Since the 1960s, Barbara Smith’s ideas, courage, and spirit have infused social justice work in this country.
At a time when being a black feminist–let alone an out black lesbian like Barbara–was politically and personally perilous, Barbara cofounded the groundbreaking Combahee River Collective more than 25 years ago. The black feminist group took its name from the South Carolina river that was the site of a military action led by Harriet Tubman that freed hundreds of slaves. Barbara also cofounded the legendary Kitchen Table Press and edited such landmark books as All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, but Some of Us are Brave (with Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott) and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology which is recently republished. Her latest book is The Truth That Never Hurts: Writings on Race, Gender, and Freedom.
In an interview conducted after the Amadou Diallo murder trial, during the week of protests against the IMF and World Bank, and in the wake of the widely criticized Millennium March on Washington, Barbara Smith critiques the racial politics of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement and calls on activists of color to examine how homophobia and sexism undermine our freedom struggles.
Could you talk about the controversy in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement concerning the recent Millennium March on Washington (MMOW)? I understand that you’ve been very involved in the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, the group which has been critical of the march since it was first announced in 1998.
As soon as I heard about the plans for the Millennium March and the way in which the decision to hold it had been made, I knew that this was something that progressive and leftist LGBT people urgently needed to respond to. The MMOW was called by a few self-appointed white "leaders" sitting in the Human Rights Campaign office in Washington, DC in early 1998. In contrast, the decisions to hold the three previous national marches on Washington for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in 1979, 1987, and 1993 were made with the grassroots participation of people from all over the country.
The MMOW was undemocratic, racist, corporate, and assimilationist from its inception and it also became the most dramatic example to date of the very different political ideologies that now divide the LGBT movement. Progressive lesbian feminists of color have been very visibly active in the core group of the Ad Hoc Committee.
What ideologies within the LGBT movement do you see reflected in the MMOW?
Perhaps the worst ideological mistake of the mainstream white gay movement is their concept that all we need to fight for is something called "gay rights." And gay rights become narrowly defined as those things that concern wealthy gay white men and those white lesbians with sufficient class privilege and lack of feminist politics to go along with them. These people don’t care about racism, police brutality, poverty, homelessness, or violence against women. They don’t care about reproductive freedom, workers’ rights, global economic exploitation, or the prison industrial complex. None of those things are on their gay, white, economically privileged agenda.
There is even an increasingly powerful gay rightwing that favors policies attacking the freedom of all people of color, working people, and women, regardless of sexual orientation. That is why the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the key force in the MMOW, had no problem endorsing a creature like Al D’Amato during the 1998 senatorial campaign in New York. D’Amato is racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and an enemy to working people, but he’s apparently the HRC’s kind of guy simply because he had a lukewarm record of support for "gay rights."
Despite the controversy and the Ad Hoc Committee’s efforts, the MMOW did take place on April 30. What do you think the committee accomplished?
I think we accomplished a tremendous amount. Most significantly, we were able to use the MMOW as a catalyst for a nationwide dialogue about the direction of the LGBT movement. Serious political discussion about goals, strategies, values, and politics in the LGBT movement has not occurred for a very long time and I doubt that it has ever occurred on this scale. In the end, the MMOW was poorly attended, despite the organizers’ efforts to inflate the numbers, and a few days after the march the FBI began to investigate the disappearance of an estimated $750,000 from MMOW festival revenues.
Why do you think it is essential for progressive people of color to be aware of and to support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people of color organizing?
There are many reasons, most significantly the need for all people to oppose homophobic hatred. Another reason, however, is that gay issues are so universally portrayed as both white and male, which is really wrong. In fact, there is a lot of political debate going on in the LGBT community right now about the direction of the LGBT movement. Is it going to be a single-issue, reformist, and assimilationist movement or is it going to expand into a much more inclusive and radical movement for social and economic justice?
People of color are at the forefront of an LGBT political agenda that consistently links with other freedom struggles and works in coalition with a variety of groups across gender, sexuality, and racial lines. We definitely need the support of all progressive people of color to do this.
What should activists of color be doing to support the work of progressive LGBTs of color?
