No. 2
March 2005
Firefly Journal
Because the End Times Never End and Everything is Still Possible
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pivot the camera

a few thoughts on civil rights
by Daniel Hintzsche

“My whole soul shuddered whenever I saw the sooty heretic Moor touch the fair Desdemona.”

Abigail Adams

For me and for many other folks, there are strong and important parallels between the current debate about gay marriages and the historic debate (now thirty-seven years out of date in these United States, at least so far as any question of legality goes) about racially mixed marriages. That is: there are some people over here on this side of the room who want to get married, and then there are a whole lot more people over on that side who don’t want to let them.

That was pretty much the situation, as late as 1967 in some states, for white people who wanted to marry black people, and for black people who wanted to marry white ones; and it is pretty much the situation today for men who want to marry men, and for women who want to marry women.

But there are also quite a few folks, black ones and white ones both, who become uneasy or unhappy or downright angry when those of us speaking for gay rights in the present decade invoke the racial civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s as a precedent. It is not, we are told, the same. Black people are not gay people. No two minority groups are the same; no two minority groups have the same history, or make the same contribution, or fight the same fight for full enfranchisement in the wider community.

And within that argument’s narrow scope, it is inarguably correct.

Of course, there are people who belong to more than one oppressed minority: a black Jewish lesbian has immediately four cultural biases to contend with, both internally and externally, rather than one. But also of course, African Americans taken as a group are different from Homosexual Americans, who in turn are different from Jewish Americans, and so forth.

Precisely in keeping our focus on the divergent natures of the various oppressed groups, however, we are collaborating with their oppressors in a subtle but powerful way. It’s only one short step from saying “The struggle of the African Americans is different from the struggle of the Homosexual Americans” to making invidious comparisons between the two groups’ claims to the possession of civil rights in the first place. The question then all too easily becomes: Which groups have earned their civil rights—and which have not? And that was never how civil rights were intended to work, not in these United States anyhow.

Civil rights, according to our best tradition, are something every human being is born with. They are not earned; they are innate. They are not granted; they are recognized.

Quite a few folks become angry when those of us speaking for gay rights invoke the racial civil rights movement.

If it stands for anything great, the United States stands for radical pluralism. From the beginning, America was conceived of as that place where splinter religious groups could practice in their own odd ways without fear of reprisal from a majority church. From the beginning, America at its best was always that place where what later became characterized as the Social Code of the Far West was understood to be the right way of coexisting: so long as your neighbor was not in some direct, practical manner infringing upon your ability to pursue happiness in your preferred way, then he was free to pursue happiness in his—however inexplicable, distasteful, or ridiculous you might find his way to be. This principle is foundational to pluralism, and therefore to the American concept of liberty: your aversion to your neighbor’s way of pursuing happiness was your problem—just as his aversion to yours was his. ‘Live and let live’ has always been at the heart of the American idea.

The polar opposite of the pluralist philosophy is the one we usually identify as fascism. Here’s the definition from Merriam–Webster [emphasis added]:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime ... that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

To be very simple, the pluralist believes that his civilization will be healthiest if the widest possible range of choices about how to live is left open to each of its citizens; while the fascist believes not only that there is one best answer to each question about living, or at most a very few best answers (because in fact the pluralist may well believe that, too), but also that the proper role of government is to impose, as completely as possible, those best answers upon its citizens—by force where necessary.

From its inception, the United States of America has been remarkable for a strong, explicit bent toward pluralism.

Not that there haven’t always been powerful countervailing tendencies; not that it hasn’t, very often, been a stiff uphill battle. We Americans are only human—all too human, most of the time. These United States tolerated slavery for most of a century; American women were not given the vote for a good while longer than that. Even after Emancipation, it took another century to recognize the full citizenship of black Americans; and in the meantime, American hatred and intolerance gave birth to the abomination of the Klan. When I was a young child, it was still acceptable in some southern states to require a black woman to sit at the back of the bus, where she would not offend the delicate sensibilities of the white folks up front. It was still acceptable to forbid a black child to drink water from the same drinking fountain where white children drank—because really, why should any white child be exposed to the hazards of ingesting black saliva? And of course it was still acceptable, as we have already mentioned, to prevent a white person and a black person who loved one another and wanted to build their lives together from doing so under the covenant of a legally recognized marriage.

It is very easy, fifty years on, to minimize (or simply to forget) the deep-rooted revulsion and disgust with which mixed-race couples were openly regarded in the middle of the last century. In poll after poll, the vast majority of Americans registered their conviction that mixed-race marriage was both a perversion and a mockery of, and a dangerous attack upon, ‘traditional’ marriage, and that it absolutely must not be granted legal status. Biblical authority was marshaled against the marriages of blacks with whites, just as in the early years of the Republic the Word of God had been deployed in support of the enslavement of non-Christian Africans. Early in the Twentieth Century, there was indeed an attempt to pass a Constitutional amendment outlawing, in perpetuity, marriages between blacks and whites.

If you can imagine that.

And of course, even today there are plenty of parents who will be rendered uneasy or downright distraught by their child’s choosing a spouse who sports a much lighter or a much darker skin. But mostly, these days, people who have been keeping up with the evolution of their culture know that such an incursion of knee-jerk racism is an occasion far more for shame than for pride—that the feeling is a civilizational atavism, and as such to be strongly resisted. In the ordinary media of our mainstream culture—in the newspapers, on the television, on the radio—it is racists and bigots who are seen as problems per se, and not the members of racial minority groups. And any Congressperson in the present year who proposed a Constitutional amendment permanently blocking the legalization of racially mixed marriages would be rapidly and efficiently marginalized, not to mention universally ridiculed.

And just there appears the crucial development.

Fifty years ago, it was as though the burden of proof lay upon the black people who wanted to marry white people, upon the white people who wanted to marry black ones. Most people in the country found the whole notion of such marriages repulsive, unnatural, finally intolerable. The national dialogue on the subject presupposed that the right to marry did not yet belong to such people. It belonged to the majority; and the majority, aesthetically revolted and morally righteous, chose to withhold the right.

But the American concept of freedom is not, first and foremost, a concept of majority rule. The American concept of freedom is—first and foremost, and for better or for worse—a concept of the liberty of the individual.

And when majority rule attempts to infringe upon the rights of individuals to pursue happiness in their own idiosyncratic ways—even in ways distasteful to the majority—then the defense of those rights is, particularly and especially, the role of the courts, which stand as interpreters between the Constitution and the law. In both the recognition and the defense of the rights of individuals, the courts (if they are doing their job) will nearly always be in advance of the legislatures, whose members understandably tend to be more concerned with their standings among their constituencies than with the politically risky pastime of protecting unpopular minorities.

The action of the courts in defending, and indeed in promulgating, minority rights serves one other invaluable purpose, and one that is too rarely recognized. In declaring the rights of women to the vote, of residents of all ethnicities to the exercise of full citizenship, of mixed-race and same-sex couples to marriage, of the children of disadvantaged parents to equal opportunity in all practicable forms, the courts insist that the complacent majority remember, again and again, that by the terms of the very charter which guarantees that majority’s own liberties, it is never the minority groups who stand athwart the deeper realization of the American Dream, but always and everywhere those who would marginalize them.

Finally, what all oppressed groups have in common is the hatred, the scorn, the fear, and the concerted practical malice of those who are oppressing them—and it is always the oppressors who are wrong, and who must be controlled by law, not the oppressed.

This is so much easier to see in hindsight. Who nowadays doesn’t know that it was wrong to dispossess and exterminate Native Americans, to hold African Americans in slavery, to imprison Japanese Americans in internment camps? But those are among the things that we all know, now; and thus they are no longer the most crucial truths. The most crucial truths are always the ones just this moment struggling into consciousness; and for this culture at this time, one of those Most Crucial Truths is this one:

That each Homosexual American has the same rights to pursue personal happiness as every other American; and that those rights include the right not only to make love with, but also to marry, any consenting adult with whom he or she may arrive at such an agreement—without any let or hindrance from the majority, and however distasteful that majority may find such lovemaking and such marriages.

In the great Constitutional tradition of this nation, it is not a question of whether Homosexual Americans have such rights—only a question of whether their neighbors and legislators will finally acknowledge and respect those rights, or whether they will continue to deny and trample them.



