Overheard in Brooklyn

This past weekend, two middle-aged African American men were sitting on a bench in Fort Greene Park. A white gay couple walked by provoking one of the Black men to complain to the other about LGBT people, comparing homophobia to racism. He said, “…I’m a Black man. You know that the minute I walk into the room. There’s no hiding…”

I guess that’s what I get for being nosy. The idea here is that comparing queer oppression to racism overstates the problem of homophobia because queers can pass while people of color can’t. Michael Steele, the first African American chair of the Republican National Committee, has made this same argument. So have members of my family.

This logic is damaging to the cause of anti-racism and of social justice.

I get that different people experience oppression differently. I’m also not one of those people who thinks everything is relative. Some things are really worse than others, both to the person experiencing them and to our culture and political system.

However, this is beside the point. While we are oppressed in different ways, those differences don’t obliterate the connections that exist between us.

Case in point: about 50 years ago, when white conservative elites were pushed out of power by liberals, they realized that they needed to change strategies. Their main institution of political power, the Republican Party, needed to stop being the party of the rich and become a party of the people.

To accomplish this, they switched from a more purely pro-business agenda and towards opposing the Democratic Party’s rights agenda, then centered on civil rights for African Americans. The audience for this move was white Southerners who’d become Democrats in opposition to Lincoln and the abolition of slavery, and might react to civil rights for African Americans by becoming Republicans. They were right, but simply opposing civil rights was not enough.

Conservatives needed to reach beyond the South and build a national base of power. So they aligned themselves with the then fast growing evangelical movement. To do this, they appealed to the cultural conservatism of evangelicals by attacking reproductive freedom and LGBT rights. This move built their evangelical base while simultaneously splitting liberals. The liberal split cleared the way for a highly politicized evangelical plurality (the largest minority) of voters to seize control of politics.

We do share common cause, and splitting hairs over who is more oppressed doesn’t help us promote that cause. But, I realize that political arguments are not enough. Folks engage in the sort of fighting exemplified by the “queers can pass but we can’t” argument because too many of us are given little else than our survival in the face of oppression on which to hang our dignity. In a society that makes relief for injustice a zero sum game, with protection only going to those who bleed the most, we are all tempted to engage in oppression competitions.

But here’s some food for thought. As a queer who can usually pass, the very fact that passing is treated as a privilege is part of my oppression. The desire to pass is founded in shame and fear of violence. Every time I choose to hide, I must acknowledge that shame and fear. It’s not a privilege to pass. The privilege lies with those we are passing to appease.

And as long as we continue to minimize this sort of oppression, we hurt the cause of justice. After all, from day to day, most of us are not oppressed in ways that are extreme and outrageous as measured by the yardsticks of those with the most privilege. Our oppression is meted out in little humiliations, small hurts, and quiet indignities. We are followed in stores, or assumed to be foreign. We are sneered at or avoided or simply ignored. Every time looks of derision or suspicion are passed between people for whom we are the other, it chips away at our sense of security, of safety, and of peace with ourselves and the world.

While some of us are more horribly mistreated than others, it is the knowledge that we are all vulnerable to mistreatment – knowledge we are reminded of in little ways, every day – that keeps us from claiming our liberation. We need to honor these slights, these dings and scratches on our dignity, because we are human beings and we deserve better. Bottom line. That’s how we raise the standard on rights and respect.

So yeah, maybe I can pass as straight. But that’s just so not the point.

Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

19 replies on “Overheard in Brooklyn”

correction: **most** African-Americans and other POC can’t “pass” as white, but as we know, some have in the past, and can today.

It’s true that we need to work together, but how can we work together without acknowledging and respecting the different ways we are each oppressed and the ways that that oppression impacts us – as marginalized groups. Only then, when we understand and respect each other struggles – can we move forward and discuss commonalities and ways to work together towards a common goal. So, next time, instead of ease dropping on the conversation between two black men and writing about what was wrong with it in a blog post – you might want to engage them in a dialogue about why they are hurt by the way they are treated as opposed to those in the LGBT community and then share your experiences as a LGBT male with them. These conversations first have to be had before any real movement building is done. How can non-black LGBT folks be allies to blacks if you can’t even listen to what our struggles are? Action requires knowledge – right?

Of course, you’re absolutely right that dialogue is necessary. I was just using the fact that I overhead the comment as a device for getting into conversation with folks about the issue, not to disparage those men. I’ve spent years in conversation on this issue with people from many walks of life and what’s clear to me is that we need to acknowledge both the differences and the similarities, and develop a politic that embraces both, recognizing that we each experience oppression differently, but seeking out the commonalities that allow us to work together. As a person of color, I grew up being pulled in both directions, having my loyalty challenged by non-queer people of color on one hand, and by a predominantly white queer community on the other. I tried working in the queer movement in order raise issues of race and broaden the politic of that movement. I eventually left the queer organizations in order to dig into communities of color and work with people of all sexual orientations who share the common experience of racism, believing that another way of building the bridge is to be an out gay person among primarily straight people of color in struggle. It’s a tough struggle either way. That’s what I was trying to write about. If I failed, this is good feedback. I’ll keep trying and hopefully you’ll stick with me and let me know if I’m doing better or need to do more work!

Thanks for the comment – after reading it I reread your passage and realized I missed some important points and made some quick assumptions. Sorry. Your piece is more nuanced than I originally thought it to be. Nice work.

I really appreciate you engaging me on this issue. I love it when folks talk back to me, criticize, add ideas, etc. I hope you continue to follow and stay in dialogue. I always learn something when folks offer thoughtful comments like yours.

How can non-black LGBT folks be allies to blacks if you can’t even listen to what our struggles are? Action requires knowledge – right?

Well, since action requires knowledge Kira, I’m wondering if you ever ask the hetero-cisgender people in our community (especially the men) the same thing. I know I do—every chance I get. I have yet to get a decent answer. And given the sheer number of Black LGBTQ folks who have been bullied, assaulted, and shunned by our community (even by our so-called leaders), dogging non-Black queer/trans people about their poor allyhood seems hypocritical in the extreme.

How many mainstream Black leaders have stood up for our sister CeCe McDonald in her life-or-death struggle? I can’t even name one. Black transgender women face epidemic levels of poverty, unemployment, sexual/domestic violence, incarceration, HIV/AIDS infection, and homelessness—all those struggles that Black leaders claim to care about—and yet they are completely invisible in our community. If hetero-cis Black folks are looking for LGBTQ allies, they could start by being better straight allies to the queer and trans folks in their families, neighborhoods, and houses of worship. Accountability starts at home.

To accomplish this, they switched from a more purely pro-business agenda and towards opposing the Democratic Party’s rights agenda, then centered on civil rights for African Americans.

Republicans never opposed Civil Rights. Below, every Senator who opposed the 1964cra. Only 6 Repubs.

AL Nay [D] Hill, Joseph [D]
AL Nay [D] Sparkman, John [D]
AR Nay [D] Fulbright, James [D]
AR Nay [D] McClellan, John [D]
AZ Nay [R] Goldwater, Barry [R]
FL Nay [D] Holland, Spessard [D]
FL Nay [D] Smathers, George [D]
GA Nay [D] Talmadge, Herman [D]
GA Nay [D] Russell, Richard [D]
IA Nay [R] Hickenlooper, Bourke [R]
LA Nay [D] Ellender, Allen [D]
LA Nay [D] Long, Russell [D]
MS Nay [D] Eastland, James [D]
MS Nay [D] Stennis, John [D]
NC Nay [D] Ervin, Samuel [D]
NC Nay [D] Jordan, Benjamin [D]
NH Nay [R] Cotton, Norris [R]
NM Nay [R] Mechem, Edwin [R]
SC Nay [D] Johnston, Olin [D]
SC Nay [D] Thurmond, J. [D]
TN Nay [D] Walters, Herbert [D]
TN Nay [D] Gore, Albert [D]
TX Nay [R] Tower, John [R]
VA Nay [D] Robertson, Absalom [D]
VA Nay [D] Byrd, Harry [D]
WV Nay [D] Byrd, Robert [D]
WY Nay [R] Simpson, Milward [R]