Activists of color must begin to acknowledge publicly the sexual diversity within our communities and also to strategize ways to connect with and welcome the participation of LGBT people of color in their ongoing work. The planners of the Black Radical Congress did a good job of at least raising issues of sexuality and gender as essential components of a black radical agenda for the 21st century. I think their efforts got some positive results because lesbians, gay men, and feminists were involved with the Congress from the beginning, instead of merely being tacked on at the last minute.
I understand that you and many other LGBT people of color were very active in the protests against the murder of Amadou Diallo and the acquittal of his murderers.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people were very active in the protests in 1999 in New York City after Amadou Diallo was murdered. The Audre Lorde Project (ALP), for example, was part of the core of People’s Justice 2000, the multiracial grassroots coalition which formed after the murder. As soon as the trial venue was changed from the Bronx to Albany, Joo-Hyun Kang, executive director of the ALP, put LGBTs of color in Albany in touch with Richie Perez and Jane Bai of People’s Justice 2000.
In Albany, I think we were able to build a response to the trial that was much more inclusive than it would have been if LGBT participation had been marginalized or excluded, as it so often is in campaigns that focus upon racial justice. We also had the chance to expose the way that racial and homophobic bigotry are connected and point to both groups’ history of negative relations with the police.
I want to make clear that we did encounter both homophobia and sexism as we organized during the trial. But I think the experience was highly educational for many people who were involved, including myself. I actually saw changes in the way people talked about the issues.
Do you see other LGBT organizing efforts around the country that address multiple issues from a radical understanding of political change?
Progressive and leftist lesbians and gay men of color are making incredible contributions to the ongoing struggles against police brutality and anti-immigration policies, but their role is virtually invisible outside the circles in which they occur.
For example, the Audre Lorde Project (ALP) in Brooklyn, New York, was established in 1996 as the first lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirited, and transgender people of color center for community organizing. ALP’s Working Group on Police Violence has played a significant role in the ongoing struggle against police brutality in New York City. I want to emphasize that ALP is an organization for all people of color. To me, that’s absolutely necessary at this point in time.
The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio, Texas is another organization that has lesbian of color leadership, full LGBT participation, and works with every conceivable constituency. The Esperanza is also a cultural center that dynamically integrates art and politics while maintaining its base in Chicano and Chicana heritage and struggle.
Southerners on New Ground (SONG) is another organization for LGBT people of all races and ethnicities which has a multi-issued, coalition building agenda.
What influenced you to become involved in black feminism?
I became active in the civil rights movement in Cleveland in the early 1960s when I was still in high school. By the early 1970s, black nationalism was at its height. Because of nationalism’s oppressive sexual politics, I honestly thought I would never be politically active again. After having worked really hard to get an education, after witnessing how my family had struggled and sacrificed to make my education possible because they wanted me to have more opportunities than they ever had, I found it completely ironic that the only thing that I was supposed to do was to get back, keep my mouth shut, and have babies for the nation.
I think that’s one of the reasons, if not the reason, that I worked so hard to build black feminism in this country and to build a politic that would allow me to fulfill my inherently activist nature. Black feminism was about flying in the face of a black male political establishment that was still very much in place on the heels of the black civil rights and black liberation struggle. Connecting with the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO) was the most important key to my being able to make that transition from, "Will I ever be able to be an activist again?" to, "Oh, yeah, here’s the movement–let’s start building!"
In the progressive consciousness, what are some elements that have prevented black feminism from becoming more widespread and accepted?
Well, I write about some of that in the new preface to Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. I think it’s really hard to organize around sexual politics whatever one’s race. It is especially difficult to organize around issues of sexual politics as women of color because what you’re doing is drawing attention to negative interactions, power relationships, and violence within communities of color. That is not the kind of organizing we are generally used to.
Because there is so little opportunity, outside of classrooms, for people to engage in depth about the immense complexities of gender and sexual oppression now and throughout history, most people have incomplete and even superficial understandings of these issues, despite their best intentions. This lack of accurate information about how gender and sexuality issues play themselves out in communities of color is a really serious problem.
What are some of the strengths within multi-issue organizing and what is your outlook for movement-building now?
I do think something is building in this period. I always feel politically optimistic. I believe that there are always people who are struggling for justice and working to eradicate the worst results of inhumanity and exploitation. Think how much stronger our movements could be if more of us who are on the same page could actually sit down with respect and deal with each other. If we worked together, we would be that much closer to freedom.