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For Black Activists, Gay Rights Are “Personal”

Question: Why haven’t African-Americans fought harder alongside gay rights activists?

Ben Jealous: We had to start from the fact -- somebody once said to me, I didn't march in the '60's so that men could sleep together.  And I was like, well, that's all right because Bayard Rustin had that held down.  You know, the man who planned the march on Washington was gay, was known to be gay, and that was okay with Dr. King, it was okay with Julian Bond and John Lewis then, and it's okay now.  Our only regrets about Bayard Rustin are that he still isn't with us planning marches. 

So, I think we have to start from the premise that gay people are a part of the NAACP.  They've been a part of the social justice movement.  The gay black people in particular live both of those identities, as we all live multiple identities.  You know.  

The NAACP, for that reason has always been quick to recognize across a whole range of issues that common interests as black people, as black people, or as multiple identities as black people, and gay people as gay people and there are multiple shades and colors.  I mean, for instance, issues of police brutality, employment discrimination, hate crimes.  We have been there side by side, fighting on again and again.  We just had a big victory, the Matthew Shepard/James Byrd bill, but the NAACP bought ads in Texas to promote and really to beat up on the then-Governor, about-to-become-President Bush, for his lack of support 10 years ago.  And we're out there now in the employment non-discrimination act.  And we're out there now in Uganda.  We hate the death penalty because it's the death penalty, but we also, we hate it all the more when you say that you want to make being a member of a minority group, any minority group the reason that you get the death penalty.  And that's what they're trying to do in Uganda.  They're trying to actually make the being gay a crime punishable by death.

Where there has been distance recently has been between religious communities in general.  And the movement for marriage equality and the NAACP has a very religious base.  And people who want to see movement on that issue are people who want -- like people want to see more blacks in the Republican Party, need to invest in outreach.  Need to really say, you know what, that constituency is a priority and I'm going to make it my business to make sure that we reach out to that constituency on their terms and in the way that's the most effective.  That’s what any good organizer does, that's what I do for the issues that I'm pushing. 

With that said, Julian Bond for instance, our past chair, is very outspoken in support.  I let it be known that I personally support marriage equality.  My brother, the man who is closer to me than any man on this planet, my best friend since I was six years old -- I'm sorry, six months old -- and whose mom celebrated Mother's Day with my mom and whose family lived with us off and on for a third of my life, is gay, is HIV positive, is on-again, off-again homeless.  I've spent many -- a lot of money trying to keep him from being homeless, but sometimes people just, you know, issues in their life that no dollar can overcome.  So, it's very personal for a lot of us, I guess is what I'm saying. 

But we're a democratic organization at the end of the day, and that means that we that tend to be on the front edge on some issues and we tend to lag behind on others and we never get there until a consensus is built.  And that's why I say to folks, look, if you want to see the NAACP even more active than we have been, and we've been active in California.  Folks there in California voted to oppose Prop 8, and they rolled out all the stops to oppose it.  The national office signed onto the lawsuit to invalidate Prop 8 because we were able to get consensus on the principle that a simple majority vote should not be able to trump a court's finding of the fundamental right.  That's a threat to a whole range of rights, including the right to marry, but also the right to be treated with respect in the workplace; not get discriminated in the workplace, for instance.  Apparently that has to be put up to a vote in California. 

So, we had been involved, you know, gay people have been involved in the NAACP for a long time.  The NAACP has been supportive of a broad civil human rights agenda in this country, including rights for gay and lesbian people, for a long time and many of our most outspoken leaders are very outspoken on the issue of marriage equality and many are outspoken against it.  And like any other democratic organization, trade union, what have you, it's being worked through.  And the way that one side wins or the other is that they decide that they want the membership of the NAACP to be supportive of this one particular part of the agenda more than the other side does.  And right now it seems to be a bit of a toss-up.

Recorded March 10th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The man who organized MLK Jr.’s march on Washington was gay; so is Ben Jealous’s brother. The NAACP president thinks LGBT activists could find their staunchest allies in African-Americans—if they reached out more.

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