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In Maryland, Delegates Downplay Civil Rights Struggle Of LGBT Americans

March 14, 2011 6:18 pm ET by Carlos Maza

Coretta Scott King

Last week, the Maryland House of Delegates debated (and eventually killed) a bill that would have allowed same-sex marriages to be performed in the state. During the bill's final floor debate, some opponents of marriage equality attempted to draw a distinction between the fight for equality embodied by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s and the current struggle for full LGBT equality. The distinction was based on two claims: That African Americans have experienced a far greater level of discrimination than gays and lesbians currently do, and that unlike skin color and ethnicity, sexual orientation is a choice or can at least be changed/hidden. For example:

Delegate Emmett Burns: The Fight For Marriage Equality Is Not Akin To The 1960's Civil Rights Movement Because "Those Who Are Gay Can Disguise Their Propensity": 

If same-sex marriage is to be equated with the movement that I know, then, if you will, show me your Birmingham, Alabama where high-pressure water hoses were turned on us so powerful that it knocked the bark off trees just because we wanted our right. If you want to compare same-sex marriage with civil rights as I know it, show me those who had their homes invaded by the Ku Klux Klan at night and burned down their homes and businesses and churches and lit firey crosses on your lawns because of same-sex marriage.

[...]

I am a black man, an African American. I cannot choose my color, nor do I wish to do so. Those who are gay can disguise their propensity. [emphasis added]

Delegate Ron George: Argued Homosexuality May Be A Choice, Likening It To "Sexual Disorders" Like Rape And "Pornography Addictions": 

If we accept that people are simply born gay or straight, then it is indeed a civil right. And if it is a civil right, then this bill is needed.

[...]

However, there is much in science supporting the nurture school of thought that this bill seeks to throw away...despite several claims, there has still not been discovered a gay gene, yet the nature school of thought is legitimate. My argument is that the nurture school of thought is also legitimate...This is not claiming that gay people made a conscience choice. The nurture argument makes no such claim. Certainly in the study of sexual disorders, much is found to be a learned behavior, from the predator to rapist, to the many with a pornography addictions to even the standard monogamous relationships, more and more is being discovered. [emphasis added] 

Delegate Jay Walker: Homosexuality Can Be Changed, While "I'm Always Gonna Be A Black Man As Long As I Live":

I cannot fathom a day in which I will be told which water fountain I can use but at the same time the gay and lesbian community had so many more things that they could participate in that African Americans and immigrants couldn't. I'm always gonna be a black man as long as I live. Women have had the right to vote. The gay and lesbian community have the right to vote. They've always had that. [emphasis added]

The arguments presented by these delegates are cause for real concern. The evidence showing sexual orientation to be immutable and largely determined before birth is vast and difficult to refute. In Perry v. Schwarzenegger (2010), District Judge Vaughn Walker considered a mountain of evidence on both sides of the issue and concluded that "no credible evidence supports a finding that an individual may, through conscious decision, therapeutic intervention or any other method, change his or her sexual orientation."

Moreover, as Alvin McEwen wrote on his blog today, attempting to trivialize the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans by suggesting that it's inferior to that experienced by African Americans is counterproductive and marginalizes LGBT people of color. Rather than attempting to demean the experienced oppression of gays and lesbians, McEwen says these delegates should recognize the common goals shared by the black and the LGBT communities:

Whether folks want to admit it or not, the African-American community is linked to the lgbt community, and not just by those who us who belong to both groups. Our oppression is sometimes similar and the folks behind it are sometimes the same entities.

The majority white-led and populated religious right groups who exploit this tug of war between the African-American and lgbt communities are quick to be the so-called protectors of the civil right movement's legacy but render themselves conveniently invisible when issues like socio-economic inequalities in minority health and education pop up.

McEwen isn't alone in his assessment; Countless other civil rights leaders have stressed the importance of fighting discrimination as an affront to civil rights and our shared humanity wherever it exists and whomever it targets:

Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I have fought too long and too hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concerns. Justice is indivisible. It is vitally important for African American, lesbian and gay people, the women's rights movement, and all groups who experience discrimination to work together in multicultural coalitions for justice.

[...]

The civil rights movement that I believe in thrives on unity and inclusion, not division and exclusion. All of us who oppose discrimination and support equal rights should stand together to resist every attempt to restrict civil rights in this country. Another reason for joining together in coalitions is that we share common adversaries. The church burners and they gay bashers drink from the same poisonous well of hatred and [inaudible] and very often they are one in the same. [Speech from the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Pride Festival on June 28, 1996, via The New Civil Rights Movement, 6/28/96]

Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Congressman and former leader in the Civil Rights Movement:

This discrimination is wrong. We cannot keep turning our backs on gay and lesbian Americans. 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. I've heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry. [Boston Globe, 10/25/03]

Julian Bond, Board Chairman of the NAACP:

No analogy 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. [Ebony Magazine, July, 2004]

Jesse Jackson, civil rights activist and founder of Rainbow/PUSH:

To those that believe in and fought for civil rights, that marched to end discrimination and win equality, you must not become that which you hated. It's past time to exist in hypocrisy and ignorance, and time to come out of the shadows and darkness to support unequivocally, equality for all people. Those that support civil and human rights cannot, must not, become perpetrators of discrimination against others based upon race, religion, culture, sexual orientation. [Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, 12/6/10]