Claiming Our Identities

The National Coalition of Black Gays was founded in 1978, and changed its name to The National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays in 1984. By the end of the 1980s, the organization dissolved due to its leadership moving on to other things or becoming burnt out. It was headquartered in various cities.

In the 1980s while it was headquartered in Chicago, it published the nationally distributed Habari-Daftari: The NCBG Newsmagazine. The July/August 1984 issue featured the 3rd National Third World Lesbian/Gay Conference and included the follow keynote address presented at the conference, given by James Tinney, who was Black, gay, and a professor of journalism at Howard University.

While the following keynote address reflects its context and addresses concerns of 37 years ago in 1984, as with some historical documents it may provide insight for today.

Claiming Our Identities

A keynote address presented at the 3rd National Third World Lesbian/Gay Conference , held in Berkeley, CA, June 21-23, 1984

By James S. Tinney, Ph.D

A year-and-a-half ago I spent my time attacking the evils and injustices of the world in a way that clearly conveyed my own sense of victimization, and hurled down wrath and judgment on everyone I identified as an oppressor. Before one national gay convention I said, “I celebrate death and judgment on the upholders of apartheid in South Africa, on the imperialist in Central America, and on the heterosexists who threaten the lives of gay men and women.”

At that time I was proudest of the fact that I was a Howard University-trained political scientist (having taken my doctoral work in four areas: international relations, comparative African government, Black American politics and socialist theory). And I described myself as a feminist, socialist and gay liberationist.

I was angry and mad; and I was stuck in a rut in which the rehearsal of the wrongs of the past and the injustices of the present left me suspicious of everyone who didn’t share my analysis and isolated me from most of the human race. I didn’t like whites because my mother (who had passed for white) had given me up to others to raise. I didn’t like straights because my wife had divorced me, the church had excommunicated me and my employer was trying to fire me. In reality, I had cut off most of the world; and I didn’t realize that not liking them was really a sign that I didn’t like myself either.

Then one night God called me to begin Faith Temple: A Third World Lesbian and Gay Church. I thought that call meant God’s approval of everything I believed at the time. So I envisioned Faith Temple as a political instrument whose radical stance would justify God to a gay community that had largely rejected him, and would justify homosexuality to the larger religious community (especially Black churches) that had never honestly confronted sexuality at any level.

Fortunately, however, God’s call is based on what he sees we can become rather than what we are when he finds us. And God knew that before I could effectively help others, I would first have to be helped myself. Of course, the only way we can be helped is to be changed—not a change in our basic sexual orientation, nor even necessarily a change in our sexual lifestyle, but change where it is most difficult: in our attitudes, values, ideas and ideals, and in our motivations.

My address to you tonight, however, is not primarily about religion or the church, or even about myself, but about us, all of us, and especially those of us who are Third World lesbians and gay men.

For some of the most radical changes that have occurred in my life, as reflected in this speech, grow directly out of my experiences as a pastor of a gay church, dealing with and ministering to others such as I was, who are angry, hurting and rebellious. When you have to counsel and pray with people every day and night who attempt suicide, who suffer from AIDS and other incurable diseases, whose lovers have betrayed them, who are searching for answers, who can’t get along with their parents or mates or children or people they work with on the job, who are disillusioned with radical politics that promise so much and deliver so little, who want to know that life has more meaning and purpose than simply serving as a cog in some machine to further some cause, who are bound by habits, who dislike who and what they are, and whose lives seem out of control—when you confront these on every hand you are suddenly brought back to reality. You begin to see the futility of so much of what consumes our lives, and the relativity of so many political issues. And you begin to reevaluate the things with which you identify.

Or else, you drop out, close your eyes and you heart to people, and try to forget the whole thing.

In the past year and. a half that Faith Temple has existed, the problems I have encountered in pastoral counseling have necessitated a complete reevaluation of my identity, of our identities, and what it means to be a Third World gay person at this particular time in our history. Because of this, the theme of this conference, Claiming Our Identities, compels me to share with you some of the things I have discovered about us.

That we are in a search for our identities is obvious. But before we can claim them, we must first know ourselves, who we are. Three things should be considered in this process (and these form the outline for my address to you). First, we must consider the role of oppression and liberation in our identity. Second, we must look at the role of anger and rebellion in the formation of our identity. And third, we must think about the role of self-definition.

