Activist Keith Boykin Visits University Of Richmond
Keith Boykin served in the White House as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and coordinated the first presidential meeting with LGBT community leaders.
Now, as a TV correspondent, a columnist for The Daily Voice, and author with three books under his belt – including one tackling the hyped “Down Low” phenomenon within the black community – Boykin shares his experiences Wednesday night at the University of Richmond.
GayRVA: What was it like organizing and participating in the nation’s first meeting between LGBT leaders and the president?
Boykin: By itself, a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House is no big deal. Meetings happen all the time there. But this was significant because it was the first time any U.S. president had taken the time to sit down with leaders of the LGBT community. Today if a president meets with gay leaders, it’s important but not groundbreaking. Back in the early 1990s, it was still taboo for politicians to be too closely connected to the gay community and Democrats weren’t fully ready to admit that the LGBT community was an important part of the party’s base. The LGBT community was preparing to hold a big national march on Washington and they wanted to use the White House meeting to push President Clinton on his commitment to gay issues. So the meeting took place in that context.
It was an exciting time of change in our nation’s history. Bill Clinton had made history just by mentioning the word “gay” and discussing the AIDS epidemic in his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. Nobody had ever done that before. Simple things like basic inclusion made a huge difference back then. So there was a sense of opportunity that big change was finally coming to the halls of power in Washington.
I remember sitting in the meeting when one of the participants asked President Clinton how he thought he would be remembered in history. The president took a moment to think about it, and then responded. He said, I think I’ll be remembered for health care reform and lifting the ban on gays in the military. Looking back on that meeting today, the great irony is that he was not able to achieve either of those ambitious goals, and it took another Democrat president — Barack Obama — to do that more than a decade later. The irony for me, personally, is that I went to law school with Barack Obama before I worked in the White House, and it would be my law school classmate who would fulfill President Clinton’s promise.
When did you decide to be out in your professional life?
I came out at 25 years old as a student at Harvard Law School. It was exactly 20 years ago this month. After I came out to my family and friends that year, I was out to the world. Actually I didn’t have to tell everybody on campus. I only told a few people but everybody else found out quickly. I was very well known on campus as one of the leaders of a student protest movement advocating for diversity in the faculty. We took over the dean’s office several times, marched on the president’s office and sued the law school all the way to the State Supreme Court. As students, we were getting more headlines than the professors did.
By the time the word spread that I had come out, even the faculty knew. One of my professors questioned me about it one day. After a meeting in his office, he quietly whispered to me, “So I hear that you are gay now. Is that true?” I was a little shocked that he knew, but I guess it shows that good news travels quickly. When your law professors know about your sexual orientation, there’s no going back. I was out for life.
You said in Beyond The Down-Low, the media overgeneralized the DL lifestyle. From your experience over the years, have you seen a shift in sexuality within the black community? A shift in sexual orientation within society in general?
The down low was a big media scare, plain and simple. The whole hype was based on one guy who wrote a book and went on Oprah and talked about these dangerous DL men who were infecting black women with HIV and that was why black women were the biggest and fastest growing group of people with AIDS. The only problem was it wasn’t true. None of it.
First, there was no evidence that men on the down low were spreading HIV to black women in significant numbers. The Centers for Disease Control numbers specifically contradicted that claim. The guy who started the rumor flat out made it up.
Second, black women were not, and are not, the biggest or the fastest growing group of people with AIDS. The guy who started the rumor wrote in his book that black women made up 70 percent of all new HIV/AIDS cases in the U.S, which was completely false. The real number was about 17 percent. Any cub reporter at a second-rate newspaper could have called the CDC and verified the facts, but no one did. The truth was that black men, and especially black men who have sex with men, were the biggest risk group, but no one wanted to talk about them because they were being demonized as evil predators instead of sympathetic figures who were dealing with the same issues and challenges as their sisters.
The down low was just another fancy way of talking about the closet, and that was not new and not specific to African American men. It was a sad chapter in American journalism, if you ask me, that they allowed themselves to be snookered by one guy with no facts and lots of hype.
Fortunately, the DL hype has died down considerably since I wrote my response book, Beyond The Down Low, and now the black community is slowly starting to grow in its understanding of sexuality and sexual orientation. It also helps that more and more black gay and bisexual men are coming out to their family and friends. And it helps that we have a black man in the White House who isn’t afraid to embrace the gay community.
Did you face any challenges to becoming successful as a gay black male especially in the media world?
The biggest challenge was in not being pigeonholed as a gay black male, or as a spokesman for the black gay community, actually. I’m black, I’m gay, and I’m a male, but I try not to reduce my identity to being just a black gay man. There are many aspects to my identity, and none of them fully define me. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a liberal Democrat. I’m a TV news commentator. I’m a lawyer by training. I’m an author. I’m a former college professor and former high school social studies teacher. I’m many different things.
The problem with the media world, speaking as a media person myself, is that we often want to categorize people as one thing or another. When a news story pops up, let’s round up the usual suspects and see what they have to say about it. So the big challenge for me, after writing 3 books about race and sexuality and leading two national black LGBT organizations, was not to forget about all the other important issues I care about. I care about health care and unemployment and war in Libya and education.
When you speak at the University of Richmond on Wednesday, what is your message to the students?
I just finished reading the book The Alchemist, and I really enjoyed the message of searching out your own “personal legend” in life. I think too often college students get pressured by society, parents, classmates, and professors to follow very traditional paths in life. I want to encourage students at the University of Richmond to follow their hearts. Sure, people have to worry about money and bills and jobs, but every institution in society is already telling you to focus your life on those things. I want to tell people to focus on something else — on living their lives with authenticity and integrity, on making a difference, and pursuing your dreams.
When I was in college I was introduced to a poem from Robert Frost, who also attended Dartmouth College 100 years before I did. Frost said two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one less traveled by — and that has made all the difference. I want the students at the University of Richmond to know that if they take the road less traveled by in their own lives that they too can make a difference in the world.
Keith Boykin speaks Wednesday, April 6, 7 p.m. at University of Richmond’s Keller Hall, 28 Westhampton Way. For more information, visit the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity’s Facebook. The event is free and open to the public.
“This year the Q-Summit is putting a more explicit focus on racial justice as it intersects with queer organizing in the south.”March 3, 2016
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