During the 1960s, oppressed groups in the United States had a clear cut enemy, the Establishment. The Establishment was responsible for racial discrimination. Women were kept down by the Establishment. The Vietnam War was started by the Establishment. The environment was being destroyed by the Establishment. Gays and lesbians were victimized by the Establishment.
The Establishment made an ideal target, although the different interests had their own definition of who constituted the Establishment. For some blacks, the Establishment meant all whites. For women, men were the Establishment. For anti-war protesters, the military and all those in favor of the war were the Establishment. For environmentalists, industrial corporate America and the government were the Establishment. And for gays and lesbians, non-gays were the Establishment.
So the Establishment was, in total, white male corporate and official war-loving heterosexist America.
By 1970 the Establishment had been thoroughly rocked to its foundation by the civil rights, women's liberation, anti-war, pro-environment and gay and lesbian rights movements. Jolted first by the powerful leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Establishment was then rattled by Malcolm X., badgered by Bella Abzug, taunted by Timothy Leary and finally traitorized by Robert F. Kennedy.
But the end-all assault on the Establishment's portals came with the Stonewall riots, when homosexuals demanded equal rights and finally marched out of the closet.
Although people of color, women and gays united under the anti-war banner led by brilliant leaders like Shirley Chisolm of New York, when the Vietnam War ended the sharing of oppression seemed to fade as a new, white male corporate and official heterosexist America emerged. The new Establishment (the word is now politically incorrect) provides structures for people of color, women, environmentalists, even gays and lesbians. But today's activists are quick to point out that structure is not synonymous with freedom from oppression.
In a very large sense, gays and lesbians were able to emerge from the closet because of the work of blacks and the leadership of King. Without King's courageous steps, gays could still be hiding amidst the mothballs, tie racks and shoe bags.
If King should be as much a hero to gays and lesbians as he is to blacks, and if the black struggle in recent history was also a struggle to ensure rights for all—including homosexuals—the presence of racism and discrimination within the gay community is seen by many as both a contradiction and an embarassment.
The very existence of one organization Black and White Men Together (BWMT) has helped serve as a deterrent to racial discrimination in the gay community.
"Therre is much work to be done," says Robaire Hunter, who is serving his second term as co-chair of BWMT Los Angeles. "The gay and lesbian community needs to look at itself, and it needs to unify. Gays who discriminate must realize that they are stepping on their own civil rights as well."
Co-Chair Dan Duncan adds, "We need to put in a major effort to bring our community together and help each other." Duncan says that BWMT is setting an example through its many programs and by its members "living in an integrated environment."
According to Charles Stewart, the first national co-chair of BWMT, and the co-chair of the organization's Equal Access Committee, racism among gays and lesbians comes in many forms, ranging from the overt to subtle varieties.
One of the most obvious forms of discrimination in the community is the nagging problem of carding—the practice used to keep people of color from gaining entry to gay and lesbian establishments.
"To put this issue in perspective," says Stewart, "you have to start by dealing with the importance of the bar as a social institution. Most gays come out in bars—it is their first contact with the gay world. So the bar plays a big role for many people. This is not the case with non-gays—bars don't have the same importance for them. Carding really is a gay issue."
Blatant discrimination that takes place at the doors of bars and discos, if it is a gay issue, was dealt with forcefully by the gay majority on the West Hollywood City Council, and by the non-gay councilmembers as well, who worked along with BWMT to draft and adopt an anti-carding and uniform treatment ordinance. The law was introduced Feb. 8 by Councilman Stephen Schulte and it was approved by a vote of 5-0 by the City Council. It went into effect 30 days later.
The West Hollywood law, although partially modeled on an anti-carding ordinance in Atlanta, goes well beyond Atlanta's provisions by also specifying that there must be uniform treatment at the door of a bar or disco. Stewart says, "The reason for the uniform treatment provision is to avoid having situations where, although multiple pieces of ID are no longer required, some persons may be admitted with no ID while others may be stopped and asked to produce ID." The law also offers protection for women, who in the past have been barred from establishments on the premise of shoes or clothing being inappropriate.
