Are the Civil-Rights Struggle and the Gay-Rights Struggle the Same? Yes, and No
"I want to ask you," said Mike, a local white gay activist, speaking to a recent committee meeting of mostly African-American gays and lesbians--myself among them--working to defeat the proposed federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban gay marriage. "Is it OK if I say that 'This is our drinking fountain?'" he asked.
There was a pregnant pause in the room. The blacks in the room knew Mike to be anti-racist and more progressive than many other gay white men when it comes to representing the gay community's diversity. But was it OK for Mike, a young white guy, to make an analogy between the ban on gay marriage and the segregated public facilities of old, especially when most of our parents know what it was really like to not be able to try on clothes at segregated department stores?
Mike's comparison wasn't the first time that white gay activists have invoked painful civil-rights imagery or compared their struggle with the black fight for rights a few decades ago. When 26-year-old New Paltz, N.Y., Mayor Jason West performed same-sex marriages last March, he called it "the flowering of the largest civil-rights movement the country's had in a generation." San Francisco's 36-year-old mayor, Gavin Newsom, who allowed nearly 4,000 such marriages to take place in his city starting last February, said, "Rosa Parks didn't wait for the courts to tell her it was all right to ride in the front of the bus." Last March, gaggles of white twentysomething gay kids stormed the Georgia State Capital building singing "We Shall Overcome," an old Negro spiritual that served as the de facto rallying cry of the civil-rights struggle. And writing for The Advocate, C.E. Adams wondered, "have gays just replaced blacks as the minority community that is openly discriminated against?"
The liberal use of comparisons, imagery, and symbols from the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and '60s in the gay-rights movement of the 2000s, vexes some blacks, especially older folks. It just doesn't equate for them. That's why many African-American old-timers who remember the turbulent days of racial apartheid in this country clasped their Bibles and gasped a collective gasp at seeing gay activists in Massachusetts holding up signs that read separate is not equal.
So although veteran civil-rights leader and sometime Official Spokesman of the Black Community the Rev. Jesse Jackson affirmed his belief that gays "deserve the right" to pick their own partners without acrimony, he called comparing black and gay struggles a "stretch." As he put it during a lecture visit to Holy Cross College last February, "gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution, and in that they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote."
The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a group of conservative black ministers, said the day after Massachusetts started handing out marriage certificates to gay couples that same-sex marriage was "not a civil right" but a "behavior." He also said that gays have "never had to drink at different water fountains or ride in the back of the bus."
The explanation for such a reaction among many blacks can't be chalked up to some kind of latent black homophobia. As attorney, lecturer, and black gay-rights advocate Keith Boykin wrote on his Web site last September, "in the same way we don't condemn all whites for the comments of a few white leaders, we should not condemn all blacks for the comments of a few black leaders." Going on, Boykin pointed out that a number of black leaders--including Coretta Scott King, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.)--as some of the most outspoken advocates for gay rights in the country.
Homophobia isn't more problematic in the black community than it is among whites. It's just expressed in different terms, across different contexts. Who's more homophobic: blacks who hate that "punk-ass faggot motherfucka switchin' down the street," or a coalition of mostly white lawmakers and activists who are working hard to pass a constitutional amendment banning any type of legal recognition of gay relations? Black parents may admonish their sons for being too "sweet," but white men in power like Bill Clinton tell servicemen and -women "don't ask, don't tell." And while Baltimore County Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. (D-10th), a black minister, told a Washington Blade reporter that he was "fine" if homosexuals wanted to "go at it and do their thing" just as long as they didn't "sashay" up to the altar to "demand marriage," Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry wants to ban gay marriage from his state altogether. No matter how it's expressed, either politically in the King's English or through everyday signifyin' by the brothers in the barbershop, it's all homophobia, none "worse" than the other.
Really, most blacks could care less if "you're a gay" or not. (Ebonically speaking, you're a gay, as in you're a native of Maryland, a male, or a redhead.) Although, I hear the words "faggot" and "punk" thrown about with ease--mostly by men--I think in most cases the guys are just engaging in the age-old practice of signifyin'--talking trash, hyperbole, plain ol' bravado, wordplay. And seriously, if black churches decided to excommunicate all "practicing homosexuals," we'd have a crisis for sure. We'd have no music ministers, for one thing, and most of the male voices in the choir would be gone. And none of us would be able to enjoy the huge church dinners prepared by Uncle Lonnie and his "friend" of 30 years.
Though invoking images and expressions from black civil-rights movements is romantic and inspirational, those images and expressions still bear enormous significance among those who lived through those times and that struggle. It's especially a stretch to invoke them when one hasn't experienced the old world of Jim Crow. For older black folks, including my parents, sitting in the back of the bus or attending segregated schools isn't ancient history; they're still vivid memories. My father once told me about traveling on a bus in Florida and having to stand at the rear, even though plenty of seats toward the front were vacant. He was also taught never--ever, under any circumstance--to look a white woman directly in the eye. My mother still remembers when many newspapers advertised positions for "whites only."
In fact, for me and my post-civil-rights group of black friends and peers to truly understand what those days were like, we'd all have to be cast in a reality show--PBS's Jim Crow Town.
So when Mike posed his dilemma, I decided that, from my perspective, it wouldn't be appropriate to liken the struggle for marriage equality to the racial segregation of 50 years ago, and said so. My response wasn't based on feeling threatened by a white person co-opting the black experience, or as if he were trying to water down some of the most difficult images of black culture. And it wasn't because he was white and all the rest of us were black.
It was because he was comparing the gay-rights movement to the civil rights era but wasn't actually there--none of us was. Even I sometimes look blankly at old black folks who tell us how bad they had it during Jim Crow.
I told him that I thought it'd be more accurate and realistic to speak in his own terms about how homophobia is oppressive to him today, in the present. Plus, many blacks may shy away from such a comparison without listening to the present realities behind it.
Still, this doesn't mean that homophobic black leaders can claim a win by staking their claim on "civil rights." The way some black leaders speak, you'd think that black folks had a copyright on the term. After all, when someone like Bishop Gilbert Thompson, of Boston's New Covenant Christian Church, tells ABC News that he "resents . . . that homosexuals are trying to piggyback on the civil-rights struggles of the '60s," clearly he forgot about Bayard Rustin, the black gay man who organized the 1963 March on Washington.
Sexual minorities, African-Americans, and all other oppressed people share a similar plight: making good on their right to full citizenship and equality. We've struggled through different trials yet we all seek justice, the ability to self-actualize freely, without being assigned any type of second-class citizenship status.
It's also unfair, inhumane, selfish, and against the spirit of equality for some black leaders to attempt to hinder millions of oppressed white gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender men and women in their fight for their civil rights--the right to make medical decisions for a loved one in the hospital, the right to inheritance, and the right to family health insurance. And it's just as wrong to try to pit black and white gays against each other as we try to build an all-inclusive movement for marriage equality. As black lesbian poet Audre Lorde put it, "There is no hierarchy of oppression."
And technically there's nothing about race in the lyrics to "We Shall Overcome." If you pay attention, it's about love and its open expression: "We'll walk hand in hand . . .We'll walk hand in hand some day."
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