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Gay rights & civil rights

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published January 18, 2004

"If (the black man) demands the right to be hired, he has to recognize somebody else's right not to hire him."

- U.S. Rep. Thomas Abernethy, D-Miss., in a 1964 speech against the Civil Rights Act.

"If I'm an apartment owner, I should have the right to rent to who I choose to. If I'm an apartment owner and it says in my thing that no dogs can live in my complex, I'm discriminating against the dogs, I guess, huh? But, in other words, I'm saying these are rules that one has set."

- Rev. Richard Bennett Jr., executive director of the Miami-area African American Council of Christian Clergy, explaining, in Miami's New Times in 2002, the group's resistance to recognizing gay rights.

Ask Nadine Smith whether the struggle for gay rights can be compared to black people's classic civil rights struggle, and she chuckles a little before responding.

As executive director of the Tampa-based advocacy group Equality Florida, she's at the center of the fight for gay marriage rights, gay adoption rights and more. And as a black lesbian, Smith admits she "sort of lives in the intersection" of all those questions.

Comparing the struggles to conquer homophobia, sexism and racism aren't academic exercises for her; it's the story of her life.

"Sometimes this question is phrased in a way that plays into the hands of bigots by asking people to rank oppression . . . asking people "Who has it worse?' " Smith said. "I've experienced racism, sexism and homophobia. And the worst one is whatever one you're dealing with right now."

The Rev. Walter Fauntroy offers a similarly pensive response to the same question.

Now age 70, Fauntroy was the Washington, D.C., coordinator for the historic March on Washington in 1963 that produced Martin Luther King's renowned "I Have a Dream" speech. As a former delegate for Washington in the U.S. House and former head of the Congressional Black Caucus, he spearheaded countless civil rights initiatives in the community and in the legislature.

But when a proposal surfaced to include a gay speaker on the 20th anniversary celebration of the March in 1983, Fauntroy chaired the group of organizers who turned it down (he said gay speakers have appeared at anniversary celebrations since 1993).

And though he believes black and gay people's struggle for rights are "exactly" the same when it comes to five key areas - access to income, education, health care, housing and criminal justice - he draws the line at the most visible issue now before the courts and community: gay marriage.

"My religious tradition says (homosexuality) is an abomination," said Fauntroy, who serves as pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Washington and has publicly supported a constitutional amendment defining marriage as "the union of a man and a woman."

"Don't come to me asking society to attribute to a same-sex union the term "marriage.' It's a misnomer," the pastor added. "Have your same-sex union; have your contracts. But don't confuse my young people into thinking they don't need one another. Don't tell my young women they don't need a man."

As the country prepares to celebrate the birthday of one of the country's greatest civil rights leaders Monday, the question resurfaces: Is the fight to expand gay rights comparable to the civil rights struggle for black people that remains Martin Luther King's greatest legacy?

If so, will those opposing gay marriage laws, gay adoption rights and openly gay military service wind up on the same side of history as segregationists and alarmists who once opposed so-called "race-mixing"?

And if not, why not?

One component clouding the issue on all sides is emotion.

Black people, who may or may not agree with homosexuality itself, remain wary of associating other struggles with the effort to end America's centuries-long legacy of racism and segregation. Gay people suspect that much of the resistance to comparing the two struggles stems from homophobia.

"A lot of people have a visceral reaction to the thought of gay sex," said Matt Foreman of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington. "It's been called in our movement, the "Ick Factor.' But if you have an opportunity to sit down and talk with someone about the issues, many times they come around."

Put the question to Henry Louis Gates Jr. - one of the country's leading scholars on race and civil rights as chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University - and he reacts as if you've asked him whether rain is wet.

"The black community has traditionally been homophobic . . . (it's) deeply rooted in our culture, and I don't understand why," said Gates, now launching a PBS series and companion book on the current state of black America called America: Beyond the Color Line.

"I don't understand why the movement to legitimize gay marriage would bother people so much," added Gates, while noting that, outside issues of civil rights and social justice, black people often hold conservative political viewpoints. "We have to fight to educate people and transform that visceral response . . . (because) one of the strengths of the black civil rights movement is that it's served as a model for so many other movements. We who have suffered so much should also be the most compassionate."

And Gates isn't the only prominent black voice to take this point of view. Both black presidential candidates, Carol Moseley Braun, who dropped out Thursday, and Al Sharpton, have called the gay marriage fight a civil rights issue in the traditional sense - along with luminaries such as Julian Bond, Martin Luther King III and his mother, Coretta Scott King.

Staffers at the King Center in Atlanta declined to schedule an interview with Mrs. King, saying they preferred to focus on community service at the celebration of Dr. King's birthday. But she has spoken out on the subject in the past, equating homophobia to racism.

"I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice," Mrs. King said in 1998, according to Reuters news service."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 brother- and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people."