"For several years BWMT has investigated complaints of carding discrimination in West Hollywood and Los Angeles," says Hunter. "We have carefully and methodically followed through. Our objective has never been to make life difficult for bar owners or anyone, but rather, to end the problem. So we work quietly unless we see there is no willingness to cooperate."
BWMT is also trying to bring about a carding ordinance in the city of Los Angeles, which, since the incorporation of West Hollywood, has lagged far behind in dealing with social and gay and lesbian issues. "We have discussed the prospects of a carding law with Los Angeles City Council President Pat Russell, and she has pledged to support such a law," says Stewart.
Carding is not the only glaring form of racial discrimination in the gay and lesbian community, says Co-Chair Robaire Hunter. "Another major area of concern is employment discrimination," says Hunter, "particularly with bars, but with all other gay and lesbian businesses as well."
"The bar owners should think about only one color," says Hunter, "and that is green. Otherwise they shouldn't be in business. We need to see more black bartenders and waiters and other employees in the bars and discos."
Stewart says that employment discrimination in the gay and lesbian community has been extensively documented in San Francisco, where a study of 90 bars was made, then followed-up one year later. "There was a clear indication of discrimination by gay bars against people of color," says Stewart, "so they took the results of the study to the Human Rights Commission, which ruled that a pattern of discrimination existed." Stewart says a similar study may be conducted in Los Angeles County.
Another persistent form of discrimination in the gay and lesbian community may actually be exercised by gay rights organizations. "Although most of our organizations have opened their doors wide to minorities," says Stewart, "there are some unfortunate and outrageous exceptions."
Stewart is especially critical of the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA). "There has never been a gay man or lesbian of color on MECLA's board in all the years of its existence," says Stewart. "MECLA says that it is an economic issue, that its board members must be fund-raisers and that minorities have yet to demonstrate their ability to raise money, but I say this is racial exclusion." Stewart says that the only affirmative action programs being conducted by MECLA is to bring in Republicans and Republican money.
Stewart is angry at the way MECLA handled the commission appointment process when Mayor Bradley replaced virtually all of the commissioners in the City of Los Angeles in 1984. "Bradley turned to MECLA as the voice of our community and MECLA blew it," says Stewart. "The absence of more openly gay and lesbian commissioners is due to the shortsightedness of our own community, particularly on the art of MECLA." Stewart says that MECLA failed to include any people of color. "As a black man I would be angrier at MECLA's hypocrisy, but as a gay man I am embarrassed at their political ineptitude," says Stewart.
BWMT's equal Access Committee has also singled out another major gay and lesbian organization for failure to include people of color on its board, the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center (GLCSC). "They have also kept minorities off their board, and for the same reason as MECLA, money—they say that people of color can't raise funds among the center's traditional donors, but one wonders, are these the only sources of money and is that the only function of the board?" asks Stewart. "One of the ironies of this situation," says Stewart, "is, here are two all-white boards, going to the black mayor of the city with predominantly people of color as its population, and complaining about discrimination. Well!"
"The center's board first voted to make it a priority to get people of color as members, but they never did, and as a result—another irony—they lost one of their largest contributors because of their failure to integrate," says Stewart. According to Stewart GLCSC finally voted down a motion to set aside a new board seat for a person of color.
BWMT had identified other forms of discrimination in the gay and lesbian community. "On an interpersonal level," says Stewart, "there is far more integration with gays than there is in larger society, but that does not mean that racism does not exist."
One of the more subtle forms he identifies is "aesthetic racism." He says, "There is a unique pattern seen among gay males. Many men select friends from former sex partners, and since people's personal and aesthetic preferences tend to be narrower than their other interests, they find themselves in all-white social circles. Then, you have white men who are afraid of breaking an unwritten taboo, which for instance, keeps them from approaching black men to whom they may be attracted."
