you must be for the civil rights of all, or you’re not for the civil rights of anyone. - Rev. Al Sharpton
Barack Obama made American history in an interview with ABC news on May 9 as he became the first United States President to openly support same-sex marriage. As the first African American President this gesture of good faith toward those who self-identify as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) also represents a historic step forward towards co-operation between rights advocacy groups.
Recently, columnist Kate Taylor for the New York Times shared some insights into the burgeoning alliance between LGBT rights groups and civil rights activists. On May 19, ten days after Obama’s announcement, the National Association for the AdvancemeAånt of Coloured People (N.A.A.C.P.) voted to also endorse same-sex marriage.
AAnother ten days later, leaders from several national LGBT rights groups gathered to make their response in kind; they announced they would march to protest the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” practices under which, Taylor says, hundreds of thousands of citizens are stopped by police in an effort to prevent crime. The practice has been criticized by some civil rights groups as being racially discriminatory.
Yet in light of these demonstrations of mutual support Taylor reminds us that the doors have not always been open between these two advocacy groups; while both their rights movements flourished over the past few decades LGBT and civil rights activists have often been more likely to hurl rocks over their gates rather than open them.
There are many reasons for the perceived animosity between the LBGT and civil rights groups some of which, Taylor adds, are incredibly complicated. Some African American rights activists, for example, have historically not approved of the LGBT using civil rights rhetoric to support their own agenda. Before the rhetoric was widely adopted, messages like “equality of opportunity for every man” were at the core of the civil rights movement; they were tools used to express themselves and their goals to those who oppressed them.
While both groups fought for human rights, their missions had some remarkable differences; the LGBT fought for acceptance of varying sexual orientations, whereas African Americans fought for racial equality. Although civil rights activist, Julian Bond claims this recent vote by the N.A.A.C.P. “debunked the myth that the black community is uncomfortable with same-sex marriage,” there are groups within the black community, such as church leaders, who have been known to vocalize their discomfort with homosexuality. It must be remembered that feelings of conflict toward homosexually are, as with many things, not defined by race; every individual has the potential to accept or reject LGBT rights.
The sensitivity felt within many varying groups of people has often taken the form of vigorous opposition towards homosexual rights. A recent example would be the passing of Amendment 1 in North Carolina where 60% of the population voted to ban homosexuals from engaging in any type of same-sex union.
In addition to personal feelings toward sexual diversity, the ambivalence held by both the LGBT and the civil rights groups toward fostering mutual support could also chalked up to inexperience. Both movements were a part of a new phenomenon of widespread civil protests occurring in North America in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Each group struggled to fight against years of stereotypes and persecution. To start these rights movements and then to maintain them required an enormous amount of energy and cooperation within their bases of support. Following this line of thought, one can see why both the LGBT and civil rights activists may have felt taking on each other’s agendas would distort their group’s focus and message.
Decades after their original formation Benjamin Todd Jealous, President of the N.A.A.C.P. expresses a feeling of growth and enlightenment on behalf of both civil rights and LGBT groups: “It’s become clear that…we would either stand together or die apart.” Now that the gates between them have cautiously been opened, all parties have come to understand that if they are to protect their common goals of attaining human rightsthey must not allow for exclusion between one another.
To this end, Taylor quotes Rev. Al Sharpton: “you must be for the civil rights of all, or you’re not for the civil rights of anyone.”