The Role of Oppression and Liberation

The search for identity is not unique to lesbians and gays or to people of color. It is actually a part of the human malaise, particularly at this point in time in human history. In fact, it is one of the universal cries of every person everywhere,.and especially those in modern Western societies. So we must not fool ourselves into thinking that we are alone m this search, or that only we suffer from identity problems because of oppression or false consciousness.

To hear some persons talk about it, one concludes that our identity crisis is simply the result of believing the lies .of the majority society. They would suggest to us that all we need is conscienticization, or political consciousness-raising. Unfortunately, much of what has been passed off as political consciousness knows no more of how the political system works, but only more of our own victimization. It results not in political consciousness, but m a more concentrated self-consciousness. And self-consciousness does not make the actual conditions under which we live either better or worse or even different. It only makes our personal sense of suffering more intense, our self pity more severe. Obviously our identity should not be based exclusively on our oppression or our consciousness of victimization, or else it will end up being negative, self-absorbing, and unproductive.

When I leaned toward nationalism, I thought the cause of injustice was white people. Later, as I shifted toward a socialist or class analysis, I though that the rich and the powerful were to fault for everything that was wrong with the international order. Later, as I came to accept and announce my sexual orientation, I sought to narrow this definition of evil so as to more specifically include gays in the analysis of oppression- so I began to speak of “white heterosexual males” as the enemy. But now I have come to understand that i was wrong in all these instances.

Now I accept the fact that the world cannot be neatly divided into such uniformly packaged population groupings. The problem does not originate in “them” (regardless of whether we perceive “them” in racial or sexual or in other terms). The problem is in us, all of us, Black and white, male and female, rich and poor, gay and non-gay. There are just too many examples of good among the so-called oppressor group, to view either monolithically. Indeed, such categorizing encourages the very stereotyping and prejudice and conflict that we so readily attack under other circumstances.

Of course, racism, sexism and heterosexism are evil. But it is questionable and doubtful if they (or any similar configuration or listing) account for all or even most of the conflicts and injustices besetting the world. World wars and regional wars have rarely occurred long these battle lines. And if, racism, sexism and heterosexism could be eliminated overnight, we would still have suffering and warfare caused by a thousand other ills. Jealousy, hatred, misunderstanding, opposing ideologies, lust for power, scarcity of resources and mismanagement or maldistribution of those resources available, would still exist. No matter how you cut up life’s fortunes—even if you come up with some property or production class analysis that purports to be the controlling force behind these “isms”—you could not guarantee or predict utopia on earth.

Yet these world problems, these “isms” cannot be overlooked or accepted because they are inevitable. They must be addressed and fought. Progress is possible. They can best be counteracted, though, when we remember that they are manifestations of a deeper underlying evil force. They are symptoms of a persona of evil. They are the natural outgrowth and result of our own personal selfishness—the same kind of selfishness which underlies much of the preoccupation with our own status in life. We will never be able to correct or improve oppressiveness as long as we ourselves are perpetrators as well as victims. Our enemy is never, therefore, just another group of persons. It is, instead, the potential for evil that lies within each of us—the individualized evil that energizes every societal and communal order. After all, “the system” is really people, people just like us.

In connection with this, it is essential for us to understand another manifestation of this oppression theory that is negative in its results. I speak of what I have come to call the Multiple Oppression Game—the idea that the more adjectives we add to our person, the more oppressed we become. Think of just a few of the labels in this process: Black, gay, female, aging, fat, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian and physically challenged. The list goes on and on. It represents what has become one of the most trendy ways of thinking about ourselves, particularly in the Third World gay movement. Despite the fact that those who promote the Multiple Oppression Game have well meaning intentions, it threatens to destroy us all, all of us who think in its terms. This is true whether we number ourselves among the exempted or among the victims.

For those who count themselves victims, sharing more than one of its labels, it can cause us to feel doubly or multiply sorry for ourselves, engendering a severe helplessness. Or it can lead to a false sense of one-upmanship, as if we alone (and those like us who are many times oppressed) have the right to tell others what it is like to know oppression. On the other hand, among those who do not share these labels, it can foster feelings of crippling sympathy for us, and a desire for them to distance themselves from the unfortunate victims. Or it can provide a convenient excuse for their not trying to understand what it means to be oppressed. For both us and them, it leads to the logical conclusion that victimization is somehow irremedial.

