In Their Own Words: From Rangel to Sharpton, High-Profile Black Americans Weigh in on LGBT Rights

You may recall Prop. 8 emerged as a source of tension between some members of the LGBT and black communities. I asked these leaders what they think can be done to eradicate homophobia in the black community and elsewhere.
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A little less than a year ago, I wrote a piece about what I felt supporters of LGBT rights could be doing more effectively to generate more enthusiastic support among black Americans. Some of my suggestions were controversial (as many of you let me know) and perhaps easier said than done, like asking LGBT groups to attack specific policies but to lay off attacks on organized religion.

But some of them were, frankly, no-brainers; so much so that I can't believe I felt the need to write them down in the first place. Among them, not attacking black Americans for things that are legitimately not our fault. (Such as the defeat of gay marriage in Maine where there are practically zero black people. And I'm not exaggerating. According to the census it is one of the whitest states in the union, yet I've had to explain that on more than one occasion to those convinced black voters were responsible for nixing same-sex marriage in the state.) But another suggestion was simply encouraging LGBT groups to reach out to high-profile black Americans who do support equal rights for gays and lesbians and utilize them as messengers more effectively to reach the larger community.

Some of you may recall that Prop. 8 emerged as a source of tension between some members of the LGBT community and the black community, for reasons that were proven to be not entirely founded or fair. So with Prop. 8's recent return to the national spotlight (not to mention yesterday's report regarding the disproportionate number of minorities penalized by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"), I decided to follow-up with some of the leaders I referenced in my piece last year to ask them to share their thoughts on what they think can be done to help eradicate homophobia in the black community and elsewhere, and some of the most effective methods for winning over more supporters for LGBT rights.

Their thoughts, some obtained via phone, others via e-mail, are shared below. Please note that some have been edited for length, but you can read them in their entirety here.

On homophobia in the black community

Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder, National Action Network:I think it is wrong... You cannot fight for civil rights for some and not civil rights for all. I think it's a problem, and I think it's a contradiction to the spirit of those of us who have suffered bias and prejudice. [On the black community receiving criticism for the passage of Prop 8] I think that we got a lot of unfair blame for that, but at the same time... we need to be more vocal about people having the right to do things we may have religious disagreements with.

Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus, NAACP, Co-Founder SNCC: This is easy for a non-gay person to say -- but I believe the movement for fairness for LGBT persons could be advanced considerably if LBGT persons would "come out" in their churches, workplaces, schools and among their friends and neighbors. To say "I am gay" seems to be to be simple way to say "Here I Am. This is who I am. You liked me a moment ago -- I hope you like me still."... If your church preaches bigotry against gay and lesbian people, try to keep that prejudice away from the public sphere -- the rest of us would appreciate it.

Congressman Charles Rangel, (D-15): People talk about "homophobia within the black community," but the Congressional Black Caucus is virtually unanimous on almost every bill seeking to protect the civil rights of LGBT Americans. We want an end to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in jobs, housing, public accommodations, and marriage. Compared to almost any other subgroup in Congress, the LGBT community has a champion in the Black Caucus.

That said, we do have many people in our communities who are less supportive on these issues than we are... But that doesn't mean that we can't make progress on building support for LGBT issues within our communities by continuing to integrate them into our work for equal justice for all Americans so our constituents see it in the context of that long, unfinished struggle.

On how to engender more support among black Americans for LGBT Rights

Rev. Al Sharpton, Founder, National Action Network:I think that more of us who are visible need to come out and say it as I've tried to. I dealt with this issue when I ran president in 2004 [Ed. Note: Following our interview, Rev. Sharpton's VP of Media pointed out that he was one of the only 2004 candidates in favor of marriage equality] and I've spoken at rallies and I will continue to because I think it is a human rights issue. I think conservatives have tried to frame it as "would you personally engage in homosexual activity." That's not the issue. There are many things I may not personally engage in, but that doesn't mean I don't believe people have the right to do it. People say to me, "Well if someone does this or does that or this it's a sin and they're going to hell" and I tell them, "Okay, that may be but I'm going to fight for everyone's right to get there."

Rep. Charles Rangel, (D-15): We have to help our constituents understand that discomfort around LGBT issues among some of them is what continues to drive the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We have to remove that stigma if we are to get that under control.

We will change things by breaking the silence around these issues and making people understand that we have the same percentage of LGBT people in our communities as any other group does, but that it is a little more hidden within our communities. We can hold up role models such as Bayard Rustin and Langston Hughes and Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, not to mention leaders in our community such as the late Council Member Phil Reed and such living leaders as Marjorie Hill of GMHC and Dr. Billy Jones.

On the tide turning in the black community and elsewhere, in favor of LGBT rights

Julian Bond, Chairman Emeritus of the NAACP and Co-Founder, SNCC:You saw the news of the pathetically small crowd that gathered in Atlanta to protest same-sex marriage -- that tells you something.

This piece originally appeared on, for which Goff is a political blogger.

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