Indeed, plans for a nationwide series of rallies during Valentine's Day week to protest a constitutional gay marriage ban - including a Feb. 14 rally at Lowry Park in Tampa - bear all the hallmarks of classic, grass-roots civil rights actions. The rallies are sponsored by Metropolitan Community Churches, the Equality Campaign and DontAmend.com.

But those who say homosexuality is immoral and unhealthy charge that gay activists are "hijacking" the nation's civil rights movement; using hard-fought gains for racial minorities and women to justify an orientation many find morally repugnant.

"Skin color or ethnicity involves no moral choices . . . but how you conduct yourself sexually does," said Robert Knight, a former Los Angeles Times staffer who now serves as director of the Culture & Family Institute, an affiliate of Concerned Women for America, which advocates the promotion of biblical values among citizens.

"They are trying to hijack the moral capital of the black civil rights movement and use it to force society to affirm their behavior, regardless of other people's moral beliefs about it," added Knight, who can quote medical studies and surveys that he says back his religion-based belief that homosexuality is a dysfunctional choice, not a born trait.

Fauntroy expressed fears that infighting among black people and gay people over such questions may distract progressive voters at a time when the focus should be elsewhere: namely, on breaking conservatives' hold on the White House and Congress during an important election year.

"Right wing racists . . . use these one-sided issues to divert attention from the fundamental issues of how you spread income around," he said. "I am still smarting from the use of prayer in the schools and abortion . . . to foster voting on sideshow issues. I resent having to spend my valuable time discussing another sideshow issue."

* * *

"All the bayonets in the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation."

- Then-presidential candidate Strom Thurmond in a 1948 speech.

"The whole thing bespeaks of something much deeper and more insidious than "We just want to get married.' (Homosexuals) want to change the entire social order."

- Mychal Massie, conservative columnist and member of Project 21, a Washington-based alliance of conservative black people, in a November Associated Press article.

When organizers of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington officially invited gay and lesbian advocacy groups to help plan last year's celebration - a first in the history of the event - Matt Foreman joined in, helping draw an estimated 1,500 gay and lesbian supporters to the celebration.

And on some issues - the way religion is used to justify persecution, the way unpopular court cases are paving the way for mainstream acceptance - he sees the parallels between his struggle for civil rights and the struggle to eradicate racism.

But even Foreman thinks some gay rights advocates go too far.

"The problem is that . . . people in the gay and lesbian movement have frequently tried to cloak themselves in the civil rights movement for African Americans without recognizing the differences . . . and that has quite rightly been seen as offensive," said Foreman, who pointed out a recent press release from one advocacy group calling marriage bureaus "the new lunch counters" for gay people, evoking the sit-in protests at segregated restaurants in the '60s.

"We don't have separate restrooms, we are not being met by dogs and truncheons (and) that is a huge, profound difference," he added, noting that people of color may be even more offended in hearing such comparisons come from a group the media often portrays as affluent, male and white.

"Gay people have been persecuted throughout history, but there is nothing to compare to state-sanctioned centuries of oppression," Foreman said. "And many gay and lesbian people are able to or are forced to hide their orientation and avoid discrimination."

The key, for some, may lie in separating the history of each group's persecution from their struggles to overcome it.

Trying to draw similarities between racism and homophobia seems a losing proposition. But looking at the progress both groups have made in fighting to earn new rights may be instructive.

For example, when the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage in the 1968 Loving vs. Virginia case, a Gallup Poll showed 72 percent of respondents disapproved of such unions. It would take 23 years of regular surveys before the percentage of those approving interracial marriage would outnumber the percentage of those who disapproved.

The lesson: Polls showing widespread current opposition to gay marriage (at 60 percent among both white and black people, according to a November poll by the Pew Research Center), may change with time.

In his 1996 book One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America, author Keith Boykin devoted an entire chapter to "The Common Language of Racism and Homophobia," noting that arguments once used to justify segregation and racial oppression now surface in antigay discussions.

Indeed, the position gay rights activists find themselves in now - victory in several key court decisions that has sparked a backlash in the mainstream; sympathetic media coverage that is changing some minds - could be comparable to the position black civil rights activists found themselves after the Loving case or the Brown vs. Board of Education decision striking down school segregation in 1954.

"It's amazing to me how we don't learn from our past experiences," said Boykin, a former writer for the Clearwater Times. "(Pulitzer Prize-winning historian) Barbara Tuchman once said every successful revolution eventually puts on the robes of its oppressor. I'm afraid in the case of black people, we've seen that happen again."

But for some who oppose homosexuality, no amount of historical comparison will change their minds.

"Just because I don't want a gay man to teach my son in school, that is not discrimination," said Rev. Richard Bennett Jr., whose African American Council of Christian Clergy in 2002 circulated fliers to Miami-area black churches saying Dr. King would be "outraged" at efforts to link gay rights advocacy with the black civil rights struggle.

"If my daughter plays with a little girl who says I have two mommies or two daddies, that's affecting my children," he added. "For them to compare the civil rights with gay rights - it should be offensive to every African-American in the whole United States."

[Last modified January 18, 2004, 04:40:08]

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