Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What do we owe our people?

Yesterday Michelangelo Signorile of Sirius OutQ interviewed my girl Rachel Maddow and took her to task over her recent interview with Mike Huckabee. (Hear it, along with an interview with Pam Spaulding, who also disagrees with the way Maddow handled Huckabee.) Signorile believes Maddow, an out lesbian with a national platform, should have challenged Huckabee about recent anti-gay statements. Furthermore, he feels that Maddow has not covered issues like Prop 8 vigorously enough. Maddow covers gay issues like the mainstream media, Signorile says. She simplifies and marginalizes them.

But Maddow proclaims: "I don't think [his anti-gay views are] what is newsworthy about Mike Huckabee." She adds that the best interview questions are the ones the audience doesn't know the answer to. We all know where Huckabee stands on gay rights; more pressing to Maddow is who will be the new Republican leadership. Will the GOP be the party of Palin or Jindal? She adds that gay rights are "not her area of focus" and that her judgement is based on "what has news value for the country."

In her mind, Maddow made a journalistic decision, but it seems some gay activists believe that, as a member of the GLBT community, she has an additional responsibility. She is not just a journalist, but a gay journalist. (Signorile says his expectations are related to Maddow's politics not her sexuality, but I'm not so sure.)

As a straight woman, I have no say about what members of the gay community demand of each other. But the debate between Maddow and Signorile is one that plays out often in the black community. We ask "Why doesn't Oprah cover more black issues?" "Why didn't Soledad O'Brien reflect the black community in her Black in America series the way we wanted her to?" "Why doesn't Barack Obama talk more about issues specific to black Americans?" We expect something when one of us marginalized folks gains national prominence, power and a platform. And that's how it should be, right? I mean, white people will not be the ones to lift up people of color and bring their issues to the fore. Straight people will not be the ones leading the fight for gay and lesbian equality. Our communities need for those of us who make it to champion our issues.

But that thinking puts a tremendous burden on successful members of marginalized communities, who already have to work extra hard and overcome myriad obstacles. Does Oprah have a right to be a talk show host, not a black talk show host with an extra burden of addressing "black" topics in a way that is acceptable to the black community? Can Rachel Maddow be just a super-smart, kick-ass pundit and political show host without the specter of her sexuality looming behind every decision? Where does our responsibility to our people end and our responsibility to ourselves begin? What does a community have the right to ask from its most successful members?

11 comments: said...

I think it's a personal choice Maddow deserves to make for herself. We all have multiple interests and identities. We all have to choose which ones we put forth to the world, and when. People like Maddow and Oprah are simply more spotlighted. They know if they become stronger proponents of gay/black rights, that energy has to come from somewhere, be siphoned off some other interest of theirs (in this case, Maddow's passion to understand the future of Republican leadership). I am sure they struggle daily where to allocate their energies, and having us try to direct them doesn't make it any easier. I personally think that just having Maddow doing her kicking ass commentary on *all* subjects provides increased legitimacy "PR" (if you will) for the gay community. Now, someone like Paris Hilton, SHE could use some guidance from progressive groups on how to make herself useful. --CC

Anonymous said...

It is my opinion that people are loyal to their paychecks.

Radicals who are paid by their minority communities can be on the attack. Think Nation of Islam and Malcolm, think MLK and the black church that paid him.

Minorities who "make it" in the mainstream shy away from radical action and tough no holds barred commentary, because they are NOT paid by the margins.

Once you get on the inside, you tend to sell out. Not intentionally, but it wears you down, you conform, and you dull and dumb down. It's why Malcolm always has me cheering, and MLK always has me bored, for example.

Lesbians can always hold men's feet to the flame, because hey, we don't live with the oppressor under our own roofs. Straight women, who do get subsidized by men sell out more often. They are willing to let the abusers and wife beaters and child molestors go, because they themselves are held hostage.

It's why there will be no real women's revolution as long as men pay for women's lives -- as wife, mother, and servant to men.

It's why the real revolution and tough interviews never come from the Maddows (love 'em though we do) but from lesbians who are not paid by the man.

The greatest change never comes from establishments, but from outside the mainstream, on the streets, on the margins. It's how it works.

Lady C said...

I am a straight woman, and I adore Rachel Maddow. I watched her on Countdown and listened to her on Air America before she got her on show.

Rachel is doing her job. The fact that she is not hiding who she is and is on a cable news network, five nights a week, is saying a helluva lot.

It is not Rachel's nor is it Oprah's duty to champion all things GLBT or Black, respectively.

Anonymous said . . . "Straight women, who do get subsidized by men sell out more often. They are willing to let the abusers and wife beaters and child molesters go, because they themselves are held hostage."

The above statements are totally wrong. I was brought up in a culture of women. Strong women who did not cow to any man. We have the same body parts as you, but you think you do more for women rights because you are a lesbian? That is an unreal assessment of who we are and a superior assessment to who you are.

When you hold your own, straight or lesbian, you champion your cause. To think that Rachel Maddow is the one who is supposed to do it for you is wrong.

