LOS ANGELES - The NAACP at its convention here boldly held a public forum July 25 on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender issues, specifically dealing with homophobia and transgender prejudice within the African American community.
In the last two years the NAACP, with the leadership of Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond, put together a LGBT taskforce to help the African American community fight the challenges of homophobia and transgender discrimination.
Bond spoke on the taskforce's three-part mission:
- to strengthen NAACP's knowledge of LGBT issues and policies;
- to build relationships among LGBT civil rights and human rights organizations;
- to advance awareness of LGBT issues "as they relate to overarching programs and interest of the NAACP."
In his opening, Bond, a veteran civil rights leader, said, "We know sexual orientation is not a choice. We know homosexuality is not a mental illness. We know you can't 'pray the gay away.'"
The event was organized as a town hall-styled meeting with audience participation and a panel that included famous gay African Americans, like comedian and actress Wanda Sykes and CNN Anchor Don Lemon who publicly came out in his memoir, "Transparent."
Bond said gay rights are another component of civil rights.
"Sexual disposition parallels race. I was born black and had no choice. I could not and will not change it if I could. Like race, our sexuality isn't preference. It is immutable, unchangeable, and the constitution protects us all from prejudices and discrimination based on immutable differences."
Many panelists and audience members spoke about the role of the church in the Black community, and the conflicts that have arisen from that relationship on the issue of LGBT rights.
Bond said although one might be a member of a church that preaches against a religious same-sex marriage that viewpoint should not be extended to same-sex marriage in city halls, as a civil right.
Sykes said her church experience pressured her from being truthful with her sexuality because of the ingrained notion that gay and lesbian relationships were fundamentally wrong. Such sermonizing can be lethal, she said, because of bullying and violence against LGBT youth and the high level of suicides.
"You just suppress everything and become this other person. You start living that life that you think that you're supposed to do. I worked it so hard I got married! It just hit me, like, wait a minute. Why aren't my relationships going further? Why can't I really open up? And I realized oh, that's right. I forgot; I'm a lesbian! That's what it is. You don't have breasts!" Sykes said to an applauding and laughing audience.
Sykes and other panelists urged the formations of social support groups, including within churches.
Halfway through the meeting, NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous joined the panelists on stage.
Jealous has been an outspoken supporter of LGBT issues and spoke briefly on his adopted brother being gay, and instances of defending him during childhood from bullies.
The discussion turned to California's anti-same-sex marriage Prop. 8 that passed in 2008. Many people blamed it on African American voters who came out in big numbers to vote for Barack Obama.
But, according to Jealous-and audience members-the bigger issue was the lack of outreach to the African American community at an early stage.
Jealous criticized LGBT groups "who come to the black community late" because it sends a message of disrespect.
"If folks really wanted to win on Prop. 8, and thought the black community was so important, then they should have been organizing" outreach a lot sooner, he said.
Bond and other panelists vowed that the NAACP will work harder, including on less-talked about transgender issues and discrimination, and organize grassroots style to include LGBT issues in a civil rights agenda.
Photo: NAACP hosts town-hall meeting on LGBT issues in Los Angeles, July 25. (Luis Rivas/PW)