Some bristle at equating gay rights with civil rights

By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

As they overwhelmingly approved a bill Tuesday to legalize same-sex marriage in the District, some D.C. Council members sounded as if they were at a 1960s civil rights march.

"It is bringing truth to the words 'all men are created equal,' " said David A. Catania (I-At Large).

"When one group is denied a right, we are all denied that right," said Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).

But perhaps the fiercest opposition to the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in the District has come from members of the generation that led the fight for civil rights nearly half a century ago, some of whom said they think that comparing gay rights with the battle that blacks waged is misguided, even insulting.

Since Catania introduced the bill, many of his most avid supporters have been children of civil rights veterans, who see the cause as the continuation of their parents' and grandparents' struggle.

Kwame Brown (D-At Large) supports gay marriage, seeing it as the next chapter in the fight for equality. But his father, a political campaign consultant in the city, bristles when the drive for same-sex marriage is compared with the civil rights movement.

"You can choose to be gay or not," Marshall Brown said. "You can never choose to be black or not."

Not so, his son said. "People are born that way," Kwame Brown said. "That could be a generational difference between the way he thinks and the way I think."

"That's a fair argument," the father said when told of his son's view about sexual orientation. But the elder Brown wasn't about to equate gay rights with the civil rights movement. Homosexuals, he said, "can hide it so easily, but we can't hide that we're black."

Across the country, the controversy over same-sex marriage has pitted conservatives against liberals. In the District, the debate is revealing a rift in the black community, pitting some residents whose attitudes toward sexuality are sculpted by a literal reading of Scripture against those who consider gay rights the human rights fight of their time.

In some cases, the divide is generational; in others, education or income levels, religious faith or race pushes people toward a perspective.

In voting against the bill, D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said, "This community is deeply divided, and to some extent, it cuts across racial lines, unfortunately." He said he voted against the bill because "my conscience said so, and the majority of my constituents say so."

Some black Washingtonians said longstanding political alliances between blacks and gays have helped build support for same-sex marriage in the city. "White people who happened to be gay" started moving into traditionally black neighborhoods in the 1960s and '70s, Marshall Brown said. But as some neighborhoods became more affluent, some older African Americans felt pushed out, and resentment started to build, he said.

Not everyone who helped overturn Jim Crow laws dismisses the connection between the gay rights struggle and their activism decades ago. Lawrence Guyot, 70, who was chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in the 1960s before moving to Washington to lead many civil rights fights, speaks as strongly for same-sex marriage as he did for blacks in the South: "This is a fight whose time has come. There is no middle road on this. You either want liberty for everyone, or you want liberty for non-gays."

But passions run just as strongly on the other side of the divide. "I reject the notion that gay rights is a civil rights question," said the Rev. Anthony Evans, 50, associate minister of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Northwest and head of the National Black Church Initiative. "The great human rights question is what we're doing with the poor across the world."

Kwame Brown said he has taken flak from constituents who oppose same-sex marriage "because of their religious upbringing, of being in the Baptist Church that clearly defined what they think." Brown said he grew up in a religious household and respects that perspective, but he said he's trying to provide equal rights for all. That argument doesn't always work, even in his own family.

As for courting one key constituent -- his mother, a minister in the District -- he said, "I'm still working on that."

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