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By Jesse Washington, National Writer/Race & Ethnicity

Gay is the new black, say the protest signs and magazine covers, casting the gay marriage battle as the last frontier of equal rights for all.

Gay marriage is not a civil right, opponents counter, insisting that minority status comes from who you are rather than what you do.

The gay rights movement entered a new era when Barack Obama was elected the first black president the same day that voters in California and Florida passed referendums to prevent gays and lesbians from marrying, while Arizonans turned down civil unions and Arkansans said no to adoptions by same-sex couples.

Racism was defanged by Obama’s triumph, leaving gays as perhaps the last group of Americans claiming that their basic rights are being systematically denied.

“Black people are equal now, and gay people aren’t,” said Emil Wilbekin, a black gay man and the editor of Giant magazine. “I always have this discussion with my friends: What’s worse, being a black man or a black gay man?”

“Civil rights have come much further than gay rights,” he said. “A lot of people in the gay community have been condemned for their lifestyle and promiscuity and drugs and sex, so it’s odd that when they want to conform and model themselves after straight people and have the same rights for marriage and domestic partnership and adoption, they’re being blocked.”

In a cover story for the Advocate magazine titled “Gay is the New Black,” Michael Joseph Gross wrote, “These past few years we’ve made so much progress that we’d begun to think everybody saw us as we see ourselves. Suddenly we were faced with the reality that a majority of voters don’t like us, don’t think we’re normal, don’t believe our lives and loves count as much or are worth as much as theirs.”

Yet even some gay leaders are reluctant to directly tie their fight to the African-American legacy. They acknowledge significant differences in the experiences of gays and blacks, ranging from slavery to the relative affluence of white gay men to the choice made by some gays to conceal their sexual orientation, which is not an option for those with darker skin.

“I believe we are very much in a modern-day civil rights struggle,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization.

“We liken some of the experiences that we have had and will have to the (black) civil rights struggle. We also are enormously respectful of the differences,” he said. “What we are best served doing is when we take lessons from the civil rights experience and apply them to our work.”

Complicating the issue is the domination of minority politics by blacks and Latinos, who can be less than friendly to gay issues.

In the vote on Proposition 8 in California, which repealed gay marriage, about 70 percent of blacks favored the ban, according to an exit poll; Latinos’ close vote may have favored it, though the poll’s small sample left some uncertainty. In Florida, 71 percent of blacks and 64 percent of Latinos favored a similar ban.

Opposition to gay rights often has a religious basis, and blacks and Latinos are more churchgoing than society at large. Twenty-six percent of blacks attend religious services more than once per week, compared with 16 percent of Latinos and 14 percent of whites, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

“I do not consider (gays) to be a minority in legal and adjudicated terms, the same way people who only like to eat broccoli with butter aren’t a minority,” said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “We can’t categorize things according to behavior. It’s based on ethnicity, on who we are rather than what we do.”

“Who am I to say that you weren’t born that way … (but) sexual activity, what you do, who you sleep with, is your business,” Rodriguez said. “That’s between you, your lover, and the good God Almighty in heaven. I don’t want to know. Let’s leave sexual activity in the bedroom. The government shouldn’t be legislating what we do behind closed doors between two consenting adults. And to compare it to the African-American struggle, to me that’s an abomination.”

So is gay the new black, or did the election define a new and unique set of gay challenges?

“The gay fight for marriage has its own integrity, its own background,” said Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. “The experience of blacks in the United States is very different. … I don’t think it helps the fight for equality to make that claim.”

Cherlin says that fight began in the 1980s when the AIDS epidemic unfolded. Gay partners had few rights to help their ailing loved ones, visit them in hospitals or inherit their property, which led to the push for civil unions.

Today, only Connecticut and Massachusetts permit gay marriage, and a few states allow civil unions or domestic partnerships that grant some rights of marriage. Galvanized by the stinging Nov. 4 defeat in liberal California, the marriage movement is now as much symbolic as practical.

“There was a shift in the ’90s, from rights to the symbolism of being married,” Cherlin said. “This is not primarily a battle about rights now. If it was, all you’d be hearing about is domestic partnerships. Now it’s at two levels simultaneously. One is the level of rights; the second is the level of symbols.”

One symbol that some see missing from the gay rights movement is a figurehead. There are famous people who are out and proud, such as Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., or Ellen DeGeneres. But “we don’t have our Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Barack Obama,” Wilbekin said.

Yet the nature of activism has changed since the days when King proposed the idea of a mass march on Washington. The recent nationwide gay protests were instigated by a Seattle blogger who set up a Web page three days after the California vote.

And in some ways, gays see Obama himself as a symbol of gay progress _ even though he opposes gay marriage.

Obama is in favor of civil unions, and during his victory speech, when he included gays in his description of America, it made them feel part of the historic racial milestone.

Solmonese said that the election defeats of Nov. 4 have inspired a level of gay activism not seen since the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

“That is buoyed by equal parts anger and rage about Proposition 8,” he said, “but also hope and inspiration about doing something that for a long time we didn’t think possible _ like electing Barack Obama as our president.”