Equalizing Blacks and Gays

After watching the short documentary “Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness” and listening to the community debate that followed, I too wanted to take on the question that hovered over the event at Harlem Stage: Is the LGBT rights movement a logical next step in the civil rights struggle that African Americans pioneered in the 1950s and ‘60s?

I admit, this may not be the best phrasing of the question. Consider the variations. Many refer, either affirmatively or dismissively, to the connection between the movements. Some, trying to sound cool, query: Is gay the new black?

But whatever wording you fancy, we all mean, I think, the same thing. We would like to know whether the historical lessons of the African-American community in struggling for, and reaching milestones in, recognition and equal treatment under the law and nondiscrimination policies should guide us in talking about and striving for LGBT rights.

The film — presented at a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and featuring prominent marriage equality supporters, including hip hop mogul Russell Simmons and moderated by the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart — presents an admirable example of leadership that draws heavily from black heritage in bringing LGBT rights to the fore.

Byron Rushing is a state legislator in Massachusetts, whose political thinking was shaped in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr., and who has established himself as staunch promoter of LGBT rights in his almost 30-year tenure. Director Thomas Allen Harris focuses on Rushing’s role in the marriage debate that erupted in the State Legislature in the wake of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s granting the right of same-sex couples to marry in 2003 — a first in American history. In the Constitutional Convention, a joint gathering of the State Senate and House, called to debate several different proposed marriage bans, Rushing stood out in advocating for the right to marry as a civil right.

Rushing’s embodiment of pro-gay black political advocacy is a significant symbol, given the mixed record of history and discourse on this point. Head to the West Coast, just a few years after Massachusetts turned back efforts to repeal same-sex marriage, to see how Rushing’s embrace of gay marriage as a civil right is not necessarily the norm — a conundrum that has leaders in the gay community, including many LGBT African Americans, asking how the black grassroots make up their minds when push come to shove on election day.

Two days after California voted for Barack Obama but also enacted Proposition 8, the Washington Post’s headline was: “Most of California’s black voters backed gay ban.” As the newspaper saw it, ”The same voters who turned out strongest for Barack Obama also drove a stake through the heart of same-sex marriage.” In the immediate aftermath of the devastating defeat, it was not hard to find LGBT activists who subscribed to the theory as well.

Within just a few months, more rational thinking thankfully prevailed. What seemed like an initial “Blame African-American voters” meme evolved into two less stigmatizing, more accurate explanations.

One was evidence based: Plenty of Anglo, Latino, and Asian-Pacific voters fell short in voting to defeat Proposition 8, particularly in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, generally thought of as a bastion of liberal leanings.

A second theory accepted the fact that Proposition 8 opposition underperformed in the African-American community, but also that anti-Proposition 8 campaign leaders — predominantly not from communities of color — did insufficient outreach to maximize African-American support for maintaining marriage equality.

Either way, when we toss the childish question of blame aside and try to study the results — indeed, speakers on the Harlem panel evoked Proposition 8 — it seems apparent that many in the African-American Democratic fold don’t see the LGBT agenda through the lens of the black experience. Enthusiasm for the first African-American president, even as he articulated progressive if not perfect views on gay rights, was not related to an embrace of the LGBT agenda.

For insights into the question, I turned to San Diego-based Stampp Corbin, who co-chaired the National LGBT Leadership during the Obama presidential campaign. His double loyalty to the black and gay causes, I hoped, would help me understand to what extent these more reflective conclusions reflect reality.

Serendipitously, my Israeli-inflected accent initially led Corbin to think I was referring to Bayard Rustin —not Byron Rushing — a prominent gay black leader in the civil rights movement from the time when the LGBT movement was barely a dream. The misunderstanding led to an insightful tangent, as Corbin talked about how Rustin was instrumental in mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to the historic 1963 March on Washington. Without his organizing know-how, perhaps Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech would never have been realized.

But Corbin added that in the civil rights movement of that day, it was clear that the gay guy could only be a leader backstage.

