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Voice Of a Movement

When Keith Boykin describes himself as "one of America's leading commentators on race and sexual orientation," he's not bragging. Currently president of theNational Black Justice Coalition, an organization established late last year to marshal African American support for same-sex marriage rights, Boykin has become the face and voice of a movement that some see as a logical extension of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and that others see as its usurpation.

Boykin, 38, has the pedigree of a national leader: a Harvard Law School classmate of Democratic Senate candidate Barack Obama a former Special Assistant to President Clinton on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, and the former director of the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum. He is also a successful author (One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America and Respecting the Soul: Daily Reflections for Black Lesbians and Gays), a syndicated columnist, publisher of an influential website and a sought-after speaker.

A native of St. Louis who moved with his family to Clearwater, Florida, at the age of 15, Boykin has been a public figure of sorts since his days as a high school columnist for the St. Petersburg Times. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1987, he worked for Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign as a press aide. As a second-year Harvard law student, he was part of a group that filed a lawsuit charging the school with discriminatory faculty hiring practices. The suit bolstered a protest by the school's first tenured black professor, Derrick A. Bell, Jr. who took an unpaid leave of absence over the failure to grant tenure to qualified women of color.

While Bell eventually left Harvard for New York University Law School, Boykin graduated, practiced law briefly, then joined the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign as Midwest regional press director. His first job in the Clinton Administration was as director of news analysis for the White House communications office. His appointment as liaison for African American and gay and lesbian issues followed soon after, making him the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Clinton Administration. In 1995, Boykin left the White House to assume leadership of the now-defunct National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum.

Boykin has publicly challenged black leaders on homophobia and gay leaders on racism. In 1995, he was a vocal and visible presence at the Million Man March, led by the anti-gay Nation of Islam. He again made national news in 2000 when he spoke at the Millennium March, a massive gay rights demonstration that was criticized for not including more people of color. The poem Boykin read at the Millennium March includes the following lines that go a long way toward explaining why he believes it is important that blacks support the same-sex marriage fight:

I
Speak
as a proud African-American
same-gender-loving
Christian-identified man
unashamed of who I am
unwilling to be divided into identity camps, and
unbowed by the demons of hatred that would incite me
to fear instead of love.

The National Black Justice Coalition held a major rally a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. How did it go?

Very well. We had a good turnout with lots of media. We also had a rally in New York March 14th at City Hall. Everybody who was there seemed to be very excited and encouraged.

You've said that while many black people do not support civil marriage rights for gays and lesbians, black leaders "get it." Why do you say that?

Just by looking at the people who have been speaking out about this issue. It's an unprecedented list of supporters who represented the best-known leaders in our community: Julian Bond, John Lewis, Michael Eric Dyson, Coretta Scott King, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton. Many of the black political leaders really understand the importance of equality and the importance of stopping a constitutional amendment that takes away people's rights.

And yet, even some black leaders who have been supportive of gay rights in the past haven't been supportive of this cause — Jesse Jackson, for example.

I haven't talked with Jesse Jackson; I've only read the newspaper accounts, so I don't know what the issue is. I know it's been reported that he says that gay rights is not a civil rights issue. A lot of people have made that argument, and I think it's a red herring. I have yet to hear any prominent gay leader say the two movements are the same. No one is saying that.

There are some parallels in the rhetoric of the two movements, aren't there?

This is what confuses people. There are two many "civil" words here: civil rights, civil unions, civil marriage. If someone says marriage is a civil rights issue, it is [not] the same as the black community. It's just saying that marriage is a civil right. It's not even saying that it's a gay civil rights issue. The Supreme Court established that marriage is a civil right for everyone in the Loving decision in 1967. Separate the rhetoric from the reality.

