TED2014

Yoruba Richen: What the gay rights movement learned from the civil rights movement

Filmed:

As a member of both the African American and LGBT communities, filmmaker Yoruba Richen is fascinated with the overlaps and tensions between the gay rights and the civil rights movements. She explores how the two struggles intertwine and propel each other forward — and, in an unmissable argument, she dispels a myth about their points of conflict. A powerful reminder that we all have a stake in equality.

- Documentary filmmaker
In her documentary films, Yoruba Richen unites African-American, feminist and LGBTQ voices in a renewed cry for civil rights for all. Full bio

Election night 2008
00:12
was a night that tore me in half.
00:15
It was the night that Barack Obama was elected.
00:18
[One hundred and forty-three]
years after the end of slavery,
00:23
and [43] years after the passage
00:27
of the Voting Rights Act,
00:29
an African-American was elected president.
00:31
Many of us never thought that this was possible
00:35
until the moment that it happened.
00:39
And in many ways, it was the climax
00:42
of the black civil rights movement
00:45
in the United States.
00:47
I was in California that night,
00:49
which was ground zero at the time
00:51
for another movement:
00:52
the marriage equality movement.
00:54
Gay marriage was on the ballot
00:57
in the form of Proposition 8,
00:59
and as the election returns started to come in,
01:02
it became clear that the right
01:06
for same sex couples to marry,
01:08
which had recently been granted
by the California courts,
01:10
was going to be taken away.
01:13
So on the same night
01:16
that Barack Obama won his historic presidency,
01:18
the lesbian and gay community suffered
01:22
one of our most painful defeats.
01:25
And then it got even worse.
01:28
Pretty much immediately,
01:31
African-Americans started to be blamed
01:33
for the passage of Proposition 8.
01:36
This was largely due to an incorrect poll that said
01:38
that blacks had voted for the measure
01:42
by something like 70 percent.
01:44
This turned out not to be true,
01:46
but this idea of pervasive black homophobia set in,
01:48
and was grabbed on by the media.
01:53
I couldn't tear myself away from the coverage.
01:57
I listened to some gay commentator say
01:59
that the African-American community
02:02
was notoriously homophobic,
02:05
and now that civil rights had been achieved for us,
02:07
we wanted to take away other people's rights.
02:10
There were even reports of racist epithets
02:12
being thrown at some of the participants
02:15
of the gay rights rallies
02:17
that took place after the election.
02:19
And on the other side,
02:21
some African-Americans dismissed or ignored
02:23
homophobia that was indeed real in our community.
02:27
And others resented this comparison
02:30
between gay rights and civil rights,
02:33
and once again, the sinking feeling
02:35
that two minority groups
02:39
of which I'm both a part of
02:41
were competing with each other
02:43
instead of supporting each other
02:46
overwhelmed and, frankly, pissed me off.
02:49
Now, I'm a documentary filmmaker,
02:54
so after going through my pissed off stage
02:57
and yelling at the television and radio,
03:00
my next instinct was
03:03
to make a movie.
03:05
And what guided me in making this film was,
03:07
how was this happening?
03:12
How was it that the gay rights movement
03:13
was being pitted against the civil rights movement?
03:17
And this wasn't just an abstract question.
03:20
I'm a beneficiary of both movements,
03:23
so this was actually personal.
03:26
But then something else happened
03:29
after that election in 2008.
03:30
The march towards gay equality
03:33
accelerated at a pace
03:36
that surprised and shocked everyone,
03:38
and is still reshaping our laws and our policies,
03:41
our institutions and our entire country.
03:45
And so it started to become increasingly clear to me
03:48
that this pitting of the two movements
03:52
against each other actually didn't make sense,
03:54
and that they were in fact
03:58
much, much more interconnected,
03:59
and that, in fact, some of the way
04:02
that the gay rights movement has been able
04:05
to make such incredible gains so quickly
04:07
is that it's used some of the same tactics
04:10
and strategies that were first laid down
04:13
by the civil rights movement.
04:16
Let's just look at a few of these strategies.
04:18
First off, it's really interesting to see,
04:22
