Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Why Now? (Again): Finding Common Ground: The Gay and African-American Communities in Obama's America

§ Human rights and solidarity grounded in recognition of human rights: in my view, this must be the centerpiece of any platform of change under the Obama administration, if the change promised during the campaign is to come to pass.

§ We have, after all, lived through a period of erosion of human rights, both the rights of American citizens as well as our support for the rights of others across the globe. The right to privacy has been breached by precedent and practice in the current administration, along with the right to freedom from imprisonment without cause and due process. Vis-à-vis non-citizens or citizens of other nations, the human rights record of the current administration is more than spotty: it’s shameful. The position of the American people on torture as represented by the present administration brings shame on the entire nation.

§ Erosion of the rights of anyone anywhere ought to concern all of us. Such erosion threatens the rights of everyone everywhere.

§ The success of the anti-gay initiatives in the recent election brings the question of rights—and the erosion of rights—front and center for the new administration from its inception. It is impossible to build a viable platform for change that engages all constituencies without recognizing this and addressing it.

§§ As Rachel Maddow notes in her 7 November “Talk Me Down” (MSNBC) interview with Melissa Harris Lacewell, what happened with proposition 8 poses a question for the entire nation about the meaning of civil rights in the new administration:

The big controversial finger pointing of that uproar [i.e., in some communities re: the California proposition 8 vote] is the fact that African Americans . . . voted in favor of prop 8 by a 7 in 10 margin. So the state and country is left to grapple with what it means for civil rights. That the same voters who disproportionately helped elect the country’s first African American president also disproportionately helped to take rights away from the gay community (www.pamshouseblend.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=8084).

§ This is the heart of the painful sense of betrayal that many gay Americans are now articulating vis-à-vis the African-American community: there is the strong sense that a community with an historic commitment to human rights seems, in some cases, not only oblivious to the rights of another minority community, but actively willing to assault the rights of that community.

§§ And, as a corrective to those seeking to isolate the African-American community as solely responsible for the passing of proposition 8, it is important to note that there are significant voices throughout the African-American community (which is no more monolithic than is “the” gay community) who follow Coretta Scott King’s analysis. Shortly before the 30th anniversary of her husband’s assassination, Mrs. King stated,

I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice. But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'

§§ On the same occasion, Coretta Scott King noted the contributions of “courageous [gay] men and women” to the civil rights movement, and stated that these citizens whose own rights were not acknowledged stood up "for my freedom at a time when they could find few voices for their own."

§§ For an appeal by an African-American voter in California who voted for proposition 8 to move beyond the blame game of pointing the finger at African-American voters, see Raymond Leon Roker, www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-leon-roker/stop-blaming-californias_b_142018.html.

§ One can note the painful sense of betrayal felt by many gay Americans without racist intent. One can observe that a significant proportion of African-American voters in California and Florida supported the new administration while pushing against the rights of the gay community without intending a racist conclusion in such analysis.

§§ As Andrew Sullivan notes, “There is a difference between blaming African Americans and recognizing that the black community needs to be engaged more energetically on this issue” (http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/prop-8-and-th-1.html#more).

§ For many gay Americans as well as for many other citizens, the concurrence of discrimination coming from a community that experiences discrimination with the historic breakthrough of the election of Barack Obama is troubling. This concurrence frames the success of the new administration, in which most gay Americans rejoice, as success bought at a steep price: forfeiting of rights by some minority citizens.

§§ As Melissa Harris Lacewell notes in the 7 November interview with Rachel Maddow cited above,

The anxiety is that there was this enthusiasm for the possibility of racial equality or at least the symbol of it that is embodied in the person of Barack Obama. And the fact that the entire coalition that supported Obama also supported a ban on gay marriage, I think for us it called into question sort of, are we all going to come forward in this American dream together.

§ The point of a non-racist analysis that looks to a better future with the new administration is to identify threats to solidarity and to mend breaches to solidarity wherever they are found—not play blame games. Unless the nation as a whole and the new administration wish simply to ignore the gay community and to shut it out from full inclusion in the new platform of change, it is imperative that the tensions between the African-American and gay communities (or some sectors of both communities) be recognized and addressed now.

§ To do this, we have to engage the argument frequently offered by some members of the African-American community that the gay community illicitly borrows the language of civil rights from the African-American community. The argument is often advanced that the gay community is spuriously riding on the coattails of the African-American civil rights movement.

§ Some African-American commentators (and some gay activists and other progressive thinkers of an individualistic ethos who buy into this analysis) urge gay Americans to get their own movement, and even to refrain from using the language of civil rights as we press for full inclusion in American society.

§ Hiding within this rhetoric is the assumption that what gay Americans are seeking as we seek full inclusion is not rights in the same sense that African Americans seek rights. There is the assumption that gay Americans are seeking special privilege that goes beyond human rights—even, that gay Americans are not marginalized and excluded in a way that is in any sense equivalent to the marginalization and exclusion of African Americans and other bona fide minorities.

§ These are dangerous arguments to press. It is clear that human rights are at stake in the battles underway with the anti-gay initiatives of the recent election. The United Nations Charter of Human Rights recognizes marriage as a human right. Though the Charter speaks specifically of male-female couples in doing so, what needs to be noted is that marriage is a human right, not a special right.

§ Unless the right to marry is going to be limited to couples capable of procreation (male-female couples of childbearing age with no impediment to procreation), then it is capricious and cruel to marry male-female couples incapable of childbearing while refusing to marry same-sex couples. The essence of discrimination is erecting distinctions that separate a group of human beings into a demeaned category on the basis of insupportable conclusions based on inborn characteristics of the group.

§ Since churches marry opposite-sex couples incapable of procreation, they can hardly use the argument that, in opposing gay marriage, they are protecting marriage as an institution for procreation. And the right to marry at stake in the debate is not a right to marry in a church, in any case. Only in a theocratic society can secular marriages be a threat to the church definition of marriage.

§ In addition, one has to recognize that the intent of the religious and political right in rolling back the right of gay citizens to marry is part of a larger agenda of rolling back gay rights in general—everywhere in the nation.

§ It is deeply dishonest for many of those who actively sought the repeal of marital rights in California to claim now that they respect civil unions as a separate-but-equal arrangement for gay couples, with all the rights inherent in those unions. The removal of the right to marry from the gay community is part and parcel of an attempt to remove as many rights as possible from gay citizens throughout the land, including the right to adopt children, the right to protection from disemployment due to sexual orientation, the right to live where we wish without discrimination, the right to visit our partners in hospitals, the right to make decisions jointly about our estates and healthcare in times of crisis.

§ Some 31 states have no legal protection for gay citizens against being fired simply because we are gay. Those combating gay marriage in California are the same groups who have worked hard to assure that even that right, and all the other rights enumerated above, are withheld from gay citizens in much of the nation.

§ Some Catholic bishops are now stating that, though the Catholic church rejects the rights of gay people to marry, it upholds all of our other human rights. This is not the case, and has not been the case. Throughout the world, the institutional leaders of the Catholic church have consistently and bitterly opposed all rights of gay citizens, including the right to protection from discrimination in hiring and housing.

§ Rights are rights. When we begin to parse human rights, to speak as if some people have real rights and others have secondary, derivative rights, we diminish the humanity of those whose rights we parse.

§ There are no separate-but-equal, no secondary, human rights. There are no secondary human rights unless there are secondary human beings, second-class citizens whose humanity is not on a par with that of other citizens.

§ Separate but equal is inherently unequal. Those of us who grew up in the pre-integration South saw this repeatedly with our own eyes. The language of separate but equal is a cover for discrimination that tries to paint something foul as pretty.

§§ As Melissa Harris Lacewell notes in the previously cited 7 November interview with Rachel Maddow,

There is an equivalence [between the struggle for black civil rights and gay civil rights]. When you talk about marriage vs. civil unions you are essentially calling it separate but equal African Americans understand the language of separate but equal we understand that separate is inherently unequal.

§§ Lacewell notes that the gay community did not do due diligence in outreach to the African-American community in California during the campaign, to draw parallels between Loving v. Virginia and gay marriage. As she notes, “All of the same anxieties, language, hatred, bigotry, and potential violence” are present in the reaction to gay marriage that were present in the reaction to Loving v. Virginia.

§ Throughout his campaign, Mr. Obama spoke of moving beyond the fragmentation of the culture wars, with their enervating battles—of building new coalitions that cross every sort of line.

§ These promises cannot be kept without a philosophy of solidarity grounded in a strong concept of human rights. What happened in California on the day of Mr. Obama’s election does, indeed, provide a test case of his platform for change.

§ Solidarity has to be built. It can never be presupposed. It does not just happen. And it is built when we engage precisely those areas in which it is most threatened at present in any given society.

§ That the repeal of rights for gay citizens involved a significant proportion of African-American voters in California who simultaneously supported Mr. Obama provides the new president an opportunity to address the limited view of human rights shared by some of his African-American brothers and sisters, and to assure that this limited view of human rights does not prevail in Obama’s America.

§ And it goes without saying that what happened also provides an opportunity—it demands—for gay Americans to confront racism in the gay community, for all Americans to recognize that homophobia and racism are problems not of a single community, but ugly blots on the human rights record of this nation.

§ As well as threats to solidarity in a new America.

§§ On the need for solidarity between all those who experience unmerited suffering imposed by others, and on the struggle for gay human rights (including the right to marry) as “the cutting edge” of the civil rights struggle today, see Pete Cenedella, www.huffingtonpost.com/pete-cenedella/21st-century-barack-obama_b_142442.html.

Let me respond simply: THIS IS NOT A COMPETITION. Remember the desultory arguments between Jews and blacks about which was worse, the Holocaust or Slavery?Please. This just in: Oppression is bad. And the point I want Barack Obama to make is this: in America, the story of progress is the story of more and more people coming under the full shelter of the increasingly big tent that is the Constitution.

The point is: if we are going to make our politics look more like our gloriously diverse country, we need to stop viewing civil rights as a Black thing, or a woman thing. It's everybody's thing, all of our struggle -- and right now the cutting edge of that struggle is gay marriage.
§§ Note that Cenedella appeals to Barack Obama, as I do, to underscore the need for solidarity and the platform of human rights now, at the beginning of his administration, by addressing the place of gay Americans in his new America.

§§ Note, too, that I have been persistently blogging at this Bilgrimage site about the need for "safe spaces" to be built within which African Americans and gay Americans can sort out our differences and identify what we have in common. In my own experience, I have already discovered both the overwhelming contribution both communities can make to the other, and the strong divisions growing between the two communities.

§§ I will continue pointing to his need in the new America of Barack Obama not merely because finding solidarity between marginalized communities being pitted against each other is of great concern to me. I will continue addressing this need because addressing it is crucial to the success of the new administration, which I strongly support.