The Human Rights Campaign earlier this week obtained copies of the National Organization for Marriage’s confidential strategy documents, which disclosed the conservative organization’s plan to use despicable race-baiting tactics in its fight against marriage equality across our country. Specifically, the organization plans to drive a wedge between gays and blacks by convincing them to fight over the “civil rights” inherent in the fight for marriage equality, and manipulate Hispanics by making “support for marriage” (for everyone but same-sex couples) an important symbol of the Latino identity.
But what these conservatives fail to understand is that the members of all of these communities—black, Latino, gay and transgender men and women—know that fighting discrimination by drawing upon each other’s experiences is powerfully inspirational. While the National Organization for Marriage wants to pit them against one another and exploit often exaggerated divisions, this leak inadvertently highlights the collaboration that already exists between these communities as well as the broad support from those in our society who are against bigotry, prejudice, and inequity.
A closer look at the organization’s hateful strategy exposes its dangerously manipulative game for what it is—race-baiting prejudice at its worst for an organization that claims a moral high ground in the debate over marriage equality.
The civil rights carnard
The National Organization for Marriage document focuses on the civil rights arguments that are often used in the fight for marriage equality. The strategy outlines the need to “find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”
To be clear, the use of this civil rights frame of argument has been challenged by some in the black community. Calling other rights struggles by that name, according to these individuals, disparages the struggles of black people for their civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But what’s interesting about this debate is that it is most often the black leaders who are veterans of the Civil Rights Movement themselves who see the connection between race discrimination and marriage equality—namely, the ability of individual states to decide when rights might be denied to entire groups of people.
Take U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who was one of the original speakers at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington: “From time to time, America comes to a crossroads. With confusion and controversy, it’s hard to spot that moment. We need cool heads, warm hearts, and America’s core principles to cleanse away the distractions. We are now at such a crossroads over same-sex couples’ freedom to marry. It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
Or take Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs at the National Black Justice Coalition. “We who work for full LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] rights stand as heirs of the Civil Rights Movement because it is based on justice, equality, fair play, equal rights and profoundly deep spiritual roots that plumb the depths of the Golden Rule,” said Rhue in a column for the Blend. “I stood with [Reverend Martin Luther] King in the 60’s and he would stand with us now because challenging homophobia is a part of the unfinished business of Civil Rights Movement.”
Then there’s also Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: “Civil rights must be measured by a single yardstick. So when the government bestows inheritance rights, tax benefits, adoption rights, child custody, power of attorney and other privileges on married individuals — but denies those same basic privileges to gays and lesbians it is a blunt and injurious denial of equality and family security…while their story of oppression and injustice is not the same as ours, it is equally valid.”
And the list goes on. Fighting for civil rights means ending discrimination under the law, period. It means emancipating those who are oppressed, standing against injustice of all kinds, and liberating those who are denied rights that others enjoy. Underlining similar types of oppression does not equate the Civil Rights Movement with any other contemporary movement, In fact, as the leaders quoted above acknowledge, it draws inspiration from this great movement of American history and lessons learned for how to strive for a more just, equal society that does not relegate someone to second-class status simply for the color of their skin or whom they decide to love.
Dr. Cornel West, another civil rights veteran, argues that this learning across movements goes both ways as well:. “I think every movement for freedom has so much to learn from the struggles of black people. The depths of not just the structures of un-freedom, but when you’ve been taught to hate yourself and your body, said the Princeton professor who will return to the Union Theological Seminary this upcoming summer. “Our gay brothers and sisters can learn from this, but we don’t want to engage in what I call the algebra of blood. We don’t want to say, ‘Well my oppression is more than your oppression. It’s distinctive, and you try to deal with what is distinctive about it and learn from one another. I think black brothers and sisters can learn something from gay brothers and lesbian sisters… they have to deal with the wholesale rejection of their mothers and fathers, see I never had to deal with that.”
