I’d never even heard the name James Baldwin until my first semester at Union Theological Seminary. As a white, middle-class American, I was the product of a predominantly white, middle-class education that didn’t assign The Fire Next Time and Giovanni’s Room, two of Baldwin’s masterpieces, alongside 1984 and The Scarlet Letter. It wasn’t until I moved to New York and took a class on Baldwin’s life and writings that I was transformed by the black, same-gender-loving, 20th-century author’s honesty and candor.
Baldwin grew up on New York’s Fifth Avenue — not the Fifth Avenue of Saks and the Social Register but the Fifth Avenue of 1930s Harlem, where black Americans like Ellison’s invisible man were kept at a safe, 60-block distance from fearful, prejudiced whites. The child preacher turned writer experienced racism and homophobia firsthand and possessed an unflinching eye for the injustices of American life. Unlike many authors I have read before, Baldwin was filled with love, courage and an unrelenting imagination. It was precisely because of his abiding care for his country that Baldwin retained the right to critique her so harshly. He had faith that the United States could be better, not only for him but for all people.
I couldn’t help but be captivated by his audacity. He quickly became a sage for me and left behind a signet of courage on my conscience. “[Y]ou have to decide who you are,” he said in 1961, “and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
As a white gay man committed to advocacy, I was naturally drawn to Baldwin and eager to hear what he had to say about LGBTQ equality in America. What I discovered, though, was not at all what I was expecting. Baldwin, more than anyone else, taught me that although I am gay, I am white, and that being white always involves persistent privilege that must be recognized and accounted for. Baldwin explains that white LGBTQ men and women feel slighted precisely because they know that had they been straight, they would have been heirs to incomparable privilege. In a 1984 interview with Richard Goldstein, then the editor of the Village Voice, Baldwin said, “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly.” He went on to say:
Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to their sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society.
Baldwin was not the only queer author to express this reality. Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist writer and a contemporary of Baldwin’s, says the same thing in her 1982 autobiography Zami: “[W]hen I, a Black woman, saw no reflection in any of the faces [in the lesbian clubs of New York] week after week, I knew perfectly well that being an outsider in the Bagatelle had everything to do with being Black.” Calling herself a sister-outsider in the gay community, Lorde reflects on the racist gay culture of 1970s and ’80s New York. “Non-conventional people can be dangerous,” she says, “even in the gay community.”
Mainstream gay culture privileges the white narrative, and it does so at the expense of its own legitimacy. As Baldwin understands and so eloquently states, the fight against homophobia and racism are undoubtedly entwined through their shared struggle for human dignity. However, conflating the two does discernible harm, both to those persons of color who are repeatedly forgotten in progressive social movements, and to white LGBTQ persons who tarnish their own humanity by forgetting the humanity of others.
As we celebrate Black History Month this February, and as we await the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, we must remember that the struggle to restore dignity to people is not finished. The work to ensure that all people have access to fair and equitable employment, health care and proper medical attention and aren’t targets for violence by the police or their fellow community members must continue even after gays and lesbians are granted the right to marry the persons they love. This is not a new civil rights movement as some have said but a different one.
Baldwin’s legacy teaches me, as a white person and an LGBTQ activist, that gay will never be the new black, and that the fight for racial equality is far from over.