Comparing Gay Rights to the Civil Rights Movement

The gay rights movement is often compared to the civil rights movement.  This analogy is primarily responsible for the massive shift in public opinion over the last decade.  Such logic has ushered in a recent wave of lawsuits and laws aimed at providing marriage rights and special protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals, and other niche groups.  In this brief examination, we will explore the ubiquitous analogy between the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the ongoing LGBT movement.  The goal:  to determine whether this analogy is fitting.

From the end of the Civil War until the 1960s, African-Americans and White Americans lived in separate worlds.  Even in the more urban North, many institutions were segregated.  As a prime example, on a cold day in 1939 Marian Anderson sang outside at the Lincoln Memorial, because she was barred from singing at various indoor venues.  Her widespread fame and renowned voice were not enough to sway the pro-segregation voices in the capital.

In the South, segregation and discrimination extended into every sector of life.  Schools, drinking fountains, bathrooms, buses, neighborhoods, and restaurants were all segregated.  The euphemistic ‘separate but equal’ motto was rarely, if ever, achieved.  Black facilities received obvious underfunding and neglect.  Although voting was allowed under the 15th Amendment, an atmosphere of violence, intimidation, and legal restrictions kept practically all citizens of these states from exercising this right.  State laws supported a segregated society and these state laws were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson circa 1896.

Any legal victories for African Americans were countered with public/state non-compliance and increased violence.  Students attempting to attend previously all-white schools required armed escorts for protection.  Throughout this time period, the KKK terrorized and murdered African-Americans and their white sympathizers.  For nearly a century, the violence and murder was either not prosecuted or brought before biased juries that favored the defendants.

Now, to what extent or degree is the current debate similar to the African-American Civil Rights movement?  The obvious answer is that both seek to gain legal rights and societal acceptance for a particular group of individuals.  However, the societal and legal context is starkly different between these campaigns. 

The first difference is that, while color is readily discernible, sexual orientation, by nature, is a private affair.  Discrimination requires identification.  For example, Jews were made to wear the Star of David and, in the more recent Rwandan Genocide, the government required citizens to carry identification cards stating whether they were Hutu or Tutsi.  If the LGBT community wishes special protections under the law, then they will likely need a method of legal identification (i.e. sexual orientation cards).  History warns that such identification tends to foster discrimination rather than discouraging it.  

The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not to prevent the obvious and unavoidable recognition of a person’s color.  The phrase ‘color blind’ does not refer to an inability to see, but rather a willingness to give equal rights and standing under the law.  Members of the LGBT community stand-out if they make their sexual preference public; this does not constitute discrimination.  Rather, it is simply an indication that despite their growth they still constitute a small minority of the public.  Many other groups attract attention such as the Amish, Neo-Nazis, Greek Orthodox Priests, and movie celebrities.  Discrimination deals with the law, not with drawing attention to one’s self. 

So, are laws currently in place discriminatory?  Remember that prior to the Civil Rights Act, white Americans and black Americans lived in separate worlds and statutory law protected this system.  So, are there separate schools, drinking fountains, bathrooms, buses, neighborhoods, and restaurants for gay and straight Americans?  The obvious answer is no!  In the United States, there are no signs stating “Straights Only” outside of restaurants, businesses, schools, or bathrooms.  Nor are there “Gays Need Not Apply” signs outside businesses.  LGBT individuals are free to eat in the same restaurants, attend the same schools, and ride where they want on buses.  There are no ‘gay ghettos’ in America.  LGBT members can live where they please, and Federal Law already prohibits housing discrimination based on sexual orientation.  Gay soldiers are not assigned to separate divisions in the armed forces like the Tuskegee Airmen were.  Most importantly, LGBT individuals are free to vote as they please without intimidation. 

Discrimination is either infrequent and covert or not occurring; it is not supported through statutory laws at the local, state, or national level.  This directly contrasts the environment of the Civil Rights Movement.  Isolated instances of harassment may exist today, and in certain regions of the nation they may be more common.  Still, these instances are isolated and not supported by the law.  As such they should be dealt with by general anti-harassment legislation. 

Now, let’s briefly touch on the convoluted subject of marriage.  Again, the goal is simply to compare historic situations.  Anti-miscegenation laws (laws against interracial marriage) existed in a number of states prior to 1967.  There is a key difference between these laws and the current bans on gay marriage.  Anti-miscegenation laws do not affect the nature of marriage.  Instead, they are an arbitrary restriction on marriage.  Race is in no way intrinsically linked to marriage, and because it is not intrinsically linked the two can be separated.

In contrast, the debate on gay marriage centers on the nature of marriage.  Anti-miscegenation deals with marriage and race, which are arbitrarily connected.  Laws against marriage based on race are as arbitrary as laws against marriage based on height.  However, the gay marriage debate deals with gender and sex, which are essentially linked to the nature of marriage.  The focus of the Civil Rights Movement was not defining marriage, but removing an improper restriction on marriage.  The current debate is obviously about the very definition of marriage and so differs enormously. 

The differences between the current Gay Rights debate and the Civil Rights Movement points out that the similarities are largely superficial and artificially imposed.  Those in favor of Gay Rights should debate this issue logically on its own merits instead of on the merits of the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

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