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?

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