This is the time we band together in pride. We attend parties and outdoor gatherings that call upon our every social skill. Many of us will dive headlong with little sense of history either nationally or on the local scene. So, I thought it would be appropriate to get a view from a long-time Chicago activist. In the following interview, Max Smith speaks about the struggles of the past and the move into our future as an under-valued, underrepresented, and marginalized group.
Earnest Edward Hite: Let's begin by having you tell a little bit about your work in Chicago.
Max Smith: I think the most important work is being out there in terms of meeting people, seeing people, and getting to know people and the issues in their everyday lives. On another level I think people should read as much as possible and I think that it is important to know what is going on.
EEH: What motivated you to become involved in the Black Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered (LGBT) community
MS: To specifically go to the Black LGBT community, an article that appeared in The Advocate announced the Third World Lesbian Gay Conference to be held at Howard University in October 1979. I had never been in such an event until that time so three friends and I decided to attend. This event was held in conjunction with the National Gay March on Washington. It was the first time that I had been in a room with Black LGBTs who were seriously considering political, social, cultural, civic issues. Until that time the majority of groups were social.
EEH: When you mentioned that Black LGBT people should 'read as much as possible' did you mean just knowledge about self or on a more broader spectrum?
MS: All of the above. We don't live in isolation. In 1980 the national mood shifted to the right. I think it was an ominous thing when the hard-core staunch pro- military (presidential candidate) Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination.
EEH: Why do you think the history of Black LGBTs is important for people to understand?
MS: In order to live well you must have a vision. In order to anticipate opportunities you have to know exactly what you want. You must name it before you can claim it … understanding the dynamic forces in society that are working to your benefit and recognize the forces in society that mean you no good. This world is not giving favors to people of color much less to people of oppressed groups. Therefore we have to think in order to act. We are running against the tide and against the grain.
EEH: Do you think there is a tremendous change in the social climate in America or are we in the same place?
MS: Oh I have seen tremendous change. Instead of being a community with only social clubs and bars that almost always tried to hide by either running away from problems or drinking them away, our community today has enough people in it who have matured to the point that we do confront issues and in a way that is much more sober and insightful. ... In the late 1970s, people stepped outside the closet door. They were relatively young, 18-25 years of age, and it has taken 25 years for them to grow up.
EEH: What is the LGBT community's political clout as a result of these individuals stepping out?
MS: We are no longer boxing against shadows. When real people come out and real people present real situations, then we have something to work with and that is what happened now that was rare 20-25 years ago.
EEH: What is the Human Rights Amendment in the Illinois legislature about?
MS: It is the effort to eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations. That does not exist statewide, however in the municipalities of Cook County, Chicago, Oak Park, Evanston (among others) there are ordinances.
EEH: How is Sen. Meeks involved in this issue?
MS: Sen. Meeks expressed opposition. Individuals came to Operation Push April 26 and had a protest.
EEH: What was the purpose?
MS: He has belittled gay men. We are people that you can kick around (is his view of us) and he treats us as cartoon characters. The picket around Operation Push [where Meeks is next in line to run the group] made it plain that the community would not sit in silence. That (action) brought Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. and State Sen. Emil Jones to lobby Sen. Meeks and bring him up to speed and to make him aware that in the position of State Senator he ought not treat people as cartoon jokes.
EEH: What can people who are concerned about this behavior do to help in the passage of the Illinois Human Rights legislation?
MS: It is always good to: 1) Get registered and vote in every single election, no excuses. 2) Stay aware. Read a newspaper every day, a magazine every week, a book every month. 3) Write letters to the State Senate and House of Representatives and to Congress to express your views and make your views known. One letter represents the opinions of several people … it has a disproportionate impact and the few who do write have more influence than they could imagine.
EEH: You see a change in the economic issues today?
MS: Yes, in the 1980s there was rapid inflation at the rate of 12%. Today, it takes longer to earn the money to buy those items. A lot of family did not face the drain that families face today from the drug epidemic. The drug epidemic is the worst thing to hit the Black community in the last 25 years.
EEH: What impact did the Reagan Administration have within our community?
MS: Well, in 1980 the nation of Iran held Americans hostage and former President Jimmie Carter had not done enough militarily. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and attempted to set up a communist government. People who elected Reagan felt the country needed to spend a lot more on military build up and the national budget took money out of the social budget to spend on the military. Therefore I saw the need for volunteer social-service organizations to step up and fill the gap … one year later in June of 1981 we saw the beginning of the HIV epidemic. The community needed volunteers to respond to HIV, which spread like wildfire. The federal government was doing nothing since most of its efforts where focused on the communist threat … by 1989 the Soviet Union had collapsed. Our community did not want to believe and did not want to respond to it and was caught up in past-closeted ways.
