“The New Black” examines being black and gay in America

The title of Yoruba Richen’s award-winning documentary The New Black has a double meaning. The film documents the fight for marriage equality in the state of Maryland in 2012 following leaders on both sides of the issue. Pastor Derek McCoy of Hope Christian Church is the president of the Maryland Family Alliance and the Maryland Family Council and he works vigilantly to defeat Question 6, the referendum on the ballot that would allow same-sex couples to get married under the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Karess Taylor-Hughes is a field organizer for Equality Maryland and the Human Rights Campaign who works closely with fellow activist Samantha Masters as they canvass the streets drumming up support for Question 6.

On the one hand, the title speaks to the idea that some believe that gay rights, and in particular, marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time, ergo that being queer today is like being black in the 1960s. The idea that gay is the new black is offensive to many black people as it suggests that the struggles that black people face due to race are in the past (i.e. we live in a post-racial world) or that the fight racial justice can somehow be usurped or replaced by the fight for LGBTQ rights.

On the other hand, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC), a civil rights organization dedicated to empowering Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, offers another meaning. Lettman-Hicks speaks passionately about her role as a sistah in the movement. She strives to create a more inclusive black community. She believes that sexuality is a taboo topic in the black community and would like to change that. She says, “With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t tell for the military, we’re ready to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the black community.”

Although it is couched within the particular circumstances of the 2012 National election, the film has a much larger scope and attempts to chronicle the ongoing struggle within the black community between homophobia and gay rights, civil rights and the black church. The film summarizes the history and unique structure of the black family and why, for a people whose marriages and families weren’t recognized or validated for centuries, the idea of “redefining marriage” or sanctioning “alternative families” is complicated. The film also explains why the black church—an institution that has provided education and community and has been a source strength for African Americans since slavery—is such an integral part of the conversation.

The film also touches upon the concept of “intersectionality.” Intersectionality is the idea that as complex human beings we all have multiple identities that cannot be separated from one another or ranked in order of importance or priority. A black queer woman is black and queer and a woman all at the same time and all of these separate identities intersect with and inform the others. Therefore, a black queer woman will have a very different experience in the world than a white queer woman just as a white queer woman would have a different experience in the world than a white queer man.

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Often, when you have multiple marginalized identities, you are asked to sacrifice or dismiss one for the sake of the other. In many ways, the civil rights movement of the 1960s asked black women to put their feminism aside in order fight for racial injustice. During the second wave of feminism in the 1970s black women were asked to put aside their fight for racial equality in order to advance the feminist movement. The New Black explores what means to be black and gay and how the two communities can and should be working together to ensure that everyone has equal rights.

The New Black is an informative and thought-provoking documentary about the intersection of race and sexuality, because in Lettman-Hicks’ view, as long as there are black members of the LGBTQ community, LGBTQ rights are also a black issue.

“Let’s be clear,” she says. “This is the unfinished business of black people being free.”

 The New Black screens in New York in February. For more screeining dates, check the official Facebook page for the film.