to actually visually see, how quick
04:24
the gay rights movement has made its gains,
04:26
if you look at a few of the major events
04:28
on a timeline of both freedom movements.
04:31
Now, there are tons of milestones
04:35
in the civil rights movement,
04:39
but the first one we're going to start with
04:40
is the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott.
04:42
This was a protest campaign
04:46
against Montgomery, Alabama's segregation
04:48
on their public transit system,
04:51
and it began when a woman named Rosa Parks
04:53
refused to give up her seat to a white person.
04:56
The campaign lasted a year,
04:59
and it galvanized the civil rights movement
05:01
like nothing had before it.
05:04
And I call this strategy the
05:07
"I'm tired of your foot on my neck" strategy.
05:09
So gays and lesbians have been in society
05:14
since societies began,
05:19
but up until the mid-20th century,
05:21
homosexual acts were still illegal in most states.
05:24
So just 14 years after the Montgomery bus boycott,
05:28
a group of LGBT folks took that same strategy.
05:32
It's known as Stonewall, in 1969,
05:37
and it's where a group of LGBT patrons
05:40
fought back against police beatings
05:43
at a Greenwich Village bar that sparked
05:46
three days of rioting.
05:48
Incidentally, black and latino LGBT folks
05:50
were at the forefront of this rebellion,
05:53
and it's a really interesting example
05:55
of the intersection of our struggles against racism,
05:57
homophobia, gender identity and police brutality.
06:00
After Stonewall happened, gay liberation groups
06:05
sprang up all over the country,
06:08
and the modern gay rights
movement as we know it took off.
06:11
So the next moment to look at on the timeline
06:15
is the 1963 March on Washington.
06:18
This was a seminal event
in the civil rights movement
06:22
and it's where African-Americans called for both
06:25
civil and economic justice.
06:27
And it's of course where Martin Luther King
06:30
delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech,
06:33
but what's actually less known
06:35
is that this march was organized
06:37
by a man named Bayard Rustin.
06:39
Bayard was an out gay man,
06:42
and he's considered one of the most brilliant
06:45
strategists of the civil rights movement.
06:48
He later in his life became a fierce advocate
06:51
of LGBT rights as well, and his life
06:54
is testament to the intersection of the struggles.
06:56
The March on Washington
07:01
is one of the high points of the movement,
07:03
and it's where there was a fervent belief
07:05
that African-Americans too
07:08
could be a part of American democracy.
07:11
I call this strategy the
07:13
"We are visible and many in numbers" strategy.
07:15
Some early gay activists were actually
07:20
directly inspired by the march,
07:23
and some had taken part.
07:25
Gay pioneer Jack Nichols said,
07:28
"We marched with Martin Luther King,
07:31
seven of us from the Mattachine Society" --
07:33
which was an early gay rights organization —
07:36
"and from that moment on, we had our own dream
07:38
about a gay rights march of similar proportions."
07:42
Several years later, a series of marches took place,
07:45
each one gaining the momentum
07:48
of the gay freedom struggle.
07:51
The first one was in 1979,
07:53
and the second one took place in 1987.
07:55
The third one was held in 1993.
08:00
Almost a million people showed up,
08:03
and people were so energized and excited
08:07
by what had taken place,
08:10
they went back to their own communities
08:11
and started their own political
08:14
and social organizations,
08:15
further increasing the visibility of the movement.
08:17
The day of that march, October 11,
08:21
was then declared National Coming Out Day,
08:23
and is still celebrated all over the world.
08:25
These marches set the groundwork
08:28
for the historic changes that we see happening
08:31
today in the United States.
08:34
And lastly, the "Loving" strategy.
08:36
The name speaks for itself.
08:40
In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled
08:42
in Loving v. Virginia,
08:45
and invalidated all laws
08:47
that prohibited interracial marriage.
08:49
This is considered one of the Supreme Court's
08:52
landmark civil rights cases.
08:54
In 1996, President Clinton signed
08:57
the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA,
09:00
and that made the federal government
09:04
only have to recognize marriages
09:06
between a man and a woman.
09:09
