Black and Proud: Putting Community Back into Queer Organizing
by Jackson Bartlett
“We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not afraid of Detroit,” seemed to be the refrain at this year’s Motor City Pride. Held on this side of the city limits for the first time since 1985, MCP 2011 triggered some of the old fears keeping white gays and lesbians out of the city. More than a few curious attendees asked about safety on MCP’s Facebook page, and talk of security and Detroit’s perceived hostility towards gays and lesbians (always racially coded) attended discussions both in the media and around town.
Ferndale’s decision to hold its own pride only inflamed passions on both sides of the debate, scorning not only the city but the many whites who supported MCP’s move to Detroit. But despite white anxieties, and Ferndale’s “alterna-Pride,” 44,000 people attended MCP, making it the largest pride event in Michigan’s history.
The instant success of Motor City Pride in its downtown venue is bringing some long-standing racial divisions on the local queer/LGBT scene into focus, most notably those between black and white organizations.
While MCP was away, a strong tradition of black queer organizing grew in its stead. The act of “building bridges,” however nobly intended, is having to contend with major differences in the political priorities and organizing strategies of a mostly white, suburban movement and a mostly black movement based in Detroit.
Activist Michelle Brown contends that what sets Black queer activism apart is its deep commitment to community organizing. Having sat on the boards of Michigan Equality, Affirmations, Black Pride Society, The Ruth Ellis Center, and other local organizations, Brown has been active on both sides of Eight Mile. She says that in contrast to the more centralized nonprofit model of the larger, mostly white organizations, black queer activists “put their roots in the community,” and seek sustainability by creating a wide base of support and, importantly, involvement, versus relying on corporate/foundation dollars and private donors.
Reverend Darlene Franklin of Agape Ministries agrees. “Sure, we might rely on some foundation money, but I get the best results from informing and engaging as many people as I can.” For her, being a black lesbian activist means organizing a community as much as writing grants, and creating a spatially diffuse but broad-based movement of multiple organizations from Lahser to Cadieux, from Southfield to the Lower East Side.
“Black LGBT people in Detroit need to find their own voice,” says Franklin. In some ways, shrinking resources are requiring black organizations to come together and find that voice. “I don’t want to duplicate somebody else’s work, I want to support them and their work from where I am.”
If the organizing models of Detroit’s black queer organizations are different, so are the priorities. “I’m gay, but I’m also black,” says Brown. That’s why she got involved in the National Black Justice Coalition, a national advocacy organization that has worked closely with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Obama administration on LGBT issues in housing and other urban policy.
The NABC represents the inseparable nature of black and queer identities and the social justice issues that attend them. “Very few people have noticed that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell disproportionately impacts black women. That sends a ripple effect through our communities,” said Brown. Moreover, decent housing is already scarce and discriminatory in the city, giving discrimination against queer people in housing a new urgency.
Limited access to quality health-care and social services compound, for Black queer people living in Detroit, the impact that bullying, mental health issues, and domestic violence have on all queer communities.
Most of all, while Equality Michigan, Human Rights Campaign, and other organizations place HIV/AIDS below marriage equality, job discrimination, and other issues on their agenda, the spectre of the disease hangs over everything black organizations do. Black Pride Society President Kimberly Jones says her organization plans to increase its support of the organizations and individuals tending to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Detroit.
Although the main priority of BPS for the past sixteen years has been to host “Hotter Than July,”(commonly referred to as “Black Pride”) Jones says that no organization can do its work without also supporting the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS: “Counselors, case-workers, all of them need our support more than ever, so I want that to be more a part of what BPS does.”
The conquering call of some white organizers that, “we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not afraid of Detroit,” ignores this extensive, active, and visible network of Black queer Detroiters and organizations; yet, many hope that in years to come Motor City Pride will become more of a neighborly act and less another festival where suburbanites “stick-it” to the supposedly hostile city. “Pride shouldn’t be like the Hoedown,” says Michelle Brown. “Some people, white and nonwhite, are acting like they are a part of the community, and others like occupiers.
It is up to all of us,” she says, “to out ourselves as neighbors, not just as gay”—to put community back into queer activism.
AIDS Partnership Michigan Makes Status Sexy
Downtown isn’t very friendly towards runners, so I usually head straight for the quieter lanes and abandoned prairies of the East Side. On one rainy run down Chene, there wasn’t a car or fellow foot-traveler for blocks, just a sexy, glistening man pictured on a billboard above the website, http://www.statussexy.com.
Just about anyone who lives or spends time in Detroit’s neighborhoods is familiar with the “Status Sexy guy.” A project of AIDS Partnership Michigan, Status Sexy is a multi-media campaign to increase HIV/AIDS testing in the city of Detroit, particularly among black men who have sex with men. “A lot of people have tried to take sex out of the discussion of HIV/AIDS,” said APM’s Wil Bowen on Detroit’s East Side. But avoiding sex is no way to tackle the crisis. Creating a vernacular campaign that also engages the community in the process, he says, is necessary to achieving results.
It is likely because of grassroots involvement that Status Sexy is more than just clever billboards placed in target areas. Community Planning Groups consisting of social workers, youth, and queer and/or black organizations designed a path to services, rather than just a messaging campaign. The billboards refer passers-by to an easy-to-browse website where they are then offered information about HIV/AIDS, testing, forums, testimonials, and events.
Importantly, Status Sexy also has a large face-to-face presence in Detroit and Pontiac, with the “Sexy Team” tabling at most local events–from clubs and balls to pride festivals and health fairs. Status Sexy youth are even organizing underground in high schools where abstinence only education prohibits an official presence.
By building a grassroots base of support across generational lines APM says it’s able to do more with less; yet, it continues to be rocked by funding threats at all levels. Rep. Dave Agema’s recent proposal to route HIV/AIDS prevention funds towards airport runway improvements is only only the most galling example. HIV/AIDS prevention work takes money, but Bowen sees a new generation of HIV/AIDS activists “acting on collaborations” to concentrate their resources and do more.
The leaders of not only APM, but other organizations see 2011 as a year of collaboration. By reorienting their relationships to one another they hope to duplicate less and strengthen one another in the process. Most importantly, they say, this will allow them to sustain themselves regardless of who the foundations choose to support. Status Sexy, like other recent initiatives, is putting these collaborations to work in Detroit, and the initial metrics show that it’s working.
“Knowing your HIV status is the ultimate sign of confidence. And confidence is always so sexy.” Visit http://www.statussexy.com to learn more about prevention, living with HIV/AIDS, services, and testing in your area.
AIDS Partnership Michigan offers free and confidential testing, Monday through Friday, 9am-4:30pm. To find their testing sites and others in Michigan, call 1-800-872-AIDS or visit http://www.partnership.org.