The 'civil' war between gays and blacks

March 14, 2004|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - Call it an object lesson in the quality of equality.

I refer to the recent Senate subcommittee hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. And specifically, to an exchange between two leaders of the black community.

The first, Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the NAACP, argued that the amendment "would use the Constitution to discriminate." Which brought a sharp retort from the Rev. Richard Richardson, chairman of political affairs for the Black Ministerial Alliance of Greater Boston Inc. Defining marriage as the union of a woman and a man, he said, "is not discrimination. And I find it offensive to call it that."

If you polled black folk, Pastor Richardson's view would doubtless prove typical. Though it's not generally appreciated by the wider world, blacks are among the most socially conservative Americans there are. Particularly on gay issues. Indeed, if you want to start a fight, suggest to a group of black folk that there are parallels between the civil rights movement and the gay community's struggle for equality.

Even blacks who are sympathetic to the gay cause often bristle at the comparison. As the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson recently put it, "Gays were never called three-fifths' human in the Constitution."

Those who are not sympathetic are even harsher. Gene Rivers, a Boston minister, accuses gays of "pimping" the civil rights movement.

Granted, the comparison between the black struggle and the gay one is inexact. But here's the thing: Every freedom movement from Poland's labor uprising to America's feminism to China's Tiananmen Square protests has been compared to the civil rights movement. When Czechoslovaks threw off communist rule in 1989, they sang "We Shall Overcome." Yet no one bothered to point out that the Czechs were never slighted in the U.S. Constitution, much less to accuse Poles of "pimping" the civil rights movement. What's that tell you?

It tells me this stinginess about the movement only arises when gays seek to embrace it. And that black people - some of us, at least - ought to be ashamed.

How can we, of all people, we who know the weight of American oppression better than almost anyone, stand in the path of those who seek simple equality? How can we support writing anyone out of the Constitution when it took us so long to be written in?

And how can we stand with the very people - social conservatives - who not so long ago didn't want us in their churches, their schools, their parks or their restaurants? Yet more and more, we act and sound just like them.

We use our Bibles to justify our bigotry, just as they did.

We describe equality as unnatural, just as they did.

We invoke the sanctity of tradition, just as they did.

And we are wrong, just as they were.

Worse, we have wrapped our community in a conspiracy of silence, made being homosexual something one simply does not discuss. So that if you are black and gay or black and lesbian, there is often no sane thought of "coming out," no safe place to be who you are. The black community has no resources for you, no tolerance of you, no compassion for you. Yes, there are exceptions, but not enough. Not nearly.

Is it any surprise, then, that blacks lead the nation in new cases of HIV and AIDS?

Too many of us fail - or refuse - to see the great generality that overarches the specificity of our struggles. Meaning that it doesn't matter whether you are gay or black or woman or Jew or even Czech: People have a right to be free.

This is the principle gay people are fighting to vindicate. And no, it isn't the civil rights movement, but make no mistake: it's definitely "a" civil rights movement.

Except that this time, black people are on the other side.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun.

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