A Hopeful Awakening Among Progressives

August has been the month when the Democratic left came alive.

Cindy Sheehan turned one mother’s grief into a mass protest. But the newly invigorated anti-war movement is not the only spark of new activism.

Black gay and lesbian activists are mobilizing. Conservative Christians have been using AIDS and, especially, same-sex marriage to separate African Americans from the Democrats. One impact of this “values” push could be not a shift toward the Republicans but rather a move away from voting at all in African-American communities.

The black gay and lesbian leadership is aware of the danger. They are making a concerted effort to increase visibility at the Millions More Movement March October 15 in Washington. Before the main march starts, there will be a National Black LGBT rally. The original march ten years ago was organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and had a muted gay presence.

Another Washington gathering, this one in September, will help activists look at the impact the gay marriage issue had in the last presidential election and examine what to expect as the 2006 and 2008 elections approach. One of the key sessions will be led by a New Yorker—Keith Boykin, the board president of the National Black Justice Coalition, which is convening the conference.

A former staffer in Clinton’s White House, Boykin, is a leader of this new activist spirit. The negative reaction to gay marriage among some African Americans, he said in an interview, is a result of the politics of respectability—the desire to be acceptable to the dominant forces in society. This long-standing challenge has created a “double edge sword”—African Americans are “political progressive but socially conservative,” he said.

“People see” gay marriage “as a social issue, moral issue, they’ve heard about in church,” Boykin explained. “They don’t necessarily make the connection to the political, civil rights issue.”

Fundamentally, however, Boykin’s analysis is optimistic. He believes that a campaign explaining the connection between marriage equality and civil rights will work. And he suggested that as same-sex marriage become more acceptable to the larger society, it will become more acceptable to African-American communities.

An attorney and prolific writer, Boykin was candid about the obstacles impeding support of marriage equality but adamant that African Americans remain staunch believers in civil rights, including the civil rights of gays and lesbians.

“When there is a clear political civil rights issue like housing discrimination, or employment discrimination against gays and lesbians, African Americans are not only as supportive but sometimes more supportive than whites,” he noted.

Boykin, who has a highly regarded blog keithboykin.com, is also a leader in the fight against the spread of HIV. During the past week, he joined a group of national leaders calling on the black community to take crucial steps to avoid infection. The prevalence of HIV infection among black men who have sex with other men has been found to be high. One CDC estimate in June placed the rate of infection among black gay and bisexual men at 46 percent.

The letter from black leaders focuses on an equally disturbing fact—“more than two thirds of the HIV-infected black men in the study were unaware of their infection. That’s right. Half of us may be infected and, of that half, two thirds don’t know it and so almost certainly aren’t doing anything about it.”

Those who signed onto the letter hope they will provoke a concerted effort comparable to the one elicited by recent campaigns against crystal meth and bare backing.

“White gay men are doing exactly what they should be doing,” the letter read. “They are forcing each other to take responsibility, be accountable, and attack a threat that is attacking them.”

The letter concluded: “We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable and responsible for our own survival.”

The essence of Boykin’s politics is focusing on helping people. Conservatives often belittle, demean, and label people and groups they deem unworthy. Some barely conceal their view that that men contracting HIV infections bring it on themselves and so do not deserve help. Boykin and his allies confront this issue head on.

The same sex marriage issue also demands that we take action and responsibility. Conservatives warn that marriage equality destroys marriage, convoluted reasoning to be sure, but the central message that they have in their effort to forestall progress on this issue. They are desperate to win the battle of public sympathies.

A similar battle over sympathies was successfully launched by Cindy Sheehan. Conservative columnist Matt Drudge pounced on reports that she used the “f” word. Other conservatives labeled her an anti-Semite who believed her son died for Israel. All this was done in an effort to overcome the natural empathy the public would have toward a mother grieving a lost son.

Republicans use “values” as a way to counter sympathy. They use values to separate and divide.

Liberals, by nature, are willing to take an understanding approach toward people whose behavior causes them problems.

In his best selling book about AIDS “Beyond the Down Low,” Boykin identifies dozens of ways to urge responsibility but also to practice charity.

“It’s not a good thing that people lie about their HIV status, but it should not be a criminal thing either,” he wrote, summarizing one dilemma of our age.

The left is providing some hope that the Democrats can stand up to the Republican offensive in next year’s Congressional elections. It is never too early to start that work.