In their relentless attack on LGBT people and our families, the anti-LGBT movement has released a wave of proposals that seek to enshrine discrimination into state laws. If implemented, these policies would deny the full humanity of LGBT people. Over the past two years, states from Arizona to Mississippi – and right here in Oregon, where the group Oregon United Against Discrimination just formed to stop it – 19 states in total have faced these policies that have the potential to discriminate against LGBT people who seek to receive goods and services from companies that do business with the public, under the guise of “religious freedom.” Similar laws have been proposed throughout the last decade, but in recent months the anti-LGBT movement made a significant shift of time and resources towards this new strategy. And in addition to attacking LGBT communities, these laws could have additional impacts on reproductive health and other critical issues.
As awareness of these anti-LGBT tactics has grown, many major and progressive news sources have begun calling this wave of bills and ballot measures “The New Jim Crow” or “The Gay Jim Crow” and comparing the discrimination to what people of color faced with segregation laws like being forced to sit in the back of the bus or use separate water fountains. This frame is appearing in everything from headlines to memes on Facebook. Basic Rights Oregon executive director, Jeana Frazzini, invited community leader Kathleen Saadat – who is featured in the first ad released by Oregon United Against Discrimination, speaking from her own experience with discrimination – to discuss how and why this comparison can be problematic when made by White individuals or organizations.
We encourage folks to talk about this Arizona-style discrimination measure for exactly what it is: discrimination. And discrimination is wrong.
Basic Rights Oregon exists because Oregon’s LGBT community was targeted by policies that are very similar to what we are seeing today. Policies that sought to deny the dignity and rights of LGBT people. Our community recognized that it wasn’t enough to come together only in the heat of the fight, but that we must proactively build alliances, organize, and create a lasting movement for change.
While LGBT and allied people of color have always been part of the movement, White people have not always prioritized their leadership, experience, or voices. And we have only begun to scratch the surface of engaging White LGBT people as allies in the struggle for racial justice. In this context, the “New Jim Crow” frame threatens to divide rather than connect our movements.
I would add that broadly comparing Jim Crow laws to the experiences of White LGBT people deflects attention from the ongoing assault on African American communities that still struggle under the Jim Crow philosophy and practices that continue today. This oversimplification betrays White LGBT people’s lack of knowledge of the complex history of both struggles and tends to minimize the experience of LGBT people of color who live at the intersections of racism and homophobia/transphobia and sexism. Black and African American people in Oregon experience this in unique ways, some of which are highlighted in the “Lift Every Voice” report.
These are key reasons why we strongly suggest that members of the LGBT community and our supporters – specifically those who are White – refrain from using the phrase and the comparison. When Black folks and African Americans use this comparison, it’s coming from a unique experience that White people in this country broadly do not share. That’s why we’re encouraging White LGBT people and allies to talk about these policies for what they are: discriminatory.
Right. What we can do today, is talk about what’s actually happening with these policy proposals: the anti-LGBT laws passed in Mississippi, and being fought today in Arizona, Kansas, South Dakota and Oregon are unjust, demeaning, discriminatory and have no place in a true democracy. No one should have to live under such laws. No one should have to live in places where the prevailing thought about you is discriminatory and biased, where your basic humanity is always being questioned.
At Basic Rights Oregon we believe that the struggle for social justice requires the participation of all of us. We believe that as we work for LGBT justice, we must also work for racial justice. At Basic Rights, racial justice means centralizing the leadership of LGBT people of color and addressing institutional and historical racism. We believe that our strength lies in our ability to forge meaningful alliances across lines of identity and community. We know that true social justice is broader than any single issue, campaign, or policy.
Because building coalitions requires dialogue and trust building we hope to use this “Jim Crow” issue as an opportunity to inspire a dialogue that invites people into a more complex understanding of social justice and movement building.
This is an important dialogue. Until recently, White LGBT movements and institutions have not been strong and visible allies supporting the movements of people of color. There has been little reciprocity with the movement to insure the acquisition of Black Civil Rights, much of which has come at the level of participation by individual White LGBT people rather than organizations.
The 1960’s are called the era of the Civil Rights Movement, a movement to change this nation’s relationship to its Black citizens and residents. For those involved “Black rights” became synonymous with the words, Civil Rights; for some the words are interchangeable.
Few White LGBT folks seem willing to follow the leadership of people of color. While at the same time, many White LGBT people are willing to use the ideas, thoughts, arguments and feelings of the Black Civil Rights movement as though they themselves had contributed to the success of that 1960’s movement, and as though they are currently engaged in the ongoing fight against Black exploitation and oppression that is facilitated by modern Jim Crow-type laws and policies. Because there has been little to no presence, because there has been no historic relationship and is no strong current relationship, and because of how the era has been defined, many see use of the term “Gay Jim Crow” or “Gay Civil Rights” as exploitative and disrespectful.
While well-intentioned in most cases, these comparisons that have White LGBT folks “at the back of the bus” with their experiences of discrimination, co-opt and appropriate the experiences of people of color and further marginalize LGBT people of color. These comparisons are simply not accurate and can have harmful effects on our broader social justice work. This is the moment when a lot of people pause and where it is essential to build alliances across races, cultures and other human differences. Jim Crow laws were/are used throughout the U.S. to shut Black and African Americans out of full civic, social and economic participation in society and to personally humiliate African Americans as a means of threat and control. Beyond giving businesses or individuals the ability to exclude Black people, the law, if broken, mandated punishment and dehumanization.
As with many organizations in the LGBT movement, since its formation Basic Rights Oregon has struggled to address race and racism. We’ve made mistakes along the way and continue to learn and grow. As we came to recognize the critical need for coalition building and leadership in racial justice advocacy within our own organization, Basic Rights Oregon has been working since 2006 to engage the leadership of LGBT people of color at the center of our organization and build relationships with communities of color. In 2009, the Racial Justice program was created and steered by the leadership of the Our Families volunteer leader cohort. The cohort has done incredible things, including working with staff to create the “Our Families” video series highlighting the experiences of LGBT People of Color.
This is part of opening up the space for a wider dialogue that encompasses the importance of winning on the policy fights, but also impacting the lived experience of people in our communities. As we grapple with the attacks on our communities, let’s talk about the victory of getting the Governor of Arizona to veto the horrible anti-LGBT policy and let’s also talk about how Arizona is still a hostile place for people of color, including LGBT people of color, who are not safe under anti-immigrant laws that deny them dignity and basic human rights.
Kathleen & Jeana: In the interest of that wider dialogue, we’d like to know what you think. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Kathleen Saadat is an African-American lesbian activist, organizer, and leader on issues affecting the African-American community, other communities of color, women’s rights, the LGBT community, people living with HIV/AIDS, disabled people, and those with lower incomes. She was also featured in the first ad for the Oregon United Against Discrimination campaign.
Jeana Frazzini is a White lesbian serving as Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, where she works to ensure that all LGBT Oregonians truly experience equality, including LGBT people of color; seeks to build values-based and strategic partnerships across communities; and encourages people to work as allies across identity.