A member of the Clinton White House staff and an acclaimed writer and broadcaster, Keith Boykin has been an inspiration to gay colored men for years. This fall, the New York Times best-selling author gave gay colored men a few more faces to admire. His much-anticipated anthology, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough, which tells the stories and struggles of black LGBT men, was released in August. Boykin sat down with TRUTH to discuss his new book, his life in politics, and what the black community should do to keep moving forward.
Truth Magazine: You recently released an extremely moving anthology of short stories, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Still Not Enough. How did you select the pieces that are featured in this book?
Keith Boykin: We just asked for men of color to submit their stories. [The book] was [originally] about four different categories: faith, family, work and love. We gave them the [book's] title, For Colored Boys, and we asked people to come up with whatever they could come up with. The stories were about a wide range of topics but, the funny thing was, they weren’t in those four categories. I don’t know why we thought we would be able to limit all these ideas to four categories…There were no essays at all about work, so we just cut that one out. Then, organically, the categories kind of grew into ten other topics, based on what people had submitted… [The anthology] was purposely designed to showcase work from a wide range of people. There are [submissions from] everyone from college students to doctors and lawyers.
TM: The title is a play on Ntozake Shange’s play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. But in your title, the rainbow isn’t enough. Doesn’t that go against the “It gets better” idea that many LGBT men and women preach to youth?
KB: I loved the title from the beginning. It just felt perfect for this book. I think, for me, “The rainbow is not enough” is a reflection that there is a promise that the LGBT community offers or a promise that some other community may offer that is not enough to sustain people, and we have a few essays in the book…that talk about that. There’s one essay by Indie Harper. He writes about being a gay Asian and how he doesn’t fit in sometimes and how even gay Asians won’t date other gay Asians. To me, that [story] was an example of how this whole rainbow coalition that we talk about—whether it’s Jesse Jackson’s rainbow or the gay rainbow—just isn’t always adequate. There’s racism in the gay community. There’s homophobia in the black community. People who are oppressed still continue to oppress one another.
We have a couple of essays in the book that specifically challenge the “It gets better” notion. They really question whether or not it does get better, and I thought that was important to say, too. You don’t want to just give people a bumper sticker slogan without examining the context behind it. Maybe it won’t get better for everyone. But at least someone who has been through this experience might have something to offer you.
TM: What do you want readers to gain from this book?
KB: I’m hoping that it will inspire gay people of color, that they’ll see themselves in the stories that are included in the book. I’m also hoping it will go beyond just gays and people of color. I’m hoping it will educate parents and family members and friends, so they can see, ‘This is what I’m doing to my child with my worries and my actions.” A lot of these stories are stories where people’s parents are abusing them whether they know it or not. And thirdly, I hope it empowers gay men of color to help pass along our stories to others, to help build institutions and communities and support structures that will make it easier for other [LGBT] people.
TM: Prior to helping the gay community with books, you tried to do so with policies in Washington. Was it difficult to become involved in politics as an openly gay man?
KB: When I worked with [Michael] Dukakis’s campaign that was right after I graduated from of college. I wasn’t out at the time, though. It was 1987, 1988. Gay issues never came up in the campaign at all, as far as I can recall, and I was with him every day of the campaign plan.
I came out when I was in law school a few years later. Bill Clinton came to campus at Harvard, and he gave a speech where he said he would lift the ban on gays in the military. And that’s when I thought, ‘I like this guy. I would want to work for this guy.’ But I had no intention of working for him. I didn’t really want to work for another campaign necessarily…I had an offer to go work for a law firm [in California]. I took that job in California, and then I got a call from the Clinton campaign asking if I would go work for Clinton. So, I quit my job in California and moved to Arkansas and took the job. [My being gay] was never an issue. They hired me to work for the campaign knowing I was gay. They hired me to work in the White House knowing I was gay.
TM: As someone who has worked on several campaigns and in White House, what would be your advice for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns?
KB: First, in terms of my own political experience, I’ve worked on six campaigns and five of them lost. I haven’t had the best track record of success. I quit once I had success with Clinton…Obama’s actually accomplished a lot of stuff that Clinton was never able to accomplish. I remember sitting in a meeting in the oval office in Clinton’s first year, and someone asked him what he thought he would be remembered for in history. He said two things: lifting the ban on gays in the military and healthcare reform. And he did neither one of those things. Barack Obama was the one who did both of those things. I think that Obama has accomplished so much; he just hasn’t been communicating with the public about what he’s done.
As far as Mitt Romney… I don’t know what Romney can do only because his biggest problem isn’t strategy; it isn’t tactics. It’s Mitt Romney. Nobody knows what he believes or who he is. The conservatives don’t even believe that he’s conservative. And so, those are the most dangerous types of people because they could do anything. I think you have to have some kind of fundamental principles in order to be an effective president. I don’t think Mitt Romney has that, and the people who lose [elections] tend to be the people who don’t have that… You have to have some sort of authenticity about you if you want to win [an election] because Americans are not stupid. They can see through fakeness. And I think that’s what people see in Mitt Romney; they see someone who’s fake.