EEH: What in your mind are the banner moments for the Black LGBT community?
MS: Well, October 1979 was the starting point nationally for Black LGBT political organizing. The National Coalition of Black Gays was formed in Chicago in November of 1979 and interestingly it (occurred) in the office of the Alliance to End Repression, a group that came about after Fred Hampton and Mark Clark (Black Panther Party members) were killed by Chicago police. In July of 1982 a Third World Gay and Christian Conference was held at St. Thomas Church (38th and Indiana in Chicago). For the first time in Chicago there was an effort to create a spiritual group that was out of the closet to attend to the spiritual needs of the lesbian/gay community and the outright mistreatment of people with HIV/AIDS.
In 1987, at the National Gay and Lesbian March on Washington, Whoopi Goldberg stood and asked why President Ronald Reagan had said nothing about AIDS. In fact, it was Elizabeth Taylor's relationship with Rock Hudson and Nancy Reagan that moved the president to speak about AIDS.
EEH: Would you respond to the diversity of terminology we use?
MS: There has been a long standing resentment in Black communities, who have heard from white gays and lesbians … 'gay, straight, Black, white, same struggle same fight' is not an appropriate analogy. Anyone can see who is Black by looking at them, but you cannot always tell a person's sexual orientation. Many people have chosen not to self disclose, in fact they do everything they can possibly do to lie about their sexual orientation.
EEH: Is our struggle today one of race versus class or both?
MS: I think there is some overlap but not a complete overlap. Today about 60% of African Americans are considered middle class.
EEH: What is Stonewall about?
MS: There was a lot of police harassment of mafia-controlled bars in big cities. On June 28, 1969 [Black and Puerto Rican drag queens] became visible—they let their issues be known (that) they did not like being harassed by the police because the bartenders did not pay the mafia.
EEH: Why do we not hear a lot about our involvement?
MS: The individuals at Stonewall were people who were fighting back because they were angry and felt they had nothing left to lose but their chains.
EEH: What has this done to the Black LGBT community?
MS: The Gay Liberation Movement became co-opted by those who had more money, power and influence. There was a vast number of middle class in America of closeted gay people, understanding how they could benefit from (Stonewall) with their greater access to money, power, and control.
EEH: The civil-rights movement, the Black Power movement, women's liberation, and the gay liberation movement—how have all these movements affected the Black GLBT community?
MS: People sensed a mood and the '60s were a mood of rebellion … (it was time) to open the door to people who had been denied access, who had been shut out because of discrimination and prejudice. Over the years that mood has lost some of its steam—people have been co-opted. There are still plenty of people who are shut out and have less access now. It takes an awareness of all that to demand more and it also takes a level of esteem in the hearts and minds of many of the Black LGBT people.
EEH: Talk about Bayard Rustin, who helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington.
MS: My understanding is he did the work to put together the March. Many of the ministers did not have a positive opinion of him and accepted him grudgingly for what he could do for them and for the movement without giving him the benefit of recognition, acknowledgement and congratulations.
EEH: Why was Bayard Rustin pushed to the background?
MS: There was uneasiness in the movement of what the FBI would do with this out-of-the-closet man. At that time J. Edgar Hoover (Director of the FBI)—a closeted gay man with a lot of self-hatred—was making every possible effort to sabotage the civil-rights movement. In fact, Paul Robeson, a civil-rights leader from the 1940s, lost his acting career and the right to speak and was labeled a 'subversive' by the FBI. In the 1950s if you were labeled a communist you suffered a lot and were discriminated against. The civil-rights movement did not want that to happen to them. So, Paul Robeson's experience effected Bayard Rustin.
EEH: Today we have a tremendous amount of partying and celebration going on—is this a good thing, have we arrived?
MS: Real work has been done. The partying is a part of being co-opted. In the early days we struggled to get things done. The unfortunate thing is that if people forget the history of what it took to get to this point we may slow down. Maintain the momentum and take the corporate money—look at new opportunities because if you're not moving ahead you're slowing down.
EEH: Are Black Pride Celebrations a positive thing?
MS: People have varying needs. You have these venues that allow the dissemination of information to people in a culturally sensitive way.
EEH: What are the needs of our youth?
MS: America has the highest incarceration rate of any civilized country. A lot of that has to do with the missed education of the African American. The enormously high drop-out rate and the lack of preparedness for work.
EEH: What must we do to develop a whole community?
EEH: Why do you do this work?
MS: In my own personal bible I have a list of 143 personal friends who I lost to HIV. My thought is what would they be doing today. One way in which I celebrate them is by doing what they might have done … they are my inspiration.