HUTCHINSON: Gay Marriage Is A Civil Rights Issue

Democratic Presidential candidates Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley Braun squarely bucked black opinion when they called the fight for gay marriage a civil rights issue. Blacks seethe at any comparison of the fight against gay marriage bans to the civil rights struggle. A Pew Research Poll taken immediately after the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage found that far more blacks than whites disagreed with the court's decision.

Sharpton and Moseley-Braun have risked much in taking their courageous stand. Both candidates are the longest of long shots among Democratic presidential contenders. To have a faint hope of making a blip on the political chart, they must bag a sizeable percentage of black votes in the early 2004 make-or-break primaries in South Carolina and Michigan. They could have easily kept their mouths shut on the issue, or taken the politically safe way out as most of the other Democratic contenders have done and issued a bland statement opposing discrimination against gays. Polls show that most blacks would agree with that.

But that would have been politically disingenuous at best and cowardly at worst; and besides they are historically correct in regarding gay marriage as a civil rights issue. The same powerful social and legal taboo against gay marriage prevailed for decades against interracial marriage, and integrated schools. The taboo was based on a deep-seated belief by many whites that blacks are socially and genetically unfit to share a classroom or a marital bedroom with whites.

In 1948, the California Supreme Court fired the first legal salvo against the racial marriage ban when it dumped the state's ban on interracial marriage. Six years later, the Supreme Court in the Brown decision banned school segregation. A decade after Brown, the U.S. Supreme Court finally scrapped all state laws against interracial marriage and declared that the "freedom to marry" is a basic right of all Americans. The court understood that a state that tells a couple they can't marry because of their race blatantly and outrageously tampers with one of the most fundamental civil rights: the freedom of individual choice.

The gay rights vs. civil rights comparison has long been a sore spot for many blacks. The debate drew national attention last year when a group of black clergy in Miami circulated a flier with the picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. to hundreds of black churches in Miami-Dade County. The fliers denounced gay rights. The group claimed that gays were expropriating the civil rights cause to push their agenda.

Given King's relentless and uncompromising battle against discrimination during his life, it's absolutely incredible to imagine that he would back an anti-gay campaign. Yet, it's hardly a surprise that a group would be brazen enough to enlist King as their ally. Since his murder in 1968, legions of groups and individuals have snatched at King's picture, name and words to push their cause, agenda, issue, and even commercial products. But an angry Coretta Scott King was having none of this when it came to using King's name to back bigotry. In a public statement she insisted that King would be a champion of gay rights if he were alive. She demanded that the group immediately cease and desist invoking King's name

Then there's the brutal memory of slavery and segregation. Blacks insist that there's absolutely no way you can compare a state barring same-sex marriage to the centuries of slavery and the near century of relentless racial violence and apartheid-like discrimination laws they've suffered. But this is a terribly lopsided and self-serving read of history. It also ignores or denies the fact that gays have been murdered, socially stigmatized, and have suffered Jim Crow-like discrimination in America and countless other countries. In creating a pecking order of oppression, a kind of my-oppression-is-worse-than-yours, blacks can then pick and choose when and where they will fight discrimination, or worse, denigrate another group deemed less worthy of support in their battle against discrimination. This is foolhardy and irresponsible. Homophobia and racism are frequently two sides of the same coin. Many ultra-conservatives who oppose gay rights have been staunch opponents of affirmative action.

Despite that, conservative groups have corralled a few black churchmen, some with stellar civil rights credentials, into endorsing their campaign to get Congress to pass, and the states to ratify, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage. And some black conservative political groups are imploring Republicans to aggressively tap into black hostility toward gay marriage and use that as the wedge issue to drive more blacks to support President Bush's reelection bid in 2004.

The mantra of the civil rights movement has always been that an injustice committed against one is an injustice against all. That's still true. It's risky, even dangerous, business for blacks to forget that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. Visit his website thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black.

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