building coordinator at immigrant rights group CAUSA Oregon.
Cory L. Murphy, 40, is an African-American gay male and director of operations for Pride NW.
George T Nicola, 67, is a retired gay rights activist who identifies as half Lebanese and half Balkan Slavic.
Khalil Edwards, 34, identifies as a black gay male and works as coordinator for the PFLAG Portland Black Chapter as well as a racial justice and alliance building organizer for Basic Rights Oregon.
PQ: What are the biggest challenges facing LGBTQ people of color locally?
Mozee: What I see as some of our largest challenges is the high unemployment rate for POC [people of color], the higher rates of being the victims of crimes, less access to basic needs, and the constant weight of blatant racism and microaggression. These are the same challenges regardless of whether a POC is in the LGBTQI2SA [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, two-spirit, asexual] community or not. Where the two communities intersect you can add invisibility, further increased chance for violence, poverty, and being ostracized from birth family and communities of origin.
Baeff: LGBTQ people of color face discrimination on the daily basis due to their sexual orientation, gender expression, and/or color of their skin. The transgender and immigrant community have a harder time accessing to healthcare benefits. Also, binational couples have no access to immigration benefits because in Oregon we do not recognize same-sex marriages and the … Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is still in place.
Murphy: Portland’s LGBT community poses many challenges for people of color. Specifically, because Portland’s black community is only 2 percent of Oregon’s population, we face heightened issues of “otherness” and stereotyping. The black LGBT community has historically faced a lack of resources because of this, as well as a lack of people and financial resources to sustain support and leadership structures. The lack of self-sufficient resources, leadership structures, and volunteers contributed heavily to the demise of organizations such as Brother to Brother and Unity Project of Oregon — leaving a void of leadership development in the Black LGBT community.
Nicola: There is still a lot of racism and anti-LGBTQ prejudice, but those who are both POC and LGBTQ have to deal each bias at the same time. That has got to be very difficult. This is why we in the LGBTQ community must send a clear message that we oppose ethnic prejudice of any type and that we welcome all people of good will. Think about it this way: the vast majority of Oregonians are straight and have had to deal with the homophobia or transphobia which has been passed down for countless generations. If they can do that, we in the LGBTQ community can certainly eliminate our biases and try to set an example that all ethnicities are treated equally. That is what our rainbow symbol is supposed to represent.
Edwards: I think the challenges facing our community were really outlined in the “Lift Every Voice” report released last October. Not only from surveying folks, but from having heart-to-heart conversations about multiple layers of discrimination folks are facing every day, you understand the unique challenges in very real ways. As a community that is very marginalized, made invisible, and often silenced, the disparities facing straight POC are often multiplied and felt on a much deeper level. Not to imply that one group is worse off than other, because when you begin to think in those ways you do everyone a disservice and we all lose. We need to understand that we are all connected and that our liberation is bound up in each other. But still we must understand the unique trials and experiences of LGBTQ people of color because that is the only way we can all work together to eliminate the disparities that are holding us all back. That is the only way we will become the beloved community Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about and until then the fight for social justice continues.
PQ: Have you experienced or witnessed racism in the LGBTQ community? In what ways has it manifested?
Mozee: I experience racism every day in every community. Within the LGBTQI2SA community I see blatant racism in the form of bars like The Eagle booking a blackface show and their patrons defending this action. At a local dance night last year a white queer person showed up in blackface and POC’s concerns and outrage was dismissed. I see the institution of racism being used by queer event and party planners in the use of sexualized or caricatured images of POC on flyers for dance parties that are not created by or for POC and I experience countless microaggressions on the daily wherein white people in the community talk down to me, do not listen to what I have to say, make disparaging comments about my heritage, and expect me to acquiesce my position and beliefs in all situations.
