A way forward on marriage equality

The gay rights movement needs to strengthen its ties with the black community. To do so, it should be wary of claiming that marriage equality is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Such a claim is a big turnoff, according to a new study from the Arcus Foundation.

It’s supremely tempting to liken the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights to the civil rights movement. The comparison lends moral authority and historical legitimacy.

But this approach isn’t working.

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According to the Arcus study, many black people see the term “civil rights” as referring to a specific political movement, which peaked from the 1950s to the early 1970s. To them, another movement’s adoption of the term dilutes the power and uniqueness of their struggle.

Moreover, that struggle remains unfinished. Black communities continue to fight voter disenfranchisement, predatory lending, bias in the criminal justice system and labor discrimination.

There are plenty of openings, however, to strengthen the connection between black and LGBT people.

Hundreds of thousands of people belong to both communities. And people of color are adversely affected by homophobic laws, often more so than whites.

For instance, in 2004, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute exposed the fact that black women are disproportionately discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

What’s more, most blacks support the goal of equal rights for LGBT people.

The Arcus study notes that a majority of black people surveyed overwhelmingly support protection for the LGBT community from hate crimes, job discrimination and housing discrimination. To the extent that they show less support for gay marriage than on other issues, black people seem influenced by their religious beliefs, just as whites are.

And the lingo of a “new civil rights movement” gets in the way.

Let’s dispense with that, and focus on how to advance the goals of both groups.

First, both the LGBT and the racial justice movement need to shed more light on the racial impact of homophobia. The double prejudice adversely affects many people in both communities.

Second, the movements need to work reciprocally. If LGBT leaders want more support from the black community on marriage equality, the gay rights movement should include demands for systemic changes that blacks and other people of color identify, including on issues of affirmative action, voting rights and the criminal justice system.

Third, supporters in both movements need to drive resources toward LGBT organizations of color so their vital work can reach more people.

By working together, the black and LGBT communities can generate the kind of broad social movement that can expand equal rights for all of us.

Rinku Sen is president and executive director of Applied Research Center, a decades-old think tank on racial justice, and publisher of ColorLines, the national newsmagazine on race and politics. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org. The Progressive Media Project receives funding from the Arcus Foundation.