Category Archives: Politics

Prop 8 #1: A Material or Moral Defeat?

I know I am late on this one, but initially I thought that my essay from 2004, Is Gay Marriage Anti-Black, would be enough to help people think about the racial dimensions of the same-sex marriage debate. I can tell it’s getting alot of traction again, people have emailed to say it is circulating on listservs and it’s in the top 10 blog entries here for the last week. Sometimes, it’s better to be late than to be quick and not comprehensive. I think there are lots of things to say about this particular situation, so I am going to be blogging on this all week with short blog entries, while I work on a longer analytical piece. But I will use this series to talk about some of the flawed assumptions of the people upset about the ban.

One of the things that has been bugging me is the pro-marriage (and marriage ONLY) gays and straights have been talking as though this were the same thing as the Dred Scott decision–a total loss of rights tantamount to second class citizenship, or no citizenship at all. But is this true? Though it is a setback, in terms of cementing heterosexist law on yet another state in the union, is it really the loss of “rights” as is being framed by the advocates?

Something to consider: California already has a domestic partnership law on the books, that was signed into law in 2003, and took effect in 2005. According to the California domestic partnership law, “Registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the sameresponsibilities, obligations, and duties under law, whether they derive from statutes, administrative regulations, court rules, government policies, common law, or any other provisions or sources of law, as are granted to and imposed upon spouses.”

In essence, the benefits of domestic partnership are very similar to those given under civil marriage, which are pretty similar to straight married couples, with the exception of federal recognition to get the different benefits under federal law. The US government does NOT currently honor state marriages of gay couples.

Did the California Supreme Court decision which lead to default legal marriage for same-sex couples, end the domestic partner benefits already afforded under the 2003 law?

NO. According to the state website, “The Court’s decision regarding same-sex marriages did not invalidate or change any of the Family Code statutes relating to registered domestic partners. Until a Notice of Termination is filed with our office, a registered domestic partnership will remain active on California’s Domestic Partnership Registry. This office will continue to process Declarations of Domestic Partnership, Notices of Termination of Domestic Partnership and other related filings as permitted by the domestic partnership law.”

That would mean that same-sex couples could still get the domestic partnership benefits, even though there is now a ban on marriage, per se. Is there a qualitative difference between domestic partner benefits and marriage, if neither are recognized federally? I think not.

So I don’t think that the idea that gays in California somehow lost some substantive rights (though I don’t support the ban, obviously) in the few months where they were allowed to get a slightly differently worded piece of paper, makes not a whole lot of sense. This to me is more a moral debate than it is a material one, but I will get into that issue when I write a full piece…Stay Tuned.

Read American University Professor Nancy Polikoff’s Blog to keep up with the best legal mind on these issues.

RIP: Duanna Johnson

This summer a video from a Memphis Jail circulated of a Black transgender woman who was repeatedly punched in the face by a police officer while she sat in the precinct. for which she was suing the police department:


According to news reports out of Memphis, she was found shot dead this weekend in Memphis. Eyewitness news reports:

Lawyer Murray Wells confirmed to Eyewitness News that the person who was killed is his client Duanna Johnson. He says Johnson was often in the area where she was killed.

Murray says Johnson was trying to leave Memphis and go back to her hometown of Chicago. According to Murray, Johnson was just about homeless trying to live in Memphis. He says the apartment where Jonson was living did not have power. Murray says he was helping Johnson buy a bus ticket to Chicago.

I get sick of blogging these stories, but somebody besides the coroner has to record what happens to us.

"Incognegro" Author Frank Wilderson, III in NYC This Week

When the “free” elections in South Africa happened in 1994, I was a 19 year-old college freshman at a small liberal arts college in Ohio. Fortunately, I had become friends with many South Africans on my campus, and in the neighboring universities that dot the central and Southern Ohio landscape. I remember looking at a copy of the ballot, given to me by my roommate’s mother, and seeing the dozens of candidates of many political parties that made up the government of the “New” South Africa, which strangely enough, has turned out to be as new as the “new” American South. Nevertheless, we all (African, and Blacks from the US and Caribbean) assembled in front of the televisions to watch Nelson Mandela become the new President of South Africa, and transforming the ANC from an insurgent revolutionary movement to becoming the dominant political party of the neoliberal nation.

Little did I know, at 19 years old the price that had to be paid for the “progress” that the country was undertaking. While I now know that many were skeptical, few Black Americans knew that price better than Frank Wilderson, III, one of only two American Black members of the ANC, who with several other ANC members, was labeled by Nelson Mandela, “a threat to national security” in 1995.

Wilderson, author of the newly published and highly controversial memoir Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid offers an incisive view of how to a liberation movement that becomes a political party. He also reckons with what happens to a revolutionary who returns to a U.S. Left, mired in the politics of gaining access to the “rights” of civil society in multi-culti California.

I met Wilderson this past Sunday at a small reading at the Salon D’Afrique, a longstanding Harlem salon hosted by writer and scholar, Dr. Rashida Ismaili Abu-bakr, who gave a reading to about 15 invited guests would be engaged in a political dialogue with the author about the book, which according to Wilderson, intentionally does not offer a “what to do next” proscription for progressive movements in the U.S. or abroad.

“The Black demand is for subjectivity,” stated Wilderson. “But progressive political movements must have a coherent goal, but the reality is that the demand cannot be met by a coherent demand, like a civil rights policy for access into civil society.”

Though he talked a little about the book’s structure—modeled after the 1987 autobiography of Black revolutionary Assata Shakur (currently in exile in Cuba), and written with chapters alternating between South Africa and the U.S.

“The organizational structure comes from Assata Shakur—how do you write about a revolutionary underground movement, anti-black racism in liberal and progressive California, and also the use of poetry,” Wilderson remarked.

Many of the guests who’d read the book were struck by the biography of his early life, the son of two academics who were the first family to integrate a Minneapolis suburb., which as Dr. Ismaili noted, “was not the stereotypical background of a Black revolutionary.”

Others, including myself, were struck by the places of sheet vulnerability in the work of a Black male political memoir. I am still reading the book, but I find this aspect of the book particularly refreshing.

The other central question of the book, partly made by the books structure is what are any real difference between the U.S. and South Africa? The book recounts one story illustrating this point. In one trip back to the U.S. with his South African wife at the time, she leaves him in New York telling him that if she wanted apartheid, she could get it at home.

This notion flies in the face of what so many on the left extrapolate from Black leftist politics—people seem to love the idea that Black revolutionaries learn to transcend concerns about Black people to take on more “international” concerns. From Malcolm X‘s trip to Mecca and MLK’s speech on opposing the Vietnam War, Black radicals can make it into the leftist pantheon of stars. Wilderson is drawing the conclusion that anti-Black racism is a global phenomenon and has yet to be addressed, let alone already solved, as much of the Left seems to purport.

“The world needs the Black position,” Wilderson said.

And though my friends, in 1994, watched the elections in South Africa with some level of pride and relief, we knew that being Black, whether from Soweto or St. Louis, Mombassa or Montego Bay, is what brought us into that room in the student center, shut away from the rest of the campus. But that hope we had, is exposed as a fraud in this book, and by the realities of where South Africa is headed. One of those friends, who was instrumental in my political growth, was killed in Soweto, sometime around 2001. South Africa continues to expand its prison system much like the US, and HIV/AIDS rates in Black communities in the US that literally rival those of Africans on the continent.

Incognegro, as a book, and WIlderson’s incessant and unrelenting look at the failure of the integration of Black concerns and liberation into “civil society” makes me highly recommend this book, and suggest you get yourself over the next few days over to one of his three readings in New York City.

October 21, 2008, 6-8pm
Medgar Evers College, CUNY
Founders Auditorium
1650 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY

October 22, 2008 7:30-9:30pm
The Brecht Forum
451 West Street (between Bank & Bethune Streets)
New York, NY

October 23, 2008 06:30PM – 08:30PM
New York University
Meyer Hall, Rm. 121
4 Washington Place [between Broadway and Mercer]
New York, NY

Guest Blog: Time Out NY Thinks Cultural Elite is…WHITE?

I got this forwarded to me in email. I’m not endorsing the cultural “elite” framework but I think it’s an interesting view into how these “best of” lists get created, which often are sorely lacking in people of color representation(in this case, the people of color chosen by Time Out NY for it’s favorite people of the last 13 years, were also ALL MEN) . If journalism is the first draft of history, then it makes sense why we always have t go back and re-vise both. Check it out:

Dear Friends,

Two weeks ago Time Out NY featured the Top 40 list of New Yorkers who have made a “lasting, positive impact” on NYC in the last 13 years. The cover featured a group of prominent individuals who have in fact
made a positive impact on this city, but only three people of color made the list – Jay-Z, Derek Jeter and Junot Diaz.