The futility of the Multiple Oppression Game was brought home to me, ironically, by a friend of mine, a Black woman pastor and a psychologist in Philadelphia. During a difficult period in my ministry recently, she warned me that building a Third World gay church would be a virtual impossibility. “Just pastoring a Black church is bad enough,” she said, “but the problem is compounded when you’re dealing with people who are doubly victimized, being both Black and gay. You will never be able to build a sold church with just Black gay members; and they will never be responsible members.”

Immediately my own sense of self rejected her analysis. Yet even I had fallen into the trap of such thinking. After all, wasn’t this what many of us in the lesbian and gay community have been telling ourselves? No matter. The Multiple Oppression Game must be rejected, for the following reasons:

First, not all oppressions operate simultaneously. Seldom is a person discriminated against for two reasons at the same time. Take, for instance, the person of color who is “carded” at the door of a gay bar. If the bar’s unstated but de facto policy is to limit the number of non-whites in attendance (itself an uncontroverted crime), it matters not whether the person is also above 40 or extremely fat or a woman (even though these other characteristics, rather than color, might exclude one from other gatherings). In this instance, color operates independently of other factors as a cause for discrimination.

Closely related to this is the fact that a kind of rank-order of oppressions also operates, as well. This is why many lesbians say they feel discrimination first as women, and only secondarily as gay women. Double or triple minority status does not necessarily or usually correspond to double or triple jeopardy at the same time.

Second because victims of discrimination are treated similarly, the kind of discrimination one experiences is qualitatively similar regardless of the label. Which is to say that “oppression is oppression.” Both racial and sexual minorities suffer the same kinds of feelings when encountering prejudice, regardless of the combination of labels we wear.

Third, one oppression often mitigates another. To put it more simply, learning experiences or in-group resources based on minority status often have a beneficial spill-over effect on another minority status. Because of this, it is not uncommon for one minority group to feel that its oppression outweighs that of another minority (although, in fact, such is not accurate). As a case in point, Black gays often question the comparative suffering endured by white gays. Such questioning really highlights the fact that being Black has provided us with certain coping mechanisms which lessen the impact of specifically-gay oppression that some Black gays experience. We learn lessons of strength from one minority label that operate later in helping us cope with another minority label we wear also.

Fourth, racial, gender, and sexual groupings are not homogeneous, or at least not as homogeneous as we sometimes believe. Many factors (some of which are difficult to assess) operate to diversify the oppression experienced by those who wear the same minority label. Not all Blacks are alike in education, income, background, religion, social mobility, and preferences, even as not all lesbians and gays are alike—and even as not all in the so-called oppressor class are alike.

Finally, we must not forget that suffering cannot be measured quantitatively. Which is worse, physical or psychological pain? Who suffers more, the closeted gay person who lives all the time worrying lest someone discover their gayness, or the openly-gay person?

It does not do any good to compare oppressions for the purpose of proving that one group is more oppressed than another; neither does it do any good to group oppression together in order to prove that we are more oppressed because of double or triple minority status, It only leads us to double our triple pity; or double or triple feelings of self-righteousness.

If, however, we have sometimes based our identity on a misguided idea of oppression, we have also based it on a misinformed idea of liberation. Obviously, if the diagnosis is wrong, so will be the treatment.

What is this thing called liberation that we so often tout? If, in the final analysis, we are only fighting for more money, a better job, more cars in the garage, and the ability to live in the suburbs, then it is doubtful if this is really “liberation” at all. It may not even be worth fighting for. If, on the other hand, by liberation we mean the destruction of the American people, this country, then we might ask what liberation will provide once all of this has been exterminated.

Much of what we suppose is a gay agenda for liberation has nothing to do with gayness at all, but is simply a compilation of a laundry list of gripes and causes thrown together as a sum of those who shout the loudest. Too many personal agendas have been sold to us as a bill of goods for gay liberation. Too many personal axes of too many fringe political idealogues have come to be associated with the lesbian and gay crusade.

