Gay Rights and Civil Rights

By Terry Keleher Feb 19, 2008

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, in a recent keynote address at the 20th National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, in Detroit, Michigan, stated, “I believe ‘gay rights’ are ‘civil rights.’” As candidates and elected officials continue to use the debate over LGBT issues as a wedge to divide communities, Bond’s message is noteworthy and timely. He began his remarks with two quotes from the late Coretta Scott King, who said back in 1998,

“Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.” In 2000 she added: “We have a lot more work to do in our common struggle against bigotry and discrimination. I say ‘common struggle’ because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender or ethnic discrimination.”

Bond then continued: “That’s why when I am asked, ‘Are gay rights civil rights?’ my answer is always, “Of course they are.’ ‘Civil rights’ are positive legal prerogatives — the right to equal treatment before the law. These are rights shared by all — there is no one in the United States who does not — or should not — share in these rights. Gay and lesbian rights are not ‘special rights’ in any way. It isn’t ‘special’ to be free from discrimination — it is an ordinary, universal entitlement of citizenship. The right not to be discriminated against is a common-place claim we all expect to enjoy under our laws and our founding document, the Constitution. That many had to struggle to gain these rights makes them precious – it does not make them special, and it does not reserve them only for me or restrict them from others. When others gain these rights, my rights are not reduced in any way. The more civil rights are won by others, the stronger the army defending my rights becomes. My rights are not diluted when my neighbor enjoys protection from the law — he or she becomes my ally in defending the rights we all share. For some, comparisons between the African-American civil rights movement and the movement for gay and lesbian rights seem to diminish the long black historical struggle with all its suffering, sacrifices and endless toil. However, people of color ought to be flattered that our movement has provided so much inspiration for others, that it has been so widely imitated, and that our tactics, methods, heroines and heroes, even our songs, have been appropriated by or served as models for others. "No parallel between movements for rights is exact. African-Americans are the only Americans who were enslaved for more than two centuries, and people of color carry the badge of who we are on our faces. But we are far from the only people suffering discrimination — sadly, so do many others. They deserve the law’s protections and civil rights, too.” Bond was also proud to remind the audience of the NAACP board’s unanimous passage of a resolution two years ago stating: “[W]e shall pursue all legal and constitutional means to support non-discriminatory policies and practices against persons based on race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or cultural background.” More than 2000 activists from across the country attended this year’s annual Creating Change conference, sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Many of the other speakers and workshops at the Creating Change conference reflected the Task Force’s growing commitment to racial justice. Though much work remains to link the struggles for LGBT rights and racial justice, while still honoring the ways that structures of oppression can have distinct effects on different communities, these bridge-building steps of both the NAACP and NGLTF are to be commended.