Working to end discrimination is only one of the areas of focus of Black and White Men Together. "We serve as an umbrella organization in a way," says Robaire Hunter, "and our members, both black and white, can work together on that which interests them. For our members who are couples, about a third, BWMT gives them an environment to work in, and at our rap sessions, a way to deal with problems and issues. For some of our members we are a civil rights group. And for many of our members we are a social group. One thing we are not is a sex club."
The organization was founded by Michael J. Smith in 1980 in San Francisco. Smith recently edited an anthology "Black Men, White Men" which includes short stories, interviews and articles that offer insight into the black and interracial gay experience.
There are BWMT chapters in the major cities of California, Seattle, Denver, Dallas, New York, Washington, D.C., and other urban centers. Members from all of the chapters will meet in Los Angeles July 14-21 for the group's 1985 convention.
"The different chapters have their own unique styles and ways of dealing with issues," says Stewart. "Some are confrontational in their approach. In Los Angeles, we think it is more effective to negotiate and resolve problems--after all, the solutions are what we're after."
BWMT has a long list of co-chairs of its various committees (all committees have black and white co-chairs). There are Education, Equal Access, Cultural Affairs, Consciousness Raising and Convention Committees, among others.
"Black and White Men Together serves as a model of integration in the gay and lesbian community," says Stewart. "We show that it is possible, and that it works."
One of BWMT's most popular functions is its weekly Saturday night rap session. Rap topics are selected by a vote of members who are present, and cover a range of interests. Subjects that have been discussed include the love/hate nature of some interracial relationships; confronting racism in the gay and lesbian community; homophobia and heterosexism; classism; role models for gay men; the media and racism; exclusive sexual attraction to a single race; subconscious racism and guilt; and institutional racism.
"Many interracial relationships have love/hate dynamics," says Stewart, "and those individuals must work at validating the relationship while purging the racism. One discovers that cross-racial attraction is not a legitimate reason for forming a relationship."
Stewart says, "What this organization is about the most, in my opinion, is living civil rights out of love, not intellectual conviction, and that is why we're so successful," says Stewart.
The group splits into black and white caucuses once each month. There has been disagreement in the organization about the value of the caucuses, which some members say help develop closer ties between black and black, and white and white members. Others say that since BWMT is an interracial group, the caucuses should not be held.
While some members of BWMT are frantically working on preparing for the national convention which the Los Angeles chapter will host this summer, others are working on the lighter side of the group's activities—the social events. One such event is a rooftop party set for May 18 in Silver Lake.
"Our job is to balance all of the diversity of the club," says co-chair Dan Duncan. "We have to make sure that one member constituency doesn't infringe on another."
Another of BWMT's stated purposes is to "reduce homophobia in the black community" says Charles Stewart. He cites an example of a problem that the group helped diffuse in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. Late night cruising in a park in the area had been upsetting surrounding black middle-class neighbors; to further inflame the situation the neighborhood patrol service told the residents that the gay men were responsible for the crime in the area. BWMT members met with representatives of the neighborhood, and worked with the patrol "to provide educational assistance, and help them learn distinctions between criminals and people who were just out cruising," says Stewart.
Stewart sees coalition-building as a major direction to be pursued. "When gays need the support of other groups, and we find that we haven't developed any coalitions, we have a problem. Gays in Houston failed to work with the black community. The failed to make it clear that the anti-discrimination measure there was a civil rights issue." He says that he plans to start participating in a predominantly black group, the New Frontier Democratic Club. "I feel compelled to work in cross-over politics. Someone has to go to this group, and in effect, say, "I'm here, I'm gay—now deal with it."
"A great deal of progress is being made in a lot of directions," says co-chair Robaire Hunter. "Some of our members get really enthusiastic on a project they're working on, and are gung-ho. Often those people burn out, though. We try to encourage our members to go easy, and take one step at a time. To establish a pattern of contributing."
What are the major concerns that black and white men together will address in the near future? "We plan to re-examine and redefine the issues that confront America as a racially diverse place at our 1985 convention," says Stewart, "and then determine what kind of agendas and actions are appropriate for this second period of Reagan's America."