In United States v. Windsor,
09:13
a 79-year-old lesbian named Edith Windsor
09:15
sued the federal government
09:18
when she was forced to pay estate taxes
09:20
on her deceased wife's property,
09:23
something that heterosexual
couples don't have to do.
09:24
And as the case wound its way
09:28
through the lower courts,
09:30
the Loving case was repeatedly cited as precedent.
09:32
When it got to the Supreme Court in 2013,
09:36
the Supreme Court agreed,
09:38
and DOMA was thrown out.
09:40
It was incredible.
09:42
But the gay marriage movement
09:44
has been making gains for years now.
09:46
To date, 17 states
09:50
have passed laws allowing marriage equality.
09:52
It's become the de facto battle
09:55
for gay equality,
09:58
and it seems like daily,
10:00
laws prohibiting it are being challenged in the courts,
10:02
even in places like Texas and Utah,
10:05
which no one saw coming.
10:07
So a lot has changed
10:10
since that night in 2008
10:12
when I felt torn in half.
10:15
I did go on to make that film.
10:17
It's a documentary film,
10:20
and it's called "The New Black,"
10:21
and it looks at how the African-American community
10:23
is grappling with the gay rights issue
10:26
in light of the gay marriage movement
10:28
and this fight over the meaning of civil rights.
10:31
And I wanted to capture
10:34
some of this incredible change that was happening,
10:36
and as luck or politics would have it,
10:39
another marriage battle started gearing up,
10:42
this time in Maryland,
10:45
where African-Americans make up 30 percent
10:47
of the electorate.
10:49
So this tension between gay rights
10:51
and civil rights started to bubble up once again,
10:54
and I was lucky enough to capture
10:58
how some people were making the connection
11:00
between the movements this time.
11:03
This is a clip of Karess Taylor-Hughes
11:06
and Samantha Masters, two characters in the film,
11:09
as they hit the streets of Baltimore
11:12
and try to convince potential voters.
11:15
(Video) Samantha Masters: That's what's up,
man, this is a righteous man over here.
11:17
Okay, are you registered to vote?
11:21
Man: No.
Karess Taylor-Hughes: Okay. How old are you?
11:23
Man: 21.
KTH: 21? You gotta get registered to vote.
11:24
We got to get you registered to vote.
11:26
Man: I ain't voting on no gay shit.
11:28
SM: Okay, why? What's up?
Man: I ain't with that.
11:30
SM: That's not cool.
11:33
Man: What made you be gay?
SM: So what made you be straight?
11:35
So what made you be straight?
11:40
Man 2: You can't answer that question. (Laughter)
11:44
KSM: I used to not have the same rights as you,
11:49
but I know that because a black man like yourself
11:50
stood up for a woman like me,
11:53
I know that I've got the same opportunities.
11:54
So you, as a black man, have the opportunity
11:56
to stand up for somebody else.
11:58
Whether you're gay or not,
11:59
these are your brothers and sisters out here,
12:00
and they need you to represent.
12:02
Man 2: Who is you to tell somebody
12:03
who they can't have sex with,
12:05
who they can't be with?
12:06
They ain't got that power.
12:08
Nobody has that power to say,
you can't marry that young lady.
12:10
Who has that power? Nobody.
12:12
SM: But you know what?
12:14
Our state has put the power in your hands,
12:15
and so what we need you to do
12:17
is vote for, you gonna vote for 6.
12:19
Man 2: I got you.
12:21
SM: Vote for 6, okay?
Man 2: I got you.
12:23
KSM: All right, do y'all need
community service hours?
12:25
You do? All right, you can always volunteer with us
12:27
to get community service hours.
12:29
Y'all want to do that?
12:30
We feed you. We bring you pizza.
12:32
(Laughter) (Applause)
12:34
Yoruba Richen: Thank you.
12:37
What's amazing to me about that clip
12:40
that we just captured as we were filming
12:42
is, it really shows how Karess
12:46
understands the history
of the civil rights movement,
12:48
but she's not restricted by it.
12:52
She doesn't just limit it to black people.
12:54
She sees it as a blueprint
12:56
for expanding rights to gays and lesbians.
12:58
Maybe because she's younger, she's like 25,
13:02
she's able to do this a little bit more easily,
13:05
but the fact is that Maryland voters
13:07
did pass that marriage equality amendment,
13:10
and in fact it was the first time
13:13
that marriage equality was directly voted on
13:16
and passed by the voters.
13:19
African-Americans supported it at a higher level
13:21
than had ever been recorded.
13:24