I first encountered the Abigail Adams quote in a blistering Nicholas D. Kristof op ed column on mixed-race marriage and same-sex marriage published in the New York Times on 3 March 2004, in which article you’ll also find a good selection of disturbing history on the attitudes and tactics of those who have tried, down through the years, to bar marriages between black people and white people in these United States—including Representative Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia’s 1912 attempt to pass a “constitutional amendment protecting marriage” against the “debasing, ultrademoralizing, un-American and inhuman leprosy” of racially mixed marriage.


I’m discovering that a fairly large number of liberal people are unaware of the stiff resistance with which any attempt to draw parallels between the current struggle for gay rights (and particularly for the right of homosexual persons to marry their life partners) and the Civil Rights movement, so-called, of the mid-Twentieth Century tends to be met in the African American community.

Here are a few glimpses:


Atlanta, Mar. 24 ( - Black pastors have united in a voice of dissent against the inference that the homosexual-rights movement can be compared to the civil rights movement. Thirty pastors rallied along with 250 supporters Monday at an Atlanta church, and signed a declaration calling for a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.

The declaration described marriage between a man and a woman as a necessity, and said that same-sex marriage is not a right. “This is neither a hate nor a fear issue,” the declaration stated. “People are free in our nation to pursue relationships as they choose. To redefine marriage, however, to suit the preference of those choosing alternative lifestyles is wrong.”

“The homosexual lobby is seeking a negative freedom rooted in the sexual revolution, and it's a negative freedom from the restraint of morality,” Bishop Donn Thomas of Messiah's World Outreach Ministries said. Thomas called the civil rights movement “a positive freedom for African-Americans to experience our capabilities as men and women created in the image of God.”


(Washington, D.C.) Conservative African-American leaders are attacking comparisons between the fight for same-sex marriage and the ban on interracial marriage.

“It sticks in my craw,” says Rev. Talbert Swan II, a Springfield, Mass. minister.

Conservative columnist Mychal Massie, a member of Project 21, a Washington D.C.-based political alliance of conservative blacks, agrees.

“It is an outrage to align something so offensive as this with the struggle of a fallen man, a great man such as Martin Luther King,” said Massie.

Swan said there are no similarities between gays and blacks because blacks were lynched, denied property rights and declared inhuman.

“Homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle,” he said. “I could not choose the color of my skin. ... For me to ride down the street and get profiled just because of my skin color is something a homosexual will never go through.”

Massie, who writes for WorldNetDaily says: “The whole thing bespeaks of something much deeper and more insidious than we just want to get married,” he said. “They want to change the entire social order.”

Alvin Williams, president and CEO of the conservative, Washington D.C.-based Black America's Political Action Committee, said the gay marriage issue looks like an equal rights issue at first, but becomes a “special rights” issue after closer examination because it's about behavior, not ethnicity.

African Americans are among the most opposed to granting gay couples the right to marry. A recent Pew Research Poll showed that 60 percent of blacks opposed gay marriage. When asked if they favored legal agreements with many of the same rights as marriage, 51 percent of blacks were opposed.


“Homosexuals have never been forced to sit in the back of the bus. They are as privileged a group as any. To compare their attempts to affirm deviant sexual conduct to the legitimate discrimination claims of true minorities is a sham.”


Those last lines spring from the pen of Robert H. Knight, Director of Cultural Studies at the FRC and a draftsman of that federal Defense of Marriage Act which an imperfectly liberal President signed into law in 1996. I include them here not despite but indeed because of the fact that Mr. Knight (so far as I can determine from his photographs, anyway) is a white European American, and because his text is a handy specimen of the Christian and Republican Right’s pointed message to the African American community on this issue, of which message the refrain goes pretty much like this: “Surely you’re not going to let yourself be lumped together with a bunch of homosexuals?

In the background of any such rhetoric, there is a deeply ugly irony—even a tragic one. Half a century ago, it was the Christian and Republican Right who were doing their damnedest (the pun is intentional) to prevent the full enfranchisement of black Americans—including, very particularly, the rights of black Americans to marry white ones. Plus ça change ...

There are shining heroes amid all this murk: Coretta Scott King, Carol Moseley Braun, and the Reverend Al Sharpton are all courageously bucking the general trend, espousing gay rights as a natural extension of their championship of full civil rights for all people. One can only hope that their following will rapidly and steadily increase.