A message to gay rights advocates: Stop it. Enough already. Stop claiming your fight for equality is equal to African Americans’ struggle for civil rights. The two are not the same.
Comparing gays and Blacks has become an increasingly popular tactic among those who plead for marriage equality and other equal treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. The strategy is crafty and it’s smart.
What better way to gain a sympathetic ear than to tether your cause to a people who were enslaved, beaten, raped, murdered and had municipalities train their dogs and water hoses on them? The imagery is powerful to associate with – even if you haven’t been on the business end of a couple hundred psi of fire hose. Even if your group hasn’t been saddled with the same legacy of economic misfortune, employment inequity, and diminished self-esteem.
One of the latest incarnations of the shared experience claim appears in a Washington Post opinion piece written by columnist Jonathan Capehart. In his PostPartisan blog titled “Blacks and Gays: The Shared Struggle for Civil Rights,” Capehart argues that the two civil rights movements are comparable and equivalent.
He reasons the gay rights fight is married to African Americans’ on-going struggle by instances of bullying and murder, denial of the right to marry and the sanction of black leaders who themselves marched for civil rights.
It pains me to disagree with another Jonathan C. Particularly since I admire that Jonathan’s work. But in this case – and I never thought I’d hear myself utter these words – Jonathan is wrong.
He’s not wildly off base. Capehart is correct in identifying parallels between the manner in which gay rights advocates and Blacks have pursued equality. Indeed, gay Americans presumably played key roles in the equal rights push for so-called Negroes four and five decades ago.
But a rose and a tulip aren’t the same simply because they blossom in the same garden.
African Americans (and let’s not forget women, since we’re discussing equal rights) are noticeably black (and female) instantly and unquestionably. Informing you of my African heritage isn’t optional. It’s not preferential. It simply is.
Folks may debate homosexuality’s place in society all day long, but what’s incontrovertible is my appearance – upon which discrimination has been or is levied – is nothing that can be switched on or off or hidden from the world’s view.
When Ken Mehlman chaired the Republican National Committee, no one knew he was gay until he left that post and later disclosed his sexuality. When Michael Steele landed the same job, you couldn’t help but notice he was black. No one had to “out” Steele. That was part of the story.
Blacks don’t have that luxury of hiding being black. And like it or otherwise, that is a distinct, undeniable and substantial difference between both groups and their efforts to attain equal rights.
Further, equal rights were just one component of African Americans’ path to greater integration and acceptance. The other critical and missing piece of the puzzle was (and still is to a largely diminished degree) equal access. Nothing about being gay intuitively tends to block someone from equal access to the places of education, society and commerce.
Gays never needed a military escort to school. Bus drivers never forced gays to sacrifice their seats at the front of the bus. Lunch counters never were institutionally closed to men and women for no other reason than that their sexual preference differed from the majority.
The combined matters of access and abuses arguably separate the gay and African American civil rights struggles by at least one or two orders of magnitude. That’s true even if strategically, tactically and structurally the rights fights are fundamentally alike.
Imagine suggesting that trucks and cars are equal simply because both use the highway, have tires, steering wheels, transmissions and transport people and goods. Despite the similarities, the differences are clear enough to be substantial. And to not recognize that is to deny the individual contribution and purpose both vehicles offer.
Ultimately, the question of marriage equality is one of sameness and acceptance. When you cut through the debate and the vitriol from all sides, gay rights advocates eventual concern is that Americans accept there’s no difference between being heterosexual and homosexual.
And therein lies the foundational rub: Not all Americans are willing to accept the equality of those two very different expressions of love. And many persons have valid reasons to form their opinions which are neither homophobic nor bigoted regardless of what GLAAD or anyone else may suggest.
And until THAT threshold is crossed – if it can be crossed – there will be a great deal of resistance (particularly among African Americans) to the notion of the gay and African American rights struggles being equivalent.
The African American civil rights cause was just on its own merits. It didn’t need to hitch its wagon to another cause to garner sympathy or claim legitimacy. And so it should be with the gay rights fight: Take pride in your own movement without piggy-backing on someone else’s. A cause that has merit can stand on its own.
Besides, African Americans’ backs have been ridden enough already.
© Copyright Jonathan Clarke, 2012, All Rights Reserved