Parallels Between Civil Rights and Gay Marriage

As the debate over gay marriage rages on, the parallels between the struggle for civil rights and the fight for gay marriage become more obvious. Commentator Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ED GORDON, host:

Earlier in the show, we talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights legacy. King championed freedoms not only for African-Americans, but for all people.

Commentator Mark Anthony Neal says, considering our own history, blacks should better understand gay Americans' fight to legalize same-sex marriage.

Professor MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Professor of African and African American Studies, Duke University): So, once again, the president and members of the Senate loudly proclaimed their support for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. Given the fact that President Bush's poll numbers are teetering towards oblivion, it is safe to say that even the president's most ardent supporters saw these most recent efforts as little more than a diversion - the shiny silver ball that takes our attention away from the myriad challenges that the nation currently faces.

For same-sex partners in this country, the calls for the Constitutional amendment are a clear attempt to erode their civil rights. But many in the black community take offense to the suggestion that the battles over same-sex marriage have anything to do with civil rights at all, arguing instead that the discussion diverts attention away from the long-standing civil rights issues that effect the black community.

Those who would deny lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered and other folk, their piece of the civil rights pie, seem to think that the black community has a patent on civil rights. This denies the reality that civil disobedience and other political strategies pursued by those involved in the civil rights movement drew inspiration from disparate sources, including the work of Gandhi, in India, and the Highlander Center in Tennessee, which was founded as a lilywhite institution devoted to social justice in 1932.

One of the things that African-Americans were able to achieve in their pursuit of civil rights was to link their struggles with the basic rights associated with citizenship in any democratic society. African-Americans made their struggles for civil rights universal. That legacy is the reason why the very tenants of the civil rights movement in this country could be echoed in the demands of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, three decades ago; or why proponents of more liberal immigration policies could apply rhetoric associated with the African-American civil rights.

It is also the reason why political and social conservatives have so easily appropriated the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the black civil rights movement, in the service of anti-affirmative action legislation. In this regard, I fully understand those black folk, who might be suspicious when civil rights is invoked in situations far removed from their everyday experiences.

But is same-sex marriage something that is far removed from the black experience? For these so-called other black folk, the desires to protect their right to marriage and civil unions is as important as the right for black people to vote was in 1964, because of the fundamental belief that any erosion of one's civil rights in this country is an erosion of everyone's civil rights.

Though seemingly an attempt to protect the sanctity of marriage, this in a society where more than 50 percent of such unions end in divorce, at the root of calls for banning same-sex marriage is fear and derision of those whose sexualities might differ from our own. And while homophobia might be too broad a stroke to depict some of these motivations, there's no denying that homophobia is a problem that threatens the spiritual and emotional health of all black communities.

For blacks to deny gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders, full citizenship is to turn our back on the very legacy of civil rights that so many fought and died for throughout the 20th century.

GORDON: Mark Anthony Neal is an associate professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.