There’s a gorgeous moment in Yoruba Richen’s documentary The New Black in which two young black lesbian activists canvass an inner-city black neighborhood to drum up support for the gay marriage initiative that was on the ballot in Maryland’s 2012 statewide election. The women approach a group of young men hanging out in front of an apartment building to talk to them about voting and, more specifically, supporting gay marriage.
“I ain’t voting on that gay shit,” says the most vocal of the guys. “I ain’t with that.”
What follows is an amazing back-and-forth. One of the young women succinctly breaks down how black people have to have each others’ backs, how she has theirs and she needs them to have hers. What turns the conversational tide for them is when the chillest guy in the group — lounging on the stairs, his arms folded lightly across his chest — calmly asks the nearby naysayer in particular and homophobes in general, “Who are you to tell someone who they can be with?” Then, addressing the women, he says simply, “I got you.”
It’s a moment of unforced loveliness that upends the outsider perception of the African-American community as a hotbed of intolerance. Often the first and loudest to speak out on gay issues are those with the least enlightened attitudes. But they’re not representative of the whole. More progressive voices, too often rendered invisible by mainstream media, jostle right alongside them.
The coda to this dialogue is even richer. Just before taking off, one of the women asks the group, “Y’all need community service hours?” As some of those gathered sheepishly admit they do, she tells them, “Y’all can always volunteer with us.” She adds with a laugh, “And we feed you.”
The New Black is Richen’s pushback against the widespread notion that black people are the reason that the gay marriage movement was, for a time, stymied in states like California. The documentary’s heroes and heroines are black; Richen weaves together stories of people coming out, of queer families formed without legal recognition or protections, of straight allies (clergy and laymen alike) battling homophobia, and of the ways the institution of marriage either was historically denied to black people or failed to afford them real legal and political security. What emerges is an illuminating look at the ways race, specifically blackness, has been cynically portrayed by the mainstream media, rightwing politicians and religious leaders, and even some white queer activists.
Richen points out that the Mormon and Catholic churches were the real forces behind the push to thwart gay marriage — neither of those institutions having black powerbrokers in them. They’re the ones who have spent political capital to put anti-gay initiatives on ballots, have conceived and executed controversial anti-gay-marriage campaigns, have spent countless millions to secure their bigoted goals, and have flocked to polling booths to vote against gay marriage.
If there’s a flaw in Richen’s film, it’s her failure to dismantle, with data, lingering racist myths around California’s 2008 Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which for a time banned same-sex marriage. The Associated Press’s infamous exit polls initially claimed that 70 percent of the state’s African-American voters supported Prop. 8 (later adjusted to 59 percent). But what neither the pollsters (whose methods have been roundly denounced as shoddy) nor those who cited (and still cite) those figures have acknowledged is that black Californians don’t have the actual numbers to have affected the ballot outcome one way or the other.
Conversations about homophobia almost inevitably circle back to conversations about race and culture. But whiteness as a race and culture, as an ideological practice, is rarely fingered as a culprit in the cultural wars raging over queer issues the way that blackness is. Fred Phelps and his clan crisscross the country spewing homophobic bile under the guise of Christian activism, and their whiteness is never commented on; if they were black, their homophobia would be painted by many as a function of blackness, period. In the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential primaries, a slew of white hopefuls all put forth scathingly homophobic platforms, and never had their individual or collective bigotry attached to their race. Overseas, Vladimir Putin and other Russian politicians are enacting legislation that is medieval in its punitive approach to gay existence in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens (white Europeans) recently took to the streets in outrage over the passing of laws securing gay marriage. None of it is attached to the race of those legislating or rioting. Homophobia is never analyzed as a function and tool of heteronormative, patriarchal, reactionary whiteness.
Collectively, through ample research, top-notch journalism, and smartly deployed anecdotes, documentaries like The New Black, Call Me Kuchu, God Loves Uganda, and Born This Way illustrate the ways that prerogatives of whiteness have always been a driving factor in shaping attitudes toward same-sex realities, not only in America, but in countries and cultures around the world. They also illustrate how that continues to be the case, and how, if any substantive headway is going to be made in our collective slouch toward enlightenment on matters of queerness or equality, that simple fact has to be acknowledged.