Yup, aware of all of that. I’m not promoting Democrats, here, nor really all that concerned about Republicans per se. To me, the solutions lie outside of both parties and simple electoral politics isolated from broader community politics. I’m much more concerned about right wing ideologues and organizers who use the Republican Party to move their agenda, and have attacked the opposing party in order to gain majoritarian power by painting them as the party of rights, race equity, and taxes, and, at least at the beginning, making the association between race riots, rights, and the Black power movement before then promoting a tough on crime mindset that led in turn to the war on drugs.

BTW, isolating these legislative moves to votes rather than acknowledging the context in which these votes were arrived at over-simplifies the issue. A more detailed reading of history and of the legislative record, both from the right wing (via primary docs) and left wing (via social history) perspectives, reveals a very different dynamic than those votes seem to indicate, as is almost always the case when reviewing the legislative record. But then, I’m guessing you know that which leads me to the question, what’s your point? In other words, what’s your agenda? To defend Republicans, or to help us understand how better to arrive at a situation of greater equity?

Also, In case you think I’m denying the Southern Strategy, please remember what it really was:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

That’s Kevin Phillips. Now, take a look at all the opposition for the 1970 Voting Rights Act:

AL Nay [D] Allen, James [D]
AL Nay [D] Sparkman, John [D]
FL Nay [D] Holland, Spessard [D]
GA Nay [D] Talmadge, Herman [D]
GA* Nay [D] Russell, Richard [D]
LA Nay [D] Ellender, Allen [D]
MS Nay [D] Eastland, James [D]
MS Nay [D] Stennis, John [D]
NC Nay [D] Ervin, Samuel [D]
SC Nay [D] Hollings, Ernest [D]
SC Nay [R] Thurmond, J. [R]
VA Nay [D] Jr. Byrd, Harry [D]
WV Nay [D] Byrd, Robert [D]

Only 1 Repub.

BTW, isolating these legislative moves to votes rather than acknowledging the context in which these votes were arrived at over-simplifies the issue. A more detailed reading of history and of the legislative record, both from the right wing (via primary docs) and left wing (via social history) perspectives, reveals a very different dynamic than those votes seem to indicate, as is almost always the case when reviewing the legislative record.

I agree with your conclusion but i don’t think we are on the same page.

The final votes on all the CRAs make it appear as if Civil Rights was wildly popular…outside of Southern Dems. This of course is bunk. A closer reading of the legislative record brings both Republicans and Dems down many notches. For example, the final vote on the ’57cra have both JFK and LBJ marked off as “Yea”. But the truth is that they opposed.

I’m going to stop here, except to add that the the bill that emerged from the 1957 House was the equivalent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I want to stop and ask if you need me to substantiate the above charges.

The point is that JFK and LBJ are the 2 Democratic politicians most often credited with supporting Civil Rights. But JFK was a collaborator and LBJ an all out Segregationist (prior to ’64). Yet you characterize civil rights as the Democratic Party’s agenda with the Republicans opposed.

I don’t see how you can possibly come to this conclusion without erasing Southern Dems from history. And even if we were to segregate them from their northern compatriots (and there is reason to do so) you still have to deal with what the likes of JFK and LBJ did in the inner procedural votes (and yes, we can look at what Republicans did too).

Anyway, if you want evidence, I assure you my sources are pristine. I can do it either by way of academic sources or via primary ones (members of the Civil Rights Movement).

I think you are reading too much into my statement about how the Dems became the party of rights. In fact, I think we’re basically on the same page. That’s why I asked what your agenda is. I kind of felt like I was arguing over language. Anyway, I appreciate your argument. Thanks.

