By Steve Charing
We have just commemorated the 45th anniversary of the three Selma (Alabama) marches. They took place in an effort to gain voting rights for black citizens. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was among several prominent civil rights leaders to help organize the marches.
The first of these events occurred on March 7, 1965 and resulted in "Bloody Sunday" when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by local and state police using billy clubs and tear gas. The third march began on March 21 and lasted 5 days along the 54-mile route to Montgomery.
In retrospect, these marches provided the emotional and political peak of the civil rights movement. The marchers endured the violence to make a statement and opened the country's eyes.
At one time the U.S. Constitution regarded black people as three-fifths of a complete person—the core argument (along with Scripture) to justify slavery, segregation, disenfranchisement and discrimination. While the Constitution had been amended to eradicate that dehumanizing mistake and subsequent federal civil rights laws have been passed, the struggles for African-Americans continue.
It is sad, however, that 45 years later, we find many African-Americans averse to recognizing the struggle by LGBT Americans for equal treatment as a quest for civil rights. Indeed, there are differences. For one thing, lgbt folks do not constitute a race as African-Americans do. We are a swath of the general population—perhaps 5 percent—that covers all races, all religions, all ethnic origins, all socio-economic backgrounds, all political beliefs, and so on.
But LGBT folks can be fired from their jobs for simply being who they are in 38 of our states. Gays and lesbians cannot serve openly in our Armed Forces, yet we have been willing to die for our country. Gays and lesbians cannot legally marry except in 5 states and the District of Columbia. Moreover, the federal government by dint of the loathsome Defense of Marriage Act does not recognize in any fashion the partnership of same-sex couples. And we cannot walk the streets of any place other than a "gay ghetto" hand-in-hand without the risk of a baseball bat being smacked against the back of our head.
If there is any group that is still lacking civil rights, we are it.
Nonetheless, many African-Americans do not see it that way. Delegate Emmett Burns who unsuccessfully attempted to get a bill passed during this year's legislative session to preempt Attorney General Gansler's opinion that allows Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages from outside the state is a good example. During the public hearing for the defeated bill Burns said, "I would not have been able to sit here as a member of the General Assembly during segregation based on the color of my skin. But gays and lesbians could…I cannot hide my color…To say the two are on equal par is anathema to me."
That's the thinking: blacks cannot hide their color but gays can hide. The question begs, why should we have to? In a nation whose Declaration of Independence explicitly says all men are created equal, why then do we need to hide who we are just to have a seat at the table? The mere suggestion of this by Burns and others demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of what civil rights mean.
Coretta Scott King, John Lewis and Julian Bond, just to name three venerated African-American civil rights leaders, have far more stature in the civil rights movement than Emmett Burns. They know the true meaning of civil rights, and they had no problem connecting the struggle for lgbt rights as civil rights. Ms. King spoke for her husband when she said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
John Lewis, who fought alongside Dr. King during the black civil rights battles said, "I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry."
And Julian Bond said, "That's why when I am asked, 'Are gay rights civil rights?' my answer is always, 'Of course they are.'"
Emmett Burns dismisses the words of these civil rights icons by snapping "they don't speak for me." Those other African-Americans who refuse to accept our quest for equality as a civil rights movement may have forgotten that gays and lesbians stood shoulder-to-shoulder with blacks in marches and in efforts to register black voters so that they would not be disenfranchised. They risked their lives for the cause of civil rights.
“We had marched with Martin Luther King, seven of us from the Mattachine Society of Washington in 1963," said gay pioneer Jack Nichols. "And from that time on, we’d always had our own dream about a march of similar proportions.”
According to Equality Forum, openly gay Bayard Rustin was the lead organizer of the March on Washington in August 1963. In October 1963, openly gay James Baldwin and Dick Gregory with his wife were the first nationally prominent blacks to protest for voters rights in Selma.
We may or may not need marches to demonstrate that we're in a civil rights struggle. To succeed, however, we must seek the acknowledgement by those who have been through the same battles. We need them at our side now. Equality is civil rights—no matter the color, no matter what.