City Paper is not for tourists
In 1978, almost a decade after his coming out began, Gilberto Gerald saw an ad in a D.C. newspaper about a meeting for black gays.
Gerald, a Pratt Institute graduate with an architecture degree, was already involved with the Metropolitan Community Church of Washington D.C., a faith community and LGBTQ organization established in 1971. But around that time, he became interested in politics, specifically the mayoral race between incumbent Walter Washington, outspoken civil rights activist Marion Barry, and D.C. Council Chairman Sterling Tucker.
While Barry had courted the gay community, Gerald was concerned that, in a majority black city, the voices of black gays and lesbians were not being heard. The face of the gay community was white, Gerald says, “which was problematic for those of us who knew that just wasn’t the case.”
That concern was shared by ABilly S. Jones, who ran ads in D.C. and Baltimore newspapers that led to the founding of local coalitions for black LGBTQ individuals and eventually the National Coalition of Black Gays (later the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays), the first organizations of their kind.
“There’s a need for inclusion for black gays at inception stages,” Jones said at a 1978 forum broadcast on WPFW and archived by the Rainbow History Project. “We are feeling that, if there is a sincerity there of having blacks as part of existing gay organizations, there’s a need to include black gays at the beginning of projects.”
NCBLG’s founders—Gerald, Jones, Delores Berry, Darlene Garner, Jon Gee, Louis Hughes, and Renee McCoy—also saw the need to adopt an agenda bigger than LGBTQ-specific issues.
“We could not divorce racism and sexism and classism from homophobia,” Gerald says. “I could be recruited into an LGBT organization to focus on a particular agenda, but if that door that I helped prop open so that a whole bunch of folks can go in is now closed because I’m black, what have I accomplished?”
The group made its first major accomplishment in 1979, during the first March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, when it organized the National Conference of Third World Lesbians and Gays. “The conference was unique in its high level of feminism, radicalism, class consciousness, internationalism, and exhilarating vigor,” Robert Crisman of the Freedom Socialist Party wrote. “The racial, ethnic, national, and political diversity represented was exemplar.” The next year, NCBLG met in Philadelphia to officially incorporate, as Jones recalled to Blacklight in 2009, with chapters in nine cities.
By the spring of 1983, Gerald had been elected the executive director of NCBLG, which was a paid position for the first time. During an April meeting of the national board at Gerald’s Shaw home, the coalition voted to endorse the 20th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, “though we had heard there was some resistance, some unresponsiveness on behalf of the march organizers to LGBT organizations and LGBT concerns.” D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, one of the organizers, had been quoted as comparing LGBTQ rights to “penguin rights.”
After it became clear in August that the march would not feature an LGBTQ speaker and NCBLG wouldn’t be included in the program (and would be placed near the end of the march), Gerald organized a sit-in at Fauntroy’s office. “I told them a Mack truck was headed their way… God, I wouldn’t do that today,” he says with a laugh. Capitol Police arrested the four activists who attended; Gerald got a call from Fauntroy and civil rights activists like Joseph Lowery, Benjamin Hooks, Virginia Apuzzo, and Coretta Scott King.
“I was on the phone with people I totally admired now lecturing them about civil rights,” he recalls.
Gerald was able to secure the demands of national LGBTQ groups (lesbian poet Audre Lorde spoke and LGBTQ marchers were not placed at the end), and while he wasn’t able to secure an endorsement for federal gay civil rights legislation from the march itself, King agreed to give it her personal stamp of approval, and did so at what’s now known as the Wilson Building.
While this may have been the group’s most high-profile victory, Gerald also points to the coalition’s 1986 conference on HIV/AIDS at the D.C. convention center. “People came from all over the country trying to do something in the black community around HIV and AIDS at a time when it wasn’t fully recognized this was an issue,” he says.
On the same day as the conference, Gerald scheduled a lunchtime meeting between Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and LGBTQ leaders of color ahead of the release of Kopp’s “Understanding AIDS,” a brochure mailed to every American household. “It was one of the few and early times when there was national press coverage about HIV in the black community,” he says. The meeting sparked the creation of the National Minority AIDS Council, an organization Gerald co-founded that endures to this day.
But the period during which Gerald worked with NCBLG was a “very tumultuous time, a time of great challenge,” he says. There were rivalries and boundary disputes between national LGBTQ groups.
Weary from the war between different organizations, Gerald left the coalition in 1986, and it disbanded a few years later, after relocating its headquarters to Detroit. In addition to shaky financials, Gerald believes the coalition suffered from a lack of strategy. It was founded in a pre-HIV era, with a focus on both men and women, he says. “HIV/AIDS changed it, and I don’t think it made the shift,” says Gerald, who’s run his own LGBTQ consulting firm since 1991.
In 2010, the group’s founders met to organize a legacy project to “recapture and share the histories and the stories of black LGBT people in order to strengthen and inform broader movements for social justice and change.” What exists now is a website of recollections, photos, videos, and digitalized issues of Black/Out, the coalition’s magazine.
“We lost so many people, and there were so many things that were happening that were so important in that period culturally,” Gerald says of preserving the coalition’s legacy. “It was a time when it was risky for many people to be out, because it was not safe.”
Now watching from the sidelines, Gerald sees the generation that benefited from NCBLG’s work pushing forward a cultural revolution (“The generation that came after thought marriage was more important,” he says, adding that he’s a beneficiary). But he sees the need for more organizing, especially by LGBTQ people of color.
“I think we do best when we speak for ourselves.”
Click here for more from our 2015 Gay Issue.