It was a complete turnaround from that night
13:25
in 2008 when Proposition 8 was passed.
13:28
It was, and feels, monumental.
13:32
We in the LGBT community have gone
13:36
from being a pathologized and reviled
13:39
and criminalized group
13:43
to being seen as part of the great human quest
13:45
for dignity and equality.
13:49
We've gone from having to hide our sexuality
13:52
in order to maintain our jobs and our families
13:56
to literally getting a place at the table
13:59
with the president
14:02
and a shout out at his second inauguration.
14:03
I just want to read what he said
14:06
at that inauguration:
14:08
"We the people declare today
14:09
that the most evident of truths,
14:12
that all of us are created equal.
14:15
It is the star that guides us still,
14:18
just as it guided our forebears
14:20
through Seneca Falls
14:23
and Selma and Stonewall."
14:24
Now we know that everything is not perfect,
14:29
especially when you look at what's happening
14:32
with the LGBT rights issue internationally,
14:34
but it says something about how far we've come
14:37
when our president puts the gay freedom struggle
14:41
in the context of the other great freedom struggles
14:44
of our time: the women's rights movement
14:46
and the civil rights movement.
14:49
His statement demonstrates not only
14:51
the interconnectedness of those movements,
14:53
but how each one borrowed
14:56
and was inspired by the other.
14:58
So just as Martin Luther King
15:01
learned from and borrowed from Gandhi's tactics
15:04
of civil disobedience and nonviolence,
15:07
which became a bedrock of
the civil rights movement,
15:09
the gay rights movement saw what worked
15:13
in the civil rights movement,
15:16
and they used some of those same strategies
15:17
and tactics to make gains
15:19
at an even quicker pace.
15:21
Maybe one more other reason
15:24
for the relative quick progress
15:26
of the gay rights movement.
15:28
Whereas a lot of us continue to still live
15:30
in racially segregated spaces,
15:33
LGBT folks, we are everywhere.
15:36
We are in urban communities
15:39
and rural communities,
15:41
communities of color, immigrant communities,
15:42
churches and mosques and synagogues.
15:45
We are your mothers and brothers
15:48
and sisters and sons.
15:52
And when someone that you love
15:54
or a family member comes out,
15:57
it may be easier to support their quest for equality.
15:59
And in fact, the gay rights movement
16:03
asks us to support justice and equality
16:06
from a space of love.
16:08
That may be the biggest, greatest gift
16:11
that the movement has given us.
16:13
It calls on us to access that which is most universal
16:15
and most intimate:
16:20
a love of our brother and our sister
16:22
and our neighbor.
16:25
I just want to end with a quote
16:27
by one of our greatest freedom fighters
16:30
who's no longer with us, Nelson Mandela
16:32
of South Africa.
16:34
Nelson Mandela led South Africa
16:36
after the dark and brutal days of Apartheid,
16:39
and out of the ashes of that
legalized racial discrimination,
16:42
he led South Africa to become the first country
16:47
in the world to ban discrimination
16:50
based on sexual orientation within its constitution.
16:53
Mandela said,
16:57
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains,
17:00
but to live in a way that respects
17:05
and enhances the freedom of others."
17:07
So as these movements continue on,
17:11
and as freedom struggles
around the world continue on,
17:15
let's remember that not only are they interconnected,
17:18
but they must support and enhance each other
17:22
for us to be truly victorious.
17:26
Thank you.
17:29
(Applause)
17:31

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About the Speaker:

Yoruba Richen - Documentary filmmaker
In her documentary films, Yoruba Richen unites African-American, feminist and LGBTQ voices in a renewed cry for civil rights for all.

Why you should listen
With her documentary film The New Black, Yoruba Richen celebrates the successes of the struggle for LGBTQ rights, while seeking to find common ground in all corners of the African-American community on this complex and contentious issue.
 
Raised in Harlem, Richen developed an early fascination with the disconnect between the worlds of poverty and wealth, and an awareness of how voices outside of the mainstream are often marginalized -- or excised completely -- from the democratic discourse.
More profile about the speaker
Yoruba Richen | Speaker | TED.com