The National Coalition of
Lesbians and Gays:
By Sidney Brinkley
The 1970s were exciting years for the Gay movement. In the decade following the 1969 Stonewall riot, Lesbians and Gay men were organizing in increasing numbers, demanding freedom and equal rights, culminating in the first national Gay March on Washington in October 1979. For much of that time the public face of the Gay movement was White.
Whites comprised the overwhelming majority in the political and activist organizations of the day. "Gay" was synonymous with "White" and White Gays became the de facto spokesperson for Lesbians and Gay men of all colors.
However, in the background a number of African American Gay men and Lesbians across the country (as well as Gays of other colors) were also coming out in the midst of this politically charged atmosphere, blending the new Gay political thought with their Black identity, forging a unique Black Gay consciousness.
Washington, DC, for all the obvious reasons, was becoming increasingly important as the legal battle for Gay rights gathered momentum.
Billy Jones was keenly interested in the Gay/Lesbian civil rights movement and felt he couldnt be the only Black Gay who had an interest but the groups were predominately White.
At the time very few African Americans were affiliated with Gay political groups, he said, and I wanted to bring together Gay, Bi, Lesbian, and Transpersons who had a strong desire to become politically involved in the Gay/Lesbian civil rights movement. It was an attempt to go beyond the agenda of the Black Gay Social Clubs of the day and address the issue of homophobia in Black communities and organizations.
Mr. Jones began by placing ads in the DC Gay papers. Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Maryland, Louis Hughes had been involved with a group named the Baltimore Gay Alliance since 1975. In 1977 he saw an ad that Jones had placed in the Washington Blade and invited him to come to Baltimore to speak about Black Gays.
Billy lit the fuse for organizing, Mr. Hughes said. From 1977 going into 1978 I remember Billy going around lighting fires, saying we should have a Black Gay organization. Delores Berry came out at that time. And we began organizing the DC/Baltimore Coalition.
In April of 1978 Mr. Jones - who lived with his wife and three children in Columbia, Maryland - held the early meetings of the Baltimore-Washington Coalition in the basement of the Washington, DC Youth Service Agency he worked for at the time.
About six months after the Coalition was formed, there was an agreement to split the organization into two groups, Mr. Jones said. We formed the Baltimore Coalition of Black Gay Men and Women and the D.C. Coalition of Black Gay men and Women.
In 1978 Gil Gerald was a frustrated would-be Gay political activist. Excited by what was going on around him in the city, and wanting to be a part of it, he was put-off by a predominately White movement - in a city with a majority Black population.
In early 1978 DC was going through the process of determining who was going to succeed Walter Washington as Mayor, Mr. Gerald says.
From the sidelines, I read in the newspapers how Marion Barry was getting the support of the Gay community. However, the way I read it Gay really meant White Gay. It really was code for a community that I did not feel included in.
"The visible organizations were mostly White and I knew they didnt represent the broader Gay community in DC. Then I saw an announcement in Out that spoke of the meeting of a new group called the DC Coalition. I went to the meeting and saw Billy Jones, who seemed to be chief organizer. I saw him as a charismatic individual, even romantic in the radical sixties mode.
In a few short months there was a core group who would eventually serve as officers at various times. In addition to Mr. Jones and Mr. Gerald who would become the first male executive director the group included Darlene Garner, Louis Hughes, Renee McCoy, Jon Gee and Delores Berry. (Garner, McCoy and Berry would eventually become ordained ministers in the Metropolitan Community Church.)
We soon realized that we had [the potential] for a national, rather than a regional, organization in place. Mr. Jones said. We became the National Coalition of Black Gays (NCBG).
However, Mr. Gerald, who says he has a bias for structure and process, had his concerns about the expanding organization. I was excited by the growth but privately concerned that organizational skills or experience were not always prevalent in the group, he said.
Years later, his concern would prove well founded. But at the moment, NCBGs emergence on the scene as a voice for Black Gays was perfectly timed and in 1979, during events leading up to and following the March on Washington, they would get the opportunity to test their growing clout.
In the weeks leading up to the March a horde of GLBT activists descended upon the city to help set up logistics. Nothing like this had ever been attempted and NCBG made its presence known.
We made sure the organizers of the March on Washington took into account racial balance, Louis Hughes said. This was not going to be a White Gay event. There were mandates to have space for Third World Gays in DC.
That stand led to an accomplishment that all the founding members say was one of the high points in the life of the organization: The first National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays.
Asian, Native American, Latino/a and Black Lesbians and Gays gathered at the Harambee House - a new Black owned hotel adjacent to Howard University - for two days of workshops, entertainment and networking.
Audre Lorde delivered the keynote address and on the day of the Gay March, GLBTs of color marched down Georgia Avenue, which runs through the heart of the Black community, to join the main March to the Mall.
That was a thrill to see Third World Gays get together in 1979 and see the spin-off groups, Mr. Hughes said. An Asian group formed; an Hispanic group formed; everybody went back and formed groups with a new spirit that we had a Third World bond and our own agenda that was not under White Gay male authority. It was like planting a seed and watching rain forests grow everywhere.
