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Blacks should stand with gays on marriage equality

Gay is not 'the new black,' but we shouldn't let inappropriate rhetoric get in the way of civil rights goals

By Wade Henderson

2:41 PM EST, January 12, 2012

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The 400-year advancement of African-Americans from chattel, to sharecroppers, to second-class citizens under Jim Crow, to our current status as emancipated citizens in today's democracy is one of the most powerful and transformative — although incomplete — stories in world history.

The civil rights struggle is far from over for black people. We still have a long path forward to preserve our precious gains and narrow the stubborn educational, employment, housing and criminal justice disparities that hold us back. In order to advance these causes, we'll need to work — as we always have — in coalition with other historically disadvantaged groups, including Latinos, Asian-Americans, working-class whites, Jews, Muslims, people with disabilities — and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Gay and lesbian advocates often invoke the words, spirit and iconic figures of the civil rights movement when making their case for equality. Some of these advocates, such as Bayard Rustin, were both black and gay.

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.

But when white LGBT advocates take these comparisons too far, it can be offensive.

Terms like "gay is the new black" are inherently disrespectful to the black experience in America. These types of misleading slogans obscure the uniqueness of both groups' struggles in an attempt to make a neat and tidy analogy. After all, gays and lesbians were never enslaved or subject to the harsh Jim Crow tactics of oppression, lynching, and intimidation in the way that blacks were.

And yet while their story of oppression and injustice is not the same as ours, it is equally valid. African-Americans recognize injustice when we see it. Gays and lesbians have been incarcerated, brutalized, lobotomized, raped, castrated, and robbed of their jobs, families and children.

With the 2012 session of the Maryland General Assembly now under way, African-Americans in Maryland will soon play a pivotal role in the effort to advance equality for gays and lesbians as the legislature considers granting marriage rights to thousands of families and couples in the state.

In Maryland, gays and lesbians are engaging in a fight for their civil rights — for marriage equality. And we must not let rhetoric that seeks to appropriate our experience blind us to a simple fact: that while the journeys of our two communities may be different, our ultimate goals are the same.

Marriage equality is not only a matter of civil rights; it's one of human rights and basic dignity. To deny familial and spousal benefits to millions of gay and lesbian Americans — benefits that are taken as a given for straight Americans — is to undermine the basic family unit that we in the black community have worked so hard to preserve and advance.

We would also hope that, by identifying with our story, white LGBT advocates will become much more engaged in our current and future struggles. So when black youth are struggling in under-resourced schools or rotting away in prisons they shouldn't be in, we will look to the LGBT community to stand with us as we continue our long struggle toward equality.

Measuring civil rights by a single yardstick means just that. We must not let rhetoric that may rub us the wrong way allow us to turn our backs on those who have received so much inspiration from our story.

By correcting this injustice against gays and lesbians, we can continue our long march of progress together. It is only through a stronger and broader coalition that we also advance our collective needs. After all, the civil rights movement still has a lot of unfinished business left to address.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. He may be contacted at media@civilrights.org.