Queer Voices

LaWana Mayfield And Rhonda Watlington Discuss African-American LGBT History, Obama, And More


Our Voice To Voice conversation series began in January with a collection of interviews between LGBT authors discussing their work, queer life and some of the challenges of writing.

In February, celebrating Black History Month, we've asked some prominent and inspiring individuals to join the Voice To Voice series so we can get an window into some of the issues that define and challenge people who are both African-American and gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Today, we hear from two Charlotte, North Carolina lesbian activists.

LaWana Mayfield is Charlotte's first elected openly lesbian City Council member and a long-time community activist in Charlotte.

Rhonda Watlington is a retail specialist for Delhaize America, active in the LGBT community in Charlotte and also a radio personality.

Here they discuss role models, African-American LGBT history, "doms" and "divas" and President Obama.

LaWana Mayfield: Rhonda I remember when we first met over four years ago and the love of politics and lack of awareness in the African-American LGBT community brought us together.

Rhonda Watlington: I remember it was a Sunday evening and you were working with the Human Rights Campaign presenting a viewing of "The L Word." I also remember that we were the only women of color in attendance, yet, we didn't let that get in the way of connecting with the group and with each other. So, its been four years, has your awareness of the African-American LGBT community expanded?

LW: Unfortunately no, the conversations I hear in the African American community still do not include the LGBT. It seems that my world has become smaller now that I have stepped into politics as an open lesbian instead of growing. Here in Charlotte, there are no role models or mentors in local politics that look like me. The number of people in my circle that look like me and have an awareness of the pulse of society is minimal. I guess I need to find a larger circle [laughs].

Rhon, tell me what you think needs to happen for black America to have a stronger LGBT voice?

RW: First of all, as black Americans, we need to come to terms with the fact that LGBT is more than a fancy term for white folk and against our religion. The church plays a critical role in how black America thinks and has been a cornerstone in our community for years. We need to get the church to understand that we need to accept others as we would have others except us. We are depicted as "doms" and "divas" (who plays the man and who plays the woman) when in reality, we have our own paths and play our own roles and not necessarily those of mainstream America or something thrown together in an old negro spiritual.

LW: Ooh, I like that. The problem is that we don't step up and demand that our voices are heard. Personally (of which we talk about this often) giving awards to people that are outed as opposed to being who they are (like some known celebrities today). I'm not paying money to see you on an Olivia Cruise or at HRC Dinner because you were outed when I am walking, breathing and living this day-to-day.

RW: It's going to take some brave souls who are willing to challenge stereotypes and be the role models and living, breathing, everyday folk and show the world that we are not caricatures. The media is at fault for some of this too. There aren't many avenues for our stories to be told truthfully without including thug life or drugs. I came from a middle class background and have yet to see a story or role model that closely relates to my life.

LW: We cannot lay too much of the blame with the media. They never have and never will be the ones to tell the story of being black in America much less black and LGBT in America. This is our story to tell, not just the story of the fems and doms but your story and mine.

RW: Well, speaking of stories, I know the 21st century did not spawn the first generation of African-American LGBT people. What about our history? Who were our forebearers? How do we learn about them?

LW: When I think of this month and the designation of the life of Dr. King, I'm saddened by the way we have watered his memory down from the radical activist to a mild-mannered hand holder. We forget that he challenged us, he had Bayard Rustin, an openly gay man who was completely unashamed, who opened doors for him and then when Dr. King's inner circle no longer saw a need for Bayard and they discarded him like so many of us are discarded today in the church and in community.

RW: Wow! How history repeats itself. How do you feel President Obama is doing in terms of LGBT issues and in particular African-American LGBT issues?

LW: As far as the LGBT community as a whole, I have seen more advancement than any previous president. As an African American I don't see a difference. I'm not in the middle class of $200,000 he's always referencing, and don't have access to benefits or legal protections in the state of North Carolina which is a right-to-work state.

What should the Republican presidential hopefuls do to win the African American LGBT vote?

RW: First of all, the Republican candidates need to stop talking about how much money and influence each one wields and talk about what the American people desperately need. My needs (LGBT) are no different then anyone else's. I want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Again, it's going to take us to come forward and be visible and be heard. You don't know the monster until you see it... better yet: The monster you know is better than the monster you don't know.

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