Keith Boykin, a New York Times best-selling author and one of TV’s leading commentators on politics, race, and sexual orientation, participated in Venable’s Diversity and Inclusion Speaker Program on December 3. Keith discussed his personal struggles in coming out as a gay man and his efforts to promote inclusivity and tolerance for gay men of color and other minority groups.
When Keith Boykin finally worked up the courage to tell his mother that he was gay, his declaration was met with a long silence. Once his mother replied, she told him, “Well, I love you no matter what,” but she asked that he not tell too many people, “especially not your grandmother. It will just kill her if she finds out.”
Already well on his way to self-acceptance, Keith decided to disregard his mother’s suggestion and follow some earlier advice she had given him to “not let anyone tell him what to do.” Then a student at Harvard Law School, he began telling people on campus and quickly learned his first important lesson in how to “be out” rather than just keep “coming out” – tell the right people and they will spread the word for you.
He also eventually told his grandmother, who, as predicted, did not respond well, telling him that his lifestyle made her “physically ill.” While her initial reaction was upsetting, it ultimately helped Keith learn an even more important lesson, that speaking truth to power is a complicated but necessary endeavor.
Around the same time that Keith was beginning to accept and share his own identity, he became involved in diversity activities on campus. At one memorable rally seeking to promote faculty diversity, Keith recalled noticing the dean of the law school and other faculty members completely ignoring the protestors as they walked by. Taken aback by the dean’s lack of interest, Keith decided to run after him: “I began racing across the campus, chasing the dean of the law school, not certain where this will end up, but I wanted to find out if he would actually talk to us – which he did not.”
Although the chase went nowhere, a photo of the incident appeared on the front page of the metro section of the Boston Globe the next day, which caused the movement to spread and grow, teaching Keith another lesson – that persistence is everything.
Ultimately, Keith and his fellow protestors – most of them law students – decided the best route to achieving diversity among the university faculty would be to challenge Harvard Law School’s hiring practices in court. Although they lost the case on a technicality, the students won in the court of public opinion. Not long after the case was dismissed, the school began hiring more people of color and more women, one of whom, Elena Kagan, went on to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
Keith also spoke about his experiences helping the Clinton administration address the thorny issue of lifting the ban on gays in the military. Although President Clinton personally supported removing the ban, the issue was so politically fraught that he settled for a compromised “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. While researching the subject of homophobia, however, Keith realized that the same arguments used to justify racism in the 1950s and 1960s were being recycled against LGBTQ people in the 1990s and 2000s.
This discovery led him to the concept of intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain how we experience the world through various components of our identities, including race, class, and gender. For Keith, as a gay Black man, this means that he experiences racism in the larger world and from within the LGBTQ community, and homophobia in the larger world and from within the Black community. To understand and address the intersection of racism and homophobia, he co-founded the National Black Justice Coalition in 2003. He also wrote a book about his personal experiences, One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America.
When Keith’s grandmother attended one of his book signings with several members of her Baptist church, it was a life-affirming experience. “I learned that when we have the courage to be open and honest about who we are, people not only accept us, they respect us more,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean they’re always going to show it. It doesn’t mean they’re always going to like it. It doesn’t mean they’re always going to express it in ways that are comfortable. But it does say something about who you are when you speak truth to power.”
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