Friday, February 15, 2013

Black History Month: Moving Forward

As we near the end of Black History Month and having viewed the excellent documentary Brother Outsider, which presented the life of civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, it is easy to smile and reflect upon the progress in the relations between the African-American and LGBT communities. 
A promising visionary and activist in the civil rights movement, Rustin had been arrested in Pasadena, Calif. on a “morals” charge, which outed him as a homosexual.  As a key associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rustin organized the spectacular March on Washington, D.C. in 1963.  

But his being gay held Rustin back from rising up the ranks in the civil rights movement’s hierarchy as did perhaps his affiliation with a campus Communist group.

This is one example of the tensions between the LGBT and African-American communities.  A major reason for discord has been many African-Americans’ perception of racism by gays, or if not overt racism, then a lack of inclusiveness.  Clearly, there is truth to that.  There is also some resentment among blacks that gays and lesbians have couched the quest for marriage equality as one of civil rights.
Coretta Scott King would be pleased today

On the other hand, a significant portion of black culture sees homosexuality as a taboo, which particularly hurts Same Gender Loving African-Americans. This has been reinforced by church-going blacks who have viewed homosexuality as a sin—a mantra that for decades has been constantly repeated by pastors and became more prevalent during the ongoing efforts to achieve marriage equality. 

Despite these strains, civil rights leaders have understood the philosophy of Dr. King and applied it towards LGBT folks.  The late Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, had been a champion in using her husband’s words to combat homophobia. 
“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” she said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

She also recognized that gays and lesbians walked arm-in-arm with blacks during those iconic marches of the 1960’s.  They joined forces, even risked their lives, to help blacks achieve the right to vote without undue barriers. 

 “Gays and lesbians stood up for civil rights in Montgomery, Selma, in Albany, Ga. and St. Augustine, Fla., and many other campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement,” Ms. King said at the 25th Anniversary Luncheon for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund a day later. “Many of these courageous men and women were fighting for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own, and I salute their contributions.”

Since then other prominent African-American leaders joined in the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT people. Most notable of these were Rep. John Lewis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Julian Bond and more recently Benjamin Jealous who is the CEO of the NAACP.
Nonetheless, uneasiness between the two groups remained a point of concern.  Following the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in 2008, fingers were pointed by gay activists towards the African-American community for voting to uphold Prop 8, thereby denying marriage equality to same-sex couples in California.  While a majority of black voters supported Prop 8,  a review of post-election data concluded that various other factors contributed to Prop 8’s support at the polls, such as the generation gap. 

Numbers  guru Nate Silver pointed out on his fivethirtyeight.com website that “At the end of the day, Prop 8's passage was more a generational matter than a racial one. If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.”
As Maryland braced for a marriage referendum battle last year, the concerns about the African-American community and how they would vote highlighted the pre-referendum handicapping.  The theory, according to pundits, was that if the pro-equality forces could make sufficient inroads with black voters, then that would put us over the top.

The effort to win over African-American voters in Question 6 was bolstered by President Obama’s disclosure last May that same-sex couples deserve the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts.  The national NAACP joined in with their support. 
Later, the campaign featured prominent religious African-American Reverends Donte Hickman and Delman Coates as part of the TV advertising.  In addition, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo—a mixed race advocate for marriage equality—engaged in a verbal tussle with homophobic Delegate Emmett Burns that received national exposure.

All along, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was a strong vocal supporter of marriage equality.  When the votes were ultimately counted, Baltimore City had a sizable plurality for Question 6, and Prince George’s deficit was much smaller than anticipated. Consequently, the hateful comment by a pastor stating gays and supporters “are deserving of death” most likely did not sit well with fair-minded voters regardless of race.
All the momentum was on the side of equality.  It is safe to say that the favorable outcome did not occur in spite of African-Americans but because of them.  The myth that marriage equality could not be achieved because of black opposition should finally be put to rest.

Still there are problems between the two groups.  Racism continues to exist but should be diminished considerably by future generations.  Anti-gay rhetoric is still spewed from the pulpits in black churches. 
But the trend looks very positive now, and I believe Coretta Scott King is looking down and smiling over the progress that has been made.

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