FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | May 17, 2004
by Kate Kendell
(San Francisco, CA, May 17, 2004) — I'm writing this on the historic day of May 17, 2004. Today we mark the 50th anniversary of one of the most important U.S. Supreme Court rulings in history - Brown v. Board of Education - and today, for the first time ever a U.S. state began issuing marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples. These two events share more in common than this date, but there are also stark differences between the struggle to dismantle institutionalized segregation and racism and the fight by lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered folks to secure the right to legally marry. There are many lessons and much inspiration to glean from past civil rights struggles. Those of us engaged in this present day effort have been deeply moved by some of the profound parallels: a landmark court case, the courage and integrity of common folks, the unprecendented attention and sense of history. But we also understand that the icons and watershed moments of past struggles should not be appropriated as our own or diminished by comparisons that may not be accurate.
Those of us who are white in our movement understand that we have long possessed the mixed blessing of "passing privilege." Many of us have avoided the worst of homophobia and discrimination by not acknowledging or admitting we were queer. We've worked at jobs, lived in neighborhoods, gone to school, interacted with family and friends pretending we were straight. In doing so, we have undoubtedly been spared some of the most obviously devastating byproducts of bigotry and discrimination based on our sexual orientation. Unlike the vast majority of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and other folks of color, many of us have been able to hide from view the facet of our identity that would mark us as "different" and thereby marked for unfair and unjust treatment. But passing is a Faustian bargain. We are forced to live inauthentic lives, we come to believe that we must pass in order to be safe, we become part of the very system of oppression that requires passing in the first place, and many opportunities for building a movement based on shared experience are lost. Nor can we even begin to appreciate the day-to-day and hour-to-hour struggles faced by folks of color in a nation still profoundly marked by racism and oppression based on race. Passing privilege and privilege based on race require white LGBT folks to resist the impulse to make analogies too easily between current and past civil rights struggles.
In the 27 years that NCLR has been advocating for lesbians, our families and relationships, and all others who face discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity we have seen heartbreaking and catastrophic pain and alienation. There is no question that many LGBT folks - both white and people of color - have been the victims of appalling bigotry based on their sexual orientation. But the LGBT struggle has not been a mirror image of the struggle of African Americans and other people of color in this country. It is not productive to engage in a hierarchy of oppressions. But in building allies in the non-gay people of color community, it is important that we appreciate and understand how our civil rights struggles differ even as we gain hope and inspiration from those who have trod some of the same ground before.
As we reflect on the enormity of this day and what it means for free people everywhere, we are mindful of how important it is that all of us re-commit ourselves to a broad social justice agenda. There is much to be troubled by in this nation and world. But in the 50 years since Brown we have seen changes that were unimaginable in 1954. Perhaps even 10 years ago many of us working on LGBT equality would not have imagined this day. What today signifies is that great and miraculous change and forward movement is possible. We all must commit to be agents of further change.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the civil and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.