Interview with National Black Justice Coalition Executive Director Sharon Lettman-HicksFeature Story, Bottom Highlights Thursday, February 3rd, 2011
As America’s leading national black LGBT civil rights organization focused on federal public policy, the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) has accepted the charge to lead black families in strengthening the bonds and bridging the gaps between straight and LGBT people. San Diego LGBT Weekly recently spoke with NBJC Executive Director, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, about LGBT equality.
LGBT Weekly: Mrs. Sharon Lettman-Hicks, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with San Diego LGBT Weekly. Can you tell us a little about the work of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC)?
Lettman-Hicks: NBJC is at the intersection of racial justice and LGBT equality. We are an African American organization focused upon LGBT equality and an LGBT organization focused upon racial justice issues within the African American community. We don’t go just one way. We take our work seriously and bring a face to the LGBT community within the African American community. We are willing to take on our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and the church in our quest for LGBT equality.
LGBT Weekly: You have what many in the broader LGBT community believe to be a difficult road, bridging the gap between LGBT and straight African Americans. What is the most difficult aspect of your work?
Lettman-Hicks: Finding the road where black LGBT people feel confident taking on their origins, their beginnings that are entrenched in the black church. Taking on their parent households, cultural beginnings, as well as friends and associates. Helping black LGBT people not divorce themselves from being true to their culture as they are trying to be to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
LGBT Weekly: Do you believe that the broader African American community is more homophobic than the nation in general?
Lettman-Hicks: I would say that is hard to measure. There are so many cultural norms within the black community but we are no more homophobic than the religious community. More attention is given to our community because of the historical context of the Civil Rights Movement, because of the comparisons between the two movements as LGBT equality comes to the mainstream. So we are often given a raw deal, I don’t believe we are the most homophobic cultural group.
Statistically, we are a larger percentage of the faith community in comparison to our population. The faith community is more homophobic than everybody else. So, we do have significant homophobia in the black community within the faith sector of our community.
LGBT Weekly: So, you believe things are markedly better than when architect of the National March on Washington, Bayard Rustin, was forced into the background during the Civil Rights Movement?
Lettman-Hicks: Things are better, people are more aware. During Rustin’s time, there was no black LGBT strategy of significant measure. We are now at a tipping point, with a strong black LGBT advocacy agenda. There are people of color who are LGBT and proud to let you know that they exist.
Marriage equality in California was the number one issue in 2008. We elected the first black president but marriage equality moved backwards in California. Initially, the white LGBT community blamed the African American community for the passage of Proposition 8. Later it was determined that African Americans were not the reason for the passage, but there was a stigma of blame that was not helpful.
LGBT Weekly: Were you surprised that the NAACP has supported marriage equality?
Lettman-Hicks: The California State Conference supported marriage equality, not the national organization. The national NAACP never formally took a position. But they said they do not support discrimination in any form. There was even some disagreement within the NAACP branches in California.
LGBT Weekly: President Obama seems to be evolving on marriage equality as well. How do you think we will get marriage equality, through the courts or Congress?
Lettman-Hicks: Through the courts; definitely not in this Congress. The untold story of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal is that it brings a whole new possibility for marriage equality. What will happen with spousal military rights? As a spouse of an active duty man, I have a whole host of rights. How then will the spouse of an active duty person from a state with marriage equality get access to the same privileges? I think that now that DADT has been repealed marriage equality will play out more expeditiously.
LGBT Weekly: You are a straight ally. How did you get so involved?
Lettman-Hicks: This is about my brothers and sisters. I am not a straight ally. I am a sister in the movement and my husband is a brother in the movement. We believe our brothers and sisters deserve full equality.
LGBT Weekly: What is the role for the broader LGBT community in helping to win the hearts and minds of the straight African American community?
Lettman-Hicks: Elevate the black LGBT community. The white LGBT community is not going to change the hearts and minds of the African American community. Do not look for “allies,” deepen the investment in the African American LGBT community, understand the cultural norms of our community, and address racial injustice. The LGBT community is not one size fits all and the black community is also not one size fits all.
LGBT Weekly: In some parts of the country, there seems to be a separate world that many LGBT African Americans travel in. For example, African American bars and social activities. Of course, there are even Black Prides. What do you think of this perceived subculture? Why does it exist?
Lettman-Hicks: Because we are black too. We have cultural needs and seek cultural enrichment. Being black is steeped into our orientation. There are needs that are specific to our racial identity in addition to being LGBT. Because a person is LGBT does not mean that they void their black identity. There should be a harmony in racial identity, faith identity and LGBT identity if all are important to you. Where is the intersection? NBJC wants to penetrate that space. It is about being black too.
We sponsored “Out on the Hill” to highlight that we are lawyers, college professors, elected officials, business owners and are assimilated into the African American community. We met with the Congressional Black Caucus because we want recognition of LGBT issues within the national African American agenda.
LGBT Weekly: Where is bullying on the African American agenda? How is the Congressional Black Caucus helping and bringing leadership to African American concerns in the LGBT space?
Lettman-Hicks: NBJC is being strategic to advance LGBT equality. We are constantly evaluating what is our strength, what is our value?
LGBT Weekly: Has anything markedly changed with your activism now that we have an African American president?
Lettman-Hicks: A lot has changed. No president has been as intentional about advancing LGBT rights as President Obama. And the LGBT movement has benefitted greatly. NBJC feels we have a seat at the table. We work with Michael Blake, the White House African American liaison and Brian Bond, the White House LGBT liaison. NBJC has worked with both of them in tandem. We also have worked with the Department of Education advocating policies to help combat bullying and to address issues of LGBT equality at historically black colleges and universities. The black LGBT community has advanced exponentially with President Obama, through a racial justice lens and through an LGBT equality lens.
LGBT Weekly: I know that you were at the signing ceremony for DADT repeal? What was that experience like?
Lettman-Hicks: I definitely felt a part of history. It was overwhelming and thrilling, and a bit surreal watching a sector of society being freed from bondage and oppression. A trained warrior who wants to serve but must do it dishonestly; there cannot be any oppression that is comparable – other than slavery. I am a military spouse and my husband would anticipate my phone calls when he was in Iraq fighting for our country. A gay or lesbian servicemember cannot put up pictures of their spouse or loved one, cannot have the same phone calls or video chats that I had with my husband. How cruel. Having to watch my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the military hide in shame for survival is very personal for me and unacceptable on every level. It was government-sanctioned identity suppression. So to watch DADT come to an end was phenomenal.
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