Obama Linking Selma to Stonewall Divides the Black Community

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address was the most inclusive inaugural address a president has ever given. It was delivered on the 27th observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and the president honored King’s legacy when he eloquently spoke of how the many U.S. liberation movements, both current and historic, are interconnected. “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still, just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall,” he said. As an African-American lesbian whose identity is linked to all three movements, I felt affirmed. I applauded the president’s courageous pronouncement.

However, some African Americans felt “dissed” by the president’s speech. The linkage of their civil rights struggle with that of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Americans did nothing to quell their dislike of the comparison. For them, the fact that it was spoken by this president made it sting more.

The reason that many African Americans, especially those male ministers who profess to have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., scoff at likening today’s LGBTQ civil rights struggle to the black civil rights struggle is the persistence of racism in the lives of black people and the scarcity of gains accomplished in racial and socioeconomic equality. They expected more gains under the first African-American president, and they contend that civil rights gains have come faster for LGBTQ Americans, whose fight for equality only truly kicked off with the Stonewall riots of not-so-distant 1969. And many African Americans, both straight and LGBTQ, will argue that those gains owe much to the structural and cultural exclusion of people of color in the LGBTQ movement. The LGBTQ movement has no doubt made some tremendous gains, a reality that has not been afforded to African Americans, leaving many of them asking (especially after hearing President Obama’s second inaugural address the issue), “What’s really in this American dream for us?” Many African-American ministers try to answer that question by coming out either for or against Obama’s stance on marriage equality.

This country’s civil rights struggles have primarily been understood, reported on and advocated for in terms of past and present African-American struggles against both individual and systematic racism. Consequently, in educating the American public on other existing forms of oppression, the civil rights struggles of women, LGBTQ Americans, Native Americans and other minority groups have been largely ignored and even trivialized. Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans.

LGBTQ activists of African descent, like me, have long pondered what might rally those African-American ministers to support same-sex marriage and engage the black community in a nationwide discussion on LGBTQ equality. Such a discussion would certainly assist them in seeing the link between Selma and Stonewall, the very link that President Obama so eloquently pointed out. There were hopes that Obama’s May 2012 statement of support for marriage equality would begin that discussion, and it certainly allowed the black ministers who had quietly professed to be allies to the LGBTQ community to come out in favor of LGBTQ equality to their congregations. Doubtless these African-American ministers saw the liability of Obama losing his 2012 reelection bid for lack of African-American support as far worse than being chastised for not being in lockstep with their homophobic brethren.

With his second and final term before him, Obama can be both unapologetically and unabashedly in favor of marriage equality. With an enormous sigh of relief, I thank God that Obama no longer has to do a delicate dance with a deeply divided black populace on the issue. He has momentum on his side whether black ministers and community activists side with him or not.

Nowadays, support for same-sex marriage in the African American community largely falls along generational lines. The irony is that that generational divide lies between those of MLK’s era and those of Obama’s era.

Comments are closed.