Gay marriage fight is not the civil rights movement redux

Julian Bond
Julian Bond (Damian Dovarganes - AP)
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By Taylor Harris
Saturday, November 28, 2009

Their refrain was as familiar to me as dining hall food, and equally as offensive. All too often, white liberal classmates at the University of Virginia would ask, "Shouldn't blacks, more than any other group, support gay rights?"

I never understood my classmates' need to align the historical struggles of blacks with those of homosexuals and then push their quadratic equation of oppression on me. Was not one point of Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," a classic text for college seminars, that blacks deserve an existence free from an assigned role? That they should not be pawns in any social movement? And even if they hadn't read the book, wasn't it clear that stereotypical assumptions based on race are regressive?

Hearing that from my white peers was one thing -- they and I often viewed race through different lenses, with mine being one shade darker than rose. But last month, one of our greatest civil rights leaders also sang the same cacophonous tune in an attempt to peg African Americans' morals and opinions to our socio-historical identities.

"Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality," Julian Bond, the chairman of the NAACP, declared at the National Equality March in Washington.

To be clear, Bond has used this line several times, and when he says "equality," he isn't talking about the right to vote, the right to eat at a public restaurant, the right to attend an integrated school or the right to a fair trial. He is talking about the right to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

With all due respect, which Bond certainly deserves, this black person doesn't agree. And neither do two-thirds of black Protestants, according to an Oct. 9 Pew Research Center poll. Echoing President Lyndon Johnson's words at the signing of the Voting Rights Act, Bond said, gay marriage "must come; it is right that it should come. And when it has, you will find that a burden has been lifted from your shoulders."

He is right about that last point. If gay marriage is legalized, as it will be in the District this year barring congressional interference, blacks who have a moral aversion to same-sex marriage will no longer be tethered to expectations that don't bind any other racial or ethnic group.

Perhaps Bond fails to realize that he is unfairly requiring another form of "two-ness" among African Americans. Already, being both an American and black is difficult, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote. But so is being an African American and a Christian. Asking those 66 percent of black Protestants to look at religion through the veil of race is not the place even of Martin Luther King Jr.'s comrade.

Plus, the "black guilt" tactic doesn't work. If gay marriage were put to a popular vote in the District (where 55 percent of residents are African American) and failed, blacks would again take the brunt of criticism from gay rights activists. Yet no one is talking about blacks' "understanding" since same-sex marriage was voted down this month in Maine, because no one is even sure whether black people live there.

Maine is the 31st state in which a majority of voters have chosen to uphold the traditional definition of marriage. There aren't enough black people in America to hold responsible for all of those outcomes -- we're only 12.8 percent of the population.

The refrain will eventually have to change to pinpoint white evangelicals, 77 percent of whom oppose same-sex marriage. And here is the crux of the problem, the point at which we can't deny the separate and unequal treatment of blacks: What race-based fire can activists put under white Americans who refuse a new definition of marriage? None.

At best, the message to black Americans is one of skewed motivation: You were once treated as secondclass citizens. You should feel flattered by the two movements' similarities and compelled to join the fight. At worst, the message is insulting. In a recent column on same-sex marriage and those who would play the race card, the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby summed up the linkage as: "For if opposing same-sex marriage is like opposing civil rights, then voters who backed Proposition 8 are no better than racists, the moral equivalent of those who turned the fire hoses on blacks in Birmingham in 1963."

I'm sorry, Julian. I wasn't there with you in 1963 to fight, but I still can't be your George Wallace today.

Taylor Harris is a graduate student in the writing program at Johns Hopkins University.


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