Lettman: Detroit is a model for black LGBT future

NBJC's dynamic new leader demands respect, recognition for black gays

by Jan Stevenson

DETROIT - Sharon Lettman, the new executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, is someone with a clear sense of purpose and vision. She's not someone who loses her way, but Detroit's Renaissance Center was maze enough for her to become quite lost. After a few cell phone directionals, Lettman met up with Between The Lines in Detroit to share her thoughts about the LGBT movement, the black civil rights movement and to get her reaction to the recent provocative town hall meeting titled "Is Gay the New Black?" Lettman was a panelist at that April 30 forum, held during the NAACP's Freedom Weekend at Cobo Hall.

Lettman joined NBJC in October 2009 after eight years at People For the American Way Foundation. As executive vice president of PFAWF, Lettman led the Homophobia in the Black Church program where she developed an understanding of how the radical right-wing strategists used LGBT issues to co-opt the black vote.

As leader of the nation's largest African-American LGBT organization, Lettman is committed to make the black family the focal point of NBJC and to put a face on the black LGBT community.

Lettman comes to the LGBT movement not as a member but an ally. She is straight, married to an active duty officer in the U.S. Air Force. She shared why she is so committed to LGBT rights, and how she sees the LGBT movement connecting to the civil rights movement.

What did you think of the panel discussion "Is Gay the New black?"

It was an honest opportunity for us to have a very needed conversation and pull back the curtain on some of the ignorance in the African-American community and focus on 'How do we build power for the black LGBT movement within the African-American community?'

For me, I don't think that was the intent initially, but I think the LGBT panelists were so strong and effective that we were able to address certain issues and take certain positions. We would have probably been viewed as more victimized once upon a time. I thought we came off, in my opinion, quite empowered.

At the panel discussion, you said that gay is not the new black - that it's like the old black. What did you mean by that?

People wanted to say that (gay is the new black) came from the white gay movement, and it was provocative. OK, but you didn't have anybody from the white gay movement on the panel. So to me it wasn't relevant. I didn't want to be on a panel at the NAACP when I represent the black LGBT movement, and be beating up on the white gay movement.

We were pointing a big finger outside the room, when there was a big finger that needed to be pointed within the room. I say empower the black gay community and let them have the power to know that we have the backing of the greater black community. And then we can go to the white gay movement as an empowered community with a strong constituency behind us, and we will be a critical part of the movement.

Where do you see NBJC's relationship with the NAACP and the larger black movement?

I think that the panel actually changed the game. NBJC has always had a relationship with the NAACP, but there has always been the question about how we fit into the whole apparatus.

How did you come into the position you are in, and as an ally why did you choose this position at this point in your life?

It started for me in the summer of 2006. I had just had enough of the ignorance. I'd spent six years on election reform, dealing with the oppressed community, dealing with the voting machines, and I became a national player.

I was in Tallahassee in 2000 (during contested Gore/Bush election) and was the director of communications for the Florida Association of Counties, which ran the election. I was in the room when we negotiated the contract with the electronic voting machine company with the rigged machines. I remember my executive director asking me to leave the room at one point, knowing they were trying to negotiate something more bogus. I left and opened my own public relations firm in Florida.

The first four years, 2000 to 2004, all I did was election reform work - the broken machines, the oppressive tactics - just everything that impacted the right to vote. As I became deeply entrenched in what it meant to be disenfranchised and what it meant to be oppressed and outside the system, it became more of my DNA.

At the same time, I became focused on the right wing - and the right wing had three main strategies: immigration, LGBT issues and abortion. I said, 'This is not genuine. This is just strategy. This is all about elections.' So I really looked at all three movements with a strong lens to say, 'What's next for me?'

Then I started working with the PFAWF and the African-American Ministers program became part of my portfolio.

Look how the right-wing is aligning itself with the black church and saying that we are conservative, when we created the liberation movement! It used to be that conservative meant 'no blacks allowed.' So how are we co-opting foolishness? When we say, 'Black churches are conservative,' we just sound stupid because our whole existence and freedom as a people came from a liberation theology. Come one, come all. We love all children and we love all people. So now we are going to slice ourselves up and become a conservative movement in the black church - it is just hypocrisy.

The right wing in Michigan has been successful in recruiting black ministers in the anti-gay campaigns.

That was part of (conservative activist) Ralph Reed's strategic plan. I think it was in 1997 that it became a very deliberate strategy to co-opt certain groups that they had disenfranchised in the past, that they could find a common seed and roll with it. So the truth is if you can limit someone's scope, it is very easy for them to go down the slippery slope of bigotry. Because it was so disingenuine, it led me to do local outreach to the black church around homophobia.

When I'm dealing with black ministers, I say, 'OK, these people in your churches are gay and they are black people. They came out of the womb the same as everyone. There was just a black child, and you are disrespecting a black child. You are hurting a black child. You are psychologically damaging this black child from seeing his self worth, because who they are makes you uncomfortable. To hell with you!'

The African-American community doesn't have to love the full LGBT community. That's a movement that will love itself. But how dare you not even have the basic decency to treat people in your community who happen to be gay well. Religion is not supposed to be about hate, but if your interpretation of religion causes hate and condemnation and rebuke, then you ain't God's child.

And how can you say the destruction of marriage is because some black men are gay - really? Last I checked, 70 percent of black households are headed by single women, and they didn't get knocked up by a bunch of gay men.

Will we see you back in Detroit any time soon?

Detroit has become one of my pilot cities. So my work here is, at a minimum, monthly. There is a coalition of all the African-American LGBT groups working together. We also have the right funder in Johnny Jenkins (Arcus Foundation), who is Michigan-based. So we have the opportunity right here to become the model for the nation. And we should have no excuse. As an overall LGBT community you have the right response at this time in history - this is a tipping point.

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