Carter, Mandy 1946—
Mandy Carter 1946—
Civil rights activist
“Prejudice is prejudice!,” proclaimed Mandy Carter in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB),” whether it is based on skin color or sexual orientation. And maybe the best folks to be making this point are gays and lesbians of color who embody both.” Carter has been, in the words of BLK writer Frankie Lennon,” one of the few highly placed African American lesbians.” As such she has waged a ceaseless battle against homophobia, organizing against efforts of the religious right to infiltrate black churches and attempting to unseat ultraconservative politicians like North Carolina senator Jesse Helms. Carter described her mission to Lennon as “trying to make change for the better of all. I am committed to standing up for rights, fighting oppression and taking risks.”
Carter was born in Albany, New York, in 1948. Raised in two orphanages and the Schenectady Children’s Home—a foster home-she had “no opportunity to identify myself as unique or have that idea conveyed to me from a parental figure,” she told Lennon. “With so many of us in the home, it was about being competitive to stand out from the crowd and be noticed.” Despite the disadvantages of this environment, Carter excelled in school and was able to enroll at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York.
Carter pursued “basic pre-med courses” in hopes of becoming a doctor or physical education instructor; at Hudson Valley she planned to gather the necessary credits to gain acceptance into a four-year institution. Her high school grade point average had been lowered dramatically by a failing grade in Spanish, which necessitated the detour to a two-year college. In retrospect, Carter mused to CBB, “that F in Spanish is partly responsible for my being an activist. It turned out to be a good thing!”
After one year at Hudson Valley, Carter reported, “[school] became unappealing to me. I was living at the YWCA in downtown Troy, and it felt like I was back at the home again.” She dropped out in 1967, and, with less than $100 to her name, made her way to New York City. It was there—broke and reduced to sleeping in
At a Glance…
Born November 2, 1948, in Albany, NY; raised in orphanages and foster care. Education: Attended Hudson Valley Community College.
Worked with War Resìstere League, beginning c 1969; served on planning committees for North Carolina Lesbian and Cay Pride marches, 1986-91; served on national steering committee for March on Washington for Lesbians and Gays, 1987 and 1993; coproducer of Rhythm Fest m usical festival for southern women; di rector of North Carolina Senate Vote ‘90 and North Carolina Mobilization ‘96 (initiatives to defeat N.C senator Jesse Helms); founding member, Our Own Pface (a lesbian center) and black gay and lesbian organization UMOJ A. Member of Stonewall 25 executive committee; member of board of governorsof Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum; former member of board of directors of Human Rights Campaign Fund.
Awards: North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Pride Community Service Award, 1990; Peace Award, War Resistere League, 1993; Distinguished National Service Award, Gay and Lesbian Attorneys of Washington, D.C, 1993; Mab Segrest Award, North Carolinians Against Religious and Racist Violence (NCARRV); humanitarian award, North Carolina Independent
Addresses: Office— North Carolina Mobilization ‘96, P.O. Box 28718, Raleigh, NC 27611.
Central Park—that she happened on the headquarters of the League for Spiritual Discovery, an organization founded by radical philosopher and psychedelic drug champion Timothy Leary. “I went in and asked if I could answer phones in exchange for food and a couch to sleep on,” Carter told BLK’s Lennon. “They agreed, and I stayed there the whole summer. It was the height of the hippie flower-child movement—a fascinating time to be in New York. Near the end of the summer, I met some people who were migrating to San Francisco. I went with them.”
In San Francisco Carter became involved in the struggle against the war in Vietnam; taking shelter with draft resistance advocate Vince O’Connor, she quickly became versed in the tactics of the movement. Still, the principles of civil disobedience—non-violent resistance to perceived injustice—were not exactly new to her. “I was first exposed to the idea by some Quakers who came to my high school,” she noted inBLK . “Something about those ideas—working for change, activism, non-violence—intrigued me.” And though Carter has kept mum about specific relationships in interviews, she allowed to CBB that she first came out about her sexuality to her War Resister’s League (WRL) comrades in 1969; she said,” I wanted them to know that I was a lesbian.”
Several people Carter cites as inspirations gained prominence during those tumultuous days of the 1960s, among them singer Joan Baez, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin—whose homosexuality marginalized him even within the movement—and two women she met in the WRL, Irma Zigas and Norma Becker, who she said “showed that women can be dynamic leaders. “During the course of the following decades Carter herself learned a lot about becoming a dynamic leader. Staying on at the WRL office in San Francisco and then moving to its Los Angeles headquarters, she learned much about not only activism but fundraising. 1977 saw Carter return to San Francisco, at which time she became involved in the gay and lesbian political movement, which was flowering in the city’s bars.
A central figure in the city’s lesbian political movement was Rikki Streicher, who owned two popular bars. “Rikki felt a bar was more than a place to drink,” Carter told BLK . “It was a place where women gathered and it was the center of activity. She would encourage me to sit in on these meetings to plan things like the Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. I was able to use my organizing skills, and I became more and more drawn to doing things in the community.” In 1982 she returned to her native North Carolina, where she worked at WRL’s southeast office and served on the planning committee for the annual Lesbian and Gay Pride march; she later worked as a national steering coordinator for the 1987 lesbian and gay march on Washington. She also became actively involved in Rhythm Fest, an annual festival of music, art, and politics for southern women.
Despite the stereotype of the South as a bastion of bigotry, Carter praised its mellow pace and “balmy weather.” Besides, she pointed out,” it is home to the most important movement ever to come down the pike in this country—the civil rights movement. “She added that southerners are at least honest about their views, while people in the North tend to be “polite but still biased and prejudiced.”
