Jon Stewart, in discussing the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about campaign finance said, “Corporations now have more rights than gay people.” (It’s a small reference in a long sketch.)
In some states, you can still be legally fired for being gay. Sexual orientation is not a protected category under the law in the same way race or gender is. Yet the highest profile battle over gay rights at the moment is the legal fight over Proposition 8, regarding same sex marriage. If same sex marriage becomes legal in California, or even nationwide, that would not change employment protections — not a small consideration in this economy or in general.
A document called the Dallas Principles is gaining some traction in pushing the idea that full civil rights for gays and lesbians (or the GLBT community) should be the dominant issue on the table.
In the context of speaking about Black history and women’s history at Scripps College tonight, I decided to add in another factor: gay rights and equality claims by groups competing to be heard and have their issues addressed. I had a long conversation with some friends last night about the Dallas Principles; the fight over Prop 8; and how the language of civil rights has become a fraught space. The use of civil rights terminology by the GLBT community is viewed by some African-Americans as co-opting language of a different struggle. (A 2005 opinion piece in Time gave some background.)
Equality is always political. There’s a great example of Frederick Douglass battling with white female suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Douglass was a strong and early supporter of womens’ suffrage. But after the Civil War, during reconstruction, Anthony and Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It gave black men clear legal rights to voting, well, equality-in-name. But in the post-Reconstruction period few Southern black men could actually exercise their voting rights without fear of violence or death.
In any case, let’s back up a step. The Civil War is over. Frederick Douglass, who signed an original women’s suffrage document and went to the Seneca gathering in support of women’s rights, is appalled that his former compatriots now seem set on denying him the franchise.
Her writes a letter to a third party. It reads in part:
Rochester, Sept, 27, 1868
My dear Friend:
I am impelled by no lack of generosity in refusing to come to Washington to speak in
behalf of woman’s suffrage. The right of woman to vote is as sacred in my judgment as
that of man. [But] I am now devoting myself to a cause not more
sacred, certainly more urgent, because it is life and death to the long-enslaved people of
this country; and this is: Negro suffrage. While the Negro is mobbed, beaten, shot,
stabbed, hanged, burnt, and is the target of all that is malignant in the North and all that is
murderous in the South his claims may be preferred by me without exposing in any wise
myself to the imputation of narrowness or mean. ness towards the cause of woman. As
you very well know, woman has a thousand ways to attach herself to the governing
power of the land and already exerts an honorable influence on the course of legislation.
She is the victim of abuses, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended I think that her cause is
as urgent as that of ours. I never suspected you of sympathizing with Miss Anthony and
Mrs. Stanton in this course. Their principal is: that no Negro shall be enfranchised while
woman is not.
Now, considering that white men have been enfranchised always, and colored men have
not, the conduct of these white women, whose husbands, fathers and brothers are voters,
does not seem generous.
Very truly yours,
After black men had received the legal right to vote, Douglass went back to campaigning for women’s rights.
So, was he right to prioritize black male suffrage in these battles? This is the kind of messy fight that occurs over and over again in history… whose equality coms first? Can we all walk through the door together or will we be bumping shoulders trying to cram through a small passage to an uncertain promise land of access to power?