Ok…but I should mention that I am indeed a RWinger and a Republican. However, I vote democratic because my guys are nuts and tax cuts don’t pay for themselves.

Also, I’m libertarian (hey, that’s even worse, I can almost hear you say) and am therefore generally aligned with you on civil rights, including SSM, etc. Another reason to vote Dem.

But mostly I just love civil rights history and like to see it done justice. Its far and away the most complex topic in American History…for the reasons Malcolm X outlined in “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Yup, pretty much got the libertarian thing, too, though not so much the Republican affiliation. I can disagree politically and still see points of agreement and welcome dialogue as long as folks aren’t being uncritical shills for one or another brand.

Hi there,
I got to your blog through an interview you did with Racailicious. I can’t believe I haven’t found your blog before–it’s really fantastic–and I think we share similar perspectives (blog-wise, social justice wise) in terms of talking about/writing about issues of race and anti-racism and other forms of oppression (sexism, homophobia, classism).

In terms of this particular post, I agree 100% that if we truly want to be anti-racist activists, then we can’t just choose which oppressions we’re going to fight against and which ones we may tacitly or even actively endorse. I suppose we can, but it take the teeth out of our anti-racist work. And it deprives us of valuable allies. AND (this may be partly implied in your post) it ignores the reality that we are never a single thing–I can’t support the rights of women over the rights of Asian Americans because I’ve decided to divide up my identity that way. So if someone is queer and African American and a woman, the intersection of different forms of oppression cannot be clearly teased out but invariably impacts how this person navigates her world and understands her reality.

Finally, I don’t want to go back to the back-and-forth with Manju, but I will say that my own sense of the southern strategy is that it really kicked into gear with Reagan’s election. Of course the seeds had to be sown much earlier, and certainly it began at the local level–in fact I think that looking at the career of Jesse Helms in North Carolina would bear out much of what you write in your post about getting white Southerners who are hostile to ambivalent about civil rights to switch party affiliation. However, North Carolina is also an odd beast because it’s often voted for blue dog Democrats for governor — ones who have been very progressive with respect to race, but then you’ve got folks like Jesse Helms.

OK, enough! Sorry for the mini-essay–just very excited to be engaging with your post. And I’d love to add you to my blog roll when I finally get around to revamping my blog.

The mini-essay is great! I love getting comments from other bloggers and will definitely go to your site to see what’s up. BTW, are you in North Carolina?

I also discovered your blog through a post on Racialicious and am so glad I did. I have always had a strong interest in race relations, primarily between black and white people, and even recently started a blog that deals with what I call my humorous obsession with race. I am a white, Jewish woman, and yet my interest has always been in caring more about social justice for black people, than for taking a deep interest in fighting anti-Semitism, so I relate to your desire to focus on the same.

Your post here about your overheard conversation, and the weighing of who is more oppressed struck me because I wrote a similar, admittedly lighter, more humorous post, on the same topic, and was met with some criticism for trying to compare oppression that the Jewish people suffered, to the slavery and institutionalized racism that black people have suffered for centuries. Looking back at my replies I think I was too apologetic, and after reading your thoughts and replies to readers here, it has helped me to see that, yes, it is not a contest, and the question of who is more oppressed misses the point. We do need to have dialogue and express our feelings about our experiences of oppression, but we also need to work together on challenging oppression when we see it occurring in our day to day lives.

Thank you again for the great site. I plan to keep on reading, and invite you to take a look at mine at

Also, here’s link to post on oppression:


Thanks for the love and for following along. I’ve been reading your blog, too, and enjoying it. Thanks for making the connection!

Thanks so much for the quick reply, and I’m flattered you’re reading my blog, as well. I may need to reach out for some help as I delve deeper, since you are much more experienced in this area than me. Forgot to mention that I did re-post on my blog the Racialicious post that interviewed you recently, and will now make sure I have Race Files on my blogroll. Glad to connect, too!

Comments are closed.