Gay rights, civil rights causes converge even if terms don’t

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 28: An attendee throws his hand upward during the 50th Anniversary March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, August 28, 2013. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post) An attendee throws his hand upward during the 50th Anniversary March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

When speakers at Wednesday's "Let Freedom Ring" rally listed the social injustices that still need to be addressed, discrimination based on sexual orientation made almost every speech.

President Obama described the force for justice "when the interracial couple connects the pain of a gay couple who were discriminated against and understands it as their own." Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farmworkers, argued that the only way discrimination is going to end against "people of color, against women, against our LGBT community is if we do it, which means that we've got to outreach to those that are not with us." And Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) questioned what audience members had done to fight "for men and women, black and white, Latino and Asian, Muslim, Christian and Jew, gay and straight."

But gay activists are often reluctant to frame their cause as a civil rights cause, choosing the term "human rights" instead. Why?

For the most part, it reflects the fact that the definition of civil rights has become so closely aligned with the rights of African Americans, so members of the gay community are reluctant to co-opt that language.

In addition, while many prominent civil rights leaders and groups have embraced causes such as same-sex marriage and bans on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity -- the NAACP and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) are prominent examples -- some members of the black community do not endorse such efforts.

Gay activists say they recognize that the two groups have a different history.

"The LGBT civil rights movement is distinct from the civil rights movement, but shares in the greater human quest for equality and dignity for all people," said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. "Comparisons are never clean. There’s a different history of struggle and a different history of oppression, but that shouldn't negate the shared interest we have in creating a better world for all people."

HRC is well aware of the importance of language: when the group was founded as a political action committee in 1980, its founders deliberately chose a more generic name so its campaign contributions wouldn't be easily identified with the gay community.

"Back in those days, for gay people to increase our political leverage it was necessary to do it part way in closet," Cole-Schwartz said.

In many ways, Wednesday's celebration showed how the causes of gays, African Americans, Latinos, women, Native Americans and those with disabilities have become less compartmentalized and more intertwined than they were half a century ago. But at least for the near term, look for gay activists to stick with the phrase "human rights" when making their case for equal treatment.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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Scott Clement · August 30, 2013

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