Gay Marriage- A Civil Rights Issue?

As support for gay marriage seems to be gaining traction across the country, there’s a bone of contention that’s arisen with some people in the black community. That would be the comparisons made between the struggle for gay rights generally and the civil rights movement spearheaded by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the vanguard of black opposition to both that framing and gay marriage is a large number of black clergymen.

One major flashpoint for this debate happens to be in New York State, where Gov. David Paterson, who is black, is championing a gay marriage bill making its way through the state legislature. Last month, he likened the fight for gay marriage to the fight to end slavery. Further, he took religious leaders to task for not speaking out on the issue.

In fact, many have. In California, for example, the fight to pass Proposition 8 restricting marriage to opposite sex couples was helped by support from both black clergy and black voters. Despite polling that says attitudes against gay marriage may be softening in the general population, black communities seem to be holding firm against it.

The gay rights-civil rights comparison is red meat to the black clergy, many of whom recognize the central role religious leadership played in the struggle for equal rights. They subscribe to the notion that being gay is a “lifestyle choice”, unlike being black. On the other side of the coin, black religious leaders have to contend with the fact that numbers of their congregants are themselves gay, though in many cases not out of the closet.

So how to cope with this disagreement among two groups who ought to be allies? It’s always tough to speculate on what those who have passed before us would do if confronted with this question, but it is fair to ask what would Dr. King do? Would he oppose gay rights after having fought so hard for black rights? One would like to think he wouldn’t. 

Have black clergy who oppose gay marriage and the gay rights-civil rights comparison become, in the words of one black clergyman “the very thing that oppressed them”? That may be a little harsh. These folks, and the people in the black community they represent, do have long held beliefs about homosexuality. 

Yet they still can’t answer the central question of the gay rights debate. How are they, or any other group for that matter hurt by allowing gays to live their lives as full citizens? 

What do you think? Is it wrong to compare the struggle for gay marriage to the civil rights movement?

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1 Comment

  1. Am not Black, so my comment will not be about anything other than what I have experienced. I did spend two years, in NOLA, as a small cog in the Civil Rights Movement. I worked pt time for a civil rights law firm, LCDC, Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, on Dryades St., across from the Black WMCA, 1965-67. I did research for cases, including proving that Bogaloosa segregated its school buses. I had to prove that they were and I did it by looking at the bus routes, seeing how one bus went to homes that had Black children, while another bus route stopped at homes of white children.
    The case won in LA and went to the US Supreme Court and won. I also did whatever office work that wasn’t done by the bookkeeper/typist, and, my favorite, “briefed” visiting lawyers who would work as volunteers on their vacations, about NOLA.

    At the time, Black Nationalism was beginning. I hated the segregation in NOLA. And the climate. It was a lonely time and I was eager to get back to NYC.

    When I became disabled by illness, I started hearing people say, “You (disabled people) want wheelchair access? Why, it costs money. Get over it. What, you say it’s a civil rights issue? Nah.” So I am familiar with civil rights/human rights being a right of a minority group, while not actually being a part of the US Civil Rights Movement of African-Americans.

    Based on my not being able to get into many places due to steps/no ramp/no elevator
    (and bathrooms that you can’t get a wheelchair into, if the place is wheelchair accessible at the entrance), or stores that have doorways and aisles blocked even if there is wheelchair access….despite the law saying groups holding public events
    (even Churches and other religious groups that are private, if the event is offered to the public, it must be accessible) must be wheelchair accessible, it’s not enforced well.

    It was Frieda Zames, a founder of Disabled in Action (someone from the group was on one of Mark Riley’s radio shows, for which I am grateful), who taught me that
    keeping out people who use wheelchairs, is segregation. Google Frieda Zames.
    She was the first disabled student to go to Brooklyn College, CUNY. She got a PhD in Math, taught for years in college in PA. Died in June, 2005, I think. NYC City Council voted for DRIE (the rental law, like SCRIE for low income senior citizens, to keep
    rent low) in her honor and recently named a street (hers) in lower Manhattan for her.

    So, I can relate to people who want to marry, who are of the same sex. I see it as
    a civil right. There is no need to pair the gay/lesbian rights movement with the Black Civil Rights Movement. I am a feminist and the women’s movement learned from the Civil Rights Movement of African-Americans, as did disabled people and gay/lesbians.


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