Gay marriage and civil rights, the uneasy connection gets stronger

The NAACP came out in support of same-sex marriage today. I don’t think it’s possible to understate the historic nature of this move. The NAACP affirmed that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue. To those who have been fighting to legalize same-sex marriage, this seems like an obvious point. But what the NAACP did today – in context with the history of African-Americans and the weight of the term ‘civil rights’ as it refers to the African-American experience and history – is momentous.

This reminds me of an interview I conducted with Eric Lee, who heads the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – a historic civil rights organization. Mr. Lee was almost fired from his job, because in 2008 he was one of only a few major African-American leaders to actively campaign against Proposition 8 (the ballot initiative which passed in California, banning legal gay marriages in the state).

When I interviewed Mr. Lee, he was adamant that for him, the issue went beyond notions of what marriage should or should not be – and was instead at the heart of the basic principals of civil rights and equality under the law. And yet, despite his strong support for legalization of gay marriage, he also said that the gay community in general took for granted the significance of the notion of ‘civil rights’ as it pertains to the African-American experience.

In the last two years, a lot appears to have changed. The nation’s opinion regarding same-sex marriage is evolving rapidly towards acceptance. It appears – for the first time – not to be an effective wedge issue during an election year. The NAACP’s actions, though, seem to me a more dramatic barometer, since it was just four years ago that Mr. Lee was almost fired for taking the same stand.

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