At the end of the day I would say that there are two key points. First, the black community does not own the Civil Rights Movement. When Dr. King went to Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and condemned the Vietnam War, a lot of people condemned him for talking about that issue. They said he should just talk about civil rights for black people. When Dr. King died exactly one year later in Memphis, he wasn't in Memphis working for black civil rights. He was there for poor people. He was building a coalition. Those people who want to pretend that the Civil Rights Movement is only to serve blacks are not being faithful to what Dr. King stood for. Besides, the same arguments get recycled from one group to another to another. The same arguments get used against blacks, gays and women.

The second point is that it doesn't matter which group is oppressed. What matters is that no group is oppressed.

Why do you think so many blacks object to connections being drawn between the movements?

Many African Americans don't want to be lumped into the same sort of "bag" as the gay community — nobody is trying to do that, though. A lot of it is homophobia. I am not one of these people who buys into the argument that black people can't be prejudiced because they're black. That's baloney. Black people can be prejudiced against gays, just as white gays can be racist. That's part of growing up in a country with racism, sexism, homophobia, cultural imperialism.

You've written that the marriage issue isn't the highest priority issue for black gay and lesbian folk, particularly in comparison to such issues as the economy, AIDS, crime or education. If that's true, why focus on this issue now?

I didn't really decide to focus on it. The right wing decided to focus on it. Two things happened: the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its ruling in favor of same-sex marriage last November, and then a group of black ministers in Massachusetts came out very publicly against same-sex marriage. From that point on it was clear that the battle for marriage equality would be the issue in 2004.

What do you say to those ministers who argue that we need to uphold heterosexual marriage as an ideal in order to strengthen the black community?

I guess I would have to have a discussion with one of these ministers to ask how my wanting to be married to someone that I love threatens their relationship. If marriage is under attack, if marriage is not working in the black community, why would we want stop people who love each other and want to take on the responsibilities of being married? If someone can explain to me how that threatens anybody else's family, children and relationships, please let me know.

Some theologians say that instead of focusing on a divisive issue such as gay marriage, we should be paying attention to issues that have broader support in the black community, such as health care, education, or crime.

I really don't understand what that argument is all about, because we can still focus on those issues. Nobody is forcing them to focus on this issue. Nobody is putting a gun to their heads. If they are focusing on this issue, it's because they are choosing to.

Some conservatives believe that homosexuality in general, and gay marriage in particular, is contrary to what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and how men and women are supposed to relate to each other.

When I was in college I won this award one year called the Churchill Prize. It had an inscription on it that I think is very true: "Honesty with oneself, fairness toward other, sensitivity to duty and courage in performance — on these hang manhood." I would say, "On these hang adulthood, period." These are the things that matter, not sexual orientation.

I don't think [the opposition is] about logic, I think it's about fear. People are afraid of love. They are afraid of difference. There are six billion people on this planet Only five percent of the world's population is American and most people aren't Christian. Just because a certain way of life or set of beliefs works for you, you can't impose that on others.

At least one writer has argued that if black people accept homosexual marriage, they should also accept polygamy. He argues that the insistence on monogamy is just as discriminatory as the insistence on heterosexuality.

The first thing they teach you in law school is to recognize the "slippery slope" argument, where you take your opponent's point and say a whole lot of other dire things are going to happen. But, it's not a slippery slope at all.

Where do you draw the line? You draw it at one person. I think that argument misses the point. The gay and lesbian people who would marry under our law are not people coming from other countries.

To the extent that we want to be bound by the history and cultural traditions of this country, we could say that interracial marriage shouldn't be allowed, or that blacks shouldn't be allowed to marry, or that women are property. Let's face it — marriage is a legal fiction created by government. We're just saying that the government has to treat people equally.

If there was one thing that you want readers to understand about this issue, what would it be?

It's very important that we understand the religious dynamic here. We're talking about civil marriage, not religious marriage. If Walter Fauntroy doesn't want to perform a same-sex marriage in his church, I don't want him to do so. But once the government starts giving out benefits based on marriage, it can't discriminate.

Kim Pearson is a teacher, magazine writer, and creator of the blog Professor Kim.

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