Imagine making history as the first openly gay black athlete to be drafted by the National Football League with the support of your teammates and an avalanche of press and public support in tote. Pack that with going on to play the defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, Dallas Cowboys, and most recently Montreal Alouettes, as well as appearing on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. The aforementioned triumphs, since 2014, detail the remarkable story of Michael Sam, who has discussed his disappointment with the response he has received from his peers in the LGBT community.
Sam has spoken out about his dating experience in which he has encountered much more racism from the LGBT community, despite his star athlete status. He says he has felt more racism within the LGBT community than any homophobia he endured from the black community. The realization of his own revelation came as an initial shock; however Michael Sam’s story is just the tip of the iceberg in a divided LGBT community.
Gary Paul Wright, co-founder and executive director of The African American Office of Gay Concerns (AAOGC) in Newark, says the experience for the average gay black male is far worse than that undergone by celebrities such as Michael Sam. “We are getting better at vocalizing that we are one community,” said Wright. “However, I deal first hand with depressed gay black men who are forced to classify themselves by race on dating websites and apps, even if multicultural, and feel required to date within their race due to routine blocking by users who at times even express a fear of catching STDs due to their background.”
For Gary Paul Wright and the AAOGC, the communal distance stretches beyond merely dating, “We promote and participate in various gay pride events annually in Newark, Manhattan, Asbury Park and Maplewood. However, when it comes to Newark Pride, other sectors of the community do not support us at all.” Wright feels other segments of the community do not provide the same support due to Newark Pride being a predominantly urban event populated by many African American members of the community. Wright feels this isolation makes it difficult for the black sector of the community to progress, “I can name the number of people who give us checks routinely on one hand. Other elements of the community do not want to be associated with gay black affairs let alone HIV/AIDS. It is difficult to continue the fight when your supposed allies say one thing yet do another.”
While Wright and the members of his organization feel this underlying sense of desertion is nothing new, they do feel the recent presidential election brought out the inner racist in the population, further separating the LGBT community, “The majority of the minority wants to be disassociated from the minority of the minority… and I know for a fact some would be thrilled if the “T” in LGBT were dropped.” In turn, the AAOGC feels this is why the black community is not lining up for PrEP, on top of a long-term distrust of the medical community referencing the Tuskegee syphilis experiment as a long and unforgotten example.
Babs Casbar Siperstein, Director of the Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ (GRAANJ) and the first-elected transgender Member of the DNC Executive Committee, became involved in LGBT activism due to an immense level of transphobia she witnessed by the gay community in, of all places, New York City, “Things are not always as they appear. From my experience the transgender community within New Jersey is more united, and thus, we have achieved more extensive legal protection in our fight for equality. While we have the law of discrimination and subsequent legislature which protect gender identity, there is still an element of misunderstanding from the more socially acceptable components of our community which need to be addressed in order for us to more swiftly succeed as one entity”
Both Siperstein, who has spearheaded securing transgender-inclusive language into legislation, and Gary Paul Wright working in the HIV/AIDS and Transgender community view the key to mending the divide as boiling down to education, “Whether it pertains to transgender or African American LGBT affairs,” said Wright, “if we had a different governor, a more responsible Department of Education and more aggressive Division on Civil Rights, we would already be on the road to redemption.”
Both activists agree that the transgender community and gay black males are the most vulnerable sectors of the LGBT community due to the stigma that surrounds the two groups.
Within the past year, New Jersey garnered national attention for the transgender bathroom policy administered at Pascack Valley High School in which other high schools around the county began to slowly follow suit. However, most recently the state received national attention after the Boy Scouts barred a transgender boy from joining, “We are heading into a very difficult time and now, more than ever, it is crucial for the community of sexual minorities to pull together, respect one another, and value each other” said Tobias Grace, Out In Jersey Editor Emeritus. “Our interests, at the core, are the same politically and socially. Those who are unable to comprehend that are catering to the mounting fight against us”