This column originally ran in thegrio.com on June 28, 2013.
Like many Americans, I wake up everyday and turn on my favorite morning television program (Morning Joe, of course!) to make sure I didn’t “miss anything” while I slept.
Luckily, the world didn’t change much Wednesday but I did arise yesterday morning to that ever-familiar voice of former Rep. Barney Frank (MA) throwing out pearls of wisdom.
Talk about a redefinition of the wake-up call.
The black civil rights struggle went national
When asked to compare gay civil rights and African-American civil rights, Frank said “No black child has to come out to his parents when he’s born.” This struck me in a big way, especially before having any coffee, and this got me to thinking about the comparisons between different civil rights movements.
The struggle over civil rights in “black” America has held a very public place in our history since the beginning of the republic. The plight of our black brethren has been both a uniting and dividing thread in our national fabric. Some of the great historic Senate debates dealt directly with this issue. We fought an internal civil war over this. We as a nation watched on television as the “Bull Connors” of the world reared their ugly heads with fire hoses, German shepherds, white sheets and long ropes.
This was a turning point in our history and the catalyst which gave rise to Congress and the courts to begin walking down the road of righting the wrongs of our past. It wasn’t until the visual horrors of Americans beating, enslaving, and killing other Americans that we “changed.” And yes, that struggle still continues despite the progress we’ve made.
Just this week the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 despite widespread, modern-day Jim Crow-type voting restrictions popping up all over the country. I wonder day in and out if we’ve actually reached the mountain top Dr. King spoke about and I sometimes have my doubts.
Gay rights battle is eerily similar
The same type of struggle can’t be said of the gay civil rights movement. Gays weren’t enslaved by the millions or enshrined into our Constitution as three-fifths of a human being or as personal property. Nor were gay Americans lynched by the hundreds in public squares across the south (and elsewhere) just for being gay.
Indeed, to Congressman Franks’ point: gay Americans could hide their identities whereas black Americans simply couldn’t.
It’s more than ironic that the “closet” so many of us have come out of, sheltered and saved the earliest gay Americans from many of the horrors we watched America’s blacks live and die through. I never thought I’d say it but thank God for the early closet in gay society.
Not that gay America hasn’t seen horror. San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk was brutally murdered in cold blood. Matthew Shepard was tied up to a spit rail fence, beaten, tortured, and left to die alone. He was discovered the following day by a passing cyclist who recounted he thought his body was that of a scarecrow instead of a human’s.When that cyclist found Shepard, he didn’t know he was gay. He just knew he was a fellow human, struggling to live. Even on the brink of death, Shepard’s skin color was a kind of closet.
I could list numerous examples of hate crimes against gay Americans or discrimination against my community from housing to employment to marriage equality. All of that is documented and well-established. But in the eyes of many African Americans, my community will never match, can never match their struggle for the mountaintop.
Indeed many in the African-American community have recoiled at comparisons to the gay civil rights struggle, including Bernice King, Dr. King’s youngest daughter.
A big win — for a select few
This narrow-minded approach doesn’t help either group. To move Rep. Frank’s position further along, no one chooses to be black and let me be clear, no one chooses to be gay (ask Exodus International and similar groups how that’s working out for them). Being gay isn’t the same as being black or vice versa. But being discriminated against should be a singular unifier, a common denominator.
In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that “separate but equal” wasn’t a remedy for black America. Brown v. Board of Education was a broad ruling that applied to all of America. This week, the Court told gay Americans they have the right to equal protection yet it left out a core group of gay Americans who don’t live in marriage equality states.
While that’s a big win for gay America, it’s only good for a select few.
Imagine if the Court had ruled in Brown that separate but equal was OK in 30 states but not in the states where black and white children already sat next to each other in classes. I don’t think black America would’ve been pleased with the outcome.
Glass half empty or half full
But a glass half full is better than a glass half empty and both cases are progress (that’s the root word for “progressive” by the way) for an America that rejects a three-fifths human being or a skin color or who you fall in love with and want to marry. It’s that common link, that discrimination that binds us together, gay and black, white and straight and any and all in between. It’s that struggle for the mountain top that makes us all climb together. Indeed, it’s that progress that makes us simply American right?
Last year I ran across this ad from the Anti-Defamation League. This is really powerful stuff. The only thing all of these people have in common today is that they’re all dead. But when they were alive, they were all just living their lives. They were just being black or gay but they were all “being” American.
It’s easy to daydream but I suppose if I could have one wish, it would be for Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk to have known each other. Maybe Matthew Shepard could have known James Byrd Jr., could have sat at a bar in Laramie, WY and had a beer or two together. Maybe I’m just a daydreamer but that’s just the modern-day struggle I see as the American civil rights struggle of my time.
And maybe, just maybe, I’ll wake up tomorrow morning or the next morning, turn on my television and see yet another chunk of discrimination being chipped out of that wall. That’s a lonely dream if I can’t dream it with my fellow Americans who just so happen to be black. I’d rather dream that dream with them.