Earl D. Fowlkes Jr. grew up in a close-knit family that continued to accept him when he brought his boyfriend home decades ago. As president and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Equity in Washington, D.C., Fowlkes aims to replicate that same welcoming feeling with Blacks in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Earl D. Fowlkes, a 50-year-old gay rights activist, is trying to create a safe haven for members of D.C.’s Black LGBT community. (Courtesy photo)
The 18-year-old organization, which was previously called the International Federation of Black Pride, promotes policies that boost the social and economic vitality of LGBT Blacks. It also offers resources to support them and arranges Black pride events all over the world – the center has 50 affiliates. Fowlkes says the Black pride events in the U.S. draw 300,000 people.
“For us, celebrating Black pride is different from celebrating community pride as we call it – community pride is a celebration of the Stonewall riots of 1969,” Fowlkes told the AFRO. “Black pride is an opportunity to give 300,000 people information on HIV/AIDS, 300,000 people information about women’s health, 300,000 people to get information on youth issues what’s going on in the political landscape.”
Blacks identifying as LGBT face a unique set of challenges, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Black transgender women face the highest level of fatal violence within the LGBT community and are less likely to contact police, out of fear that officers will hurt them, according a joint report between the coalition and Trans People of Color Coalition.
Black people in the LGBTQ community continue to face economic hurdles due to housing insecurity, a lack of quality and affordable healthcare and fewer educational opportunities, the campaign said. In addition, a report from the National Black Justice Coalition found that nearly a third of the children raised in Black same-sex couples live in poverty.
Meanwhile, young, Black gay and bisexual men are among the groups most heavily impacted by HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “We have higher rates,” Fowlkes said. “We just don’t have the community support, the family support when people come out in our communities.”
Fowlkes, who says he’s in his late 50s, grew up in suburban Philadelphia as the eldest of five children and comes from four generations of ministers from the Holiness and Baptist denominations. He says he was never teased or bullied in school, but he knew from a young age that he was attracted men.
“My family and my father, in particular from the pulpit, never said that I was a bad person (or that) I was going to hell,” Fowlkes said. “He never injected the issue of sexuality at all – I never heard it from him.”
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the riots followed, Fowlkes remembers his parents, Earl Sr. and Elsie Fowlkes, explained the Civil Rights Movement and its connection to what he was witnessing on television. Fowlkes credits that experience with making him socially conscious.
That his late sister Sharon Fowlkes took several HIV positive men into her home and nursed them also impacted him and helped set the course for the work he does today. Besides running the center, Fowlkes chairs the D.C. Commission on Human Rights and is chairman of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus.
The Anacostia-based center operates with a staff of three and has to be judicious about how it spends its time. To that end, Fowlkes will focus on four initiatives in the next four months: leadership development, youth initiatives, securing funding to address health issues for biological and transgender women and ensuring people are aware of HIV/AIDS treatment options.
The center has also set aside some space in its building for Check It, a group of gay and transgender youth who have been sexually assaulted, shot, stabbed and beaten up. The group was formed in a Trinidad neighborhood in Northeast D.C. to protect each other. Today, they operate a retail store that sells a Check It clothing line from the center’s Anacostia office – about a dozen people work at Check It.
The center, which pays Check It $500 a month, represents a safe haven for Black youth facing transphobia and homophobia east of the Anacostia River who don’t quite fit into the predominantly White gay and transgender scene west of the river, he added.
Fowlkes welcomed Check It to the center so he can show the youth how activism works. They, in turn, tell him what’s going on in their community so he can respond accordingly by searching for funding opportunities and existing policy. “They’re trying, and most people don’t get enough credit for trying,” Fowlkes said.