From Selma to Stonewall: LGBTQ Rights and the Civil Rights Movement

by Brittany Dawson

Atlanta, Georgia couple Kordale and Kaleb Lewis posted a photo of them doing their daughter’s hair on Instagram last year, sharing a glimpse into child rearing in the Black LGBTQ community.

The image paints a morning routine I’m sure most parents or caregivers recognize. From the hazy glare of a child uneager to start the day to full-fledged irritation as you realize coaxing them to pick up the pace isn’t working, the Lewis’ image dispelled myths, misperceptions, and negative stigmas shrouding the community as a whole.

“Being fathers is getting our daughters up at 5:30 am.” read the caption. “[And] making breakfast, getting them dressed for school, and putting them on the bus by 6:30. This is a typical day in our household.”

Kordale and Kaleb represent approximately one third of the Black LGBTQ community raising children. The post has since then went viral and recently landed the couple a Nikon Generation commercial.

Sadly, homophobic comments also accompanied the viral success of the photo. These comments barked against the supposedly un-Godly, social wickedness that accompanies identifying as LGBTQ. Bible verses, personal beliefs, and other shades of odious reasoning, parroted a widespread ambivalence towards accepting the LGBTQ community into mainstream discussions on civil rights.

Conversations on transgender, homosexual, bisexual, and gender nonconforming folk continue to polarize the United States. Proud traditionalists—and those unwilling to extend equal protection under the law to individuals unlike them—eagerly enact laws camouflaged in the name of religious freedom to exercise discriminatory beliefs.

And to my dismay, sometimes it seems that the loudest shrill comes from the mouths of Black folks.

While these comments clearly don’t represent how all people of color interact with LGBTQ issues, it does mimic a bold insecurity in our perceived cultural identity. In fact, this jarring divide is rooted in earlier displays of a frenzied relationship between Blacks who fit the mold of heteronormativity and LGBTQ folks of color.

Surprisingly, the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for this mindset to be considered acceptable, even in 2015.

Yes, you read my words correctly. The Civil Rights Movement is not entirely to blame, however, we cannot ignore the strategic and deliberate erasure of Black LGBTQ issues. In Black, Gifted and Gay, the introduction sums up why Civil Rights leaders found this split to be necessary:
It was a clear choice. The gays had to go. Whether real or imagined, the possibility that the first glimmer of social and cultural progress for black people might be threatened by a continued association with a group still maligned by the rest of the country was a risk no one felt compelled to take. The divide grew wider. Those who carried memories of a time when things had been different died without leaving a record of that alliance behind.
Oftentimes when we remember this epochal movement, images of stoic, non-violent protests provide a textbook definition of revolution and democracy. Ava DuVernay’s impeccable film Selma chronicles key social barriers leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. invested their lives to dismantle. But behind the widely accepted story of harmony between people of color, the Civil Rights Movement purposefully divorced ties from the LGBTQ community. Blacks were at the cusp of forging a new cultural identity free from White stereotypes and Jim Crow. Homosexuality was deemed a threat to the newly cultivated identity of the African American community.

Conventional wisdom would call this ludicrous and contradictory. As noted in Articulating a Politics of (Multiple) Identities” written by Dr. Mignon Moore, Associate Professor of Sociology at UCLA:
The contradictions within African American spaces between disapproving attitudes towards same-sex desire and support for civil rights for everyone, including gay people are having a particular impact on the lives of sexual minorities who also define themselves by their membership in this racial category, and who are increasingly insisting on having others in the racial group recognize and respect their sexual preference.
After all, what’s the point of advancing the rights for only one representation of Blackness? The message is lucid (and still prevalent in how many within the African American community discuss LGBTQ issues) that homosexuality will continue to be denied equal coverage and consideration because it does not fit the traditional, widely accepted model of the African American cultural identity. Despite the fact that many of our most visionary artists, activists, and thinkers identified within the LGBTQ umbrella—Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, and Bayard Rustin—little to no Civil Rights narratives are framed to discuss how LGBTQ folks supported the movement. A movement that, in many aspects, did not validate the issues they faced as also being civil rights issues.

Of course, our concept of “It Gets Better” and enjoying life outside of the closet is drastically different from than it was 50 years ago. Fear and violence steered many away from living openly. But instead of sculpting a message of equality across all boundaries, LGBTQ folks were marooned to invisibility and remain in the shadows of one of the most groundbreaking moments in history.

As vividly seen in a variety of Civil Rights documentaries, museums, and programs, we obviously have the ability to provide multiple perspectives and captivating retellings of heroes who fought bravely against injustice. Thus, excluding LGBTQ folks of color from this mainstream narrative on who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement is unacceptable.

I am not asserting that gay rights is the new civil rights movement, as many people have tried to conflate the two. The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important times in our country for Blacks and other people of color—politically, socially, culturally, and economically. Without it, Stonewall, and Third Wave Feminism would not exist.

Instead, I am emphatically declaring that gay rights is, and will remain, a civil rights issue until equality is attained. But seeing how many within the African American community responds to LGBTQ issues in general, treating LGBTQ rights as a foreign experience is a dangerous way to declare superiority over a group suffocating in the trenches of inequality.

I long for the day 55% of African Americans who believe gay rights is not a civil rights issue dwindles down to zero. I long to see conferences similar to Emory University’s “Whose Beloved Community? Black Civil and LGBT Rights” become a staple in spreading a message of solidarity. And most importantly, I long for us to recreate a Civil Rights Movement narrative that incorporates the brave LGBTQ people of color who devoted themselves to letting freedom ring.

Instead of trampling over our Black LGBTQ brothers and sisters with caustic words and sloppy moral reasoning, remember the LGBTQ individuals who marched for freedom and justice and equality, even while knowing that these rights would not be fully extended to them.

Photo: 1965 Selma to Montgomery March

Brittany Dawson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a senior at the University of South Carolina who is passionate about equality, social justice, and education. You may follow her on Twitter: @BrittanyJDawson.

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