By Rev. Heber Brown, III
The first time I heard the phrase “Mission Drift” I was at a meeting with representatives from a national Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) organization that was working to support Same Sex Marriage in Maryland. The December 2011 meeting came as a result of someone passing them my name as a clergyman who might be open to supporting their cause. I agreed to the meeting because I wanted to hear them out and desired to learn more about the specific ways in which members of the LGBT community are discriminated against by law. The two Black brothers I met with represented the entire African American outreach department for their organization. They brought to our meeting very specific things they wanted me to do to support their legislative priorities in Maryland. Being that I have grown past the practice of assuming alliances where there are none, I heard them out, but did not commit to support in any way.
I did, however, share with them legislative priorities that have local roots and greater linkage to the primary concerns of Black people in Maryland in general and Baltimore in particular based on my experience and the nature of my work. That’s when they dropped the catchphrase that I had never heard before: Mission Drift. They talked about how their superiors in the LGBT equal rights organization had traditionally engaged those who attempted to bring the concerns of Black people onto their radar. Instead of engaging these issues and devoting some of their massive material and political resources toward primary Black concerns, they opted to relegate the concerns of Black people toward the margins. For them, they would be drifting from their primary mission if they took seriously the concerns of Black people. The gentlemen that I met with that day from this LGBT organization were truly thoughtful and engaging Black brothers. They helped me to gain a greater respect for the real complexity of sexuality and identity in our community. However, they also helped me peer into the mindset of the national LGBT organization they represented that day – a mindset that may be shared by other LGBT groups as well. In essence, it’s a mindset that demands support without offering solidarity.
After hearing what this LGBT group wanted me to do for them as a Black Pastor in Baltimore and experiencing their hesitation to lend resources and solidarity to the primary concerns of Black People, I developed an even greater respect to the political truth that every community must reserve the right to determine their own priorities and craft to the best of their abilities the routes to make their agenda a reality. This does not mean that communities should not engage others on issues of common concern and mutual benefit. However, it does mean that having a keen sense and unyielding commitment to your own community’s established priorities becomes the starting point for any conversations related to alliance or coalition possibilities. In essence, the organization I met with wanted my support without offering solidarity because the issues I raised didn’t align with their agenda or they came to the conclusion that they could get what they wanted from the Black community (a “yes” vote on Same Sex Marriage in November) without materially supporting anything that the Black community would recognize as viable Black agenda concerns.
It’s interesting however; that this same approach was not employed with the Latino Community. In July 2012, another LGBT group called Equality Maryland (not the organization I met with) announced a formal partnership with Casa de Maryland – the Latino and immigrant advocacy organization. Both groups have issues that will appear on the November ballot for public consideration and vote. Casa de Maryland is encouraging a favorable vote for the Dream Act – a measure that will expand educational opportunities largely, but not exclusively, for members of their community. This past summer Casa de Maryland agreed to encourage their members to vote in favor of Same Sex Marriage and Equality Maryland encouraged their members to support the Dream Act. This is a picture of a mutually beneficial alliance that attempts to secure “game-changing” legislation for large swaths of the respective communities.
For all of the Black spokespeople, clergy, local organizations, and even national Black groups like the NAACP that have come out in vocal support of Same Sex Marriage and have encouraged the Black community to vote in favor of it in November, I would only ask: What did you secure for the masses of Black people in return for your support? Did you agree to read a script provided to you by the Same Sex Lobby without schooling the Lobby on primary Black concerns and obtaining their material support for “game-changing” legislation for your ethnic community? Did you make it easier for the Same Sex Lobby to utilize the power of our sacred stories surrounding the Civil Rights era as a convenient tool to be used in their service only until they’ve gotten what they’ve wanted from us?
Let me be clear. I understand that the Black community and the LGBT community are not mutually exclusive. There are many Black LGBT folks in our family. We have much ground to cover in our communal family on issues of homophobia, stigmas, discriminant HIV/AIDS treatment and yes – even insensitivity in our churches and theological understandings. However, the Latino community and the LGBT community are not mutually exclusive either, but that didn’t stop Latinos from defining their primary legislative agenda and clarifying the particulars of their partnership before granting their support.
It’s beyond unfortunate that when State Delegate Jill P. Carter, daughter of civil rights icon, Walter P. Carter, attempted to advocate for the support of a Black agenda in Annapolis in the midst of the activity around Same Sex Marriage legislation that she was excoriated by the media and denounced by Black and White activists alike on the false charge of trying to sink same sex marriage legislation. Is it only wrong to demonstrate unwavering commitment to a communal agenda when you’re Black?
The well-financed, overwhelmingly White, and politically connected LGBT lobby is very clear about their legislative agenda in Maryland. They’ve had fierce commitment to working to make Same Sex Marriage a legal reality in the state. No matter how one feels about Same Sex Marriage, you must marvel at what they’ve been able to accomplish by staying true to what they defined as a goal for their community. They have millions of dollars pouring in from across the country. They have significant inroads to every major media outlet in the region. They have helped finance the campaigns of politicians that agree with their legislative agenda and have found ways to convince uncooperative legislators to get on board. They were able to bring all other issues in the 2012 General Assembly in Annapolis to a standstill until their legislative agenda was confirmed by favorable vote. They focused upon their goal and were relentless in its pursuit. While their campaign reeks of paternalism, racism, and White Privilege, I don’t fault them for their commitment to their own legislative goals.
One of my biggest disappointments in the political sense, however, is that once again the Black Community is being led to support the legislative priorities established by other people without making demands of our own which will benefit a greater majority of our own people. If Frederick Douglass was right and “power concedes nothing without a demand,” then the masses of Black people in Maryland will get next to nothing for supporting Same Sex Marriage and that will be just what we asked for.