“We have become self-serving. Gay and lesbian liberation is inseperable from the liberation of all, “said Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of the Academy Award winning Milk. Addressing a large audience as the ACLU of Michigan’s Legacy Series speaker at MOCAD in February, the gay and out Hollywood writer told Detroiters how he became a leader within the national gay and lesbian civil rights movement. Drawing on the life of Harvey Milk, a white gay councilman who reached out to blacks, women, and labor to build a political coalition in 1970’s San Francisco, Black emphasized jobs and housing, not marriage equality. The crowd, mostly white male professionals, cheered as Black challenged them to recognize the interconnectedness of all minority struggles. “We must plunge into the unknown” and “earn our right in the community” by reaching out to people of color.
The title of his speech, “The Art of Creating Inclusive Communities” suggested themes that fit more with the gentrifying schemes of white gay Michigan than the actual message Black delivered. Indeed, talk of artsing up neighborhoods and diversifying the city-scape is most commonly coded, in Detroit, as “taking back” neighborhoods, with all of that phrase’s attendent racist overtones. Black’s lecture, however, actually had little to do with creating gay neighborhoods or moving back to the city than with building coalitions for local politics. He called on his audience to reconnect gay and lesbian struggles with black, feminist, and other movements for social justice. While he failed to acknowledge the countless folks at the intersections of these identities-particularly queer people of color-his call for a broader political coalition could not have come at a better time. Given local moves to gentrify some of Detroit’s most fashionable neighborhoods, it is critical that we develop a more advanced way of thinking about rights, privilege, and connectivity.
Just across Detroit’s city limits lies the center of liberal gay politics, Ferndale. The last decade has been marked by the rise of Ferndale as a gay and lesbian hub for metropolitan Detroit. But along with this sleepy suburb’s transformation and the increased visibility of queer politics in Michigan has come the harsh realization for many that the mainstream gay and lesbian civil rights movement is a white movement; black queer and same-gender loving groups in Detroit prioritize different things than the large, mostly white organizations have prioritized for the last twenty years, and have their own network of activist organizations, most of them on the Detroit side of Eight Mile. Not only are political and organizing differences drawn largely along black-white and geographic lines in Metro Detroit, but deep wounds have kept the two movements from working together. Since 2006 Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center has faced and defended strong accusations of racism, and despite the Triangle Foundation’s long restructuring process to become more responsive to more people, many feel that there remains little connection to black queer/SGL activism in Detroit. Ferndale, the base of the mainstream movement, remains a city less than four percent black despite bordering all-black neighborhoods to the South and West. Nearly all of Ferndale’s black residents live in high concentration in a small share of the town’s census tracts.
This is the Detroit Dustin Lance Black was speaking to—a region whose neighborhoods, not just cities, are divided almost absolutely along racial lines. But it is also a region where many affluent, gay, white males are searching beyond Ferndale and Royal Oak, scanning the city’s black neighborhoods for potential profit. Two “Blight Tours” have been hosted in the last few years, where groups of men consider the aesthetic qualities of certain Detroit neighborhoods, particularly Palmer Park, East English Village, and Indian Village, where large, charming houses are cheap and long-term profits can be turned if older residents can be pressured and priced out. Talk of “taking back” or “preserving” these neighborhoods can be heard all over the city’s white gay bars, and despite the good intentions of many, the fact remains that whites have the most access to the only viable spaces left in the city, and are using that privilege to their advantage.
Although segregation in Detroit is worse than just about any other city in the nation, this trend to “diversify” neighborhoods by flipping houses is not unique to this area. Milk’s San Francisco in fact provided the original recipe during the 1980’s, although this is left out of Black’s film. Just as Black overlooked the colonial processes of neighborhood gentrification and black exclusion in San Francisco that resulted from Milk’s successful campaign,local white activists and professionals in Detroit have failed to consider the politics of both neighborhood “preservation,” in the city proper and the extreme racial exclusivity of Ferndale. Many of those who cheered as Black chided the movement for its failure to reach out to people of color have attended blight tours, where the problems of Detroiters and their neighborhoods are trivialized and romanticized in a search for urban authenticity and affordable housing with architectural charm. Virtually no white activists and organizations have challenged racially motivated housing, job, and law enforcement discrimination in Ferndale and Royal Oak. There has been little to no commitment to racial justice on the part of white organizers and, in some instances, they have reinforced racial segregation in their own communities and organizations.
Nonetheless, Dustin Lance Black’s call to support and include people of color was well received Wednesday. Hardly a homogenous group (except racially), some appreciated it more than others. After the event, attendees seemed to agree that it was “what Detroit needed.” But the answer to Black’s question, “What are you going to do here in Michigan to reach out to other communities,” is yet to be seen. As organizations employ a new liberal discourse on race and diversity by starting new committees, hosting forums, and , training black groups to do things their way, very little is being done to tackle the structural inequality so visible across the urban landscape. White organizations continue to prioritize marriage equality and legislative battles as black groups in the city address the double burden of being black and queer on their own. Will the large, well-funded organizations and active members of the white queer movement re-consider the needs and political priorities of non-white groups, or will blight tours, racial discrimination in Ferndale and Royal Oak, and weak attempts to “diversify” boards and staffs continue to undermine the efforts of some activists to build inter-racial queer coalitions? If the latter is true, the next decade may see few advances in local queer politics.