To make matters worse….. the editor’s response as to why there were so few people of color mentioned, was New York is “a city whose cultural elite have been mainly white.” The entire response gets much worse (see link below).

I am writing because I think it is essential that people write Time Out (especially if you have a personal connection to any of their writers and/or editors), send a response to Editor Michael Freidson, post a response at the link below and forward your response widely to people that will care and respond.

Time Out NY: Where Are All The People of Color?

What is revealed in the Freidson’s letter (linked to above) is the closed cultural world of Time Out.

This issue privileges personal rolodex-list-making over actual culture reporting.

It’s a list of “who we know” not a list of “what we can discover.” How to find the top New Yorkers? Do you interview top curators, politicians, non-profit leaders to find the surprise folks? Nope… You ask only your staff and then process only with your editors…Without any self reflection about who your staff is, what
their taste is, and how well they represent New York as a whole…

If Time Out wants to be taken seriously as culture reporters and not just a smug magazine of listings then they need to take their jobs and their place in the city more seriously. Michael Freidson Editor, Time Out New York states, “We chose only those who have made a lasting, positive impact in TONY’s 13 years. They had to still be active, still creating. The pool was nominated by the entire editorial staff and then whittled down by a panel of five editors.” In his letter he then goes on to offer a defense of how certain people were or were not chosen. However these rules are quite randomly applied, and when you only have forty slots this makes for a real absence of rigor…

For example, Bill T Jones isn’t immediately “vital” enough for Time Out NY, but Eliot Spitzer is cool even though he’s not exactly “still active still creating” unless harassing the new governor counts…Visual arts are so grossly underrepresented that somehow they’ve managed to make a list of New York cultural elites that doesn’t include Thelma Golden (!) and that ignores proven international artists like Kara Walker while great-but-still-niche white dance and film artists carry many slots……In fact, Mr Freidson’s main complaint about “people of color” is that they aren’t famous enough, he goes on to use Jeffrey Wright as an example saying he doesn’t have the big credits of Liev Schreiber or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but then he doesn’t compare Jeffrey to the equally talented but equally unheralded Elizabeth Marvel who does appear ….

And this is the great problem with the list….the choices are random, taste-based and cliquish….

Tim Gunn (who?) Tyra Banks (oops?)… John Zorn is an active icon but the only NY rep for jazz???? His full-on peer William Parker is still kicking more ass then ever ….. Or on the younger tip Matthew Shipp, and Vijay Iyer…..Also, Alicia Keys and TV On The Radio give our city a vital pulse and move music forward and they definitely are more proven (“over the last 13 years”) than Nellie McKay (who is also a great addition to the new york music scene).

Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) truly is a great visionary of the small human drama but so is Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart and Chop Shop)…Chris Wheeldon is a fantastic choreographer but so are Miguel Gutierrez, Nami Yamamoto, Ron K Brown, Donna Uchizono, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and their impact is notably greater and in some case far more international….. You’ve got Mr Shakeshack (Danny Meyer) but not the the culinary genius of David Chang (Momofuku)?…….Sure Tony Kushner is crucial but Adam Rapp over Suzan Lori Parks, Young Jean Lee, Talvin Wilkes, and George C. Wolfe?

The truth is that the folks on the list are important and talented and we are lucky to have them be New Yorkers, but they aren’t the only ones who are important. The New York cultural scene and its “elite” are a multifaceted and diverse pack of people–and if a first-pass list isn’t reflective of our great city, it should be Time Out’s mandate to discover the people that bring the richest range….

It is an exciting reporting challenge to surprise both reader AND writer. Sadly, the Time Out editors are happy to stick to what they know, not what they can learn or what surprises they can share as true cultural reporters. And when called on this approach, they retreat to the age old argument “Well the cultural elite is white” which should be more accurately phrased as “For Time Out’s list making purposes we’ve chosen to define the cultural elite as white….”

……… Imagine if some real reporting were applied to this exercise……maybe then we would have been able to give Spiderman’s slot to an actual person……..and maybe this list would represent the surprising New York I love, not the the odd “white new york elite” that TONY seems to believe in….

Let’s fight for the representation of the New York that we love and not the New York that Time Out and Editor Freidson so lazily inhabit and promote…..