Baeff: Racism exists everywhere, sadly. I recently attended the [National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change] by the [National Gay and Lesbian] Task Force and immigration was one of the main topics for the keynotes. Not everyone applauded when the issue was raised. The good thing is that by the end of the weekend most people understood that we need to support everyone in our community, not leaving anyone behind, and that means including our LGBTQ POC immigrant members.
Murphy: One of the most pervasive ways I have experienced racism in the PDX LGBTQ community is through employment opportunities for POC’s. While many businesses and non-profits in Portland claim to be diverse, very few have consistently adhered to programs of hiring or promoting QTPOC [queer/trans people of color] into their organizations. The lack of QTPOC leadership on the boards or high-level management staff is apparent. I’ve also been told by many young QTPOC leaders how their efforts to apply for jobs or board positions have been unsuccessful, if they have even been entertained at all.
There is also a lot of classism and sexism that intersects with racial issues inherent in breaking into Portland’s business and professional hierarchies. The very idea that to be “accepted” into the circles that can get you hired in this town means you have to be at every “gala” — spending exorbitant amounts of money to “buy” access. Also, when gay men simply ignore the option of providing opportunities for lesbians and transgender folks into their business circles, these practices serve to perpetuate and further discrimination in our community.
Nicola: I definitely think that a blackface stereotype portrayal of a black mom is racist, and I am relieved that the show was cancelled. But I think increasingly LGBTQ people realize that we are all in this together, so we have to stick together. It also helps that our country’s first black president has done so much for LGBTQ rights. Who would have ever thought that our equality would be endorsed in an inaugural address?
Edwards: Racism permeates every facet of our society so it is not surprising that it has its hands in all parts of the LGBT community: in the bar where certain groups are consistently treated differently, in media outlets that often follow the same practices of mainstream media with biased stories when they are told at all.
PQ: Is there a right or wrong way to talk about race?
Mozee: In order to talk about race in a productive way you need to have either lived experience as a POC who experiences the construct of racism or [have] a basic understanding of the history of oppression and racism in this country at the very least. If you have neither, seek education from those that do. From there I would say let those with personal lived experience be the experts; if you’re white do not place the full burden of your education on POC and if you’re a POC allow yourself to decline the job of being the constant educator. White people, be kind, look for connection, listen, and be willing to be uncomfortable.
Baeff: Everything needs to be done respectfully. If we don’t know which terms to use it is important to be honest and express our best intentions and know that we might make mistakes but work to improve our vocabulary daily.
Nicola: There are people that do and say things that might be construed as being racist, even though they don’t intend them to be that way. They need education, not a lecture. But still, people should think before they say or do things that reflects on other groups. For me, the best method is to emphasize the positive things that have occurred in the past, and use those as examples of what we can do in the future.
PQ: What suggestions do you have for community members (white or POC) looking for ways to fight racism?
Mozee: Do your connecting online but show up in person for your activism. White people, take every opportunity to subvert institutionalized racism by relinquishing privilege whenever possible. POC, take good care of yourselves, practice self-care, and nurture your relationships and community; these acts are revolutionary and will help you keep going when tides turn…
Baeff: The best way to fight racism is to get involved with any organization which does this wonderful work and learn ways to stand up for ourselves and others.
Nicola: There are some people who may feel shy about participating in events, sometimes because they feel different because of ethnicity, gender, or age. So it is helpful to go out of our way sometimes to make sure everyone feels welcome, without appearing to advocate tokenism.
Murphy: My best suggestion is that white and POC community members who are looking for ways to fight racism begin with a serious reflection on their perspectives towards race and racism to discover what will motivate them to act in the name of justice. Progress only happens when people want it to.
PQ: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mozee: Our culture puts the thin, white heterosexual at the center of dialogue and normality, and the farther a person’s lived experience is from that center the greater the cost a person is expected to pay for the right to exist. We need to remember to consciously center the voices of people furthest from that colonized idea in order to make any progress towards changing it.
For more community perspectives on racism and racial justice, keep an eye on our blog.
Originally published in PQ Monthly.