“It’s an issue of civil rights, as you said. It’s an issue of equality. It’s an issue of equal treatment under the law,” I said. “No one is asking for special rights. No one is asking for any kind of special favors. We’re just looking for the same rights and responsibilities that come with marriage and also the protections that are provided under marriage. In that regard overall we’re talking about a civil rights issue and what African Americans continue to struggle with is exactly what lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are struggling with today.”
That didn’t go over so well with more than a few African Americans. They don’t see the struggles as comparable, equivalent or even related. Last Wednesday, @Brokenb4God tweeted to me, “@CapehartJ still can’t believe u think the choice of being gay is congruent to the struggle of blacks. Ain’t never seen no gay plantations!”
Clearly, she’s from the misguided pray-the-gay-away cabal, so no need to address that. I’ll leave the cheap and provocative “gay plantations” stink bomb alone, too, and get to my main point. What links the two struggles is the quest for equality, dignity and equal protection under the law. In short, gay rights are civil rights. It’s that simple.
Bullying and murder
Both African Americans and gays have been targeted because of who they are. Tyler Clementi jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after discovering his roommate allegedly using a webcam to livestream his sexual encounter with another man. The trial of that roommate, Dharun Ravi, is going on right now in New Jersey.
Clementi’s September 2010 suicide drew national attention to bullying of young people, particularly gay teens. Back then I wrote about the harrowing week that month when there were five reports of suicides of young men and boys who felt they had no other way to end the bullying, harassment or invasion of privacy they endured because they were gay or perceived to be gay.
Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself in his California back yard on Sept. 19. Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22. Asher Brown,13, from Houston shot himself in the head on Sept. 23. Raymond Chase, 19, from New York hanged himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island on Sept. 29. The circumstances surrounding the Sept. 30 death of a 14-year-old Indiana boy remain unclear, but he has been included in reports on this sad issue.
There have been many more, too many more, since then.
Their deaths came 12 years after the horrific murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. At a bar in Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998, Shepard met two men who said they were also gay. They kidnapped, robbed and pistol-whipped him before tying him to a fence. He died five days later. Shepard’s shocking killing came four months after another murder that shook the national conscience. A black man named James Byrd was kidnapped by three white men, chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged more than three miles in June 1998. His decapitated body was found outside the small town of Jasper, Tex. According to the Jasper district attorney at the time, two of Byrd’s killers had racist tattoos and were supporters of the Ku Klux Klan.
Both murders sparked a national debate on hate crimes that culminated in passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which President Obama signed into law in October 2009. The bullying that has gained national attention of late has the attention of the Obamas and the administration and pop icon Lady Gaga.
Denied equal protection: the right to marry
Both African Americans and gays have been denied equal access to the rights, responsibilities and protections the Constitution provides. Just last week, Maryland became the eighth state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage. Washington State joined the club on Feb. 13. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) vetoed a marriage equality bill last month and called for a public referendum. Putting the rights of a minority up to a popular vote is wrong, un-American and immoral. And yet voters in New Jersey and Maryland very well may do just that in November.
Meanwhile, in lawsuits across the country, lesbians and gay men are fighting for legal recognition of their relationships by challenging state laws that deny it and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Same-sex marriage was legal in California until voters passed Proposition 8 in 2008. A challenge to that ban is wending its way through the federal court system and is getting knocked as unconstitutional at every turn.
And those who are already legally married are demanding equal rights. Karen Golinski was legally married to her partner of more than 20 years in California in 2008. But when the federal employee applied for health benefits for her spouse, she was denied thanks to DOMA. Last week, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in Golinski v. Office of Personnel Management that Section 3 of the statute was unconstitutional because it violated her equal protection rights under the Constitution.
In this matter, the Court finds that DOMA, as applied to Ms. Golinski, violates her right to equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution by, without substantial justification or rational basis, refusing to recognize her lawful marriage to prevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse.
That’s a narrowly tailored argument the judge is making there. But “as applied to Ms. Golinski” could be replaced by millions of other names and “to prevent provision of health insurance coverage to her spouse” could be replaced by any number of the 1,138 rights and benefits denied to same-sex couples because of DOMA. And as I wrote last month, the inability to file joint federal tax returns, and avail themselves of Social Security survivor benefits or child tax credits compounds the income inequality and financial insecurity of gay and lesbian families. All because the person they love is of the same gender. This insecurity is exacerbated by the fact that you can still be fired because of your sexual orientation in 29 states. That number goes up to 34 if you’re transgender.
African American resistance to same-sex marriage and linking the quest for it to the black civil rights movement emerged again in the push for marriage equality in Maryland. But an excellent counter to that are three black leaders who have been unashamed and vocal in their support of gay rights and who see the struggle of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans as part of what they’ve fought for their entire lives: equality.
All of us must fight for what’s fair and for what’s right....Maryland, the time is now. Let’s be fair. Let’s do the right thing.
When DOMA came up for a vote in 1996, civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) delivered an impassioned speech on the House floor before voting against the measure.
You cannot tell people they cannot fall in love. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say when people talked about interracial marriages, and I quote, ‘Races do not fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married.’ Why don’t you want your fellow men and women, your fellow Americans to be happy? Why do you attack them? Why do you want to destroy the love they hold in their hearts? Why do you want to crush their hopes, their dreams, their longings, their aspirations? We are talking about human beings, people like you, people who want to get married, buy a house, and spend their lives with the one they love. They have done no wrong.
In a 2003 opinion piece for the Boston Globe, Lewis wrote, “I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.”
Civil rights icon Julian Bond told me during an interview for the PBS program “In The Life” in 2008, “Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality. It does not matter the rationale – religious, cultural, pseudo-scientific. No people of good will should oppose marriage equality. And they should not think civil unions are a substitute. At best, civil unions are separate but equal. And we all know separate is never equal.”
When I asked Bond what is the connection between the black civil rights movement and its gay counterpart, he said it was the immutable characteristics of the individuals involved. “You are what you are,” he said, “and you cannot be discriminated against in this country for what you are.
“It’s not that these movements are taking from us because the black movement took from other movements before us,” Bond continued. “We took from the labor movement. And I never heard anyone from the labor movement complaining about this. We ought to be proud of this and say, ‘Look what we did. We created a model that other people have followed.’ ”
Black people led the way to this nation being more fair and equitable. That some vigorously oppose LGBT Americans following in their footsteps, seeing kinship in their cause, is dreadful. As Bond said, “Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality.” And he’s right.