The ultimate issues, it seems, are not just oppression, but suffering and how to overcome it. Yet the issue of suffering is an intra-psychic dimension, a metaphysical question. Our problems are not just inequality, subordination, and oppression. We must not be reduced to animals in heat. In the final analysis, our most important questions of life have to do with the problems of death, disease, despair, and disappointment. Yet the lesbian and gay movement, and the Third World movement, and liberation movements in general, have had nothing to say about these universal problems which account for most of the suffering in the world and in our own lives. The simultaneous frenzy and paralysis which we have encountered as a result of the AIDS situation are evidences that we have not come to terms with the most basic matters of human identity and human suffering.

If what we really mean when we speak of liberation is equality before the law, equal opportunities in employment and education and housing, and some kind of economic parity at the median point, then we are not talking about liberation at all, but about inclusion. We need to be honest about this.

Despite what the so-called liberationists proclaim, what they are really offering in the name of liberation is often a false prophecy and a cruel delusion – a series of isolated proposals rather than a comprehensive social vision.

The search for identity must not be limited to what we are (which is comparatively easier to define) but to who we are (which is vastly more difficult and more important). The things that we so often celebrate as part of our identity—being Black, Hispanic, women, gay, etc.—really describe what we are. But we may hold 100 conferences based on these themes and never discover the who that lies behind the what. In fact, it is a good clue to where we are in our journey that those who are least certain about who they are depend most upon the external variables of what they are to define themselves.

Which brings us to the second point.

The Role of Rebellion and Anger

Our true identity must not be measured by the degree of our anger and rebellion.

There was a time when Blackness in the Black community was measured by the degree of militance a person possessed. Unfortunately, particularly in the sixties, many persons could never measure up as “black enough.”(This often had nothing to do with complexion, but with the degree of anger, the kind of political extremity one was willing to endure, the ideology one held, the way one dressed and talked.) This same kind of negative reaction, which measures identity by the degree of our reacting to others, now seems to characterize much of the Third World lesbian and gay movement.

Self-esteem and feelings of self-worth do not come by simply repeating the words “I am somebody,” over and over again. No amount of political consciousness-raising will eradicate the negative feelings of guilt and internalized self-hatred. The only way to feel good about ourselves, to love ourselves, is to be somebody worth loving. And the way to respect ourselves is to replace hate with love, anger with forgiveness, and bitterness with sweetness. “We need some honey in the rock.”

If we are loving and forgiving of those who are against us, we will then be the kind of person that we ourselves can love. What is more, we will become more attractive, more loveable, to others; and those whom we now repel by our negativity and self-pity and anger, will also then find us the kind of person they, too, wish to be around. Otherwise, our negativity will continue to isolate us from others, continuing a cycle of avoidance that only increases our negative feelings about ourselves.

As my grandmother used to say to me, “Don’t talk all the time about the things you don’t like. Nobody is interested in what you don’t like. They are only interested in the things you find beautiful and exciting and positive.”

There was a time when I thought anger was good because it drove us to fight for the right. In fact, it is amazing how much anger has controlled my life, dictated my responses, and consumed my energies. Of course, it is still true that I have every right to be angry, and every cause to be rebellious. Life has dealt me many unfair blows, and the established order of society has not understood or accepted me.

But now I understand what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about. Anger debilitates, cripples, and consumes. It is totally negative when it is sanctioned and permitted to control our lives. This is not to say that anger should be denied or repressed or overlooked. Anger is natural and normal to the extent that we all experience it from time to time. Yet anger is never static. Instead, it grows and poisons our spirit, and our relationships with others—both those we are angry with, and those we count our friends. (This is true especially since even friends are retained or dismissed depending on their willingness to consent to, and approve of, our anger.) Because anger poisons and intrudes upon even our friends, it is easy to see why we have so much difficulty in our own Third World lesbian and gay groups, so much conflict, so much in-fighting.

Idealistically, of course, anger has sometimes led to constructive action. But this is an exception. Most of the time, anger blinds us from our own reality and the realities experienced by others. It blinds us to our true identity. It prevents us from understanding and loving our enemies; it keeps our opponents at a distance, so they can never get close enough to us to understand us {or understand the things we want arid need most.)

