Last week, the Huffington Post reported on a new guide recently issued by Third Way, an “influential centrist Democratic group,” for the purpose of helping lawmakers previously opposed to marriage equality take a public stance in support of the cause without earning the dreaded “flip-flopper” moniker. (Not a bad idea, right?) The document advises these new equality supporters to share their personal stories and those of family members and friends, emphasize that marriage is about love and commitment rather than engaging in a sterile discussion about rights, and meet people – even those who currently oppose marriage equality – where they are, knowing that they, too, have the potential to “evolve” on the issue. So far, so good.
But the folks at Third Way lost me when I read what came next:
Lawmakers should also “exercise caution” in comparing the push for same-sex marriage to the civil rights movement and the fight for interracial marriage, the memo says. “This direct comparison can hurt more than it helps, by causing people to think about the differences between the experiences of African Americans and LGBT people, not the similarities.”
Now don’t get me wrong, if there’s one thing I despise most about our current national discourse, it’s the ridiculous abuse and ubiquitous misuse of the false equivalency meme. Both sides always share equal blame, we’re told. It isn’t polite to single out one person or party over another. Simple acknowledgement of a current political reality – for example, that American politics is being jolted ever further to the right by an increasingly deranged Republican Party – means the observer is biased or partisan (two terms with almost as much baggage as “flip-flopper”). The idea that it’s inappropriate for media outlets to consult certified anti-gay hate groups about LGBT rights issues in an effort to “hear from both sides” is not a matter of common sense, it’s some kind of agenda.
However, where LGBT issues and racial issues intersect, I must emphatically draw an equivalency in order to make a point that I’m particularly passionate about: people on both sides – liberal and conservative, pro-LGBT and anti-LGBT – actively avoid equating gay rights with civil rights. Some even go so far as to condemn those who make any association between the two. This avoidance is dishonest, insulting, and demeaning to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. It must stop immediately; there are no three ways about it.
Make no mistake – I am not suggesting that race, sexual orientation, and gender identity/expression are in any way the same. I am also not attempting to equate the collective histories of racial and sexual minority groups or the personal experiences of any members of these groups. To do so would be foolish. What I am saying – no, declaring – is that the struggle for African-American rights and the struggle for LGBT rights are two fronts in the same battle. Both involve a minority group singled out by the majority for discrimination, unequal treatment, and persecution on the basis of an intrinsic and immutable characteristic. Both movements arose when a critical mass of courageous people decisively pushed back against bigotry and institutionalized oppression for the first time. And in both cases, the work of achieving legislative, judicial, and cultural equality is ongoing. So while the details may be different, at a fundamental level, the fight for African-American civil rights and LGBT civil rights are both part of the same civil rights movement.
I can hear the naysayers now. One might say, “How dare you? We’ve been taken to America against our will, enslaved, whipped, raped, attacked with fire hoses, batons, and dogs, subjected to ‘separate but equal’ Jim Crow laws and medical experimentation, jailed, and lynched.” Another could retort: “Excuse me? We have been persecuted by religions and governments for centuries, imprisoned, castrated, lobotomized, queer-bashed, ‘correctively’ raped and subjected to other ‘separate but equal’ laws, forced into damaging ‘pray away the gay’ therapy, interred in concentration camps, stoned, and hanged.” But playing the my-group-has-suffered-more-than-your-group game – what prominent African-American lesbian blogger Pam Spaulding aptly terms the Oppression Olympics – is both futile and tiresome. No single group has earned the exclusive right to use civil rights language. Nobody is well-served when we construct hierarchies of oppression. After all, at the end of the day, you’re equally unemployed whether you’re fired for being trans or for being an African American. Hate crimes are just as evil whether they’re driven by the victim’s gender expression or their skin color. (The bruises hurt just as much, too.) And James Byrd, Jr. – murdered because he was black – is every bit as dead as Matthew Shepard, who was killed because he was gay.
I can’t even begin to tell you the verbal and logistical contortions I’ve heard many of my liberal, progressive, pro-LGBT friends put themselves through in order to avoid the mere appearance of an acknowledgement that the civil rights battles of sexual and racial minority groups are part of the same struggle. According to Spaulding, “any challenge to [the enforced separation of the two movements] amounts to stepping on the third rail,” and most people would rather spare themselves the shock, thank you very much.
In terms of the resistance to the “LGBT rights are civil rights” concept in the African-American community, I believe much of that can be attributed to the fact that homophobia remains embedded in large swaths of black culture. Last year, for example, Truth Wins Out broke the story of a violently anti-gay rant by comedian Tracy Morgan, who claimed during a stand-up routine that he’d stab his son to death if he ever came out as gay. Alveda King, a niece of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., compared marriage equality to genocide in 2010. And while some LGBT activists reeling from the 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8 wrongly blamed African Americans, a January 2012 poll revealed a 30-point gap in support of marriage equality between white and black voters in Maryland, illustrating the continued existence of a major racial divide on LGBT issues from coast to coast. (I also often wonder if this divide might provide at least a partial explanation for President Obama’s apparent reluctance to “evolve” on marriage equality before the 2012 election, lest it cost him any support among a critically important constituent group.)
Thankfully this divide – along with the very idea that LGBT rights are unworthy of the term “civil rights” – is being increasingly challenged. Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald pointed out as early as 2004 that “this stinginess about the [civil rights] movement only arises when gays seek to embrace it.” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart has written and spoken extensively on LGBT rights as civil rights, recently tangling with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on the issue. Leaders like Pam Spaulding, Melissa Harris-Perry, Rev. Al Sharpton, Julian Bond, Abp. Desmond Tutu, Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Ben Jealous, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, and Rev. Irene Monroe constantly challenge homophobia wherever they encounter it, including within African-American culture. Many of them also make consistent use of civil rights language when speaking about LGBT equality. But perhaps it was the late Coretta Scott King, who devoted her life to the same civil rights causes for which her husband gave his life, who said it best when she famously remarked in 2003:
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people. . . But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”
So I respectfully but emphatically dissent with the well-meaning people at Third Way. We not only should compare the movement for African-American civil rights with the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights, but we must do so, because at the root, they are the same movement. Refusing to acknowledge this reality only serves to unjustly accommodate homophobic bigotry, reinforce artificially-constructed hierarchies of oppression, and distract us from our fundamental obligation to defend the rights of all our fellow human beings. Rather than dividing ourselves along lines of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity, we must stand up for one another, whether gay, straight, black, or white. After all, as my parents have reminded me since the days when I was small, “Who will speak if we don’t?”