Hitching a Freedom Ride: Gay Ain’t the New Black…

See Sarah Sentilles’ response piece here.

Last week in the Hawaii state senate, a bill to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples “died in committee.” In this battle, as in so many others, those who oppose same-sex civil rights have been “loud and hate-filled,” sometimes arguing that gay marriage would lead to the legalization of polygamy or the end of marriage altogether. Self-styled “moderates” counsel against rocking the boat, or speak of waiting until the nation is ready. For gay rights proponents, this rhetoric is redolent of the battle for black civil rights, with some even drawing that comparison in the hope of tarring opponents and swinging the debate.

It comes as little surprise that some members and friends of the LGBTQ community have hitched their conceptual wagons to the black freedom struggle of the previous century. Just as African Americans, after 244 years of slavery and an additional century of racial apartheid, fought for equal protections and rights under the law, many LGBTQ persons resist being relegated to second-class citizenship inside the closets of heteronormativity. In the process, some have even suggested that the fight over same-sex marriage is an extension of the civil rights struggle for racial equality.

This creates a problem, to say the least. Rather than fostering an alliance based on a shared conception of exclusion, many African Americans are agitated by the analogy. For many African Americans, the term ‘civil rights’ has a distinctive connotation. And folks rightly argue that same-sex marriage was neither the aim nor a necessary conclusion of the civil rights movement. In short, “Gay ain’t the new black.”

Personally, I tend to agree with this latter point, but for different reasons. For me, the assumption that minority status comes from “who you are rather than what you do” creates a false and flawed division. The argument that being LGBTQ is a choice, unlike racial phenotype, is a poor one. Science has substantiated a biological basis for homosexuality, and an estimated 4,000 children are born each year with what doctors refer to as “ambiguous genitalia.” Moreover, I find the thought of millions of men and women choosing self-imposed social exile to be preposterous. The innumerable teenagers that have tragically taken their own lives due to the burden of same-sex attraction undercut the whole “choice” rationale.

On the other hand, I do believe that injustice is contextually specific. And while modes of social injustice may be at times interrelated (i.e. the relationship between racism and classism, or the cultural connection between sexism and homophobia), they are still distinguishable and historically contingent. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, etc., are all independent categories. We know that white women can fight against male hierarchy even as they ignore their own complicity in terms of racial stratification. And middle-class African Americans can challenge racial discrimination in the workplace while simultaneously reinforcing detrimental conceptions of the black poor. As social ethicist Emilie Townes told a group attending a conference at Claremont School of Theology recently, “Oppression is peculiar. This is why every group needs to have their own story and not co-opt the narrative of others.”

I agree. Quite frankly, there is just too much of a disconnect for me between African Americans’ long fight against slavery and segregation solely determined by the color of one’s skin and the contemporary fight for same-sex marriage. For example, white members of the LBGTQ community have always benefited from racial and class-based privilege. Gay men owned slaves, lesbian women promoted the system of racial segregation, and transgendered and queer communities continue to be highly stratified and exclusionist on the basis of race and class.

Let’s not forget that it was this nation’s Federal Bureau of Investigations led by a gay white man, J. Edgar Hoover, that sought to squelch the civil rights efforts of openly gay and lesbian activists of color like Bayard Rustin and Earth Thunder (not to mention the several other prominent civil rights leaders of the ’60s who continue to live discreet, though not necessarily denied, gay lives).

Moreover, racial injustice is predicated upon the visual. White LBGTQ persons have always had the option of simply code-switching when beneficial. Sexual orientation is rarely worn on one’s sleeve, face, or hair texture. Thus the particularity of white supremacy and legalized racial discrimination in previous epochs resists hackneyed comparisons to the black freedom struggle by those advocating other issues, regardless of how right or just these issues may be.

At the same time, we all must acknowledge that civil rights transcend the African American community. Black folks hardly have a monopoly on Constitutional protections. Civil rights are, in theory, afforded to all citizens. The will of a majority can never impinge upon the lives of a minority. Everyone is entitled to equal rights and protection under the law, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, physical handicap, or sexual orientation.

This is why petitions for civil rights should not be interpreted as claims for exceptional privilege for any particular group, but rather as equal treatment before the law. Julian Bond, national chairman of the NAACP said it best at a recent Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles: “Gay and lesbian rights are not special rights in any way. It isn’t special to be free from discrimination. It is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship.”

Here is where LBGTQ activists can carve out their own distinct narrative of American civil rights activity, and are doing just that. They have the opportunity, as persons of color did along the lines of race, to demonstrate the many ways members of the LBGTQ community are being denied the privileges of citizenship readily afforded to heterosexual citizens. State constitutional amendments like Proposition 8 outlawing same-sex marriage employ state power and majority opinion to take away privileges heterosexuals take for granted. The American Constitution is intended to protect the rights of individuals, not prohibit them. And by placing heterosexist boundaries around marriage, committed same-sex couples are denied vital material benefits whether they be health care, property claims, and a range of other rights the US government provides to legally married couples.

Now some may dispute this assertion with a theological claim that marriage is intended for a man and a woman according to religious principle, or even a cosmogonic commitment as to how God created humanity. This is fine, but irrelevant. Plenty of citizens who self-define as atheists, agnostics, or just plain religiously indifferent get married every day. It is not their religious commitment, but simply their heterosexual orientation that affords this right. Why deny it to others?

What is more, everyone is free to have his or her own opinion concerning same-sex marriage. One need not like the idea of Jerry marrying David anymore than the thought of Thomas Chung-Kim marrying Keisha Jackson. But in a just, democratic society, those in opposition should not have the authority to deny these human beings the right to participate in an activity that neither damages life nor impinges upon the lives of others.

I would even argue that a religious leader should have the right to decline marrying Lucy and Ethel just as he or she may resist appearing on an episode of Bridezillas or My Big Redneck Wedding. But similar to countless ill-fated, ghetto weddings that take place each year (thank God Bristol Palin and Brother Levi came to their senses!), just because a particular cleric or priest refuses to do it due to faith commitments, does not mean that it can’t be done. There is a difference between clerical prerogative and state-sanctioned discrimination.

In sum, the issue of civil rights and the LBGTQ community cannot be reduced to either race or religion. It’s a matter of rights. Charles E. Cobb, an African-American journalist and author who served as a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Mississippi between 1962-67 seems to have the right perspective. While recently promoting his new book On the Road to Freedom: A Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail he offered his thoughtful opinion. “Gay marriage should be treated as any other civil right,” he said. “Not all civil rights are racial.”

And I would add that just because they are not racial, doesn’t mean they are not right.

jonathan.walton@mac.com'

Jonathan L. Walton is assistant professor at Harvard Divinity School. His lastest book is: Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Religious Broadcasting (New York University Press).