Equivalent? Yes, no? Who cares?

The kerfuffle around Obama's choice of Rick Warren has drawn a lot of ire from members and supporters of the GLBTQ community. I've written about it already, and I don't really have more to say about the issue per se. However, in the comments over at The Plank, people have said that gay marriage is the civil rights issue of the day, equivalent to the Civil Rights movement for African-Americans in the 60s. Well, is it? Is Obama's invitation somehow equivalent to Kennedy hypothetically having asked an openly pro-segregation minister to pray for him?

Yes, and no. But who cares?

In some ways, of course they are equivalent. Have people died for being gay? Of course they have. People have died for simply being perceived as being gay. (I realize that Sucuzhanay was the recipient of anti-hispanic violence, but just because they hate you for being one thing doesn't mean that they can't hate you for something else.) Are our family lives disrupted because we are gay or lesbian? Of course they are. (I am heartened by how things are going in Florida.) Is there job discrimination for being gay? Of course there is. Personally, I had to turn down a good job prospect because the Powers that Be let the Better Half know that there would be no work for him in that particular area of the country. When I got my current job, there were people who let the administration know that they were not comfortable working with a gay man. (The administration, to their credit, didn't care.) And let's be honest -- civil unions are the very definition of "separate but equal."

On the other hand, I have no idea what it is to be black in America. I have never been followed through a store while shopping. It is highly unlikely that any gesture I would make would ever be described as a "terrorist fist bump." On that note, anyone who compares the response to the Obama/Wright relationship and the McCain/Hagee endorsement will notice the marked discrepancy in criticism and attention. To say that gay marriage is the civil rights struggle of our day is to imply that the "old" civil rights struggle is over. Not hardly.

And this is where I would caution my friends in the LGBTQ community. When we frame the conversation, we had best remember our humility. Lawrence v. Texas was not Brown v. Board of Education. Both were important, landmark cases, and both are cause for rejoicing. But we have not known what it is to be oppressed and undermined the same way that black people have. We have, by and large, been able to "pass," and while I am sure that straight people throughout the ages would have kept us out of the polls and jobs we sought if they had been able to do so, often times we learned to hide it to they couldn't tell. Oppressive? Sure. But not the same.

A lot of hot air has been blasted about the black vote in favor of Proposition 8 in California, and I don't think I need to add any. But it doesn't help our cause when we assume that black people will automatically relate to our struggle because they had their own. They have theirs and we have ours. Hopefully we can use our experiences to relate to each other, but it doesn't help when we conflate and confuse what are separate, not necessary equal, histories.



  1. I enjoyed reading this, it was an interesting comparison.

  2. Thinking out loud here, and from a pretty naive, non-target privileged life experience:
    Is there a way in which sexuality in the US -- and especially the LGBTQ community -- runs into racism and classism. To wit: is it easier and safe to be out, if in your other social locations (race, class, education level, gender, etc.) you are in a 'non-target', privileged position? If this is the case, I would expect that the perception is that the LGBTQ community is white and rich. And if that's the perception, then it would follow that there would be resentment from some communities of "look at those rich white boys, playing at needing civil rights..."

    And if that's the case, then the LGBTQ community (and we're talking a highly organized, elected community here, right? kidding...) also needs to address racism and sexism yes, within itself but more importantly the country as a whole. To say loudly "We're going to campaign against racism, classism, sexism -- because these are oppressive and because they especially hurt queer african-americains, etc., who feel they can't come out because the cards are already so stacked against them..."

    So -- am I off track here? Somewhat on track? Just being a bossy straight white guy? (Don't you love that voice of "What You People Need To Do Is...")

  3. Also -- did I make it clear that I'm not accusing the LBGTQ community of being racist and classist? I'm not sure I did. Let me be clear: I'm talking about perception, and I'm talking about perception from the point of view of a community (straight, white, well-off guys) who have an interest in keeping different 'minority' groups pitted against each other in order to maintain the status quo.

    Ahh, lets see what happens as the hornets' nest is stirred...

  4. Devin, turn off your television and go actually meet some people unlike yourself.

  5. Thanks, Anonymous. Going to buy me a TV for Christmas? 'Cause I don't have one. I'm not going to defend the diversity of my family, friends and social network -- none of your g.d. business -- and I've already owned that the question I posed is a particularly privliged/non-target bossy one.

    To reiterate -- if there's a gap in communicating LGBTQ rights as civil rights, is it because that perception gap is itself a result of racism and classism as well as homophobia in our society? I'm interested how readers see these as interconnected issues

    ( I'd appreciate responses that address the question rather than flame the author.)

  6. thanks for that. As a black man I have found the comparison frankly insulting however what you left out is historical context. Blacks were as an entire race slaves to the majority shipped over as goods and not as human beings. this went on for generations. That makes a world of difference that frankly I don't think the homosexual community can lay claim to and the distinction is VERY significant. The civil rights movement of the 60s had the issue of slavery as its backdrop.

  7. An excellent point, Anon -- thank you.!

    That I left out the historical context of slavery -- the dehumanizing brutality of treating some people as property because of the color of their skin -- was a wake up call to my own long habits of racism (years and years and I'm still working to overcome it). As a white guy, it's always too easy to conveniently elide over the uncomfortable parts of our national story.

    In talking about african americans and cvil rights, I should made clear reference to the pain of slavery (as Dan did in his original post). When it comes to civil rights, though, I feel there are some real dangers in making the argument that civil rights are changed fundamentally by suffering. I'd posit that on the issue of civil rights, a society makes a decision that there are fundamental rights that apply to all human beings -- freedom from fear, freedom to work, to buy or rent housing, to marry the person they love.

    Otherwise, would it be permissible to discriminate in housing against Latinos or Asians because they don't have the same history of slavery? I don't think anyone would say 'yes.'

    Let me reiterate, an early caveat: I agree with the point I heard in your comment, that to talk about the 60s civil rights era it's vital to recognize the painful history of slavery and of the century of Jim Crow laws after slavery.

    But when it comes to discussing cvil rights, my own feeling is that civil rights are universal, rather than particular. I see Proposition 8 as a step backwards in civil rights -- declaring that some people are less human than others. It's the flaw with ballot initiatives; a working republic sometimes needs to defend the rights of the minority against the tyranny of the majority. The most extreme example being the election of the Nazi party in 1920's Germany -- a democracy failing to protect the minority (including 100,000 gay men arrested and placed in prisons and death camps for being gay).

    It was so easy to repeal this recently won right. What other communities will be targeted next? And how easy will it be, as long as we continue to pit different 'target' groups against each other?

    I also see Proposition 8 as an affront to religious freedom. If the state begins regulating who can and cannot marry based on one particular wing of one religion -- which is what Prop 8 and the DOMA bills do -- then the state is establishing religion. As a Christian who believes that God calls us to committed faithful relationships, straight and gay, I don't want the state interfering in this holy sacrament.

    Finally, just to point out the obvious (and the original, well-hidden point of my first comment): the LGBTQ community isn't just white. Prop. 8 also denied thousands of black men and women in California the opportunity to marry the person they love.

  8. Check out:

    Identity, Race, Racism, Labels & Shortcuts: Hopefully Not a Remake of the Same Song, But a Somewhat Familiar, Yet Still Engaging, New Tune

    on www.thetalentedmasses.com