Gay-rights drive leaves blacks split Parallel with 1960s strikes some as insult

June 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Ronald Prince has lived a gay life since his mid-teens. Now 43, he readily recalls moments when he hid his homosexuality rather than face public ridicule.

He could conceal his homosexuality. He could not conceal his race. Mr. Prince is black.

"A lot of times when you're black and gay, you don't know whether the discrimination is due to your blackness or your gayness," said Mr. Prince, who grew up in Birmingham, Ala., when it was segregated.

Mr. Prince said he had learned to live with the dichotomy that is his life. But like many blacks, he is angry that leaders of the gay rights movement and some prominent blacks draw parallels between the civil rights struggle of the 1960s and their own fight now for legal and social equality. The debate has intensified since the gay rights march in Washington April 25.

Although some conservative blacks oppose homosexuality on religious grounds, many blacks support the idea of legislation that would guarantee equal rights for homosexuals. Nevertheless, many blacks draw the line at likening racism to anti-gay sentiment.

In more than two dozen interviews with people on all sides of the issue, several blacks said that the discrimination gay people experience was not on a level with racism.

Many gay people say, almost apologetically, that they do not mean to trivialize the black experience in America by likening the two groups' histories. But they argue that discrimination is discrimination.

"I am a white gay man," said Tom Stoddard, a leading gay rights lawyer and the coordinator for the Campaign for Military Service, a group lobbying to lift the military ban on homosexuals. "I know I've had privileges that black gay men do not have."

He added, however: "I also know as a person who feels the scorn and discrimination of others that oppression has many faces."

But by comparing the two groups' sufferings, some said, gay people are misappropriating the black civil rights movement.

"I consider it offensively disrespectful of the recorded and unchronicled sufferings of millions of my people who were kidnapped, chained, shipped and sold like livestock," Vernon Jarrett, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times who is black, wrote in an April 25 column. "Gays were never declared three-fifths human by the Constitution."

Roger Wilkins, a professor of history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who was an assistant attorney general in the 1960s, said many of the arguments used to fight the integration of the military in 1948 are being used today against homosexuals.

"They said we were too promiscuous, were cowardly and lazy," said Professor Wilkins, who is black. "Some of the same things are being said about gays."

Mary Frances Berry, a member of the Federal Commission on Civil Civil Rights and a professor of history and law at the University of Pennsylvania, said that anti-gay bias was clearly discrimination, but that being black in America was not the same as being gay. "When people try to equate the two," said Ms. Berry, who is black, "all they do is offend some black folks who recognize that it is not the same thing and might be willing to be supportive."

Even some blacks who acknowledged a common bond with the plight of homosexuals said they were unsympathetic to gay people, especially white men, who hid their sexual orientation as long as it was politically, economically and socially beneficial to do so.

"I can't go in a closet and hang up my race when it's convenient," said Vernetta Adams, 24, a history major at the University of the District of Columbia. Ms. Adams is black and heterosexual. For years, many blacks, including members of the clergy, have distanced themselves from gay people and their struggle for acceptance because of issues of religion and race. Among them are those who view homosexuality as deviant and morally wrong, and others who hold that the movement has been white-led.

"They are asking to be recognized lawfully as a minority because homosexuality is immutable," said the Rev. Lester James, pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church in Washington. "We say no. We will not agree to them saying they're just like us. Yes, Dr. King talked about loving everybody. We have not abdicated that. I believe God loves the individual homosexual, but He hates the homosexual life style."

Several blacks said insult was added to injury when prominent blacks like the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People not only voiced support for gay men and lesbians but also stood before the marchers and referred to the 1963 march on Washington led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet many of those who marched with Dr. King, including his widow, Coretta Scott King, who wrote a letter to Congress calling the ban on gay people in the military "un-American," argue that failing to speak out against bigotry dishonors Dr. King's name and legacy.

"Discrimination is discrimination," said Mr. Jackson, who spoke at the gay rights march. "We're not talking about behavior; we're talking about status."

Despite their differences with homosexuals on issues of civil rights, many blacks, including nearly all those interviewed for this article, support guarantees of equal rights for gay people. According to a New York Times/CBS News Poll of 1,154 adults conducted Feb. 9-11, 53 percent of blacks thought such legislation was necessary, as against only 40 percent of whites. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

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