Black leaders helm LGBTQ orgs in historic first

Alphonso David, Kierra Johnson and Imani Rupert-Gordon

Black History Month is a celebration of Black excellence and Black leadership, including within the LGBTQ community. For the first time in LGBTQ history, three primary national LGBTQ organizations, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), National LGBTQ Task Force, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) are helmed by Black leaders: Alphonso David, Kierra Johnson and Imani Rupert-Gordon, respectively.

Black leadership for these legacy organizations that have been central to the LGBTQ community has been decades in the making, and it comes after concerted effort within the community by Black and brown activists.

The past year in the U.S. has been one of massive political upheaval as systemic racism and the quest for racial justice became a focal point for national discourse for the first time since the Black civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Within that ongoing conversation, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stood as a rejection of the blatant racism and racist policy of the Trump-Pence administration. While defining policy on racial justice in the new administration, Vice President Harris explained that the use of the word ‘equity’ rather than ‘equality’ in Biden’s executive orders on race is crucial. She said, “Equality suggests, ‘oh, everyone should get the same amount.’ The problem with that, not everybody’s starting out from the same place.”

That has certainly been true for Black LGBTQ people. Equality, even within the movement and community they helped forge, has often been elusive.

Black lesbians and trans women have faced particular trauma at the hands of the criminal justice system, where they disproportionately face incarceration. Recent studies on which PGN has reported show that Black LGBTQ people and families have also been disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, by poverty, and by job discrimination.

Addressing this complicated political landscape was a focal point for the opening panel discussion at this year’s Creating Change conference. Creating Change, held annually by The National LGBTQ Task Force, is the largest LGBTQ activist conference in the country. The 33rd annual conference went virtual this year, making it more accessible to a larger audience of participants.

Johnson, David and Rupert-Gordon all spoke at the opening session, “History in the Making: Black Executive Leadership in the LGBTQ+ Movement,” moderated by the National Black Justice Coalition’s executive director, David J. Johns. Central to the panel’s conversation was the very fact that these three leaders are the first Black women and men to be executive directors of these agencies. The resistance to Black leadership in the LGBTQ community is a microcosm of the larger society, and each of the three leaders addressed that in words that were crucial for the community as a whole to hear.

Rupert-Gordon began by noting, “In order to support Black leaders, people need to remember that we are ‘firsts,’ and that it’s harder to run an organization as a Black person, when that hasn’t happened before.” She continued, saying that “as Black leaders, we’re creating solutions we haven’t seen before.”

Rupert-Gordon also delineated the problems Black activists face when addressing racial inequities and biases. 

“Intersectionality and understanding how a person’s social and political identities create different means of discrimination and privilege is really important.”

David was blunt about the racism endemic to the LGBTQ community, noting, “In our community, we are harboring bias. I have been an out gay man for a long time, and I’ve felt it against me.”

David said he has also felt that bias as an immigrant as well, from “the very same folks that label themselves progressives and liberals.”

Addressing systemic racism and bias within the LGBTQ community requires seeing what Black and brown queer and trans people face within the larger society, David explained. 

“We need to put ourselves in the shoes of a Black man in the South who has HIV, but can’t get the adequate treatment for it,” David said. “Or transgender women who out of fear can’t return home, and as a result are in incredible danger and more likely to be beaten or killed.”

David was succinct: “We need to get to that place of liberation, where we see marginalized people above ourselves and recognize the plurality of our community.”

Johnson said that if Black and brown people aren’t seen as capable of leadership, they are ignored by white people for leadership roles — or any roles. 

Referencing the recent fight by Donald Trump over the results of the election, which hinged on Black votes, she said, “We are told over and over again that we can’t take on leadership, that our vote doesn’t matter, that we don’t matter. You are not of consequence. And that comes from laws, the government, the media, family, schools and even within our own LGBTQ movement.”

Johnson said the impact of that silencing and dismissal of one’s voice and personhood has serious consequences for both individuals and communities of color. Johnson said, “I have spent the last 20 years not trusting myself. I’ve silenced my voice because I thought I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t feel that I could create change, that I wasn’t worthy enough to talk to legislatures or other leaders, and that I couldn’t provide access for others because I felt I lacked stature.”

Johnson said these feelings “weigh on all of us as people of color. In 2021 queer women and transgender folks of color need to reinforce, for each other, that we’re worthy to make the change and take the lead. We need to help each other by providing an open door.”

Johnson said that opening doors to Black leadership is the beginning, not the end of activism on this issue. She said, “I’ve already walked in. And now, I get to be my own leader, and bring what I’ve learned to my role. My perspective is different and therefore my leadership will be, and that’s a new day for all of us. And, I’m excited for new days and years ahead for all of the new and future Black leaders.”

Ruper-Gordon continued Johnson’s point, noting, :I may be first, but I won’t be the last. What we can do to make that a reality is to make changes that are transparent, and changes to tackle some of the most under-represented issues within the Black community. We need to ask people that we haven’t asked before what the solutions to our problems are. Let’s make it better. In the past, there was a lot that was done badly. By listening to new and different folks, we can’t do much worse than what we’ve done before.”

Details from the Creating Change conference are available at https://www.thetaskforce.org/creatingchange.html/.