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Blacks and gay civil rights

A break from the Alito madness…

Jeninne Lee-St. John has an excellent Viewpoint piece in Time this week, writing on the current conflict within the religious black community on gay civil rights. It’s worth the read.

Just look at the black religious leaders—like Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; evangelical juggernaut Bishop T. D. Jakes; and groups like the Memphis-based Coalition of African American Pastors—who’ve joined ranks with the conservative Right in opposing gay marriage. They say gay rights are not the same as civil rights. They accuse gays and lesbians of “hijacking” the civil rights movement for their homosexual agenda. They say it’s unholy and unnatural. But it’s for perhaps that last argument alone that, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court mulls a challenge to an old state law now being used to prohibit out-of-state homosexual couples from wedding there, black Americans should sympathize with gays and lesbians who want to marry.

Lee-St. John accurately notes that anti-miscegenation laws in the South prevented blacks and whites from marrying for those same “unnatural” and “unholy” reasons. When that was over turned, it was not the end of American culture and civilization. Those yahoos hell-bent on “protecting marriage,” such as Falwell, Dobson, Santorum, Rick Perry, a host of black homo-bigot pastors, and of course, our friend in the Vatican, Papa Ratzi, have made it practically their life’s work to restrict same-sex couples to second-class citizen status.

The hangup many blacks have is the comparison to the gay rights struggle as equivalent to slavery, which is ludicrous. It’s not a zero-sum game that civil equality for gays means blacks will somehow have their rights removed or restricted. This, of course is also nonsensical if one considers that there are those among us that are both gay and black, something that clearly is an uncomfortable reality for many religious blacks (see what occurred at the Millions More March, for instance, when black gay activist Keith Boykin was turned away from the podium by homophobe Willie Wilson).

Of course there are important differences. “The comparison with slavery is a stretch,” Jesse Jackson asserted in a speech at Harvard last year, “in that some slave masters were gay, in that 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.” All of which is true. Race is most often, rightly or not, signified physically. While gays have been, and still are in many instances, forced to play straight, they at least had a refuge. It was historically difficult, usually impossible, and often illegal, for a black person to pass as white (even if 15/16ths of his blood was). They had nowhere to hide.

So yes, in the game of Who’s Been More Systematically Oppressed?, black people win hands down. But that doesn’t discount the hardships of other groups. (Remember the federal Defense of Marriage Act?) And it doesn’t mean everyone isn’t entitled to equal rights.

Massachusetts Governor (and apparently an ’08 prez contender) Mitt Romney is clinging to that 1913 law, and knows that there will be a domino effect, a likely positive cascade of gay rights rulings that will follow, if it is overturned by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Lee-St. John challenges those black leaders on the side of the gay-bashing evangelicals on this issue to remember how black civil rights and gay civil rights intersect.

Conservative blacks should denounce the Massachusetts law in question not because they’ve suddenly decided to embrace something they find wrong but because the law is wrong. It’s ostensibly a Federalist argument that is in fact homophobic—and was racist—in intent. And it offends me to the core that lawmakers would deny equal rights to one minority group using a statute created to target others, a statute that could have barred, even invalidated, my existence and might have prevented me from marrying my (white) boyfriend from Massachusetts in Massachusetts. Remember that it took until 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws that remained on the books in 16 states—and that Alabama still didn’t repeal its law until five years ago.

Key: black pastor

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding