Gays of color: putting the motion in the movement

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Two courageous members of the Cherokee tribe, Kathy Reynolds and Dawn McKinley, are fighting to have their lesbian relationship recognized — and they are winning. These women are making their stand in a small reservation town in Oklahoma, but similar battles are being waged from Harlem to East Los Angeles.

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, two-spirited and transgendered people of color are making their voices heard, demanding respect from their communities, and injecting some much-needed backbone into the broader gay rights movement.

Taking up the fight. Kathy and Dawn transformed into warriors the day Kathy was rushed to the emergency room suffering from a serious back injury. Dawn was refused entrance because she was not “family,” despite their long-term partnership. Kathy was scared and couldn’t figure out why Dawn, who was frantically trying to get medical information to doctors, wasn’t there.

Determined never to go through such a nightmare again, Kathy and Dawn looked for ways to protect themselves. In May 2004, realizing there was no provision in Cherokee law barring same-sex unions, they applied for and received a license from the tribal court clerk and were married.

But within weeks the tribal attorney, acting as a private individual, filed a petition asking that the marriage be annulled. After several rounds in the tribal District Court, the Judicial Appeals Tribunal, the highest Cherokee court, decided against him; they ruled that he had no standing because he failed to show how Kathy and Dawn’s marriage harmed him. Then six members of the Tribal Council filed an identical petition — but the appeals tribunal held its ground!

Shamefully, the national gay press has barely covered this important victory, and on the reservation support has been limited to individual expressions of encouragement. (The Tribal Council passed a law after Dawn and Kathy married prohibiting any more same-sex weddings.) But aid has come from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which provided an attorney, from Richard LaFortune, a Native journalist from Minnesota, and from the women’s relatives.

I talked with Kathy and Dawn recently, just as a third court challenge was being filed. Despite everything, Dawn told me they are determined that no one else face their hospital ordeal. She believes that standing up for what is right can change consciousness and attitudes.

A new day. Talking with Dawn and Kathy jogged my memory back some 20 years to a protest at the Canadian consulate in Seattle, demanding an end to Canada’s armed occupation of Mohawk land in the village of Oka. It was hot and I offered an elder with whom I had organized the rally a drink from my water bottle. I was stunned when she refused, saying she was afraid of getting AIDS since I was a lesbian.

Times have changed. Today, HIV prevention, homophobia and gay marriage are being openly discussed and debated in our communities — from the rez to the barrio.

Since the 1980s small, local lesbian and gay organizations have been in the forefront of educating and organizing about the HIV/AIDS epidemic within communities of color. In the process they have built alliances and confronted established leaders whose homophobia blinded them to the health crisis.

These years of community organizing paid off when the Christian right decided to make same-sex marriage a wedge issue in Bush’s reelection bid. The administration doled out faith-based bribes to opportunist Black preachers like Bishop Eddie Long, whose suburban Atlanta mega-church received a $1 million grant in 2003. Long reciprocated by campaigning for Bush and organizing a march of 10,000 against gay marriage through the streets of Atlanta.

But African American lesbians and gays hit the streets, too. Even Minister Louis Farrakhan’s Millions More demonstration last year had to deal with the National Black Justice Coalition, which staged a counter-rally when there was no openly gay speaker.

The NBJC has helped to expand discussion nationally, and this January they called together a summit of the growing number of Black clergy who have embraced gay rights. At the meeting the Rev. Al Sharpton, in reference to the Christian right, said, “They use gays as scapegoats. They knew they couldn’t come to the Black church and talk about war, they couldn’t talk about healthcare. They couldn’t come to the Black church and talk about education. They started with gays, but they will end up with everybody else.”

Julian Bond, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has supported gay rights from early on. As he said last year, “The lesson of the civil rights movement of yesterday … is that sometimes the simplest of ordinary everyday acts, of taking a seat on a bus, of sitting down at a lunch counter, of applying for a marriage license, sometimes these can … change our world.”

Immigration, marriage and border battles. The right to get citizenship for noncitizen partners has been a big issue fueling the gay marriage movement, because even changes in state laws that authorize civil unions do not address citizenship status. Rather, gay immigrants are falling victim to racist federal laws and policies.

The Patriot Act, for instance, allows random stops and checks of anyone within 100 miles of the Mexican border! That is how Ricardo Espindola from Argentina was picked up in Arizona while on vacation with his partner, Wayne Brown. After spending 45 days in detention, barred from any contact with Wayne, Ricardo was deported.

I agree with New York activist Joo-Hyun Kang, who is not enamored of the institution of marriage, and yet sees the need to support it as a civil rights issue. She urges queers to “use this platform about marriage” to talk about the issues, including immigrant rights, which she sees as more urgent for Asian and Pacific Americans and other queers of color.

Visionary warriors of color. The increasing visibility of lesbians and gays of color signals hope for a broader unity among all of us who are facing Bible-thumping homophobes, racist Minutemen border vigilantes and old-fashioned Nazis — who are all sprouting up like dandelions.

But we can weed them out if we stick together.

As Dawn McKinley told me over the phone from her home in Oklahoma: “People have to stop being spectators. We have to make changes, and to do that we have to join together and support each other. It is not right to give up before we start.”

Debra O’Gara is an Alaskan Native (Tlingit) lesbian and lawyer for a New York City domestic violence organization. She can be reached at

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