Esther Robinson

Blacks, Gay Men At Highest Risk for HIV

New infections in Men

New infections in Men

The US Conference on AIDS has begun in Fort Lauderdale, unfortunately I couldn’t afford to go, but just as well because I am going to see my southern friends at Southerners on New Ground’s 15th Anniversary. But given the CDC’s recent release of the of the subpopulation data of the new infections for 2006 (called incidence), I thought I’d share some of the data with you. If you click on the link above you’ll find a lot of other tools to help you understand the data including a fact sheet, a Q&A, and a podcast:

CDC’s August 2008 data showed that gay and bisexual men, referred to in CDC’s surveillance systems as men who have sex with men (MSM)2, represented the majority of new infections in 2006 (53%, 28,720).

Now, in the more detailed analysis, CDC further examine new infections among whites, blacks, and

New Infections by Race

New Infections by Race

Hispanics/Latinos. The findings reveal that the ages at which MSM become infected vary by race:

  • Young Black MSM: Among MSM overall, there were more new HIV infections in young black MSM (aged 13–29) than any other age/racial group of MSM. The number of new infections among young, black gay and bisexual men was roughly twice that of whites and of Hispanics/Latinos (5,220 infections in blacks vs. 3,330 among whites and 2,300 among Hispanics/Latinos).
  • White MSM in their 30s and 40s: Among MSM in the analysis, white MSM accounted for close to half (46%) of HIV incidence in 2006. Most new infections among white MSM occurred in those aged 30–39 (4,670), followed by those aged 40–49 (3,740).
  • Hispanic/Latino MSM: Among Hispanic/Latino MSM, most new infections occurred in the youngest (13-29) age group (2,300), though a substantial number of new HIV infections were among those aged 30–39 (1,870)

Walt Senterfitt, in this month’s HHS Watch (a publication of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP)), writes about what the new data means for gay men in his piece called Where’s Our National Campaign Against Homophobia?

There has also been a consistent tendency over at least the last 15 years within much of the AIDS community itself – and certainly by the media and other institutions of civil society enlisted in the struggle against HIV/AIDS – to “de-gay-ify” HIV/AIDS. For example, messages stress that HIV is an “equal opportunity virus” and that anyone can be at risk, emphasize children and women at risk, and stress that HIV/AIDS is, in its majority, now an epidemic in communities of color (while simultaneously neglecting to stress that those most disproportionately impacted in communities of color are gay and bisexual men).

This direction in messaging was in part well intended, to combat the widespread assumption that if you are not a white gay man, AIDS is not your problem and you are not at risk. It was also meant to get beyond the intensified stigmatization of gay men and focus on the behaviors that put one at risk. This approach has been embraced by many HIV positive and other gay men who fear the added stigmatization of having “gay” remain widely associated with “HIV/AIDS” in public consciousness. Even from the start though, this approach was a capitulation to rather than a confrontation of societal stigma and prejudice against gay people, against transgender people, against all people who are sexually “non-normative.” And it didn’t work. Homophobia still is rampant, dollars have gone elsewhere, and, alone among the exposure categories, HIV infection rates among gay men are rising.

Here’s video from a panel CHAMP sponsored (that I moderated) back in February on the issue:


American Apparel Goes Native.

It seems that being white and hip was simply not enough for skeevy American Apparel CEO Dov Charney. At some point, they always go “native.” By native, I mean usually appropriating some form of Black culture when being just plain ole white becomes too, dully. Until a few years ago, hip-hop culture was the choice way to throw off the doldrums of whiteness–from “ghetto and gangsta” themed frat parties, and “hoochie and ho” nights at hipster bars in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, and rasta and afro costumes at Halloween.

But with Madonna and Brangelina adopting African children,  Bono’s Jesus complex, and the Gap’s wasteful Red campaign, who needs hip-hop to escape whiteness? Hip-hop is way too American and co-opted now, you can just go straight to the source! And if you can’t afford a safari, or a child, you can get an ensemble from American Apparel’s Afrika collection–leggings and a top with some kinda busy-ass print from what part of Africa I don’t know. But who cares? Who needs specificity for mass consumption? (Dripping sarcasm.)

On No Homo

I’m sure you’ve heard this “No Homo” phrase for the last several years from Hip-hop artists and now regular people on the street, as a way to break the normal social mores around same-sex interaction, and still assure the person to whom you’re speaking that you’re not actually gay. I know, a mess. But Hip-hop blogger and radio host Jay-Smooth over at his blog Ill Doctrine (that has me jealous on the style/layout tip), made a pretty funny video spoofing and explaining the “No Homo” foolishness.