Even though anger has caused some persons to become active in political movements it is never the right motivation for such action. The right motivation, the mature motivation, instead, is to work for social change for the right reasons, and in the right spirit. We must be eager to see justice prevail in the world. But anger cannot keep us going when our spirit gets weak. Anger cannot sufficiently empower us because in and of itself it drains and dissipates the same energy it ignites. It is like burning a candle at both ends. The more my anger propels me to get even and get the upper hand, the more it also destroys me along with my oppressor. No wonder angry people are unhealthy!

Closely related to anger is rebellion. One is the seed, the other is the fruit. Anger, when acknowledged and transformed, can be changed into forgiveness and healing. But anger, when approved and nourished, results only in increased alienation and increased pain. This is why someone has said, “The ones who are the most rebellious are the ones who are hurting the most.” It is true. If life has, indeed, dealt me a hard time, then I do not need to make life even harder by hurting myself more in the process. Yet anger and rebellion do just that—they hurt us more than them.

One of the best ways to deal with anger and rebellion is to realize that evil is an inevitable part of the human condition. It is universal. We are all guilty of gross sins against ourselves and each other. We may not be racists, but we are just as guilty in some other area of life. We may not be sexists, but we are just as bad in some other way. It is a universal truth that “in whatever point we judge another, we condemn ourselves.” Or as psychologists tell us, the things that irritate us the most in others are often the things that we dislike most about ourselves. For example, as homosexuals are hated because we remind heterosexuals of their own capability (or even desire) to engage in same-sex activity, yet similarly are we angriest at those who do to us what we recognize in ourselves as our tendencies to do to others. The things that make us maddest are often the things that we have the potential to do ourselves.

This is why, in the final analysis, there is no other way to live than to be forgiving. Healing is to forgiveness what rebellion is to anger—one follows the other.

Much of our anger at whites gets translated into leftist or anti-this and anti-that rhetoric that only further distances us from whites. For us, it provides a margin of comfortability, because by keeping all of them at a distance, we don’t have to risk being hurt, we don’t have to risk not being loved in return, we don’t have to take the time and responsibility to decide which whites are our friends and which might be our enemies. Part of this also relates to the lie we have told ourselves so long, that we know them better than they know us. In actuality, none of us knows each other very well. To the extent that we build walls of rhetoric and ideology that further isolate us from them, we are responsible.

There are two sides to error. One side of error is blaming the victim. But the other side of error is excusing ourselves, feeling sorry for ourselves, and refusing· to take responsibility for our lives.

Defining ourselves by what we are against gives the opposition tremendous power over us. It amounts to reacting, rather than initiating action. It is defining our mission, our purpose, ourselves, by what others do or don’t do.

We have not always realized the differences between power and authority. Gay power may mean the acquisition of gay rights, but by what authority? Where is the authority—the basis of legitimacy for our demands? Our authority is not proven by ranting and raving, or by force, or by making others agree with us. Rather, our authority must be based on a discourse of morality and love that speaks the same language as the majority. What we have been doing largely until now is simply rejecting the terms of the discourse of the majority, and substituting for it own own values, our own presuppositions, our own meanings. In effect, we are speaking a different language. We must accept responsibility for the limitations of this tactic, for refusing to speak a language that the opposition can even understand. Somewhere or another, we must meet our enemies on common ground.

Until that happens, we are like people without a country of our own. And we deceive ourselves if we think that the East looks more favorably upon us than the Western world. We are only fooling ourselves if we think that the Third World is any more congenial to women and gays than America. It is time to quit romanticizing about the past, about homelands, about the Third World, about some supposed utopian distant past or future. The truth is that the ideals of sexual freedom and sexual liberation are anathema to every national and ethnic and racial and cultural population, both in the U.S. and in the Third World. This conflict between Black community values and the gay lifestyle is most apparent in the lives and psyches of those of us who are both Black and gay. Intuitively, at least, we know this. It accounts for the persistently troublesome question which haunts every Black gay person – the question of which comes first, our Blackness or our gayness? Which, then, finally brings us to our third point:

The Role of Self-Definition

I speak now of the role of self-definition (or self-determination, as it is sometimes called) in our identity-formation. We must be certain and careful, that in defining ourselves, the identity we claim is truly our own and not someone else’s.

As Third World lesbians and gay men, we are often in danger of stopping short in our search for new definitions, and becoming enamored of someone else’s· analysis rather than our own. I have seen this happen, for instance, in the way some of us have used Marxism or feminist ideology to define and explain ourselves. We should be wary of thinking that European Marxism of another era can define people of color in modern times, let alone Third World lesbians and gays. It cannot. Neither can nationalism define those of us who must live in a pluralistic society. The same question must be raised about feminism as an ideology. If gay women feel that feminist ideology totally defines them, then I leave that to their own judgment. But I know that it does not define gay men.

Although there are many similarities and many interconnections between all minority groupings, the truth is that we must be free enough and mature enough and intellectual enough to learn ‘how to separate what is usable and practical from all these ideologies, and what is not. I do not have to be ruled by anybody else’s ideology, yet I can extract the good from them even while I criticize the exaggerations in them. We can borrow from many philosophical systems, but we cannot permit any of them to stop us from defining our own identities in our own terms; and we cannot permit any of them to dictate to us how we shall explain our own experience.

To be a feminist does not mean that one has to approve of everything that is said and done and taught in the name of feminism. To be Black does not mean that one has to approve of every group and every tactic that espouses Blackness. To be gay does not mean that we have to approve of everything that passes under the name of gayness or of gay liberation. To be proud of one’s heritage, and to seek to recover one’s past, does not mean that we should go back and adopt every aspect of history and culture, including those things that are pre-scientific, pre-modern, pre-industrial, and pre-urban. Such blind obeisance to the past or to ideology or to culture reflects an uncritical mind and a non-discerning spirit· unworthy of true feminism, true Blackness, or true gayness. The question that guides us should not be, “What did our ancestors do?” But it should be, “What should we do now in wise stewardship of the resources that they never had?”

Idealizing other countries or other ideologies may inspire us to sentimentality, but it ignores the fact that in Africa, for instance, the people are trying eagerly to become like us, and cannot understand the uncritical romanticized ideal we have of the African past. We should remember also, as Third World lesbians and gays, that it is the so-called most progressive or socialist African countries that place African lesbians in concentration camps. And it is Cuba that categorizes gays with criminals and traitors. And it is Third World socialism that regards homosexuality as part of the decadence associated with the influence of capitalism.

It is one thing to say that feminists and gay men both pose a threat to the social construct of gender-ascribed roles. This too is obvious. But it is quite something else to assume from this that no accommodation with a heterosexual majority is possible, or to conclude that we cannot be free until the nuclear family is destroyed.

We have no more right to demand that they become like us, any more than they have a right to demand that we become like them. Nor do we have a right to define our cause in a way that arbitrarily and self-righteously places others in a defensive posture leading to alienation and antagonism as their only possible reactions.

It is amazing how our assumed goals of peace operate only when we talk about imperialism or nuclear power, but are inoperable when it comes to conciliation and understanding between straights and gays, women and men, people of color and whites.

As long as our concept of brotherhood and sisterhood applies only to women or only to Black men or only to gays, or only to the politically correct, then just so long will we be unable to find brotherhood and sisterhood even between Third World groups, or even between lesbians and gay men.

It is one thing to say that the history of the world has always revealed a subordination of women, or an imperialism against people of color, or a class conflict between rulers and the ruled. But it does not logically follow, because of this, that sexism or racism or classism is some fundamental root of all injustice.

It is one thing to say that the practical goals of attaining ERA, reproductive rights equal pay for equal work, and affirmative action for women are absolutely necessary for a just society. But that does not mean that one has to adopt the ideology of feminism in order to attain these goals.

If all men must become ideological feminists before there can be equality for women, the cause is doomed before it starts. If all straights must become swingers, or at least approve of homosexuality, before there can be gay liberation, then this cause is also inevitably destined for defeat. If any or all of us must eliminate all preferences based on complexion or class or culture before we can be free of racism, then the anti-racist struggle is also foredoomed.

If we are truly about celebrating diversity and protecting the rights of everyone then we must wage our cause with tolerance and love and understanding and forgiveness. We must agree to disagree at times. We must permit ourselves—even other lesbians and gay men of color—the space to seek their own identities without imposing on them our idea of political correctness.

And above all, we must claim our identity in freedom not in reaction to oppression or anger. Finding and claiming ourselves, our true selves, in this way will not further separate and isolate us from others, but will provide us with the possibility of truly creating a more perfect society, a more harmonious world.