Before diversifying, white LGBT groups need to check their privilege

The Advocate published an opinion piece by Jimmy Nguyen, which calls for LGBT groups to consider diversifying their leadership. Part of the piece reads:

At the executive director position, LGBT groups have historically been led almost exclusively by white men.  A step down at the board level, gay non-profits have tried for years to recruit members who better match the racial diversity of America. After all this time talking about the need for greater racial inclusion, it’s time LGBT entities did better in finding leaders who represent the full spectrum of colors.

The figures are troubling, especially at the very top.  In 2008, only 4% of executive directors of LGBT organizations were people of color. That figure comes from The Pipeline Project, a group formed to develop LGBT leaders who reflect our multicultural, multiethnic community.  It is a far cry from the 36% of the U.S. population who self-identifies as a racial minority.  And our 4% is one-third less than non-profit groups in general.  While I have not come across more recent statistics, it’s hard to imagine racial diversity among executive directors has dramatically improved in the past few years.

Executive directors act as faces to the public of their organizations and the overall LGBT movement; it is critical that those faces be as diverse as possible. Because the LGBT population is itself a minority group, it is sadly ironic that our organizations need their own diversity initiatives.

In the boardroom, the picture is better but still lacking.  At the major LGBT non-profit entities, only 25% of board members are racial minorities, according to the 2011 annual National LGBT Movement Report released by the Movement Advancement Project, which studies the health of LGBT organizations.  Despite efforts to improve board diversity, the 25% figure has not materially changed from the prior year.  While the MAP study does not capture data from all gay non-profit entities, it represents a good cross-section. The 2011 report (summarizing 2010 data) covered 40 of the most prominent groups that collectively control 71% of the budgets from known gay organizations.

Luckily, LGBT non-profit entities are doing well at the staff level.  MAP found that 32% of staff members at participating organizations identify themselves as people of color.  This more closely tracks with the 36% figure for the U.S. population.

Why is the leadership of our LGBT organizations so awash in white?  Let’s begin with the elephant in the room.  The gay community needs to be more racially inclusive – not just in its organizational structures and political strategies, but in its social fabric.

Ethnic minority groups still are not as integrated into the gay world as they should be.  That isn’t to say Caucasian people have no racial minority friends, but it is a fair observation that their social circles tend to be less racially diverse.  This spills over into the milieu of “A-gay” charity events, where the people who historically run the show (often gay white men) invite people they know (usually more gay white men than racial minorities) to attend, contribute money or support in other ways.  Trust me, I’ve showed up at many gay fundraisers to find myself as an Asian man just one amongst a limited number of racial minority people in the ballroom.  That results in fewer people of color getting exposure to the good work of LGBT organizations.

In turn, this affects boardroom composition. With leaders of LGBT entities being less diverse, so too are their social circles, which they reach out to for recruiting prospective board members.  This leads to a spiraling cycle that makes it difficult for non-profit groups to improve their ethnic diversity.

Adding to the challenge is the money factor.  For executive directors and board members, a big part of their job is to solicit donations from people who have money or strong business relationships to leverage.  That immediately starts filtering out some people of color from the contact list.  There are, of course, many LGBT racial minorities who are professionally successful.  But it’s the cold hard truth that an income disparity still exists in America between whites and racial minorities (irrespective of sexual orientation) even with the same level of educational attainment.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having gay, white men at the top (just as there is nothing inherently wrong with straight, white male leaders).  But we need more color not just for atmospherics; we need it to help win the gay civil rights movement.

Everything was going fine until I read the following paragraphs:

To achieve full equality, we need straight allies, especially racial minority groups such as the NAACP and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center that help frame gay issues in the historical context of other civil rights movements.  This bestows particular resonance toamici curiae briefs from these allied groups in impact litigation, such as briefs supporting marriage equality in the Ninth Circuit appeal of the Perry v. Schwarzenegger Proposition 8 case.

Backing from these other minority organizations also makes it safer for straight politicians and voters to support gay causes.  Perhaps most importantly, they can help overcome antigay prejudices that can be uniquely harsh within African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-American cultures.  If our own LGBT organizations had more diverse leaders, we could build stronger partnerships with these straight allies and better appeal to voters in communities of color.

Nguyen follows with encouraging people of color to join LGBT organizations, “even if it’s just to attend an event or volunteer a little time.  A small amount of exposure now might intrigue you into pursuing leadership opportunities in the future.”

Easier said than done.

My problem with part of Nguyen’s opinion piece is it doesn’t mention the fact that many LGBT organizations’ leaders are bound by racist notions regarding people of color. While many in the LGBT community are oppressed due to their sexual preference and being transgender, these mostly white organizations continue to perpetuate whiteness, oppression and aggression towards people of color.

The Prop 8 debate in California and its failure at the ballot box is a prime example. The traditional LGBT community equated its fight for civil rights to that of the  Civil Rights Movement dominated by black folks. The mainly white LGBT communities made no attempts to reach out and bridge gaps with people of color, who historically have been divided on the issue of homosexuality. When Prop 8 failed in 2008, the traditional LGBT community laid the blame mostly at the feet of African-Americans, citing our religious principles as the main reason why we didn’t support Prop 8.

As a black woman who has been consistent in my efforts of supporting equality for the LGBT community, I have been nothing short of offended to hear LGBT organizations dominated by white people point to my brothers and sisters as being uniquely homophobic (as Renee at Womanist Musings often says). These same organizations have continued to hijack historic black activists’ support of gay rights without giving credence and deference to the black activists who made the fight for civil rights a moral issue for the United States as a whole. While pointing to figures like Coretta Scott King as being supportive of equality, these same organizations refuse to check their own white privilege, selfishly order people of color within the LGBT community to join their fight and demand they identify as LGBT first and as person of color second.

True, consistent allies would never put people who suffer oppression on many fronts in a position in which they have to choose to align themselves with one marginalized group over another. Since the traditional LGBT organizations are dominated by whites and whiteness, rarely are these leaders asked to check their racism, thus creating an atmosphere where they are fighting oppression from the outside, but actively engaging and promoting it within their communities.

Also, framing the fight for LGBT rights within the historical context of other civil rights movement is appropriation at its finest. The traditional, white LGBT community does not have to deal with the impact of whiteness’ marginalization and oppression of people of color, our minds, bodies and liberties. While the Gay Is The New Black slogan is popular among white LGBT organizations and their allies, it has not and never will be the same as people of color have the misfortune of being unable to mask their race and ethnicity from the attack of whiteness and racism.

Before these mostly white, male-run LGBT organizations can begin to hire people of color to join their upper brass, the onus will be on them to acknowledge and fight for the issues specific to LGBT people of color, including racism, on-the-job racial discrimination and the onslaught of whiteness that reminds POCs of our otherness. Until these organizations can decolonize their minds from the plague of whiteness and racism, people of color will continue to remain skeptical of aligning themselves with the traditional LGBT community.