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Coming Out: Black and Gay in Corporate America

Black and Gay in Corporate America is the cover story of the July 2011 issue of BLACK ENTERPRISE magazine which hit newsstands this week. Written by yours truly, the article addresses challenges LGTB professionals face in coming out in the workplace. Click here to view the article at BlackEnterprise.com.

As someone who began her career at BE in 1990 as an associate editor and currently as an Editor-At-Large, this was a momentous step for the business magazine. Colleague Sonia Alleyne said it best when she wrote: We’re not going to pretend this was an easy topic for Black Enterprise to consider. Let’s face it—the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community is one of which our society whispers, mocks, ignores, and, in extreme cases, vehemently rejects. For Black members of this community, the emotional backlash can be even more intense. Due to the topic’s controversial nature, we had some difficulty finding subjects. Even some of those who agreed to participate in our cover story, “Black and Gay in Corporate America,” felt some trepidation about how revealing their sexual orientation would affect relationships with family, friends, and associates outside the workplace.

The article supplements BE’s annual “Best Companies For Diversity,” which highlights the top 40 companies that are inclusive and supportive of  minorities. This year,  emphasis was placed on where companies rate on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Best Places to Work” with regard to the LGBT community.

The Engagement

This article hits close to home for me as someone who is passionate about addressing issues facing the LGBT community. I  co-wrote three plays (Accessories, The Engagement, and Flowers) that all featured leading gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters. My next play (In Search of the Most Beautiful Woman) will have a lead transgender heroine.

Growing up, I knew long before there was a US military policy that there was an unspoken Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell code in the black community and the Catholic community. I grew up in a conservative Black Baptist Church and attended Catholic Schools. I knew instinctively there were LGBT teachers, sports coaches, choir masters, camp counselors, neighbors and relatives. But no one openly discussed his or her relationship with that “special friend.”

I remember as early as age six watching girls bullied for being tomboys and boys beaten up after school for being perceived as acting too effeminate. By the time I graduated high school, I knew people whose parents threatened to stab them to death or threw them out of the house because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While I was attending college I knew at least one person who attempted suicide due to harassment~he was black and gay.

Love Bucket Photography

Coming out to family, friends, colleagues and your community is not just a matter of facing ridicule or judgment. It is facing the fear of possibly losing your job, losing your friends, and even losing your life at the hands of a homophobe. Throughout the month of July, BE is examining the lives, struggles and triumphs of Black LGBTs.

Take Tiq Milan, who speaks out about his journey in transitioning from female to male and how this has impacted his career. He also discusses the difference between being gay and being transgender and the struggles for acceptance among those in the LGBT community.  Some may recognize Milan from MTV’s 2007 reality series, I’m From Rolling Stone, where several aspiring writers competed for a chance to win a full-time position with the entertainment magazine. Back then, he went by his birth name, Tika, and responded to “she.” Today, he is the education specialist/HIV prevention counselor and editor-in-chief of IKONS Magazine, a LGBT lifestyle publication. The video Tiq Milan on Being Transgender can be found at BlackEnterprise.com.

There’s an interview with CNN reporter and news anchor Don Lemon. He speaks openly about coming out in his new book, Transparent, his fears about going on record about his sexuality because of potential backlash from the Black community, and why, whether teenager or team member at the office, bullying can not be tolerated. Lemon dedicated his book in memory of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi who committed suicide. Watch Don Lemon on coming out and being transparent in the black community. An excerpt from the book Transparent is in the July 2011 issue of Black Enterprise.

BlackEnterprise.com also tackles the debate over whether “gay rights is a civil rights” issue. This is something that I have wrestled with for years. But not from the view point of one versus the other. To me, arguing about gay rights vs. civil rights is like disputing which was worst in world history Slavery or the Holocaust. Yes, there are different sets of historical and social issues as it relates to race and sexual orientation. But the definition of civil rights is “promoting equality in social, economic, and political rights for citizens.”

Martin Luther King Jr and Bayard Rustin

The “Black” civil rights movement was not merely about marches and speeches it was a fight for equality that centered on legislative and policy changes based on issues rooted in bias and discriminatory behavior. It was a battle in the courts as evident by the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education. So too, the fight by gay activists is one that currently centers on seeking legislative and policy changes based on issues deeply rooted in bias (mostly for religious reasons) and discriminatory practices. If gay activists can learn and benefit from the black civil rights movement great, just as black civil rights activists learned from the non-violent tactics of Mohandas Gandhi in India’s successful fight for freedom from British control.

While white LGBT persons can harbor racial prejudices, the focus is not whether race trumps sexual orientation or gender identity. Arguments such as you can’t hide being black and you can’t change your race elude me. So, if someone who is black can pass for white then he or she should choose to do so? It is a ludicrous notion that the ability to pass for straight should diminish the struggles of LGBT people in securing full and equal rights under the law. Hatemongering of any kind should not be tolerated. Allowing the use of morality and sexual orientation or gender identity to deny someone his or her inedible rights, including same-sex marriage, violates the basic laws of humanity and goes against the principles of the Constitution.

In the upcoming film The New Black, filmmaker Yoruba Richen explores the histories of the African American and LGBT civil rights movements. “The film looks specifically at homophobia in the black church and how the Christian right has exploited this phenomenon that exists in order to promote an anti-gay political agenda,” Richen tells BE. Her project is demonstrative of how the parallels and distinctions between the African American and gay rights movements are complex and multi-layered.

Two notable galleries worth viewing at BlackEnterprise.com are 10 Black LGBT Trailblazers – Still Black & Proud, which includes the likes of educator and activists Angela Davis and activist and novelist James Baldwin. The other, Black LGBT Entertainers: Out & Proud, features celebs like comedian Wanda Sykes.

My hope is that Black Enterprise’s coverage will be a wake up call. That it will open up honest and less hurtful conversation about the African American LGBT community. In 2011 we need to do more than hope for healing; the LGBT community has been seeking that since Stonewall.

National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director Sharon J. Lettman issued a call to action acknowledging a widespread organized movement around LGBT equality. She concedes we have a long way to go within Black communities to achieve recognition and full inclusion; but it cannot be done without strategic alliances and an intentional plan on how to break down barriers and walls of silence and invisibility of the Black LGBT existence. As she justly states: This means the civil rights community, Black churches, Historically Black Colleges & Universities, Black fraternities and sororities, and yes, the Black traditional media, to name a few.       ~Carolyn M. Brown

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