The broken rainbow: the gender and race divide in the LGBTQ community

Published on: June 20, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: June 20, 2022 at 8:49 am EDT

A balloon reading “Love is love, pride” waves in the wind on June 4 at Baltimore Trans Pride 2022.

Myoshi Smith said one of her life’s greatest moments came when she was featured with her partner in a marriage equality ad for Democrat Kamala Harris during the 2020 presidential election. She believed in the cause and felt a sense of community with fellow LGBTQ members.

But after the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men at the hands of police led to massive protests nationwide, she was disappointed by the lack of participation in — and even criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement — by white LGBTQ members who had spoken out so fervently for marriage equality years earlier.

“I didn’t see their bodies on the front lines of the protest,” said Smith, a 33-year-old relationship enhancement specialist and sex coach based in Pigtown. “Black queer people are fighting for our survival while white queer people were only fighting for marriage equality.”

As LGBTQ celebrations sweep the country during Pride Month, there will undoubtedly be stories of joy and triumph. But behind the colorful parades, energized performances by drag queens, and an overall appearance of a unified front lie the realities of a fractured community.

Some in the LGBTQ community describe being shut out of social or dating circles, encountering slurs or acts of intimidation, or facing workplace discrimination from others in their community. Transgender people say they have faced sexual harassment. One queer said she was discriminated against by a white trans woman.

“I continue to be shocked. I thought a trans white person would understand,” said QueenEarth, a 40-year-old Black queer artist based in Waverly.

Some might think that being part of the LGBTQ community means a reprieve from the discrimination and pressures levied by mainstream society — whether that be rejection by family and friends, religious persecution, or everyday microaggressions and bigotry. But some continue to face opposition or harassment within their community, often from white men. With its diverse breadth of ethnicities and gender identities, the LGBTQ community, in short, is not immune to the same intercultural tensions and divides that plague the rest of America.

“I think that a lot of people forget how Pride came to be — especially white queer people really forget that Pride is a riot. Pride is a protest,” Smith said. “It is really interesting to me that you have queer folks who will not support Black Lives Matter, but they will be celebrating Pride all month long. The hypocrisy and the lack of understanding of your history is stunning to me.”

The queer community has never been a monolith, according to Abbey Nawrocki, associate director of gender and sexuality resources at the Center for Diversity & Inclusion at Johns Hopkins University.

“Black queer people are fighting for our survival while white queer people were only fighting for marriage equality.”

—  Myoshi Smith

Internal tensions and divisions are found in every movement, and the LGBTQ community is no different. Movements have often ignored the gender and racial divide, viewing the issues as potential distractions. Other times, when powerful factions within the groups have achieved their goals, they have abandoned the marginalized members of the group who are still fighting for equality, Nawrocki added.

“These are sensitive narratives to talk about because there is this huge pressure to present this united front to get our needs met,” Nawrocki said. “But if that comes at the expense of alienating huge parts of the community that are marginalized in society, that is not a successful movement.”

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The Pride Center of Maryland, which produces Baltimore Pride, is mindful of the rift, and has made it a priority to combat it head-on.

“We recognize that Pride has not been together for a long time,” said Kenneth Something, the center’s director of strategic partnership and special events. “We’re also talking about the gender, racial, age divide.”

This year’s theme, “Together Again,” reflects the realities of the distance created by COVID-19, but also acknowledges the splintered state of the LGBTQ community.

“We recognize that (racism, sexism and transphobia) have been a part of the Pride story as long as there has been a Pride,” said Something, a 36-year-old Druid Hill Park resident who identifies as a Black, same-gender-loving person.

This year’s Pride committee has more members, 44, and more diversity than ever before, according to Something.

“We intentionally reached out to every corner of Baltimore to make sure that everyone had a say in the shaping and framing and owning of Baltimore Pride,” Something said.

Social circles

Some say the racial divide is most evident when it comes to social circles — whether that be friendships or dating.

Kevin Parker, 29, prides himself on having a diverse social circle. But he said that is the exception to the rule in Baltimore, where a large number of LGBTQ members associate with, or date based on, similar racial backgrounds.

