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Gay, lesbian 'Creating change' conference opens in city

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Mandy Carter studies hate from many angles, peering at it through a prism, studying its shapes and curves.

  On Oct. 22, near Laramie, Wyo., Matthew Shepard's lover walks from the place where the gay student was beaten and left for dead in a hate crime that sparked national outrage. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Carter, a nationally known political activist from North Carolina, is a double minority: She's a black lesbian.

When Carter heard that 21-year-old gay activist Matt Shepard had been murdered in October in Wyoming, her thoughts immediately went to another horrific hate crime that occurred earlier this summer -- the killing of a black man named James Byrd Jr. in Jasper, Texas.

Three white men chained Byrd, 49, by his ankles to a pickup truck and dragged him to death, targeting him because he was black. Byrd's death didn't make the cover of Time Magazine like Shepard's death did.

Carter didn't see much difference in the two crimes: Both were examples of hate against minorities.

"When Matt Shepard was murdered, the first thing I thought about was the parallel with James Byrd Jr. A lot of my gay friends never made the connection," Carter said by phone last week from Durham, N.C.

Carter, field program consultant to the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, thinks that the gay and lesbian movement needs to start working closer with other causes to fight discrimination in all forms.

    Related article:

Gay group opens convention, plans marches nationwide


She believes hate is hate, whether it's directed against blacks, gays, Hispanics, Jews or other groups -- whether the victim is Shepard, a white, gay, middle-class college student; or Byrd, a black, unemployed vacuum cleaner salesman.

"To me, they are no different. For those of us of color in the movement, we feel that we are at a crossroads with this movement," said Carter, who will address these issues at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force "Creating Change" conference which starts today and runs through Sunday at the Westin William Penn, Downtown. She said the time has come for the gay and lesbian movement to "get it," to find ways to form a partnership with the struggle of people of color.

The task force, the oldest national political gay activist organization in the nation, won its first battle against discrimination in 1973 by convincing the American Psychiatry Association to stop treating homosexuality as a mental illness, said Kerry Lobel, executive director of the task force.

"If you were gay, they were taking you to a psychiatrist," she said last week.

While that particular battle was won a generation ago, Lobel thought it ironic that gays were fighting an almost identical battle against conservative Christians who, in a recent advertising campaign, suggested that if gays accept God they can overcome their sexual identities.

"This is trying to harken back to a dark day that we had hoped to escape," Lobel contended.

The public, while more open-minded to gay rights issues than ever before, still is not comfortable with homosexuality.

A recent Time/CNN poll found that 51 percent of the respondents believe homosexuals can change their sexual orientation if they choose. Forty-eight percent of the respondents believe homosexual relations between consenting adults is morally wrong, though that number dropped 5 percent since a similar survey in 1978.

Carter, who has spent her life trying to bring the gay community into a partnership with "people of color," recognized that there were as many issues separating the gay movement from the black movement, as unifying them.

Many now involved in gay liberation were veterans of the civil rights and women's movements.

Both the gay and black movements have had their share of martyrs: from Martin Luther King to James Byrd Jr. in the black community; from Harvey Milk, San Francisco's openly gay supervisor who was assassinated in 1978, to Matt Shepard, in the gay community.

Blacks and gays have been victims of many hate crimes, which are on the rise across the nation. According to FBI statistics, most hate crimes still are directed toward blacks. Of the 8,759 reported in 1996, 61.6 percent were against blacks and 11.6 percent were directed at sexual minorities. The number of reported hate crimes almost doubled during a six-year period starting in 1991, when the total figure was 4,588. The percentage breakdown of victims has remained about the same.

Despite similarities, the two movements have significant differences, Carter said. The gay and lesbian movement is predominately white and composed of people from different socio-economic classes who are bound together by their sexual orientation, and little else, she said.

"Their unifying background is their sexual orientation and their struggle for legal civil rights, but there doesn't seem to be a politics or philosophy that grounds them," Carter said.

Economics is a big difference, since the black civil rights movement fought against racial prejudice and the culture of poverty in which most blacks lived.

"People in the gay community don't talk about the class issue or accessibility," Carter said.

She said many people of color have a hard time equating their struggle with the struggle of the gay and lesbian community where white homosexuals can enjoy equal rights all their lives, as long as they keep their sexual preferences secret.

"You still have your white skin privilege and class privilege," Carter said. "With black folk, there ain't no place to hide."

Carter capsulized her thoughts about the issues in an article she wrote for the New York Times in 1993, when an anti-gay ballot measure passed in Cincinnati with heavy support from black ministers and their parishioners.

"The situation is compounded by many lesbian and gay activists who insist that racism isn't a gay issue," Carter wrote. "Anyone who tries to widen the focus of gay activism to broader civil rights issues is characterized in some gay publications as a white-male basher or is accused of caving in to political correctness.

"The gay movement should concede that it has been dangerously narrow in its view of civil rights. If it hopes to get black support, it is going to have to bring more black lesbians and gay men into its upper levels on the local and national levels.

"Likewise, black leaders must stop looking at the gay movement as a white issue and begin acknowledging and addressing the concerns of the gay people in their communities," Carter wrote.

Those goals still haven't been met, so Carter continues to preach the message of working together.

"I am begging us to do the right thing," she said.

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