When you’re black and gay, there are times when you feel that the two identities integral to your whole self are in conflict. Actually, let me rephrase that. There are times when other folks put your two identities in conflict and you feel compelled to respond.

When I thundered against the ugly lie that homophobia among African Americans was the reason Democratic presidential contender Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., wasn’t gaining their support, I had more than a few white gay men lecture me about black people as they hurled studies at me in the worst-ever display of apples meeting oranges. Those folks were blocked. Now, I have to push back against African Americans who are ripping Buttigieg for what they see as his equating his experience being gay with that of being black.

That’s not what happened. That’s not what he said.

We got here because of a question posed to Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) at the Democratic debate last month. She was asked to elaborate on her criticism of Buttigieg’s outreach to black voters. Harris used her response to widen the aperture to encompass the entire party and how it takes advantage of African Americans, black women in particular.

“You know, at some point, folks get tired of just saying, oh, you know, thank me for showing up and — and say, well, show up for me,” Harris said to applause. After a powerful riff on what black women face, Harris said, “The question has to be, where you been? And what are you going to do? And do you understand who the people are?”

Mayor Pete was asked to respond to Harris. Here is what he said in its entirety, with the relevant lines in bold.

My response is, I completely agree. And I welcome the challenge of connecting with black voters in America who don't yet know me.
And before I share what's in my plans, let me talk about what's in my heart and why this is so important. As mayor of a city that is racially diverse and largely low income, for eight years, I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built-up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.
I care about this because my faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized and cast aside and oppressed in society.
And I care about this because, while I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate, and seeing my rights expanded by a coalition of people like me and people not at all like me, working side by side, shoulder to shoulder, making it possible for me to be standing here. Wearing this wedding ring in a way that couldn’t have happened two elections ago lets me know just how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.

Let me state at the outset that I do not for one minute disregard the anger over what folks thought Buttigieg said. I of all people know that when you’re black in America, you’re used to your feelings being discounted, your experience being devalued and your very presence being denied, if not outright ignored. I understand why hellfire is visited upon anyone who tries to draw direct parallels or attempts to equate our unrelenting battles against racism and white supremacy with their own struggles with discrimination. But what I will not do is drag someone for using their own experience to build a bridge of empathy, openness and awareness to try to help make the lives of others better.

Buttigieg could not have been more clear when he said, “While I do not have the experience of ever having been discriminated against because of the color of my skin, I do have the experience of sometimes feeling like a stranger in my own country, turning on the news and seeing my own rights come up for debate.” This is an open acknowledgment of his status as a white man immunizing him against racial prejudice. But he is also asking everyone to see that he is acquainted with bias as a married gay man under attack from his own government.

From Day One, the Trump administration has gone after the rights and legal protections of the LGBTQ community, including scrubbing our existence from federal government websites. And folks forget that while same-sex couples can be married on Sunday, they can still be fired on Monday for being — or being perceived as being — LGBTQ in 17 states. Only 22 of the remaining 33 states grant blanket protection from discrimination to LGBTQ people.

No, it’s not the same as the systemic racism and white supremacy that took root in 1619. But that supremacy and the cisgender straight white men who are its focus continue to hobble the efforts of the rest of us to fully claim the equality promised in our founding documents. That’s why I say there is a shared (not same) struggle for civil rights between blacks and the LGBTQ community. The late civil rights icon Julian Bond made it plain in a 2008 interview. “You are what you are, and you cannot be discriminated against in this country for what you are,” he replied when I asked him about the connection between the black civil rights movement and its gay counterpart.

Also lost in the anger was the “I see you” of Buttigieg’s response: the part where he says, “I have lived and breathed the successes and struggles of a community where far too many people live with the consequences of racial inequity that has built up over centuries but been compounded by policies and decisions from within living memory.” Recognizing the corrosive effects of structural racism past and present is not new for Buttigieg. And, remember, he said this before he was called “a lying MF” for not recognizing the impact of structural racism on education during a 2011 mayoral candidates’ forum in South Bend.

The last part of Buttigieg’s answer is key to understanding why he is so eager to show he’s empathic to, if not fully able to understand the fear and concerns of, folks who aren’t like him. The part where he talks about “how deep my obligation is to help those whose rights are on the line every day, even if they are nothing like me in their experience.” This reminded me of what Buttigieg told me during our sit-down at the 92nd Street Y in May:

... at a moment like this, when every possible reason for excluding somebody has been weaponized by this administration, it’s a reason we’ve all got to be ready to stand up for each other, not by pretending that we know what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes. I don’t know beans about what it’s like to be, even within the LGBT community, I don’t know what it’s like to be trans, I just know enough to know I gotta stand up for somebody who is ….
All of us have to figure out how to find what’s in our identity and use it as a source of solidarity for others, because anybody can be marginalized. And so many people right now are that if we don’t stick together, you never know who’s gonna be next.

If you’re still dragging Buttigieg after reading that, then you’re not really interested in having allies willing to join the fight with you. That’s not to say you have to support his run for president. That’s your business. But when someone like Mayor Pete says, “I see your struggle. How can I help? How can I be of service?” my inclination is to say “Welcome!” — especially when they promise to be on the national stage for decades to come.

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