Parker, a Black resident of Charles Village, was reminded of the divide over Memorial Day weekend, when he saw the social media posts of white gay friends who’d gone to Rehoboth Beach, a hot spot for many in the Baltimore LGBTQ community. Most were in groups that lacked any type of ethnic diversity. Parker, who also went to Rehoboth Beach that weekend, was disappointed that no one thought to invite him to join the group.

“It showed me what their priority was,” he said. “That priority was being where I might not fit in. They didn’t care to introduce me to people they were comfortable around. Yes, it hurt.”

Eric Vooys, 31, also noticed nearly all-white groups of gays posting photos from the beach on social media. He now cringes when he thinks that he used to be part of a homogenous social circle. It was three years ago when he was in a “relationship bubble” while dating his ex-boyfriend.

“In that relationship we mostly hung out with people who were predominately white,” said Vooys, a white grant analyst at UMBC, explaining that there would be one Black or Latino person in the group of 10 at a given time. “In retrospect, it’s because of closed-mindedness.”

Dating is also a source of divisiveness.

Parker said he experienced initial resistance from other Black gay men who assumed that he was only interested in dating white men because his last two boyfriends were white. But when he explains that he is open to dating all ethnicities, there isn’t much of an issue. Still, he said he has encountered white gay men who won’t respond to non-white men on dating sites, or have their profiles set to “problematic” preferences.

Parker recalled seeing dating profiles of a white Naval Academy midshipman that read: “No rice, no beans, no chocolate or no noodles.”

He didn’t know at first what the post meant, and later learned these were disparaging references to different racial or ethnic groups, including Asians. “It’s all alarming, to say the least,” he said.

Ben Shaver, a 31-year-old white cisgender gay male teacher who lives in Pikesville, ponders the long-term effects of the LGBTQ community rejecting other members based on physical appearance and race, while holding up white cisgender gay men as the standard of beauty.

“For me, I wonder, what does that say to people who don’t fit into that box of attractive white gay men? What does that do to their mental health?” Shaver asked.

Not Black or white

In Baltimore, a city where the racial divide is mostly among Blacks and whites, members of other groups — Latinos and Asians, for example — say they can feel invisible.

Jasjyot Singh Hans, a 32-year-old Indian gay man, said he and his friends have experienced everything from micro aggressions to physical harm by other LGBTQ members. Even though Singh Hans said he has found a community in Baltimore, he still feels like he’s on the outside.

“The way in which the city has been built and divided is very Black and white,” he said. “For us to find our space, we have to conform. That makes us outcasts.” He said he feels fortunate to have found friends who were more welcoming.

In cases where LGBTQ members are racially ambiguous, they witness everything from microaggressions to overt racism.

Phillip Brown, a 36-year-old drag performer from Westminster who goes by the stage name Bambi Ferrah, is often mistaken for white despite being Native American. This has led to other LGBTQ members feeling comfortable enough to say racist things to him, thinking they are speaking to another white person.

“I have had people come up to me and say, ‘It’s a really dark crowd today.’ I get upset,” Brown said.

Lesbians not wanted

The gender divide is also vast in the LGBTQ community, according to several lesbians interviewed for this article.

The closure of Coconuts Cafe, a popular lesbian bar in Mount Vernon, in 2009, as well as the restaurant-bar Flavor during the pandemic, left Baltimore with few to no female-centric spaces for LGBTQ members. That forced lesbians to seek refuge in male-centered gay establishments, where they say they often are not welcomed with open arms.

“It would be like, ‘Why are y’all here?’” said Sophia Wallace, a 41-year-old Black lesbian who is studying to be a truck driver and lives in Catonsville. “It would make me feel like, ‘Aren’t we the same? Shouldn’t we be together?’ We’re all gay. We’re all-gender loving. It’s not a space just for guys. You could feel it.”

Wynsdi Custis, a 41-year-old Black lesbian who lives in Old Franklin, remembers when same-sex women had spaces to hang out in Baltimore.

“There were things that centered around women in the gay community. You could go there and be around people who get how you felt,” said the child care provider. “Now there is nothing. You can go to a straight bar. Or you can go to a gay bar.”

Custis said that achieving some type of welcoming place is possible. But it will take intentional work.

Jackie Abeel, 32, recalled last summer when she was told by a gay couple that she and her then-girlfriend were not invited to a gathering.

“I asked why? I was told, ‘It’s really a gay men party. It isn’t your scene. We don’t really want women there.’ When I heard that, I was really taken aback,” said Abeel, a white lesbian who moved to Baltimore last year after splitting her time between Baltimore and the Washington, D.C. suburbs. “Being kicked out of that is hurtful when we are already dealing with being different from the norm.”

The T and the plus

Transgender and nonbinary Baltimoreans of all races say they, too, can feel ignored and ostracized by fellow members of the LGBTQ community.

Since Shaylie Elliette transitioned two years ago, she said she has been sexually harassed, physically assaulted, taunted and called slurs. The aggressors have all been gay men. She said that while she feels the majority of LGBTQ members are allies, many are anti-trans and “ignorant to what we are about.”

“I was not shocked in the slightest. I knew not every queer person is friendly. And not every queer person is a friend,” said Elliette, a 25-year-old transgender woman who lives in Charles Village. “We’re not treated the same as other people in the community are treated. We’re treated as the weirdos.”

Still, Elliette has hope for the future.

“We are getting that representation on a bigger stage,” Elliette said. “With all this trans excellence happening, we are achieving positive growth.”

There are efforts to help trans people.

Myoshi Smith’s partner, Dana Blech, a 32-year-old white pansexual who is a human rights attorney, is offering her services pro bono to trans people seeking to change their names during the month of June.

“I wanted to benefit the most marginalized, which are Black Trans individuals,” she said. “If your ID doesn’t match your actual gender or name, it affects all aspects of your life.”

Blech said she specifically chose the trans community to help because its members are the most vulnerable.

“Black trans folks have the least allyship within the LGBTQ community,” Blech said.

Unique Robinson, the chair of Baltimore Pride 2022, said this year’s Pride celebration reflects the entire spectrum of the community, including “gender variant folks.”

“It has really been a white boys club. (But) we’re represented across the spectrum,” said Robinson, who identifies as nonbinary. “We are covering all of the alphabets.”

Creating opportunities, safe spaces

There are a number of Marylanders addressing the divide head-on with new business models focused on creating opportunities and safe spaces for marginalized LGBTQ subgroups.

Marcus C Gross quickly realized that he was filling a need when he launched SAD Brunch, a recurring drag brunch. The company has employed some 500 performers since launching in 2019 90% of whom are Black, he estimated. But other gay bars didn’t want to partner with him on the initial idea.

“One thing I always heard was that they don’t let Black girls perform,” Gross recalled. “The perception is that white queens have the opportunity. A few of those shows had a little representation but not enough to what the community was asking for. We just found amazing talent.”

Jeremiah Nieves, a 30-year-old Canton resident who performs in drag by the name Iyana Deschanel, remembered a segregated drag landscape when he entered the scene 10 years ago. He and his husband, drag queen Brooklyn Heights, have fought to offer the region’s most diverse drag brunch, which has been mimicked throughout the region.

“We ‘re not based off of what you look like, we are booking based on entertainment value,” he said. “If you are an entertainer and you are entertaining, you get booked.”

At Church, a female- and queer-owned bar set to open in July in Old Goucher, the owners are setting out to create a space that is welcoming to all — regardless of traditional race and gender divides.

“It is a huge undertaking, but it’s where we need to go. We want you to walk into the space and feel immediately welcome there,” said Chelsea Gregoire, the title founder and hospitality director of Church.

At an open hiring call for the establishment in June, the owners were shocked by the diversity of applicants, which they say is necessary to ensuring an inclusive space.

Nearby, at the Pride Center of Maryland, CEO Cleo Manago said he has been warning the LGBTQ community about its gender and racial rift for decades.

As the national conversation around race has begun to shift, and as the priorities of organizations have changed along with that, he sees the potential for progress. The organization is now committed to ensuring that the Pride Center of Maryland is a multicultural organization and focuses on reparative work around the Black community.

“It is strategically responsible,” he said.

And it starts with pride. “We are celebrating the G, the T, the L and the Q,” Robinson said. “We’re covering all of the bases.”