Are Gay Rights Civil Rights?

BySteve Osunsami

A T L A N T A, March 13, 2004 -- In Boston, Bishop Gilbert Thompson does not like it one bit. "I resent the fact," he says, "that homosexuals are trying to piggy back on the civil rights struggles of the '60s."

In Los Angeles, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson says it's "offensive" and that the civil rights movement "is not about sex."

In Chicago, Detroit, and Raleigh, N.C., the black ministers are beginning to preach on an uncomfortable subject in African-American circles. Gay marriage, they argue, has no place in a movement defined by Jim Crow laws and the right to vote.

"I was born black," said Thompson. "I was born male. Homosexuals are not born, they're made. They don't qualify."

It is a question of legitimacy. Civil rights protection, many argue, is meant for people, not behavior. Pastor Garland Hunt of Atlanta says that generally means race, gender and disability only. "It doesn't protect behavior patterns."

For many African Americans, who began the civil rights movement in the black churches of the conservative South, gay and lesbian Americans are people of poor behavior.

"Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with civil rights, this is an issue of morality," said Hunt.

Demonstrations Look Familiar

But outside courthouses in San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta, the demonstrations look familiar.

At one protest, outside the Georgia state capital, it took half a dozen police officers to forcibly remove a young woman who decided to lie in the middle of a busy roadway. Across the street, a crowd of mostly gay and lesbian 20-somethings that supported her sang "We Shall Overcome."

The Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay group, usually at odds with a majority of gay and lesbians, has also joined the debate.

In a new television campaign aimed at the hearts and minds of average Americans, the group uses civil rights imagery to make its point. The powerful images of white-only public facilities invoke the righteousness of the civil rights struggle.

Mark Mead, who helped create the group's television ad says the struggles are the same. Being gay is not a choice, and not at all morally wrong.

"As a boy growing up in Mississippi I've heard some of the exact same words used in an attempt to stop interracial marriage. Those words of intolerance ring as hollow and untrue today as they did back then," he said.

For many other African Americans, Mead makes a powerful point. History can be very unkind.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, scholar, activist and generally considered a leader in African-American thought. He says black Americans should not be in the practice of deciding who deserves protection and who does not.

"When African Americans say, 'Wait a minute, we are going to discriminate against you, we in fact don't see you as equal to us,' that is a dangerous, dangerous slope that you're going down, he says.

"Where that could ultimately lead to is, who you discriminate against today, could very well be you yourself tomorrow. And we just may be opening that door."

Another minister, this time, the Rev. Joseph Lowery seconds the belief. The founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the collection of religious leaders who began the civil rights movement, says even he has no right to say that gays and lesbians are not worthy of civil rights protection.

"When you talk about the law discriminating, the law granting a privilege here, and a right here and denying it there, that's a civil rights issue. And I can't take that away from anybody," he said.

A Powerful Argument in the South

In the South, where discrimination was once the law, it is a powerful argument. In a move that surprises many, the black lawmakers in the state of Georgia have formed a united block against a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would forbid same-sex marriage.

All but one of the black legislators have risked political capital and re-election, to take this controversial stand.Tyrone Brooks, a senior member of the Georgia House says it has not been easy explaining himself to some of his voters. "We have to explain to them that we are voting the right way."

The Rev. Ron Sailor, a minister and a state legislator says no matter how he feels personally or morally on the issue, it makes him uncomfortable to take this issue to the state or federal constitution.

"Discrimination whether it shows up in African Americans versus white Americans 60 years ago or whether it shows against homosexual people today is wrong."

When each of these black lawmakers walk the halls of the capital, they say they are moved by the sense of history, and it strongly moves them to see gay rights as civil rights.

Hanging on the walls are the portraits of dead white segregationists who wrote discrimination into law, and 40 years from now, none of them want to be judged the same way.

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