I don’t read Corbin’s point as criticism of a double standard but as a wise recognition that in hindsight progress must be assessed in the context of time and place.

When Corbin assesses the place of gay people in the black community, he is critical but nuanced.

“If you look at the broader picture, African Americans in general are very similar to evangelicals, that they root their views of homosexuality in the Bible, but in the black church it’s an open secret that many of the organizers and choir directors are gay men — in my experience, they are not open, but it’s an open secret.”

Corbin opened my eyes when he explained how he was forced early in life to choose between the causes, forced into prioritizing between being gay and black.

In the late 1980s, Corbin was living in Boston, in Rushing’s district, which had a significant black and gay neighborhoods. But unlike most of Rushing’s black constituents, he lived in the South End, a mostly white gay ghetto. A friend of Corbin’s, Mike Duffy, decided to challenge Rushing as the representative of that gay and black constituency. Duffy was white, openly gay, and Republican.

Corbin’s closest community of friends was colored gay. Duffy lived in the same brownstone as Corbin. As a candidate, he was a first option of sorts.

But then in a meeting of Duffy’s supporters, Corbin recalled, the white gay electorate made him understand that a double commitment is not so easy: “Someone said, ‘I want to see one of my own elected,’ so I stood up and said, ‘Which one of my own do you want to see elected? Because I’m gay and black.’”

Corbin opted for the straight but pro-gay Rushing and became very active in his campaign. Corbin suggested that Duffy believed his gay identity would cancel out his Republican branding in an overwhelmingly Democratic district. Corbin was definitely sympathetic to the desire to see a gay representative in those early years of political empowerment, but that was hardly enough for him to rule out a pro-gay official with a strong track record on LGBT rights.

Corbin takes the question of blame and turns it upside down into a matter of political ingratitude.

“Rushing took big risks in the 1980s, and then the LGBT community turned its back on him,” he said. “This did not go over well with the African Americans.”

Rushing won and continued to work for our community.

I turned to Freedom to Marry’s Marc Solomon, who was the campaign manager for MassEquality, the coalition that worked to preserve the state high court ruling, to learn how the black and gay causes were intertwined in that battle.

“Throughout the Massachusetts debate, Byron Rushing spoke with passion about how ‘we the people’ have battled to expand the American promise to groups that were not originally included —from African-Americans to women, to the disabled, to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” Solomon said. “As a result, when Byron spoke about the struggle for equality for LGBT people, his colleagues always listened because he drew from a broader, historical perspective.”

My take from Solomon is that the black civil rights movement provides binding lessons as long as we, black or not, use it to speak an increasingly inclusive American language, in which the particular is used to establish justice based on law that is exercised equally.

In that sense, I think the African-American community is the most American of all, because of its historic role — from the days James Madison called it “this unfortunate race” in “The Federalist” — in shaping its cause as a national agenda leaving no one indifferent. Indeed, when Madison used the word “unfortunate,” he envisioned that as a temporary stage. Black slaves were counted out from the moment the Union was constituted; indeed, for the union to be constituted. The struggle of African Americans to be counted in, to stake their claim for the pursuit of happiness is the most compelling tale in the American odyssey.

Led Black, the editor of Uptown Collective, a community blog, wrote about the Harlem Stage event: “As a straight and married Dominican-American man who was for most of my life reflexively homophobic, I didn’t believe these issues were of my concern. The death of Tyler Clementi and others have made me realize that as the great Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Black, then, is a recent convert to his role as a New Yorker for marriage equality. He wrote to me that “the only way that Americans can go beyond the current impasse is by straight people, such as myself, speaking up on this issue. I try to bring up the topic on the site regularly for that very reason.”

I so rarely meet people who change their mind — and admit it — that I felt compelled to ask Black what argument he would use to speak to his former self, to which he replied: “I think what I would try to convey to my former self is the pain, suffering, and humiliation that these gay kids are forced to endure. I would also try to make the argument that the rights that I enjoy as a married straight man should be the rights of all people, at least here in the United States.”

Isn’t this cashing the check of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” for which Martin Luther King came to the nation’s capital 49 years ago?