My colleague Herschel sent me, without endorsement, a couple of recent op-ed columns from the New York Times about the passage of Proposition 8 in California, in which black voters were instrumental, voting 7-in-10 to ban gay marriage.
One column, by author Caitlin Flanagan and Atlantic editor Benjamin Schwarz, argues that the social-justice argument for gay rights is a loser among most African Americans because it launches a who's-most-oppressed contest that gays can't win. As we all teeter at the brink of a new Depression, Flanagan and Schwarz say, our only hope is a new New-Deal-style coalition in which suffering Americans (gay, straight, white, brown, religious, atheist, etc.) link arms for the sake of mutual survival without, in the authors' words, daring to "ask too many questions" about who sleeps with whom.
The other op-ed, by Times regular columnist Charles M. Blow, basically says the anti-gay attitude among many blacks exists because 1.) a much higher proportion of blacks than whites are fundamentalist churchgoing Christians and have resultingly hostile views toward homosexuality, and 2.) most black voters are women, who, faced with a chronic shortage of black male potential partners (see poverty, drugs, murder, AIDS, and incarceration for details), aren't thrilled with the idea of men marrying men. Blow's prescription for changing this is for equal-rights folks to forget about swaying such blacks with the comparison between discrimination against interracial couples and discrimination against gays, since many black women feel burned by interracial marriage anyway. The solution, says Blow, is to position gay rights as a health issue for black women: when gay black men are pushed into the shadows, their behavior puts everyone at risk. So the logical and healthy thing to do, he concludes, is to allow gays to come out into the light.
These arguments hold about as much water as a hand-held fishing net.
Both represent a way of thinking that brings out the cowardice in people. Both pose a kind of hopeless expediency that tries to promote human rights as an accident of pragmatic bargaining. For Flanagan and Schwarz, it's a don't-ask-don't-tell progressive coalition that includes (somewhere silently in the throng) gay people. For Blow, it's an offer to the most bitter and selfish side of some black women's attitudes: look out for your own health by letting those sorry gay guys stop hiding and lying.
Enough of this crap already. Truth is, human rights are human rights. Do we hold up today, as examples of conscience, those 19th-century American whites who called for a more stable South through more lenient punishment of misbehaving slaves? Those early 20th-century men who allowed that perhaps it served males better to grant women additional freedoms short of the vote? Those within the Bush Administration who argued that maybe waterboarding wasn't a good idea because it didn't seem to be yielding much useful information from captives?
Supporting gay rights, like supporting all human rights, is the right and necessary thing to do because all of we human beings deserve equal access to the civil rights and protections of society unless we demonstrate that we are harmful or dangerous to others. Period. Being black and scary to white people does not qualify as a reason for exclusion. Neither does being gay and scary to uptight heterosexuals. Neither does being a woman and scary to insecure men. Progressives, understandably desperate for justice after eight years of Bush and Cheney, need to grow up and learn that selling out the human rights of others is not an acceptable price for "unity." Black voters who vote anti-gay need to straighten up and accept, for God's sake, that gays did not create poverty and violence and drugs and the dearth of available men in black communities, and that manhood, in fact, has nothing to do with sexual orientation and everything to do with personal integrity.
If you are a black person who votes against gay rights because you feel they are a threat to your own future prospects and those of your community, I'm talking to you. I expect better from someone, like you, who knows what it is like to be officially abused. I expect you to make better use of your rage at having been made a scapegoat and an object of rejection by society than to simply repeat the trained pattern of scapegoating and rejecting someone else. I expect you to act like a freedom fighter, not like an oppressor.
And if you are a progressive of any color who shrinks from outwardly defending gay rights because you fear it weakens a much-needed "coalition," I'm talking to you. And I'll remind you that many so-called reformers of the past sacrificed the substance of human rights for the selective illusion of "progress."
So where do you stand?