By Anthony Martinez Beven
During the past several years, as the gay civil rights movement in this country has gained more momentum and media attention, it has increasingly been compared to the African American civil rights movement. Interracial marriage, for instance, was once outlawed in the United States, much like same-sex marriage is in most states today.
But some black leaders, particularly those from the religious community, have expressed concern about making such a comparison. It all comes down to choice versus biology, they say.
A Pew Research poll taken after the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage found that more blacks than whites disagreed with the court’s decision. Similarly, polls taken after Proposition 8 was passed in California showed that opposition to same-sex marriage in the state was most rampant among black citizens.
Pontiac resident Ryan Ortiz, 23, who is both African American and gay, said the two civil rights movements are not identical, but comparisons can be made.
“I think they can be compared, because it’s a minority group that is being discriminated against. I don’t think it can diminish what has been done or what still can be done for black civil rights,” Ortiz said. “We are all fighting to be equal. That’s what it boils down to.”
Angela Dillard, a professor at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan, said, “Part of the taboo has to do with the question of choice. The view among African Americans is that because sexuality is a choice, it’s not a permanent condition like race.
“Sexuality functions in such a different way,” Dillard added. “You aren’t born into a gay family or gay culture. It’s not a permanent defining characteristic of a person. It’s seen as a choice, unlike race. You don’t choose to be black or white.”
Alicia Skillman, executive director of the Triangle Foundation, Michigan’s largest gay civil rights organization, said being a lesbian and African American, her rights are at issue in both cases – but she’s neither one nor the other.
“That’s how I show up, and that’s how I need to show up,” she said. “I’m a whole human being, and I believe I’m due all of my human rights, and I expect that. That’s what I’m working on.”
Skillman said that connecting the two communities and helping them to work together starts by building up the LGTBQ community’s ally base. She has contacted other civil rights organizations, including the Detroit chapter of the NAACP, whose branch president Rev. Wendell Anthony is open to forming a working relationship with the Triangle Foundation, she said.
The NAACP’s Detroit branch did not fulfill a request for comment for this story.
“Anthony is well known in the community and is an experienced person in the civil rights world. He was receptive, and we are going to begin talking,” Skillman said, adding she hopes to partner with the Detroit NAACP branch on a variety of issues, such as anti-biased legislation and police brutality. “There are numerous areas where we could be of service to each other.”
It may be hard to convince other black Americans of this, though. Dillard said this debate centers around widespread homophobia within the African-American community.
“Homosexuality is something that black people catch from white people, not a part of black culture. (It’s) a foreign alien identity, a hard thing to account for,” Dillard said of African Americans’ interpretation of homosexuality.
Ortiz said blacks think gay people “are the devil … just like civil rights leaders (were treated) back in the day.”
Jo Reger, a professor of Sociology at Oakland University who specializes in gender issues as well as social movements, noted that people tend to polarize black or gay civil rights when they are talked about.
“We forget that there are lots of black – and people of color – who are LGBTQ people,” Reger commented. “All gays aren’t white, and all blacks aren’t straight.”
Another point of tension is that the two groups are competing for the media spotlight to highlight their causes – a race the LGBTQ community has been winning as of late.
“I think the media plays a large role in how we think of social movements,” Reger said. “With all the legislative changes going on for LGBTQ rights, we are more tuned into these issues. Also we can’t forget how gay rights get used as political lighter fluid during presidential elections. We don’t see the same dynamic with other movements right now.”
Dillard said civil rights for the LGBTQ community are more easily defined, while there are more complicated layers within the African American movement. “For gays and lesbians, it’s still an issue of civil rights: can you get married, work where you want to work, get health benefits,” she said. “Social rights affect African Americans. There is more media attention, because what affects gays and lesbians is a clearer kind of story.”
The LGBT community tends to get its message out to the masses faster as well by using the Internet, an increasingly important component to civil rights movements, Reger said. “The LGBTQ movement is taking advantage of the technology,” she said. “We saw a rise of activism after the movie ‘Milk’ came out that spurred lots of grassroots activism. Also blogs and list servs are being used to spread videos, letters, etc. that help mobilize the movement.”
With a cultural shift happening, one in which black celebrities, such as Mary J. Blige and Beyonce, openly showing support for the LGBTQ community, Dillard acknowledged some progress, which she expects to continue.
“What’s been going on in popular culture is key and an important cultural indicator,” she said. “After a certain point we won’t be having the gay marriage debate anymore.”
She added that as black Americans begin to have more encounters with gay people, the more supportive they may become of gay civil rights. “Studies have shown that the more direct, personal contact someone has with someone who is gay or lesbian, they are much more tolerant, more understanding,” Dillard explained. “For people under 35, the numbers go way up for markers of how tolerant you are.”
Skillman said she hopes to host educational events with the Detroit NAACP to enhance the African American community’s understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“After that,” said Skillman, “the sky is the limit.”