President Obama made powerful, significant statements at the June 29th LGBT Stonewall reception, but I fear that the most telling words have been lost by the mass media. Obama’s words relate to the intersection of sexuality and race, and they foretell the difficulty in moving the agenda forward—a mission the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) was founded upon and been advocating ever since our inception five years ago.

Many gay and lesbian people wonder how it can be that a Black President has not moved more quickly on LGBT rights. They ask out loud how it can be that President Obama does not see gay rights as the next frontier in our nation’s civil rights struggle. What many of my white gay brothers and sisters need to realize is that Obama absolutely understands the intellectual argument that equates advancing gay rights to America’s civil rights struggles. He said as much in his speech. But he is a President whose constituency—and I do not mean white, Middle America, but his constituency of Black Americans—does not stand with him or follow his argument on civil rights encompassing LGBT rights.

Obama’s enlightened perspective on the gay rights struggle is seen in his admonishment to himself: “It’s not for me to tell you to be patient anymore than it was for others to counsel African Americans who were petitioning for equal rights a half century ago.”

This understanding of the LGBT disinclination towards patience—just as Black civil rights heroes could wait for justice no longer—was neither welcomed nor accepted by many in the Black community. The initial reaction to this argument was demonstrated by the popular radio personality Tom Joyner, who immediately took offense to the comparison the morning after Obama’s speech. During the debate on marriage equality on the Connecticut House floor, I personally heard murmurs and invective from an African American colleague who bemoaned the mention of civil rights heroes and struggles as the case was made for marriage equality. Some people take offense personally that white gays and lesbians would take inspiration from civil rights icons, as many have a feeling of ownership and personal attachment to the civil rights struggle and its philosophy.

Are these feeling legitimate? Or do they point to a wider incidence of homophobia in our Black community? President Obama noted in his remarks that that we need to open the hearts and minds of those that don’t fully embrace their “gay brothers and sisters.” He goes on to say that he has “…spoken about these issues not only in front of you, but in front of unlikely audiences—in front of African American church members…”

This statement is telling and provocative. It demonstrates that President Obama is clearly aware that a disproportionate number of African Americans are not ready to embrace gay rights. Who is willing to bridge this divide to make the demographic shifts necessary for politicians, the media and the country to move progressively on LGBT rights?

NBJC believes that President Obama is ready to do the hard lifting and we are prepared to assist him in this effort. We are also willing to challenge the homophobia that exists in our community. For example, we will be working with the NAACP at their centennial convention and encouraging their members to recognize that one of their own, Bayard Rustin—a leader and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington—was a gay Black man. This is something the NAACP has yet to do.

In addition, we call on our white gay brothers and sisters—just as President Obama did—to recognize that they have work of their own to do in communicating with communities of color. All too often, Black LGBT people extend our hand to work with our white colleagues, as we did in California on Proposition Eight, and all too often our white brothers and sisters stay frozen in a black/white construct that is still too separate and unwelcoming.

Many don’t recognize that this is the next battle. We believe President Obama will move the agenda forward, and NBJC will be just as diligent as other LGBT leaders in prompting our President towards action. We also look to Michelle Obama. She was at the reception as well, and many of us noted her presence and facial expressions that told it all; Michelle may be our fiercest ally.

It is the responsibility of all of us—Obama, Black leaders and White LGBT leaders working together—to persuade the President’s closest and most loyal constituency, communities of color, towards real progress.

[Editor's Note: Jason W. Bartlett is the deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a group that lobbies on behalf of LGBT people of color. He is also an openly gay Connecticut state representative.]

Copyright 2009 Jason W. Bartlett