As the LGBT rights movement moved to the clear forefront of the mainstream civil rights discussion in the United States, numerous media organizations were quick to reduce it to a loaded question: "Is gay the new black?"
I'll admit that when I first heard of it simply by name, I assumed that the new documentary -- "The New Black" -- was a film about answering that rather annoying proposal. But, thankfully, it does far more than that. Premiering this past weekend at the Los Angeles Film Festival (before heading to the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York tonight and AFI DOCS and Frameline next week), Yoruba Richen's film makes it clear that the relationship between the African-American civil rights and the LGBT rights movements is extraordinarily complex, both comparatively and intersectionally. Whether "gay is the new black" is not Richen's focus, and her film makes it clear that it shouldn't be ours either.
"The New Black" intimately offers discussion care of dozens of people -- some for LGBT rights, some against it, some confused in the middle. Collectively they provide a portrait of what it means to be black, what it means to be gay, what it means to be a Christian, and how those three things can intersect, particularly with respect to politics. And it's a much more intricate portrait than is often offered to us in mainstream media (if offered at all).
The film is framed around the Maryland same-sex marriage referendum during last
fall's general election (known as "Question 6"), a referendum that was voted in favor of same-sex marriage by a 52-48 margin. It follows a group of activists -- many of them young, black and LGBT -- as they go door to door canvassing in support of same-sex marriage, often getting doors quickly shut in their faces. The film's most powerful moments come by following these brave individuals, who deal with multiple oppressions as they fight for a cause that has in ways generalized black people as opponents of.
Black voters have been vilified as a prominent demographic in anti-gay votes on things like Prop 8. But "The New Black" explains how some of it has recently come from larger (and largely white) anti-gay organizations, who have targeted black churches in "wedge strategy" campaigns to increase homophobia and thus homophobic voting patterns among religious, black voters. In the film, one white, anti-gay rights organizer discussed how in one campaign "people wouldn't touch the blacks" when they spoke out against gay rights, suggestively because of the touchy subject of their own oppression.
There is absolutely systemic homophobia in the African-American church that extends beyond that influence. The film makes that clear via conversations with prominent, ridiculously
homophobic members. One black pastor somehow believes that the LGBT rights movement wants to put "blacks back on the back of the bus." But "The New Black" also looks beyond the vicious pull-quotes of those leaders and asks us to consider religion in the African-American community on a different level.
As one person in "The New Black" explains, the church has long been "a source of education, community, information and a sense of self-worth" for African-American people, dating back to slavery when faith was often all an African-American person had to go on. Vilifying anti-gay leaders both within the church and influencing it is absolutely fair game, but vilifying the church in general is not. But that's what a lot of LGBT rights organizations -- and LGBT people in general -- tend to do.
"The New Black" -- and many of the people it depicts -- teaches us that it's not that simple. Just as many homophobic leaders try to wrongfully condemn LGBT people as making a "sinful choice," people need to also understand that religious communities and the ideals that come with them are something people are often born into, and that slowly but surely promoting understanding (as many people in "The New Black" are devoting large parts of their lives toward) is a much more effective strategy than creating the divide between two communities (ones with intersecting members) that the true villains of human rights in this country hope for.
"The New Black" screens at Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York June 19th and June 20th, followed by screenings at AFI DOCS in Washington, DC and Frameline in San Francisco next week.