Black Civil Rights and LGBT Rights: Why They Are Not the Same Thing

flagsWith the considerable amount of attention being paid to racism and LGBTQ rights these days—with the Confederate flag and Charleston massacre on the one hand, and the Supreme Court marriage equality decision on the other—there have been efforts to compare the two, as if to say the Black struggles against racism are the same as the LGBT community against homophobia. However, to make these superficial comparisons is wrong and ignores specific forms of oppression: the systemic racism Black people face and its origins.

In one image that went viral, a Confederate flag was lowered and a Pride rainbow flag was raised, as Linda Chavers reported in The Guardian. Harvey Milk, the assassinated gay civil rights leader, supported the idea of a flag to raise the visibility of the LGBT struggle and San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker subsequently designed such a flag in 1978. Meanwhile, at the eulogy of the South Carolina State Senator, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama focused in on the Confederate flag as a symbol “of systemic oppression and racial subjugation [and] of the cause of slavery.”

That is not to ignore the obvious commonalities. For example, in its ruling legalizing same sex marriage throughout the U.S., the Supreme Court made reference to the Loving v. Virginia decision, which rendered the remaining Jim Crow antimiscegenation laws unconstitutional. Further, the gay rights movement was inspired by the civil rights movement before it. “We ought to be proud of this. Say look what we did. We created a model that other people have followed and they followed it successfully. Good for us,” said veteran civil rights leader Julian Bond on NPR’s All Things Considered.

All of this has led to claims by some that gay rights are the new civil rights, of which some in the Black community have taken issue, noting a crucial distinction.

“And so we get African-Americans in Jim Crow who couldn’t vote, who couldn’t stay in hotels, who couldn’t stay restaurants, but if you were white and gay, you could,” said TV One host Roland Martin on NPR. Martin argued that African-Americans in the 1960s were more disenfranchised than LGBT people are today.

Further, these comparisons run the risk of ignoring double layers of discrimination faced by LGBT people of color. Marriage equality does not protect a Black gay man from being beaten in the streets, shot to death by a racist police officer, or denied a job because of his name and his skin. Similarly, Black lesbians are not immunized from the racism and sexism that come with being a Black woman. And in contrast, white gay men still have white skin privilege as white men, particularly as closeted gay conservative men who, in the halls of power, continue to enact oppressive laws against disenfranchised groups.

To conflate the two forms of oppression is to discount the role of racism in America, which stems from a system of slavery that rendered Black people legally inferior, permanently and by birth, and upheld white skin privilege.

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