Is America's oldest civil rights
organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP), sending a mixed message on gay marriage?
Back in the fall, when gay activists
were fighting against Proposition 8, the voter initiative that placed
a gay marriage ban in the California constitution, the black
community splintered on the issue. Many disagreed with the idea that
gay marriage – in fact, gay equality as a whole – was a civil
America's largest black civil rights
group was also divided. While its California chapter came out in
opposition to Proposition 8, the national office remained silent.
Then in March, gay activists cheered
when NAACP leaders – Chairman Julian Bond and President Ben Jealous
– came out publicly in favor of repealing Proposition 8. Jason W.
Bartlett, deputy director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a
group that lobbies for civil rights for GLBT people of color, called
the move “bold” and “historic.”
At a recent speech before the Human
Rights Campaign, Bond said: “When someone asks me, 'Are gay rights
civil rights?' my answer is always, 'Of course, they are.'” Then
adds, “It isn't 'special' to be free from discrimination.
It is an ordinary universal entitlement of citizenship.”
Bond has always been an egalitarian.
In 2005, at a Virgina fundraiser, he said: “Many gays, many
lesbians, worked side by side with me in the civil rights movement.
Am I supposed to tell them now thanks for risking their lives and
their limbs to help me win my rights but that they are excluded
because of the circumstances of their birth? Not a chance.”
“The lessons of the civil rights
movement of yesterday ... is that sometimes the simplest of ordinary
everyday acts – of taking a seat on a bus, of sitting down at a
lunch counter, of applying for a marriage license – sometimes these
can have extraordinary consequences, can change the world,” Bond
The NAACP had found its voice again and
spoke with conviction and passion on the issue of gay rights as civil
rights. It was tremendous progress.
But the little known fact that Bond and
Jealous were speaking out more as public citizens than leaders of the
NAACP would have warmed their detractors. In fact, it appears a vote
on gay marriage or outlawing gay marriage among national board
members has never taken place.
In a telephone interview with On Top
Magazine, Bartlett said his organization's strategic goal with
the NAACP was to have the vote take place and affirm the group's
position in favor of gay marriage. He would not comment on whether
he believed the measure would pass, saying only that “we have
strong allies in key places.”
“There is an internal debate and
there are a lot of internal politics within the national NAACP right
now over this particular issue,” Bartlett, who is also a
Connecticut state representative, said. “So this is progress.”
But could the anti-gay marriage bluff
and bluster of NAACP national board member Rev. Keith Ratliff seen in
Iowa this month be more representative of the NAACP as a whole?
Ratliff, the head of the Iowa/Nebraska
chapter of the NAACP, donned a red suit – the new color of the
anti-gay marriage movement meant to represent the blood of Jesus
Christ – on the steps of the Iowa Capitol and prayed with members
of the Iowa Family Policy Center at a rally calling for lawmakers to
begin the process of placing a gay marriage ban in the state
constitution: “Let them understand, oh God, that your way is the
way that we must live, that separation of church and state did not
mean that man should live unholy.”
He's given sermons on the issue and
even co-authored an editorial.
“To anyone who reads and believes the
Bible, there is no room for compromise on the issue of
homosexuality,” Ratliff and three clergy write in a Des Moines
Register editorial. “To those who look to 'natural law',
homosexuality will always be un-natural and un-healthy for a myriad
of obvious reasons. ... The Iowa Supreme Court has now issued its
opinion, but it fundamentally changes nothing. Now it is up to the
people and their elected officials to correct the court's error
through the constitutional amendment process.” The four religious
leaders called for “biblically justified civil resistance.”
“There is a lot of homophobia in the
NAACP,” California Conference President Alice Huffman told The
American Prospect. “There are a lot of Christians who feel
Bartlett agreed: “There are many
[civil rights organizations] that are dominated by the clergy. ...
And that keeps those civil rights organizations either standing still
or actually being somewhat oppressive.”
Bartlett makes the distinction that
NAACP leaders do not favor gay marriage; instead they are against
outlawing gay marriage by constitutional amendment – a distinction
clearly meant to pacify religious leaders involved in the
organization. But in California and Iowa, without a gay marriage ban
in the constitution there is or would be gay marriage. And Bond's
own words seem to belie that notion: “applying for a marriage
license” is something that can “change the world.”
NAACP leaders, however, have kept mum
about its anti-gay marriage Iowa dissenter. And it's only after
being pressed on the issue that Bartlett agrees that he would like to
see some pressure applied against Ratliff.
“Are you asking me if I would like to
see [Ratliff] marginalized?” Bartlett asks. “Yes, I would. I'm
hopeful that people in Iowa will remove him as soon as possible.”
Then adds that his organization is only interested in shoring up
support for an official endorsement on gay marriage and/or gay rights
from the NAACP.
“The NAACP as a civil rights
institution has made tremendous progress in the last six months over
this issue. And what I've seen is an organization in transition. I
see an organization that for many years has been either silent or
opposed to gay rights or to anything that was affirming to GLBT
people. And now I see an organization that is taking a step forward
in recognizing that many of the issues that GLBT people are fighting
for are civil rights,” Bartlett says, then repeats, “So that's
The question is: Who represents the
heart and soul of the NAACP?