I have been actively involved in, and at times considered a leader of, the Philadelphia LGBTQA community for many years. I have helped to form and lead numerous organizations meant to advance the interests of the LGBTQA community, including several long-existing HIV-related organizations and organizations aimed at enhancing the political influence of the community. In all of these activities, I have made the particular point that LGBTQA people come in all sorts and conditions, and that our community fails to be as strong and effective as it can be because we have allowed ourselves to be defined as white, male and middle to upper-middle class. This made me particularly unpopular, especially in the 1980s, when the media portrayed the typical person with HIV as a middle-class white gay male and I was among those pointing out that, since the beginning, LGBT people with HIV in Philadelphia have been predominately poor people of color.
I’ve learned that today this is known as “intersectionality” — a recognition of the fact that LGBTQA people come not only with a variety of sexual orientations, but also from sometimes widely different class, race, ethnic and other places and backgrounds. I’m proud to say that as a “gay” activist in the ’70s and ’80s, I was raising these issues, often to my detriment politically, despite heated resistance from what was a predominately white, male, financially secure and, generally, racist power structure in the nascent community we were building.
Some of the arguments and tactics I and others used in those days are now being replicated by organizations such as the Black and Brown Workers Collective (BBWC). While now, as a 64-year-old man, I bristle a little at the sometimes-simplistic diatribes of such groups (even though I have to admit my own from earlier days probably sounded the same), the bottom line is that the problem they are identifying is a real one: We still think of and act as if LGBTQA means a middle-class, white mainstream community, forgetting the many members of our community who are not white, not middle class; forgetting that many, many of us are desperately poor or homeless; many of us suffer from severe substance abuse and mental-health problems; that many of us face horrendous discrimination in employment and housing (especially those who are transgender or identify differently); that many of our youth end up homeless, in foster care or the delinquent system; that many of our elders end up isolated and with a poor quality of life.
Actually, after 40-plus years as an activist, I don’t think it’s fair to say we forget. The evidence is clear that what we do is deny.
BBWC and other groups are right to be impatient, loud and disruptive, although I question some of the targets they have chosen — such as Jane Shull, someone who has fought this battle for years and has created one of the only LGBTQA-serving organizations that recognizes intersectionality in its structure and services; and Nellie Fitzpatrick, who’s been on the job less than two years and doesn’t appear to have been given much of a chance to do anything, let alone overcome a decades-old bias that seems to be ingrained in the white gay culture. But I hope the community will not let disagreement on tactics get in the way of confronting the critically serious issue that is being raised by BBWC and others — that we are a much more complex community than many of us think, and it’s about time our community culture, organizations, structures and advocacy reflect that complexity.
We’re no longer in the ’70s and ’80s. As LGBTQA people, we are no longer the most oppressed among the oppressed, having won an astounding array of legal and cultural battles over the past 40 years. But many among us remain oppressed, even by our own community. It’s time we recognize that, and act to make it right.
David Fair has been an LGBT community activist since the early 1970s.