Erika D. Smith

With marriage equality, comes unity and division

A dozen activists for transgender and race issues hold up signs in protest at Sunday’s pride parade in San Francisco.
A dozen activists for transgender and race issues hold up signs in protest at Sunday’s pride parade in San Francisco.

It took three hours to spot them, but I did.

A small band of brooders, trudging along next to an old pickup truck.

They looked nothing like everyone else in San Francisco’s pride parade on Sunday. Nothing like the tens of thousands of marchers or the hundreds of thousands of spectators there to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Instead of holding signs declaring “Hooray for Gay” or “Love Won,” their signs demanded that we “Invest in Trans Leadership” and that “Black Queer Lives Matter.” Instead of T-shirts with rainbows, their T-shirts were black and emblazoned with “Protect Trans Lives” and “Black Lives Matter” in all-white letters.

They are a loosely knit group of protesters, depending on the city, going by #BlackOutPride, among others. Their cause is, very broadly, to improve the lives of gay and transgender people of color. They were the party poopers.

I’m not sure why I spent so much time looking for them. Maybe because a group with similar priorities stalled Chicago’s pride parade with a die-in earlier on Sunday. Or because a group in Boston did the same thing a few weeks ago. In fact, pride parades all over the country have been marked by similar, if less dramatic, protests this year.

I wanted to see if the same thing would happen in San Francisco. I wanted to know how the crowd would react. Would they understand? Would they cheer? Would they boo? Would they even care?

As it turns out, people just guzzled more beer. A few cheered, but sadly, indifference was what I saw most.

Sunday was party time. I get that.

The high court’s ruling is a big deal. It’s the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice from a lot of people. It’s also the result of a sound political strategy and a sustained focus on one issue: marriage.

In just a few years, gay rights groups have become a force to be reckoned with all over the country.

But it’s a force, I fear, that’s already starting to fracture, bit by bit, just when we need to use it most. The protests are evidence of that.

That’s the downside of focusing on one big issue. Other issues get neglected and people with other priorities get neglected. In this case, those people are gay and transgender people of color.

Being brown or black in this country already means you are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed or underpaid. This is doubly so if you are also gay and triply so if you are transgender. The same goes for low rates of educational attainment, and high rates of homelessness and suicide. Police brutality is becoming a bigger issue, as it is for people of color everywhere.

This is the anger that’s rumbling beneath the surface of love and unity in the gay community. These are the issues that are starting to divide us.

As the protesters who blocked Chicago’s parade explained: “Organizers wish to amplify the voices of those silenced within the LGBTQ community, primarily those populations most impacted by state violence – trans people, women, people with disabilities and mental illness, black and brown folk, indigenous people, immigrants, sex workers and street youth.”

The organizers blame a combination of “classism, racism and gentrification.” That and a lack of racial or ethnic diversity in the leadership of many gay rights groups across the country.

These are issues that must be addressed. At a time when so much more is at stake for the gay community – workplace and housing discrimination, for example – we can’t afford to lose any part of the powerful coalition that brought about marriage equality and a broad public acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It takes a special kind of person to be a party pooper at the party of all parties. To talk about the important issues that divide us rather than the important issue that just united us.

Maybe last weekend wasn’t the right time to do that. But it needs to happen – and soon.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith