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Finding Common Ground on Equal Rights

Event Focuses on How LGBT and African-American Communities Can Work Together

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During the heated debate over California’s controversial Proposition 8, which stripped lesbians and gays of their right to marry when it was passed in November of 2008, many LGBT activists drew comparisons to the struggles African Americans endured during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Yet after the measure passed, many in the LGBT community believed that a large segment of the black community had turned against them, voting for the discriminatory measure. At the same time, many in the black community felt uncomfortable with how LGBT activists appropriated rhetoric from the civil rights movement to advance the cause of marriage equality. These tensions illustrate how complicated the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality can be when pushing for equal rights in America.

But are these two communities really such ideological mismatches? Cornell Belcher doesn’t think so. “We have a lot more in common than not,” said Belcher, who, after having worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, became the first African American to have worked as a pollster for either major political party. Belcher was one of the many distinguished participants who appeared at a panel discussion co-hosted by the Center for American Progress and the Arcus Foundation yesterday titled, “Selma and Stonewall: Setting the Agenda for Equal Rights in the 21st Century.” The panel investigated and delivered insightful advice about how to best frame the conversation about equality, both within and between the black and LGBT communities. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart moderated the discussion.

Panelists agreed that the church remains one of the key loci for reaching many in the black community and shaping political beliefs. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a Baptist minister, sociology professor at Georgetown University, author, and syndicated radio host, insisted that any homophobic messages disseminated at black churches need to be replaced by messages of acceptance toward the LGBT community. “The core of the faith is about promoting the ethic of love.” Dyson believes that refocusing the discussion of LGBT rights around central religious virtues, such as love and compassion, can profoundly affect the black community’s position on issues such as gay marriage.

Yet some of the panelists argued for the need to move beyond the black church to reach African Americans about LGBT rights. Hilary O. Shelton, national bureau director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, insisted that the conversation needs to be positioned within a legal context. He argued for treating the issue of marriage equality not as a religious question, but similarly to issues such as health care, housing, and law enforcement. “We didn’t focus in on the tangible rights issues,” said Shelton, reflecting on the arguments used to fight Proposition 8.

Belcher agreed, citing a statistic from his polling that 46 percent of African Americans think they are being discriminated against a lot, and 44 percent think that LGBT people are being discriminated against a lot. Belcher insisted that the black community understands discrimination, but that they just are not currently viewing certain types of discrimination against the LGBT community as discrimination issues. Belcher thinks framing marriage equality as a moral question is being used to wedge the black community away from the LGBT rights movement. “If our foes define the conversation around one or two issues that they know will wedge us, they’ll win every time,” insisted Belcher, arguing that black people would be on the frontlines to defend LGBT rights if gay marriage were reframed as an issue of discrimination.

C. Nicole Mason, executive director of the Women of Color Policy Network, observed that LGBT and black communities often misunderstand each other, even though both are subject to high levels of oppression and discrimination. “There is not a common understanding of where we meet and where we diverge,” she said. Many in the LGBT community sense homophobia from the black community, and many from the black community sense racism from the white LGBT community.

Shelton agreed, citing his personal experience in the NAACP, trying to partner with LGBT organizations to defeat Prop. 8. Shelton claimed to have encountered racism, hostility, and a lack of support from LGBT activist groups in this endeavor. Recalling such groups’ backlash against the black community after Prop. 8 passed, he said, “Even though the NAACP opposed this initiative, when the statistics came back saying that a lot of African Americans supported it, every African American became the enemy, even those who opposed it.”

Yet all the panelists agreed that the conversation about LGBT equality and the black community needs to move past bickering and finger pointing. “There needs to be trust between the black LGBT community, white mainstream gay organizations, and black civil rights organizations,” said Mason. Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, urged both communities to focus in on the very group who this discussion affects most: black LGBT people.

“We can have a conversation around the racism within the LGBT community or the homophobia within the black community, but what it leaves out is me,” said Robinson, himself an openly gay African American. “It leaves out the hundreds of thousands of black LGBT people living in their community every day facing concrete harm.”

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