However, it was an event that happened shortly after the March that would display the new clout and independence of the group. The National Gay Task Force Task (now NGLTF) parlayed the March on Washington into a meeting with White House officials to discuss Gay Rights but didnt invite NCBG.
"I was angry at the National Gay Task Force, Mr. Jones said, And at the time I was young enough, and naïve enough, to believe that one could just pick up a pen, write a letter and ask for a meeting and thats what I did.
"I wrote a few letters, made a few calls, and finally got an invitation to meet with White House officials. My guess is that our presence and leadership at the March on Washington and the Third World Conference gave us some credibility; it certainly gave us media coverage, that we otherwise did not have.
Mr. Jones says NCBG was careful not to repeat the mistake of the Task Force and actively sought to include other Gays of color in the meeting.
NCBG was the only non-White national organization at the time, but we had done an extensive and successful outreach to other organizations, communities and persons of color. So it was not hard to expand our network.
To Mr. Jones that meeting stands out as a particularly proud moment.
I wore a white suit to go to the White House and meet with the White folks! Perhaps this doesnt sound like much now, but to the founders, all of whom were in that room, it was a high point of our activism.
The following year, in October of 1980 NCBG met in Philadelphia to formally incorporate a national organization out of a growing but still loose affiliation of groups in seven cities.
The coming about of NCBG was to establish a national presence of Black Lesbian/Gay leadership and to assure that Black voices were heard when Lesbian /Gay civil rights issues were addressed, Mr. Jones said.
Official chapters were in Philadelphia; New York City; Norfolk, VA; Minneapolis; New Orleans; Atlanta; Chicago; Portland; ST. Louis;San Francisco; and Boston. In 1984 NCBG changed its name to the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays (NCBLG).
But behind the scenes there were problems. Despite the enthusiasm of the early years the organizers were discovering that managing a national organization, maintaining membership and recruiting new leadership was no easy task. And Gil Geralds early concerns about organizational skills would become reality.
We had great visions for solving some of the problems of the world. Ending every form of oppression you can think of and networking with local groups all over the nation, Mr. Jones said. But for the most part, we lacked the know-how and skills to generate the resources needed to sustain the organization. And while mainstream White Gay and Lesbian organizations wanted our involvement, few offered support in what we needed most: Fund development and organizational development.
Mr. Jones also faults the groups failed efforts to find new leadership as a key factor in the stalling of NCBLG a situation he says had more to do with the times than NCBLGs ability to groom new leadership.
In the era in which NCBG/NCBLG operated, it was difficult to find any person who would be willing to head up a Black Gay/Lesbian civil rights organization, Mr. Jones said. This was a period when it was still risky in terms of ones employment, family relationships and community presence to be out and vocal about Gay rights.
As a result Mr. Jones says NCBLG had to rely on the same small pool of people who were worked to the point of burnout with little or no remuneration.
NCBLG never had a strong funding base. We burned out our leaders by poorly paying, and sometimes not paying them at all. We expected them to do the impossible with little or nothing. Gil Gerald did the best job of bringing money in from foundations, grants and contracts but our attempts to sustain ourselves through chapter and individual membership fees were failures.
The organization limped along and by the time NCBLG reached its 10th year, on its face it looked to be a strong organization. The board of directors included a number of high profile, experienced activists including, Audre Lorde, Carl Bean, Barbara Smith and Joseph Beam.
It listed a string of chapters that stretched coast-to-coast and said organizing efforts were under way in fourteen new cities. But behind the façade was an organization in disarray.
Gil Gerald left the organization in 1986. Then, on the heels of the tenth anniversary celebration, executive director Renee McCoy announced she was resigning her position and returning to her native Detroit.
According to Mr. Jones the remaining board members were in deep denial about the continued viability of the organization
When Renee McCoy left NCBLG as executive director and returned to Detroit we should have closed the organization then, he said. Some board members just refused to acknowledge that it was time to say good-bye. Instead the board stayed in place, with no executive director, and tried to continue to function with Angela Bowen of Boston as board chair.
The organization hobbled along in that state for a short while till, in stark contrast to the excitement and explosive energy that accompanied its founding and early development. . . NCBLG just ceased to exist.
There was never an announcement that informed folks that NCBLG had officially closed its doors, Mr. Jones says. We just faded away. Some board members refused to acknowledge that it was time to say good-bye but folks just burned out and faded away.
Funding aside, Jones feels the Black GLBT organizations of the future wont have to face one major impediment that plagued NCBLG, a lack of suitable candidates for leadership roles.
Because there have been organizations like NCBLG and BGLLF, because of the expanded agendas of local Black Lesbian and Gay organizations, because of the presence of more Blacks in mainstream GLBT organizations, because there are more support systems for Lesbian and Gay youth as well as adults, identifying Black Lesbian and Gay leadership is much easier than it was in 1978.
He had one final piece of advice for all the leaders to come: Take time to learn from the mistakes of those who did it all before you.
I would hope, at some point, the new leadership convene a meeting with the founders of NCBLG for a lessons learned retreat, he said. I think they could learn something from their now gray headed elders.