Shaping the Latino identity
The National Organization for Marriage’s strategy to drive a wedge between gays and Latinos is a bit different. Instead of trying to convince Latinos that gays are co-opting a civil rights frame of argument that the Latino community holds close to its heart, the organization thought that it could appeal to the community’s desire to resist assimilation by painting marriage equality as a particularly “Anglo” value. Leaving aside the irony of a conservative organization trying to coach an immigrant community on resisting assimilation, and the wild misreading of this community’s desire to do so, the strategy again underestimates the commonalities that leaders from both communities have effectively highlighted.
For one, the immigration movement has drawn similar inspiration from the civil rights movement, and coincidentally received similar support from civil rights veterans who draw connections between the civil rights struggles of the past and recent immigration protests—leaders who see the latter as the natural progression of their movement from the 1960s and use specific moments from the civil rights movement, such as the iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, to highlight the injustice of anti-immigrant laws. Again, gay and transgender community leaders and their allies in the Latino community are not reductively equating the movements but rather demonstrating that the fight for civil rights is an ongoing, unfinished movement toward equality for everyone in society.
But the gay and transgender community and immigrant communities also share the somewhat similar experience of being made to feel invisible in our society. The Latino Equality Alliance, for instance, argues that the parallels that both gays and undocumented individuals experience have generated the common use of the “coming out” frame—when individuals share their sexual orientation or immigration status despite fearing the repercussions they might face. The National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, also believes it’s important to build bridges between the gay and transgender community and Latino communities, highlighting the plight of gay DREAM student who have to, in effect, come out twice.
And polling analysis also debunks the myth that there is higher opposition to marriage equality among the Latino population, seriously deflating the National Organization for Marriage’s strategy to tap into this exaggerated opposition. Specifically, Hispanics are shown to back gay marriage at the same rate as whites.
Leaders in the Latino community also support the movement for gay rights. Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of immigration reform and a veteran of building diverse coalitions to fight for common interests, makes his support for marriage equality clear: “If we truly believe in family values, we should value all families. I have supported marriage equality since 1994, opposed and fought Proposition 8, am proud to serve as a co-chair of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.”
And emerging coalitions between all of these communities across the country, in places like Chicago and New York City, prove that they are finding more common ground by the day, fighting against discrimination that, yes, denies them their civil rights.
We must stay united
Divide and conquer is not a new strategy. Historically it is used by those in power who fear that the marginalized will unite behind common grievances, revolt against oppression, and overthrow the ruling forces. In that sense, the National Organization for Marriage’s race-baiting tactics are nothing more than derivative attempts to resurrect the energy behind a dwindling campaign.
Fortunately there are strong voices from the black, Latino, and gay and transgender communities that make clear that they are not competing in some bizarre kind of Oppression Olympics. One community’s struggle does not necessarily equate with another’s, but it can derive inspiration and learn important lessons from prior movements.
To be sure, there are still struggles with which these diverse communities must contend. The gay and transgender community must work harder to include gay and transgender people of color in the broader movement, for instance. The latter are often marginalized the most when gay and race identities are pit against one another—despite the fact that they reside at the crossroads and often experience double discrimination for it.
And the struggles of gay and transgender people of color go beyond the struggle for marriage equality. As my colleague Aisha Moodie-Mills documents, black gay and transgender Americans experience stark social, economic, and health disparities compared to not only the general population but also their straight black and white gay counterparts. Families headed by black same-sex couples are more likely to raise their children in poverty. Black lesbians are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases. And black gay and transgender youth are more likely to end up homeless and living on the streets.
There is work that remains to be done. That’s clear. But what we should take from this embarrassing disclosure of hateful race-baiting tactics by the National Organization for Marriage is the encouraging fact that these communities will not be so easily divided. Our country’s historical narrative is a constant exercise in expanding our definition of civil rights—that is, who deserves the basic human dignity of being treated equal by the government and the ability to call themselves an American? As our country becomes increasingly diverse, and no one racial or ethnic group can any longer claim to be the majority, it will become even more important for groups who experience oppression to stand together and prevent history from repeating itself.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst with the Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress.