Viewpoint: Civil Rights and Gay Rights

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Common Ground: The author

My mother's father didn't want to attend her wedding. To a Chinese immigrant who came to New York as a boy, who had lived and toiled in the back of a laundromat and worked his way up to become a successful insurance business owner and community leader, the prospect of his oldest child marrying a black American man was not just shameful, it was a step backward.

As the date approached and the tension increased, my parents had no idea of how many guests to plan for. My father's parents welcomed the marriage, so they were in, but because my grandfather was head of his extended family, no one could go if he didn't. Finally, luckily, his own mother, my great-grandmother, sat him down and told him she would obey his wishes but that he was being pigheaded and should support his daughter. Which, finally, he did and everyone reconciled.

My great-grandmother might also have mentioned that her son's reflexive prejudice was a bit ironic given the innumerable racial slights and indignities he had suffered in America, including in the Army, at the hands of whites. But then, it's hardly an unusual pattern. Just look at the black religious leaders—like Rev. Bernice King, a daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.; evangelical juggernaut Bishop T. D. Jakes; and groups like the Memphis-based Coalition of African American Pastors—who've joined ranks with the conservative Right in opposing gay marriage. They say gay rights are not the same as civil rights. They accuse gays and lesbians of "hijacking" the civil rights movement for their homosexual agenda. They say it's unholy and unnatural. But it's for perhaps that last argument alone that, as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court mulls a challenge to an old state law now being used to prohibit out-of-state homosexual couples from wedding there, black Americans should sympathize with gays and lesbians who want to marry.

Of course there are important differences. "The comparison with slavery is a stretch," Jesse Jackson asserted in a speech at Harvard last year, "in that some slave masters were gay, in that gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution and in that they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote." All of which is true. Race is most often, rightly or not, signified physically. While gays have been, and still are in many instances, forced to play straight, they at least had a refuge. It was historically difficult, usually impossible, and often illegal, for a black person to pass as white (even if 15/16ths of his blood was). They had nowhere to hide.

So yes, in the game of Who's Been More Systematically Oppressed?, black people win hands down. But that doesn't discount the hardships of other groups. (Remember the federal Defense of Marriage Act?) And it doesn't mean everyone isn't entitled to equal rights. Through the years, America has dished out enough oppression to go around. Much of it has been strikingly similar. The anti-miscegenation laws that were enacted in much of the South were rooted in interpretations of the Bible. Interracial intimacy was seen as unnatural. Blacks were put forth as filthy sub-humans who wanted to muddy white bloodlines and thus destroy the goodness of the white race. Race mixing was akin to bestiality. Sound familiar? "Defenders" of marriage, from Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to Justice Antonin Scalia to Pope Benedict, have tossed out arguments just like these in their quest to keep same-sex couples from the altar.

And, when his state's high court cleared the way for gay marriage, Gov. Mitt Romney invoked a law from 1913 prohibiting Massachusetts marriage licenses from being given to nonresident couples whose union would be "void" in their home state. Anti-integrationists were plain wrong then; black people had no master plan to destroy the institution of the white family. Who's to say the forces against gay marriage won't be proven Chicken Littles as well?

But let's set aside the moral question of gayness. Conservative blacks should denounce the Massachusetts law in question not because they've suddenly decided to embrace something they find wrong but because the law is wrong. It's ostensibly a Federalist argument that is in fact homophobic—and was racist—in intent. And it offends me to the core that lawmakers would deny equal rights to one minority group using a statute created to target others, a statute that could have barred, even invalidated, my existence and might have prevented me from marrying my (white) boyfriend from Massachusetts in Massachusetts. Remember that it took until 1967 for the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional the anti-miscegenation laws that remained on the books in 16 states—and that Alabama still didn't repeal its law until five years ago.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to decide within four months whether to grant marriage licenses to out-of-state gay and lesbian couples, to grant them the same rights enjoyed by in-state homosexual couples since 2003. I'm hoping the Court rules in favor of the eight same-sex couples, from the other five New England states plus New York, that want to certify their commitment to each other. Then the Court would be sticking to the principle that guided its original decision that cleared the way for gay marriage in the first place, the same tenet that led the U.S. Supreme Court to unanimously decriminalize interracial unions forty years ago: the notion that marriage is "one of the basic civil rights." A law that blatantly denies that right and one that essentially affirms such laws elsewhere, are equally unjust.

Black Americans don't need to approve of or understand homosexuality to recognize that. And they owe it to successes of the civil rights movement, to their own triumph over inhumane treatment and accusations of an impure agenda, to try. My mother's father was a religious man too, but I believe he would have.