Originally published Dec. 6, 1999, in the author's "OutRight" column.
MY DICTIONARY defines "racism" as "racial prejudice or discrimination." If that's right, there's no other word for what happened recently at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's annual "Creating Change" conference, held in Oakland. By supporting it, NGLTF has crossed the line of common decency and skirted the boundary of the law.
On Saturday, November 13, I showed up for a conference workshop provocatively entitled, "Challenging Issues of Race, Class, and Gender Within the Movement: How to Work With Our Allies Without Killing Them First." The conference guidebook promised that the workshop would address "the links among economic, social, and cultural attacks on People of Color within the LGBT movement."
As about 20 men and women of various races gathered, one of the workshop co-chairs announced that the program guide had mistakenly omitted a notice that this session was to be for "people of color" only - one of several sessions so designated at the conference. Hearing this, the approximately six white women and men present got up from their chairs and walked silently out of the room.
Stunned, I asked aloud if I was being told to leave because I am white. "Yes," answered the co-chair quickly and without elaboration. I left. A sign was then posted outside the door to the room that read, in large Magic Marker: "The Workshop 'Working w/Our Allies' is part of the people of color track. Hence, it's open to people of color only. Thank you." The word "only" was underlined twice for emphasis. The irony of excluding allies from a session about "Working with our Allies" was evidently lost on the leaders of the workshop.
I then approached NGLTF Communications Director David Elliott, a capable and articulate spokesperson by any standard, who confirmed that the Task Force backs race-based exclusion for some workshops at the conference. Why? I asked. "When one of our coalition allies requests a safe space we will respect that request," he responded.
"Safe" from whom, I wondered. From like-minded whites who want only to help fight continuing racial prejudice? It turns out that "safe space" is an Orwellian euphemism employed since at least the 1970s to justify all manner of race- and sex-based exclusion at events around the country. It has been used, for example, to exclude men from the annual Texas Lesbian Conference and to exclude both men and transgendered women from the annual "Womyn's" music festival in Michigan.
Would the Task Force support a presenter who allowed only white people to attend? No, responded Elliott, because "we're not dealing with an equal playing field." Well then, under this leveling no-whites policy, would NGLTF support the exclusion of Jews (a group targeted for racist genocide in this century)? I asked. There was a long pause. "I don't know the answer to that," he said.
OK, well, is NGLTF concerned that it may have violated federal and state laws prohibiting racial discrimination? I continued. After all, the event was held at a taxpayer-funded convention center and NGLTF opened the conference to anyone willing to pay the $200 registration fee. An even longer pause ensued. "We've never thought of that before," Elliott finally answered.
NGLTF could argue, of course, that it is a private organization legally entitled to include or exclude anyone it wants on any basis it wants, "discriminatory" or not. But then that would sound uncomfortably like the arguments we hear these days from the gay-excluding Boy Scouts - arguments NGLTF has harshly criticized.
Back inside the actual workshop, a less high-minded defense of excluding whites was heard. (I know this because I obtained an audiotape of the proceedings.) When a couple of attendees questioned why whites were not allowed in, the response was frank: "I think it's a good learning experience, even though it is rude, that they [whites] experience what we experience," answered one participant. An eye-for-an-eye, anyone?
Another attendee asserted that the leaders of NGLTF, a "white-run organization" in his view, "would ask the white people in the room to leave because that was their [NGLTF's] commitment to being anti-racist." War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength, and racism is anti-racism. "We ought to allow white people to do their work," he continued, "and their work is to give us space. And it's compensatory."
I don't contend that racial discrimination has historically inflicted anywhere near the damage on whites that it has on racial minorities. It hasn't. But I do contend that, wherever and against whomever it is enforced, it needlessly divides and engenders resentment. It denies the humanity of the person it is practiced against, whatever the color of that person's skin. It's especially distressing that the left, which led the fight to end racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, is today either silent about racial double standards, or worse, actively supports them.
In the last 50 years, the gay civil rights movement has come full circle. We have gone from a movement that excluded people on the basis of race, to one that embraced racial non-discrimination, to one that established racial quotas to ensure minority representation, to one that excludes people on the basis of race. Dress it up and excuse it however you will, it is fragmenting us, and therefore weakening us.