In the 1980s, when D.A. Leonard and his partner went out together to the gay bars in Milwaukee, they’d breeze by the doorman with a friendly “hello,” he said.
But when Leonard’s partner Michael Ross, who is African-American, went out alone or with black friends, the welcome was less than cordial.
“We could walk right in as a couple,” said Leonard, who describes himself as Caucasian or Euro-American. “But if Michael and I went separately, he had to pay a cover charge and show an ID.”
Leonard said both he and Michael played on the LaCage softball team, and the doorman was captain of the team. But even though the doorman was Michael’s teammate, he’d make him pay a cover charge and show legal identification when he showed up at the club without Leonard.
In 1983, Leonard joined the Milwaukee chapter of Black and White Men Together, a nationwide network for interracial gay couples and gay men interested in interracial relationships. Milwaukee members of BWMT met with bar owners to change discriminatory cover fees and carding policies.
In addition to advocating for LGBT rights and fighting racism, the group also offers opportunities for gay black and white men to meet each other, socialize and examine the effects of racial differences — and racism — on their relationships.
Dealing with societal homophobia and racism is challenging enough, but interracial gay couples must also learn to bridge cultural differences that can divide them in ways they might not even realize. The National Association of Black and White Men Together was founded in part to support such couples.
For the first time since 1987, the association will hold its national conference in Milwaukee this year — from July 9 to 12 at the DoubleTree by Hilton downtown. Planned activities include presentations, workshops, an art fair and breakout sessions that divide participants into groups by race to discuss specific issues from their points of view. Past issues have included social inequities and interracial communications.
Later, the two groups combine and compare notes.
Sometimes, the differences in perception surrounding the same topics are strikingly different, said Mark Behar, a Milwaukeean who serves as national co-chair of the group. Behar served on Gov. Tony Earl’s Council on Lesbian & Gay Issues in the mid-1980s and was one of the city’s earliest AIDS activists.
NABWMT was founded in 1980 to draw attention to racism “and to try to manage it in a positive and constructive way,” Behar said. The local chapters provide social activities, such as bowling nights, and provide support for the myriad challenges interracial couples can face.
“There’s more to interracial relationships than just being with someone of a different racial background,” Behar said.
Behar, who is Jewish, has had several relationships with African-American men. He said the cultural differences are sometimes glaring.
“If I take a (black) partner to a family gathering, it’s Jewish interrogation at high speed,” Behar said. “Unless someone is acculturated to that, the reaction is, ‘Wow, that’s really intense.’”
“In the Jewish community, asking someone about his background is a way to relate,” Behar explained. “In the black community, all the personal questions seem threatening. (Black families) typically will not interrogate you. There’s a lot of communication, but nothing has to do with you, which sets up a little dissonance.”
Behar became drawn to the gay African-American community because he found it more welcoming. Black men seemed friendlier and easier to talk to, he said, unlike “white men, who gave you incredible attitude and seemed uptight.”
BWMT operates a booth at PrideFest in the Health and Wellness area. Last year, volunteers who staffed the booth asked people questions about intimate partner violence and discovered what Behar described as a startling lack of awareness.
“We could not find anyone to analyze the data, because it didn’t go through an institutional review board,” Behar said.
“But about 50 percent of the respondents said something to the effect that if they or a friend had evidence of intimate partner violence, they didn’t feel it necessary for them to intervene,” he said. “They didn’t know how to give their friend advice. About half the people said if it didn’t affect them, they didn’t need to know about it.”
As a result of that finding, this year’s convention will address that issue, among many others.
Changes in society and the rise of digital communications have changed the group somewhat and eroded its membership, said Darryl G. Fore, a Cleveland member of the national association. He said that today’s racism is more covert, giving many young people the false impression that it no longer affects their lives, he said. At the same time, young people have turned to meeting people online and no longer see the need for getting together in person.
“A lot of gay organizations are finding they have dwindling membership in person, but online we have a huge membership,” Fore said. “Our Facebook page has over 9,000 people. But it’s very difficult to get people to actually come to conventions in person.”
At the group’s peak in the late 1980s and 1990s, there were chapters all over the country as well as in Canada and Brazil, according to Fore. Only about 100 men show up for conferences, compared with 300 to 400 during the group’s heyday, he lamented.
About 1,000 members of the group have succumbed to old age. Four were victims of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer, Leonard said.
Fore regrets that more people aren’t aware of the organization’s rich history and are missing out on the “family reunion” atmosphere of its conferences. He also regrets that gay men are ignoring the very real problem of racism in society because it’s so much less overt than 20 years ago. Many of the prominent gay couples making the news today are interracial, which lulls young people into believing they’re living in a post-racial society, Fore suggests.
One example of covert racism that Fore points to came up at a conference when the group divided into caucuses based on race: the fantasies that some gay white men entertain about black men. The subject provided an “aha” moment for the group.
“Some people were perpetuating gross stereotypes about African Americans, even as the same men thought of themselves as not racist because they were members of the group,” Fore said.
While in many respects racism seems to have morphed into classism, its the underlying racism that’s still dragging the nation down, Fore suggests. He points to the unprecedented attacks on President Barack Obama.
“A lot of the things our president is facing today may be racially motivated,” Fore said. “In general, not everyone knows that. They believe that it’s something else — that it’s maybe due to political inadequacy. They don’t understand that there’s a system in this country that’s very difficult to break when it comes to racial inequities. The work is never done. Often times the media spins things in a way that ignores the undercurrent of racism at work.”
Fore and the other members of NABWMT said they’d continue to use the group to promote awareness of such societal problems, just as they’ll continue to provide opportunities for black and white men to meet, socialize and engage in fun activities.
The group also participates in civic activities, such as raising money for food banks.
Membership in the national group is only $20 a year. Nine administrators oversee an approval process to ensure members are genuinely interested in interracial relationships and support the group’s mission of fighting racism and homophobia.
For info, go to http://www.nabwmt.org/.