The Catfish Club, a weekly political- and social-issues forum run by San Diego's Black community, has been going strong for more than 30 years. During that time, never once has the forum hosted a speech by an openly gay person.
That changed last Friday, when Nicole Ramirez, a politically connected gay-rights activist and part-time drag queen spoke to the Catfish Club for about 10 minutes-minus the drag-about the similar struggles of the Black community and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
During the last few decades, said Ramirez, gays and people of color have made tremendous strides politically in San Diego. And in the context of Black History Month, Ramirez also let it be known that the LGBT community owes a debt of gratitude to Blacks in the civil-rights movement who paved the way for all disenfranchised people to enjoy equal rights.
"Thirty years ago, if you would have told me that San Diego would one day have a Latino police chief [David Bejarano], an African American would be deputy mayor [George Stevens] and lesbians would be elected to the City Council [Toni Atkins], state assembly [Chris Kehoe], and now to the office of district attorney [Bonnie Dumanis]-I would have said you were on LSD," Ramirez remarked to the ethnically diverse crowd of more then 200 people.
"As a Latino, I know Cesar Chavez took much inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black civil-rights movement. And as a gay man, I say to you that to have leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Bishop [Desmond] Tutu, Coretta Scott King and Jesse Jackson, to name but a few, who continue to speak out for justice and equality for all LGBT people, gives my community hope."
Ramirez also mentioned that African Americans in the California Legislature pushed gay rights onto the state political agenda. He said former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown was a primary force in forwarding state civil-rights legislation protecting gay and lesbian citizens, in addition to current Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, who created the first LGBT Caucus in the state Legislature, which is currently chaired by Assemblywoman Kehoe.
On the local front, Ramirez added, gay people of color continue to make their presence known. "Just this past election, gays and lesbians of color organized a fund-raising luncheon for now-Councilman Charles Lewis, which raised $4,000. It is long overdue that the African-American and gay and lesbian community begin to have more dialogue with each other." Lewis stated during his election campaign that he would sign city proclamations recognizing San Diego Gay Pride and San Diego Ebony Pride, setting himself apart from his predecessor, former Deputy Mayor Stevens, who was well known to be unfriendly to gay San Diegans.
In addition, Ramirez also recognized National African American HIV/AIDS Day, which was also last Friday. Currently, in San Diego County, while African Americans make up only 5.5 percent of the population, they make up more than 12 percent of the AIDS cases, according to the Office of AIDS Coordination. AIDS is also ranked by the Centers for Disease Control as the No. 1 killer of African Americans between the ages of 25 and 44.
"Right now, the major issue [for people of color] is about the AIDS funding. The city issued, I believe, about $340,000 worth in AIDS funding, and none of it was to a people-of-color-based agency. We had a meeting with Toni Atkins, and she's working on it," Ramirez said.
For many members of the audience, Ramirez's appearance was especially significant since being gay in the Latino and African American community is especially difficult. Gay people of color are often victims of discrimination and abuse the hands of members of their own community.
"One of the things that makes it unique to be an LGBT person in the Black community is that historically our community has been very skilled at challenging racial oppression in the United States," said Pat Washington, women's studies professor at San Diego State University. "What we have not done as good a job on is addressing homophobia against members of our community."
Despite the rampant homophobia and discrimination gays of color have historically faced, however, Ramirez believes that the power of the LGBT population in San Diego can no longer be ignored-and that includes LGBT people of color. "We're beginning to say, "Hey, we're here and were going to take some leadership roles. We can't just sit back and criticize-we've got to take our rightful place."