Still, Carter has long disdained any idea of separatism. “Mainstream electoral politics do matter,” she insisted to CBB . “While we are waiting for something better to come along to replace our two-party system, what we now have keeps rolling along whether we--blacks, gays, and lesbians--are there or not. If we want to impact change electorally then we must be at the table no matter how uncomfortable it is.” Understanding that blacks and gays have long been set against one another in mainstream politics, Carter has set about making her mark.
One important battle was the effort to unseat North Carolina senator Jesse Helms, an ultraconservative Republican who championed segregationism in his early days and battled affirmative action and other antidiscrimination remedies in his later ones. Carter served as campaign director of North Carolina Senate Vote ‘90, the project to defeat Helms. To her dismay, she found that James Meredith—the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi and an important symbol in the history of desegregation—was working for Helms, who narrowly won re-election.
Equally unsettling, Carter learned of a white gay man who despised Helms but couldn’t bear to vote for his black opponent, Harvey Gantt. “I was just blown away,” she reflected inUncommon Heroes: A Celebration of Heros and Role Models for Gay and Lesbian Americans . “Maybe that’s why the vote was so close.” Yet this loss was instructive for Carter. To beat Helms, she declared to CBB,” We are going to have to get all of our respective voters out—the arts, environment, choice, lgbt [lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and “transgender” people], people of color, youth, [and] senior citizens.”
Carter’s other large-scale battle of the 1990s has involved fighting the attempts of right-wing Christian groups to foment and exploit anti-gay feeling in the black church. Appointed by the gay rights organization the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRCF) as its liaison to the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, she has waged a tireless battle against well-funded conservatives who tell blacks that white gay men are usurping the civil rights struggle to gain “special rights.” Discussing the matter with the Philadelphia Tribune, Carter reflected on the right’s “classic divide and conquer [strategy],” explaining, “When they start going into the community, besides going into the church, they start talking about gays have this and gays have that.’” Among the arguments harbored by conservatives, according to Carter: “It [homosexuality] is immoral; they are taking jobs away from you; they are trying to hijack the civil rights movement of the ’60s.”
Unfortunately, even the most dedicated campaign can be hamstrung by a lack of funds. “In 1993 the HRCF sent me to Cincinnati to help fight an anti-gay ballot initiative in Ohio,” Carter recalled in Uncommon Heroes . “Colorado for Family Values [a conservative organization] poured $400,000 into their campaign. They outspent us at Equality in Cincinnati nearly ten to one. They got one minister to be the “official’ black voice of faith. He spoke out against “the wealthy, white gay men who want special rights.’ Well, guess what. We lost.”
Carter told CBB that she was disheartened to find that one of her early idols, civil rights leader Rev. James Bevel, was among those black clerics friendly with the religious right. But her most persistent opponent has been the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition. Sheldon has recruited numerous black religious figures into his movement, circulating anti-gay videos and utilizing the slogan “There Is No Comparison”—insisting that the black struggle for civil rights and the gay struggle for equal protection under the law share no commonalities. “That, in a snapshot, showed why this movement must be more multiracial,” Carter opined to HRCF Quarterly . She claimed that in general,” the black community opposes all discrimination, but there are some who side with the right. Sheldon has created a small but very vocal group.”
In Uncommon Heroes, Carter attempted to dispense with the “no comparison” argument by appealing to history. “People were hung from trees for being black,” she noted. “Today, people are beaten up and murdered for being gay and lesbian. Any black person who can’t equate being gay with being black is essentially denying that gay and lesbian black people exist.” In her interview with the Philadelphia Tribune, she went on to indict the entire conservative movement. “It is not just the anti-gay agenda that they are after,” Carter emphasized. “They are up there now talking about welfare reform, they are talking about affirmative action, they are talking about crime. And most times they are coming after us in the black community; yet they want to use us in the anti-gay stuff, then turn around and come after us in terms of their other agendas.”
For that reason, she ventured in BLK, black gays and lesbians are ideally suited to fight against such encroachments. “This struggle is going to give us the opportunity to do some actual coalition work,” she ventured. “But we’ve absolutely got to come out standing strong to serve them notice. We’re the ones that have to make this happen. Sometimes you have to be bold and take a risk.” At the same time, Carter wondered why “the African American gay community doesn’t, in the mid-90s, have a national organization on the level of HRCF or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force [NGLTF] with the capacity to pay staff for their work as professionals? We need to be doing something about that.”
Even in the midst of her intense schedule, Carter acknowledged to CBB that she has no intention of doing such feverish work forever. “I have led a very exciting and fulfilling activist life over these past 28 years,” she noted,” but I definitely can feel myself slowing down and wanting to settle down here in North Carolina now.” She added that many of her peers, approaching age 50, feel the same way: “Many of us are thinking about how we want to live out our senior years. Many in the lgbt community don’t see retirement homes as an option compared to coming up with our own ideas of where and when we live out our golden years.” It seems likely that Mandy Carter’s talents for organization and mobilization will come to bear on this issue as well— when the time comes.
Uncommon Heroes: A Celebration of Heroes and Role Models for Gay and Lesbian Americans edited by Samuel Bernstein, Fletcher Press, 1994.
BLK, February 1994, pp. 7-19.
HRCF Quarterly, Summer 1995, p. 4.
Philadelphia Tribune, April 28, 1995, p. 3A.
Additional information for this profile was obtained by CBB via e-mail with Mandy Carter in December of 1995 and from biographical materials provided by the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, 1995.
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