Uncivil Rights?

Article excerpt

Byline: Eve Conant

Gay activists are taking a cue from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. But are their struggles the same?

Four months before Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat to a white man in 1955, she attended a retreat at the Highlander center in Tennessee, where she took a workshop alongside blacks and whites on school desegregation. More than a half century later, the Highlander center is still training soldiers in the fight for equal rights. Only now the battleground has shifted. Last January, four dozen gay and lesbian activists gathered for a center retreat overlooking the Smoky Mountains to get inspiration on how they could show--not just tell--America that their rights are being violated.

But how? There are no "heterosexuals only" Woolworth counters where gays and lesbians can protest segregation; even Woolworth itself is long gone from the U.S. "We needed to create the urgency and critical mass to stop the injustice towards our community," says Robin McGehee, a mother of two and cofounder of the civil-disobedience group that was formed during those five days in Tennessee, called GetEQUAL. "What are our lunch-counter images?"

As the fight over same-sex marriage and "don't ask, don't tell" rages in the courts, Congress, and the media, gay activists and their allies are invoking the language and imagery of the civil-rights battles of a half century ago. And their efforts are changing the tenor of the debate. Sen. Joe Lieberman, calling for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," told a Connecticut reporter earlier this month that the fight for gay rights is the new "front lines" of the civil-rights movement. When President Obama included protections for gays and lesbians in federal hate-crime legislation earlier this year, the Associated Press called it "the biggest expansion of the civil-rights-era law in decades." And at last week's federal appellate-court hearing in San Francisco on same-sex marriage, one of the judges pointedly asked whether California voters, whose 2008 passage of Proposition 8 stripped gays of the right to marry, were entitled to reinstate school segregation. "How is this different?" Judge Michael Daly Hawkins asked the attorney defending the measure. Legal heavyweights Ted Olson and David Boies, representing the pro-gay-marriage side, wrote in their plaintiffs' brief that the case tests the proposition whether gays and lesbians "should be counted as 'persons' under the 14th Amendment or whether they constitute a permanent underclass ineligible for protection under that cornerstone of our Constitution." The 14th Amendment removed the clause once embedded in the Constitution that slaves equaled three fifths of a person.

The rhetoric has inspired gays and lesbians. But it has also galvanized their opponents, who say homosexuals are fighting for "special rights," not civil rights. Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage says of same-sex matrimony: "It's not a civil right, it's a civil wrong"--one that will diminish the religious freedom of those who consider homosexuality sinful. The "special rights" argument was reflected in the Pentagon's report this month on "don't ask, don't tell." "Throughout the force, rightly or wrongly, we heard both subtle and overt resentment towards 'protected groups' of people and the possibility that gay men and lesbians could, with repeal, suddenly be elevated to a special status," the report found.

Gays and lesbians "may want to cast their fight in civil-rights terms, and a lot of people are buying it. But not the faith community and especially not the black community," says Bishop Harry Jackson, whose Hope Christian Church has a flock of 3,000 in the Washington, D.C., area. Indeed, some 70 percent of African-Americans voted yes on California's Prop 8, and polls found similar levels of opposition among blacks for a marriage initiative in Florida that same year. After the Washington, D.C. …