As a board member for the National Black Justice Coalition, a group of African-American LGBT activists who have worked for the past three years to change the tenor of the debate in black America over same-sex marriage, syndicated commentator Jasmyne Cannick has earned a reputation as a tough-minded advocate for the queer community.

But, in an article posted on the Web site on April 4, Cannick waded into the red-hot topic of immigration rights and immediately drew fire from a wide array of LGBT leaders.

In a commentary titled “Gays First, Then Illegals,” Cannick wrote that with, “hundreds of staged protests around the country both supporting and against extending citizenship and other rights to millions of illegal immigrants, America has forgotten that there are legal, taxpaying, and voting citizens in America who don’t yet have all of their rights.” Several paragraphs later, she followed up with, “It’s a slap in the face to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to take up the debate on whether to give people who are in this country illegally additional rights when we haven’t even given the people who are here legally all of their rights.”

Cannick made several attempts in the essay to demonstrate that she is not inured to the injustices faced by immigrants in this country, writing, among several such passages, “Which is not to say that I don’t recognize the plight of illegal immigrants. I do. But I didn’t break the law to come into this country.”

After quoting the iconic, late, African-American poet Audre Lorde—“What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood”—Cannick suggested that she herself would likely be misunderstood.

“While I know no one wants to be viewed as a racist when it comes to immigration reform, as a lesbian I don’t want to move to the back of the bus to accommodate those who broke the law to be here,” she wrote.

Harsh response to Cannick was not long in coming. On April 6, Richard Kim, an Asian-American gay writer, castigated Cannick’s essay as a prime example of “the pathologies plaguing the gay marriage movement.”

“Cannick’s editorial spews the kind of xenophobic rhetoric now rarely heard outside of right-wing radio and white nativist circles—unless, of course, it’s coming from the mainstream gay press,” Kim wrote. Then, referring to Cannick’s reliance on the Audre Lorde quote, he added, “Honey, if you don’t want to be viewed as a racist, then don’t write like one!”

Kim located Cannick’s offense not merely in racial and ethnic insensitivity, but more broadly in the gay marriage movement’s buy-in to the privileging aspects of civil marriage legal recognition. He quoted public health activist Debanuj Dasgupta’s observation that “’the gay rights movement is largely dominated by an analysis that is rooted in the premises of citizenship and LGBT identity,’ without realizing how ‘citizenship status is a site of major oppression and social control.’”

Another group of LGBT leaders also responded harshly to Cannick—expressing surprise at “see[ing] members of our community trafficking in such ugliness—separately from Kim’s overall critique of the same-sex marriage movement.

The April 10 “Open Letter to the LGBT Community” was signed by 45 individuals from mainstream groups such as the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, New York’s LGBT Community Center, Freedom to Marry, and the Astraea Lesbian Action Fund as well as numerous LGBT ethnic associations, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Queers for Economic Justice. Earl L. Plante, the president-elect of the National Black Justice Coalition, also signed the letter.

The signers wrote of their “profound disagreement” with Cannick, pointing out first that “the LGBT community and the immigrant community are not mutually exclusive” and emphasizing that not only are many immigrants LGBT-identified, but also the ways in which immigration law has disadvantaged gay immigrants, those in committed relationships, and those living with HIV. The group also volleyed back on Cannick’s use of Audre Lorde, by quoting the poet’s words that “there is no hierarchy of oppression,” even as it acknowledged that some immigrant-rights advocates have either overtly or implicitly traded in anti-black sentiments.

“One reason why it has always been so hard to shift power in this country is because the ruling class has successfully made us believe that there are only a few deserving groups to whom rights can be given,” the letter’s signers wrote.

Noting that Cannick not only sits on the board of the National Black Justice Coalition, but also co-chairs the black caucus of the National Stonewall Democrats, the letter called on both groups to clarify that she was speaking only for herself and not on their behalf.

—Paul Schindler