Even though Hurricane Irene may have thwarted the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, a number of events were held all over the area to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. Among these events was “Building the Dream for LGBT Equality: Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” which was presented by a number of LGBT organizations. Events such as this have allowed the issue of LGBT equality, particularly in the Black community, to once again be discussed in the context of civil rights. After attending this event and reading opinion pieces from Rev. Dennis Wiley, Ph.D. (a contributor for the FIRE initiative at the Center for American Progress and pastor of Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ), all I could think is, how can some individuals in the Black community not see LGBT equality as a civil rights issue?
Being a child of the ‘80s who grew up reading about the civil rights movement in textbooks and hearing recounts from older members of my family, I’ve always had a strong emotional connection to the fight for equality. I could not fathom why at any point in our nation’s history, such disregard could be had for a race of people to treat them as mere property and eventually second-class citizens. I am not sure why I had such an emotional reaction to the stories I read or videos I saw about the civil rights movement; after all, I could turn on the TV and see people like me on weekly sitcoms or the news and I did not have to use separate entrances or attend segregated schools. But what I did know is that it was fundamentally wrong to treat a group of people with such disdain just because they were what God intended them to be—Black.
In its simplest form, the fight for LGBT equality has a lot in common with the civil rights movement — equality. Millions of LGBT Americans are suffering because of legislation that is preventing them from being able to obtain items such as equal housing, employment, and health care. This is particularly the case in the Black community. I could talk at length ad nauseam about the number of studies that show that Black LGBT individuals and families disproportionately have lower wages and higher rates of unemployment than their White LGBT counterparts that make obtaining basic necessities an everyday battle. But these are statistics that we all already know. What some in the Black community don’t seem to realize, however, is that these issues are civil rights issues.
Let’s take a moment to think about if the shoe was on the other foot. Hypothetically speaking, let’s imagine a young Black man was unable to marry his fiancé, receive quality health care, and was in constant fear of violence because he was Black and minimal legislation was on the books to protect him from discrimination. What would we say? His civil rights are being impeded upon because he is being denied things that every other member of society can have, simply because he is Black. And I am pretty sure one would have no problem finding hundreds if not thousands of people who would rally around this issue and work hard to get legislation passed to stop this infringement of civil rights. Unfortunately, this hypothetical situation plays out every day not on the basis of skin color but on the basis of one’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity.
Yet while many people are rallying to change these discriminatory laws, just as many are fighting to keep them in place. As a society we are so consumed with the sexual acts that occur between two LGBT individuals that we cannot see the forest through the trees. The Black community is no exception. We either condemn or totally ignore one’s sexual orientation or gender identity if we do not agree with it, even if it is slapping us right in the face. The Bible is often used to condemn homosexuality, without any regard to the person that one is inflicting the condemnation on. At the end of the day, it does not matter if you do not agree with what LGBT individuals do in the privacy of their homes. What does matter is that a group of people are not afforded the same measures of equality that non-LGBT individuals enjoy.
It breaks my heart to hear individuals like Rev. Keith Ratliff Sr. (an NAACP board member) say that the gay community needs to “stop hijacking the civil rights movement.” No one is trying to hijack anything. It is deplorable that some members of a group that was denied equality (and in many ways is still fighting for equality) would turn their backs on their own just because they identify by a different sexual orientation or gender identity. If nothing else, Blacks should be sympathetic to the struggles for equality that Black LGBT (and non-Black LGBT) individuals are currently facing. It was not that long ago that the rights of Blacks were impeded simply because their skin color was Black and not White.
At the end of the day, civil rights are just that: civil rights. They know no color, race, gender, or religion. These boundaries are placed by people who think it is in their power to deny equality to others. But I say, who are we to deny the rights we ourselves enjoy because we do not like the way a person expresses who they are? I challenge those in the Black community who oppose LGBT equality to take a long, hard look in the mirror. I am sure you will come to the conclusion that Black LGBT equality is simply a civil rights issue—one of equality.
Jerome Hunt is a Ph.D. candidate at Howard University and a research associate with the Center for American Progress Action Fund. The views expressed in this article are his own. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.