As for Oprah: Oprah's show is entertaining and at times informative. It doesn't make what she does with her show wrong, and I don't hold her accountable to the whole African American population in this country.

ActsofFaithBlog said...

Well they should probably look at Maddow's audience demographics first and find out who the biggest constituency is. As a private citizen she can do work that speaks to the LGBT community. I mean the fact that she's out instead of hiding says a lot! Oprah's largest audience segment is white women over 55. Maddow needs to continue to do well in her ratings without alienating people. Why not request other show hosts to do more with various communities so the onus isn't on one person?

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking that Rachel Maddow is indeed brave and out, while Anderson Cooper remains oddly closeted (one of those open LGBT secrets).

Oprah does indeed further the cause of black women everywhere. Think of her support of black women authors, her girls' school in South Africa, and what an inspiration she is to all women.

Still though, we have our true radicals out there. The people who start the movements for social change, the people who really risk everything. We should always remember the people who made it possible for the Maddows and even the closeted Coopers.

The mainstream tends to try to hide the radical nature of all groups. Think deification of Susan B. Anthony and MLK -- both were hated in their lifetimes by huge majorities. Weird how herstory is.

I think we often don't find out about the good work a lot of these people do -- only the public face. So the public "persona" can be a bit misleading and unfair.

Feminist Review said...

I just posted this at Shakesville, so I apologize for the cross-posting.

I think that when you get into issues of juggling identities and the need to assimilate in order to get a paycheck, it's just too complex an issue to be hashed out in this type of forum. Having said that, I believe that there is a positive correlation between having privilege and having the ability to be ideologically consistent. I think of it like I think of egalitarian relationships: in order to be in an equal partnership, you must be willing to compromise. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, and at the end of the day, we all have to decide these things for ourselves.

Brother OMi said...

I watched Huckabee get grilled on the gay rights issue by The Daily Show. It was a constructive exchange and Steward stayed on him. And you know in the end, Huckabee didn't change his mind.

I could see if Huckabee said, I am for gay marriage, and then he shot down a bill that was for it. Then Maddow and anyone else can take him to task on it. But like you said, we ALL know his stance on the issue so why challenge him? He has never bit his tongue on it and says it freely. I could see if he was being two faced on it.

Rebecca said...

I'll admit to being disappointed when Rachel Maddow didn't address Huckabee's views on gay rights - but then I read Rachel Maddow's comments, and this blog post.

I was talking to a gay man last night who said that he hates protests because they seem so superficial and self-righteous. I guess I can see what he means, but if we don't get out there and make ourselves known, if we don't address these issues and discuss them with people even when we know they disagree (like Huckabee), then we're complicit in our own oppression.

So I think it's a copout to say that there's no point in asking Huckabee about his views because we know where he stands.


Rachel Maddow isn't avoiding the issue. She's never been coy about her orientation, or where she stands on gay rights. Why should she have to address something that she doesn't find newsworthy? Because she's right - we DO know his views and, on a news show, his views are NOT news.

I don't envy her - it's got to be kind of a rough gig being a de facto spokesperson for a marginalized group of people. If she addresses it all the time then she runs the risk of being the token gay pundit, and if she doesn't address it then she's not living up to her responsibilities.

I think she's doing just what she ought to do: deciding what to talk about based on what counts as actual news. She's already done us all a solid by being out and proud without making it her defining characteristic.

jenx67 said...

i definitely see through the maddow spin, but is this statement really accurate:

"I mean, white people will not be the ones to lift up people of color and bring their issues to the fore. Straight people will not be the ones leading the fight for gay and lesbian equality. Our communities need for those of us who make it to champion our issues." ???

i can give you a dozen or more examples that contradict this. for everyone who has someone in their life whom they love and who is gay we need look no further than the story of Matthew Shephard ( to find scores of people willing to put their very lives on the line to bring their issues to the fore.

Tami said...


I don't mean to imply that gay people and people of color do not have white and straight allies, many of whom have given their lives for the cause. (See Viola Liuzzo:

What I meant is that, in most cases, it is up to us to be the LEADERS of our own causes. For instance, in the case of feminism, men don't often move into places of power determined to carry the banner of women's rights. Women have the right to vote, because they took up the banner of equal rights and fought for it--yes, with the help of some sympathetic men, but WE led the fight. Many white people participated in the Civil Rights movement, but the foundation of the movement was black people fighting for their own liberation. Same thing with gay rights, etc. At least IMHO.

stephen said...

I think that the LGBT movement is multifaceted and rightfully so. We need the activists and the queer press who outspokenly address issues affecting our community but it's also important to recognize the ongoing need to normalize our community, of getting our stories out there. Public figures like Maddow and even Cooper (as someone who's still coming out to friends, I can't even imagine how daunting it would be to consider doing it in the national eye) put a human face and story to our lives in a way that reaches the masses. I personally think it is a good thing to have these types of exchanges where we can connect with those who don't agree with us. I have a lot of hope that the generation growing up now will be even more tolerant than the current one but we can't expect change in the immediate future without changing some minds and as my dad used to say "you catch more flies with honey than vinegar."


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