From time to time, I’m told that it’s wrong to compare the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I have a lot of trouble with this. While it is certainly true that I will never understand what it is to be African American, it is equally that a heterosexual African American male cannot know what it is to be female or gay.
What is most disheartening is that this “gay rights aren’t civil rights” argument has been co-opted -- if not created -- by right-wing demagogues who seek to divide groups that should otherwise be working together. After all, extreme right-wing hate-mongers see African Americans, gays and lesbians, Jews and Muslims in about the same light.
In any event, just what does the term “civil rights” mean, and can it truly be applied to our struggle?
According to www.dictionary.com (I’m too lazy to get up and go use a real dictionary), “civil rights” means the following:
The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship, especially the fundamental freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and by subsequent acts of Congress, including civil liberties, due process, equal protection of the laws, and freedom from discrimination.
adj. or civ·il-rights
- Of or relating to such rights or privileges: civil rights legislation.
- Of or relating to a political movement, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, devoted to securing equal opportunity and treatment for members of minority groups.
If these definitions are correct, then the term does, indeed, apply. Putting aside the issue that seem to freak everyone out – sex and marriage – consider the following
- In most American jurisdictions, I can be fired from my job – any job – because I’m a lesbian.
- In most American jurisdictions, I can be refused service at restaurants, hotels, and other businesses because I am a lesbian.
- In most American jurisdictions, I can be denied housing because I’m a lesbian.
- In many states, I cannot adopt a child because I am a lesbian.
- If my child becomes the subject of a custody dispute, she can be taken away from me because I am a lesbian.
- I cannot serve in the military because I am a lesbian.
- In many American communities, I put myself in physical danger if I am open about being a lesbian. Therefore, I must be careful what I say and what I read in public
- Of the 14 victims of hate-motivated murders reported by the FBI in 2003, 6 were gay – more than any other group. Of 5 rape victims, 3 were lesbian or gay (leaving aside, of course, the fact that all rapes are hate crimes).
Dunno. Sounds pretty damned civil to me. Coretta Scott King thought so, too.