Gay rights became a prominent issue in the November election because liberals sensed an opportunity to expand gay rights and some conservatives salivated over the potential to use the issue for political advantage. Many advocates of expanding gay rights, including this editorial page, compared the struggle to achieve equality for gays to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But these same advocates have failed to realize that there are a number of differences between the two movements.

Jason Pesick

The problem with equating them is not that equality for black Americans should be put on a higher plane than equality for gay Americans, but ironically, that the lack of startling images of discrimination and a dark history of slavery has made garnering support among the American people for gay rights much more difficult.

During the ’60s, Americans decided the time had come for the country to break with the past on issues of race relations, but it wasn’t because moderate Americans suddenly experienced an ideological transformation. David Garrow, a law professor at Emory University, has written, “Violence by segregationists, combined with what was generally portrayed and perceived as the movement’s generally nonviolent nature and its highly legitimate goals, had the effect both of making the movement appear ‘extremely virtuous’ in comparison to its opponents and of depicting racial segregation as far more brutal than the majority of white Americans realized. Needless to say, a very major role in creating those all-important perceptions and reactions among both the society at large and political actors in Washington was played by the media … ”

It was the stark images of “white only” signs in front of bathrooms and drinking fountains, the scene of Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in front of a schoolhouse door to keep blacks from entering, the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in which 21 children were injured and four girls were killed, the incarcerations of civil rights leaders, the assassinations, the firefighters aiming their hoses at demonstrators, the dogs attacking the demonstrators and the police beating them that finally made Americans cry “Enough” — not altruism or an intense wave of racial understanding.

On March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday,” a civil rights march in Selma, Ala, turned to chaos as police used tear gas and clubs on demonstrators. The Associated Press quoted U.S. Rep. James G. O’Hara as saying, “This savage action in stormtrooper style … must have shocked and shamed Americans.” And it did. But wild events such as this are more rare in the gay rights movement than they were in the ’60s.

There is no history of enslaving gays, sending them to separate schools or allowing them to live in economic squalor. Thankfully, gay Americans are not relegated to the slums of society.

And leaders in the gay rights movement understand this difference. The New York Times’s John Broder wrote that Steven Fisher, the communications director for the largest U.S. gay and lesbian advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, “said the group’s emphasis in coming months would be on communicating the struggles of gays in their families, workplaces, churches and synagogues.” This strategy could be more effective, but discrimination against gay Americans, while abhorrent, rarely carries the shock value that the frightening violence against black Americans did. So the American people’s response will be less decisive now than it was 40 years ago. Cruelly beating people demonstrating for their most basic civil rights violates core American principles. As Jimmy Carter might say, our nation’s soul was at stake.

Unfortunately, however, many leaders of the civil rights movement now operate under the assumption that because of the asymmetries between what was at stake for blacks and what is now at stake for gays, gay rights is not as noble a cause as racial equality was. On the same day that gay couples in Massachusetts could begin to have their marriages legally recognized, a number of well-known black clergymen went to Washington to show their opposition to gay unions.

The San Francisco Chronicle quoted California Bishop Frank Stewart as saying, “Gays have never gone through slavery nor been put down and abused like blacks.” Seven black pastors, known as the San Francisco Tabernacle Clergy said in a joint statement that comparisons between the movement for gay marriage and for civil rights “are offensive and belittle the cause of freedom and racial justice.”

Maybe partly because the black community tends to be socially conservative and therefore opposed to gay rights, these clergy mistakenly advocate the position that because gays have not endured the same hardships blacks have, they are not entitled to equal rights. It’s a dangerous rhetorical path to tread — a sick competition of whose grievances are more compelling.

In this country, a community’s history does not disqualify those people who compose it from receiving equal rights.

 

Pesick can be reached at jzpesick@umich.edu

 

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