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Race and Beyond: The Black in the Rainbow

SOURCE: AP/Brian Witte

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, above, issued a statement in support of marriage equality shortly after President Obama's announcement. But the association has long supported equal rights for gay and transgender Americans.

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Of all the old and familiar faces in the estimated 8,000-strong crowd that I’m bumping into during this week’s NAACP convention, Leslye M. Huff is the last and most unlikely person I’d have expected to see.

An out lesbian, whom I’ve known for nearly a decade, dating back to my newspaper days in Cleveland, Huff once described herself to me as an “aggressive, agitating activist” on behalf of rights for the gay and transgender community. Even though the board of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization recently passed a resolution in support of marriage equality, I never imagined Huff and the black-church-flavored organization would ever find enough common ground to warrant her presence at its convention.

But I found her, roaming the corridors of the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, a rainbow lapel affixed to her navy blazer and a lanyard with a red NAACP badge dangling from her neck. She answered my shocked expression by pointing to the badge. “I’m a delegate, representing the Cleveland NAACP where I’m on the board,” she said.

I remembered the Cleveland NAACP as a hide-bound group under the iron-fisted control of gray-bearded autocrats, mostly black preachers, who seemed stuck in reliving the battles they fought in the late ‘60s. To be sure, very few women were a part of its leadership team. Gays or lesbians, well, let’s not go there.

And, now, here stands this 62-year-old black lesbian, who has waged private and public battles for decades against the encrusted black leadership in Northeast Ohio, as a voting delegate at the NAACP’s 103rd Annual Convention. Yes, times have definitely changed.

Over a breakfast of bacon, toast, and tea, Huff defended the NAACP on gay rights issues. Indeed, she said, most people have a mistaken impression of the NAACP’s role as an advocate for the gay and transgender community.

“I’m here because we need to reveal black in the rainbow and to reveal the rainbow in black,” she said. “When you talk to a black person about social justice and discrimination, there’s something in our moral history that screams to us ‘That ain’t right!’ It’s just that so many people haven’t heard that the NAACP has been arguing what’s not right about discrimination against gays and lesbians, but they have been at it for long, long time.”

My colleague Aisha Moodie-Mills, Advisor to the Center for American Progress on LGBT Policy and Racial Justice, agreed.

“The NAACP has long been a staunch defender of civil rights and justice for all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, and their recent resolution in support of marriage equality is a continuation of that legacy, not the beginning of it,” she told me.

In particular, Moodie-Mills pointed to the NAACP’s efforts in the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, on which the organization worked very closely with the gay community for years to enact.

“They’ve also been longtime champions of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which protects gay and transgender Americans from being discriminated against in the workplace,” she said. “And they’ve consistently opposed efforts to codify discrimination against gay and transgender Americans into the law, be it through legislatures or ballot measures.”

If there’s any present-day confusion over this, it stems in large part from timing. The NAACP board’s endorsement of marriage equality followed on the heels of President Barack Obama’s historic interview with ABC News, where he told Robin Roberts that “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Ten days later, the NAACP board voted on the matter, and on May 21, NAACP Chairman Roslyn Brock and NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous released a statement.

“Civil marriage is a civil right and a matter of civil law,” Jealous said in the statement. “The NAACP’s support for marriage equality is deeply rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution and equal protection of all people.”

Speaking Monday at the convention, Jealous put it more bluntly. “Simply put, the NAACP will never stand by as any state tries to encode discrimination into law,” he said of gay rights, drawing thunderous applause.

Huff beamed at the memory of the NAACP president’s bold statement and its affirmation from her fellow delegates. But it wasn’t news to her.

“Even before President Obama came out, so to speak, on the issue, our local NAACP officials were on record in their support of gay marriage,” Huff said. “We’ve convinced the local black newspaper (the Call and Post) to reverse its opposition to the city creating a domestic partnership registry.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit of all this activism in the black community on gay rights is that it reduces the impact of the politically conservative groups’ divide-and-destroy efforts to drive a wedge between black and gay communities.

“With the NAACP speaking very vocally on the issue there is less room to drive that wedge,” said Moodie-Mills.

Huff said pushing back against anything that separates progressive voices makes it worth her time and energy to attend the NAACP convention. “When black people come to the NAACP and talk about social justice–for the black community and for the gay community–we understand and we fight together.”

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

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