Essence magazine’s March 2011 issue, which is currently on newsstands, takes a bold, inclusive step toward shedding light on the challenges of being Black and LGBT in America. Essence, the “definitive voice of today’s dynamic African American woman,” takes an in-depth look at how Black LGBT servicemembers operate in a society much like our ancestors’ days of racial segregation and find the resolve to continue risking their lives defending liberty when they have had extreme limitations placed on their own freedoms. The magazine breaks new ground by publishing a four-page article in which a Black, active duty, female servicemember details her life as a lesbian living under the discriminatory and now—thankfully—repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy.
With a monthly circulation of more than one million and a readership of 8.5 million, there’s no other magazine of this magnitude with the ability to give this Sister a chance to tell her story—in her own words—directly to her community. It is in the context of a mainstream, Black publication that this inclusive, educational story about a Black woman being forced to deal with workplace discrimination is told.
NBJC has positioned itself strategically to make sure “those” stories become “our” stories because Black LGBT people have been conspicuously absent from the African American narrative. When our stories are told—and told well—they complete the missing pages of Black history. The exclusion of Black LGBT people from history is like only inviting selected relatives to a family reunion. Black families cannot be made whole unless all family members are invited to tell their stories and live in a world by their own self-determination. In addition, a united and supportive family helps people pushed to the margins live life unapologetically, which is one of the major reasons that led me to NBJC…our stories must be told.
Essence approached the National Black Justice Coalition in October 2010 because we are an organization uniquely charged with addressing issues at the intersection of racial justice and LGBT equality with a focus on Black LGBT people. They wanted to write a story looking at the impact that discharges under DADT, as well as the policy itself, were having on African American gays and lesbians. Coincidentally, around the same time, NBJC was contacted by the young woman in the story. Over the next few months, we worked with her to lay the foundation for this powerful, evocative Essence special report. The entire situation had to be handled with a considerable amount of care, so NBJC provided support and inspiration to ensure that our Sister’s fears were alleviated. Cynthia Gordy, the author of the piece, understood the legitimate concerns the young woman had about being unintentionally “outed” and worked with us to protect her identity. The resulting story was told in a way that reflects both the courage and the dedication it takes to step out of the shadows and isolation that are a consequence of having to conceal your identity, everyday, forbidden to divulge who you are and who you love.
To add some perspective, please note that in 2003, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) released a study that said Black women were discharged from the military under DADT at three times the rate at which they served. SLDN reported that although Black females only made up 1.1 percent of all servicemembers, they represented 3.3 percent of those discharged under DADT.
With mainstream, Black publications willing to tell our stories to the greater American society, we can send the message that Black LGBT people are not going away. NBJC will continue to work toward finding “our” stories and making sure they are heard. We will continue to send the message that Black LGBT people are going to speak up, and we will no longer shrink into the background and disappear when someone tells us they don’t want to hear about our lives. We will complete the family circle and liberate all our people from a modern day version of Jim Crow, empowered by our own kind. Our love is Black love. Our families are Black families. This Essence article sends the message that we are an integral part of the African American struggle.
It is only when we love each other that the love within us is “brought to completion” and that the bonds within our community are strengthened. Essence has demonstrated a willingness to use its ubiquitous presence in the African American community to say, “This Black woman is battling discrimination on her job that is so bad, that she has to hide her identity or lose everything she’s worked so hard to build.” Like our ancestors migrating to freedom using the North Star as a guide, she stepped out on faith and dared to tell her story to the greater community. If our people can drum up the courage to reach out for help, then we must assuredly greet them where they are and offer a beacon of hope to guide them toward the principles of freedom in an open and more inclusive society. As we continue on this path, we must keep in mind that, one day, our children will hold us accountable and say that—at this point in time—our people and our movement got it right.
Please support Essence magazine’s continued recognition of our community. Purchase the March 2011 edition today!
Onward and upward!
Sharon J. Lettman-Hicks
National Black Justice Coalition