Celebrity and Power: Spotlighting the needs of LGBTQ People of Color

by Jalise Burt

In this country, the representation of LGBTQ people and issues in the media has been dominated by Whiteness. As a result of the representation of a mostly White LGBTQ community, advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people has failed to account for the issues affecting LGBTQ people of color. However, in recent years the noticeable influx of visibly out LGBTQ celebrities of color has challenged the dominance of Whiteness in public representations of the LGBTQ community. The rising profile of these celebrities has enormous potential to bring attention to the experiences of LGBTQ people of color in this country.

Pop culture has a profound effect in deciding the worth of sentiments and passions in our society. For evidence of the political power of pop culture, all one needs to do is look at Macklemore’s song, “Same Love,” in rousing support for LGBTQ equality. In the context of stirring a national conversation on race, one could look to the Ebony magazine covers honoring Trayvon Martin. These covers featured Black celebrities and their sons in hoodies—a poignant symbol of the ills of racial profiling and loss of innocent life. Additionally, our values as a society are regularly articulated through celebrity gossip. Some celebrities have become symbols of humanitarianism: Angelina Jolie and Bono, for example. Others, such as Jennifer Lawrence, Gabourey Sidibe, and Demi Lovato spark debate about body image issues. Celebrities, therefore, become symbols of issues in our society and oftentimes stimulate conversation about how to address those issues.

As celebrities of color live visibly with their LGBTQ identities, they also serve to stimulate conversation about who makes up the LGBTQ community and what issues LGBTQ advocates should be addressing. In the past five years, pop culture and celebrity gossip has been rocked by the openness of Ricky Martin, Jason Collins, Don Lemon, Carmen Carrera, Janet Mock, and most recently, Robin Roberts. These celebrities have had a tremendous effect on society’s perceptions of who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The fact that society, through pop culture, is beginning to have a more inclusive perception of whom constitutes the LGBTQ community brings the perception closer to reality. According to a recent Gallup poll, 1/3 of LGBTQ people identify as persons of color. Further, the idea that families headed by same-sex couples are mostly White is wrong. In fact, the householder of most families headed by same-sex couples is an individual of a racial or ethnic minority.

Why is it important that we have an accurate picture of the LGBTQ population in the country? Well, without visibility, the issues that currently face LGBTQ people of color are horrendously under-addressed. Currently, LGBTQ funders put most of their money– 48%–towards advocating for marriage equality. While this is a significant issue for many LGBTQ individuals and would significantly benefit LGBTQ people of color, the economic issues that greatly affect the lives of so many LGBTQ people who happen to be people of color are largely ignored. LGBTQ people of color are more likely to be affected by economic insecurity and LGBTQ funders only contributed 4% of their funds towards economic issues in 2012. Other significant issues for LGBTQ people of color include youth homelessness and criminalization, housing discrimination, and exclusion from safety-net programs such as TANF, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Further, as of 2015, the organization contributing the most funds to issues specifically affecting LGBTQ people of color, The Paul Rapoport Foundation, will be closing its doors. Funders for LGBT Issues, the organization charged with mobilizing funding from institutional sources, reported that the Rapoport Foundation contributes 17% of the funding from institutional sources for LGBTQ people of color. It is now more critical than ever that funders of LGBTQ issues rise to the occasion to fill this huge impending gap. Funding for LGBTQ social, legal, and health issues need to address the issues currently facing LGBTQ people of color.

When it comes down to it, visibility in pop culture goes a long way towards gaining attention and power. While every one of these LGBTQ celebrities may not chose to use their platform to draw attention to the issues faced by other LGBTQ people of color, just by being out and visible, and a symbol in pop culture, they are widening opportunity for others. With society’s raised consciousness of the presence of LGBTQ people of color, hopefully a more proportional prioritization of issues among LGBTQ advocates and funders will take place.

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