TM: You’ve made some bold statements over the years. In a Huffington Post article published in June, you say that you believe blacks are politically progressive but socially conservative. What do you mean by that?
KB: I think I discovered this when I was working on my first book in the ’90′s and I was looking through all the polls about gays in the military, gay marriage, and gay discrimination, and I found this anomaly that no one had really reported. On almost every issue, black people were as supportive of gay rights and sometimes more supportive of gay rights than white people were, except for the issues of marriage and relationships and morality.
If you asked black people, ‘Do you think that gays and lesbians should be discriminated against?’ Overwhelmingly, they were saying, ‘No.’ If you asked black people, ‘Should gays be allowed in the military?’ Overwhelmingly, they were saying yes…But if you asked them if they thought that gay relationships were equal to straight relationships, they didn’t agree with that. If you asked them if gays should be allowed to get married, they didn’t agree with that. And a lot of that, I think, had to do with the church.
A lot of people kept saying, ‘Oh, blacks are homophobic,’ and misunderstood the complexities and the nuances of the African American experience. We’re all homophobic. We live in a society that’s homophobic. It’s racist, it’s sexist and classist and masochist and homophobic and heterosexist and culturally imperialistic and all of those different things. So, nobody can really divorce himself from that. But I think that you have to understand the nuances in order to make judgments about one community or another.
TM: You’ve also said that blacks see homosexuality as ‘white thing.’ Why do you believe that?
KB: I don’t think that all black people think that, but I definitely think that’s a perception. Let’s divorce the word homosexuality from the word gay. I think that many black people, by and large, think that gay is a white thing. Gay is a social contract whereas homosexuality refers to sexual orientation. And I think people understand that [homosexuality] may be something that exists in all different cultures or communities, but there is a widespread belief in the black community, and many other communities, that gayness is something that is white…I also think [blacks] are just afraid to talk about sex. Not that we’re afraid to talk about it in our music or in pop culture, but we’re afraid to talk about it in real terms.
Today I got an email message from the state department about the government in Zimbabwe raiding the gay and lesbian organization in Zimbabwe…The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, goes around telling people that homosexuality came from Europeans. [He says], ‘It’s not African. It’s not part of our African culture.’ That’s what a lot of the people in the Black Nationalist movement believe. [That's what] a lot of people who are Africans who are in the whole church thinking believe.
TM: You’ve mentioned the church a few times when explaining why the black community can be unwelcoming to gays and lesbians. How has the church contributed to discrimination against LGBT people of color?
KB: I think the black church has been hijacked, in some ways, by the white religious right. I remember in the ’70s, when I was a little kid, my uncle was openly gay, and he was a church organist in St. Louis. He was very popular, very flamboyant. I didn’t even know what gay was in the 1970′s, but I knew he was gay because he was very gay. But at that time, I don’t think I remember anybody saying anything anti-gay in the ’70s, and I don’t think I remember anybody saying anything negative to him, either, in the ’70s. And it seemed like all that changed [in the '80s] with the rise of the religious right, the aids epidemic. All of a sudden, the black church becomes more and more conservative and the black community becomes more conservative on some of these issues.
I think we were actually more open about these issues before. If you look back into the early 1970s, Huey Newton wrote his famous letter where he says that gays and lesbians are equal in the [civil rights] struggle. And this is a Black Panther leader in the ’70s saying that gays and lesbians are part of the struggle. In the 1960s, you’ve got Dr. Martin Luther King’s chief adviser Bayard Rustin. You’ve got James Baldwin running around and Alvin Ailey—so many gay and lesbian people who are part of the Harlem renaissance. It’s astounding to me when you look at our history that we have come so far yet actually reverted in some ways, gone backwards.
TM: What can the LGBT and black communities do to move forward?
KB: I hope that blacks show up [to vote on election day] and that they register to vote because republicans are doing everything they can to stop blacks from registering and stop them from showing up at the polls.
There was a poll that came out that said Obama had 94-percent of the black vote, and Mitt Romney had 0-percent. That’s great if we show up to vote. If the people who support Obama show up to vote, then he will win in a landslide. Polls have shown that unregistered voters overwhelmingly support Barack Obama… [The polls in the news] only ask the registered, likely voters because those are the people who determine the election outcome. But if you ask the American people in general, ‘Do you support Barack Obama?’ Overwhelmingly, most Americans support Obama, and it’s been that way throughout his entire presidency. But the people who actually vote are a narrow part of our country.
So, it’s important that blacks turn out to vote…If you do nothing else for the African American community, at least go to the polls November 6 and vote for Barack Obama. [That's] one thing every four years. That’s all you have to do.