When I was growing up in the 1960s in Danville, Virginia, my friends and I would pass the segregated white school along the way to get to our morning classes. There, we met resistance from white kids who pushed us off the sidewalk and screamed the n-word. For me, they screamed the n-word and the q-word at the same time.
I am reminded of those days because the issues of justice and civil rights for me have always been about both being black and being gay. I’ve fought for both of these rights for 50 years. And things are getting better: A black president has endorsed gay marriage and has repealed the “don’t ask don’t tell law” allowing gay men and women to live more freely in America.
But I continue to be dismayed that we have a long way to go, both in our churches and federal halls of power.
When gay rights activists are wise enough to borrow the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohondas Gandhi in seeking freedom to love whomever they choose, they meet resistance from many in the black community, especially from preachers who, unlike King and Gandhi, forget that the rights to freedom and equality are universal.
Recently, North Carolina said no to freedom and equality when it passed (by referendum) a constitutional amendment to prohibit same sex marriage. Debate in the aftermath of passage of the amendment has sparked hate speech, similar to the hate speech of the 1960s, from pulpits throughout the country. Perhaps, these ministers really believe that God hates gays or at least hates the practice of homosexuality.
Maybe those preachers who oppose homosexuality by day and embrace it at night fear that granting rights to gays may legalize their playground or further confuse their lack of separation between church and hate. But as an openly gay male, I have never received a refund from any church for my time, God-given talents and tithes that I cheerfully have given to the church- even after the church condemned homosexuality.
Regardless of your religious convictions on the issue, it is the state (not the church) that legitimates marriage in our society. Every church currently has a choice to deny or extend its blessings to such a union, and if same sex marriage is legalized, churches will still have that choice.
But we still have much work to do on the federal level as well. There are currently no federal laws to protect homosexuals in the workplace. We just want rights equivalent to every other law abiding and taxpaying citizen who contributes to our society.
Indeed, I know first hand how important these protections are. Because the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the state of Illinois each provides protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation that the federal government does not, I was able to bring suit against an employer for discrimination that I endured because of my sexual orientation. I was out of work for two years because there are currently no federal laws to protect gays in the workplace as equally as laws protect against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, gender, or disability.
As progressives, we must not let the issues that divide us bind us or prevent us from forming a true rainbow coalition in heading to the polls this fall. Just as in professional sports, when the rules are public, the playing field is even, the goals are clear, and we choose teammates based on common interests rather than the innate differences that divide us, we all win. If you vote, then the choice is yours. If you do not vote, then the choice belongs to someone else.
I still remember Danville and those long walks to school. A lot has changed since then. One constant I learned from those walks as a young black boy, Dr. King’s message and loving persons of the same sex is that’s even beside stares, taunts, and resistance, love and equality will always go hand-in-hand.
Tommy Bennett is a former radio host as “Aruba Tommy” for Clear Channel Radio, a former member of President Barack Obama’s LGBT Leadership Council, and host of Star News’ television show, “What the Hell!?” .