We have not finished yet.
Civil rights, individual liberties and equal treatment under the law still prove elusive for many black Americans.
These goals are also beyond the reach of many other people who call America home. Immigrants strive to find a place that is safe and welcoming. Women are still denied equal pay for equal work. Children born into poverty are still unable to obtain adequate housing and education. People with disabilities are not able to access services and support. In many ways, those who are clearly and conspicuously “outsiders” don’t enjoy the same freedom and fulfillment as their more mainstream counterparts. Theirs is a daily struggle with real consequences.
However, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his pioneering civil rights efforts, it is important to remember that the civil rights struggle isn’t just about black Americans. Members of the LGBT community — people of all races and ethnicities — are plagued by systemic, institutional prejudice.
Indeed, LGBT activist Waymon Hudson points out that LGBT people of color “are often harder hit by discrimination and more marginalized in their needs due to the combined exposure to anti-gay and/or anti-transgender policies and institutionalized racial discrimination.” These discriminatory policies play out in many arenas, including housing challenges, employment discrimination and biased health insurance policies.
Perhaps the best evidence of the bias that still exists: bans on same-sex marriage.
So it was fitting that President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States and a constitutional law professor, would also make history as the first sitting United States president to openly endorse same-sex marriage. It made perfect sense. This was a civil rights issue, plain and simple.
As for the president, he was candid and thoughtful in his May 2012 television interview. “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” he said.
As I watched the interview, I was proud. Proud of the progress we are making. Proud of the opportunity to watch this country’s views, like the president’s views, “evolve.” And incredibly proud that our black president was the first in history to make this important endorsement. This was a pivotal point at which civil rights activists could seize the opportunity to push forward in the battle for full equality in the LGBT community. It was also a chance to build bridges between communities with a lot to learn from each other.
Black leaders were taking note and eager to create a formidable coalition between two groups that should have been working together all along toward the realization of civil rights. Battling common oppressors as a unified front would strengthen not only the same-sex marriage agenda but the strategies that can be used by black Americans and other marginalized groups who are still denied a proverbial seat at the table. It would also offer a real acknowledgment of the converging identities that some LGBT people of color must navigate.
The NAACP, long regarded as one of the most prominent civil rights groups in the nation, also saw that marriage equality was part of the larger civil rights scheme and offered its own support. Not long after President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage, the NAACP also endorsed same-sex marriage in a resolution approved by its board of directors.
NAACP president Benjamin Todd Jealous stressed that the organization’s stance on same-sex marriage was consistent with its defense of civil rights. “Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” he said in a statement. “The NAACP’s support for marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people.”
In the wake of the construction of progressive coalitions, however, the advances were being distorted and obstructed by common oppressors. Their goal was to promote negative stereotypes and polarize communities.
A few religious leaders, many of whom were black, blasted the president for his endorsement of same-sex marriage. Some attacked his religion. Others, amazingly, encouraged their church members to boycott the polls on Election Day. That anyone could encourage a black American to forfeit his or her right to vote was enormously irresponsible. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in his 1865 speech, “What the Black Man Wants,” explained better than anyone the critical importance of the vote, especially in the black community. It is about rights, responsibilities and self-determination.
Furthermore, the backlash against President Obama was also an absolute distortion of the civil rights agenda that the president has advanced since he took office. It is an agenda that properly views civil rights in all its sweeping challenges. Civil rights includes equal pay for women in the workplace, reforms in the criminal justice system and a campaign to protect young people who are being harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And, of course, same-sex marriage.
Despite the assertions from his detractors, President Obama’s endorsement of same-sex marriage was far from being a campaign strategy. After the votes were counted and he began his second term in office, the president made his commitment to LGBT equality clear in his second inaugural address: “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”
He also invoked images of Selma, Seneca Falls and Stonewall to help us remember that the alliances we are forming are forged in common struggles. In many cases we are fighting common oppressors. By building bridges instead of barriers, we make the march easier for all of us on this long and arduous journey.
As we celebrate the first black president of the United States being inaugurated for his second term on a day honoring a civil rights icon, we must also remember that the struggle for civil rights has many important and diverse challenges ahead. And that it is not merely a battle being waged on behalf of straight black Americans.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, said that he was “cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” On its face, the recognition of the interrelatedness is a justification for activists from Atlanta joining in the fight for justice in Birmingham in 1963. Read expansively in 2013, Dr. King’s letter is a clear call for everyone to join in the fight for civil rights, no matter how the injustices emerge or who they affect. In perhaps his most famous line from his Birmingham letter, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This is a lesson that members of all oppressed communities — and anyone committed to social justice — should remember. Racism and homophobia intersect in complex ways to affect the lives of LGBT people of color and all of us. Rather than redeploying oppressive strategies against each other, people from disenfranchised communities are finally learning to focus on commonalities. The struggle for civil rights is expansive and universal. The work to be done is exhaustive.
Soon the United States Supreme Court will have the opportunity to do some of the heavy lifting on this front in its consideration of upcoming marriage cases. The world is watching as the court prepares to weigh in on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, two cases that could have an impact on the legality of same-sex marriages across the country. These are civil rights cases, plain and simple.
We have not finished.
This article was published on 1/28/13 in the Huffington Post. Read it here.
Watch Professor Olympia Duhart and LGBT activist Waymon Hudson’s continued discussion on the intersections of race and LGBT issues on the latest episode of Critical Thinking.