The NAACP Reaches Out to Gay-Rights Groups

With an upcoming march on Washington, D.C., providing the opening, Ben Jealous is leading the civil rights group into an era of greater cooperation with the LGBT community. He told The Root why he has a personal stake in the effort.

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Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP (Getty Images)

On Sept. 22, Benjamin T. Jealous, the charismatic head of the NAACP, made history. On that Wednesday, Jealous spoke at Manhattan's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village to promote the upcoming One Nation Working Together march on Washington, D.C.

It was the first time in history that a current NAACP president has visited an LGBT center. Jeffrey Campagna, head of the LGBT desk for One Nation Working Together, called it "an indication of the true coalition that One Nation Working Together represents, and the true opportunity this is for the LGBT movement to join with labor groups and other civil rights groups to advance our agenda."

In 1999, while still president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume spoke at the annual dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights organization, but under Jealous, the now century-old NAACP is ramping up its LGBT coalition building more than ever before.

Last year the NAACP came out against California's Proposition 8, the recently overturned ballot initiative banning gay marriage. And in July, at its annual national convention, the NAACP rolled out an LGBT Equality Taskforce, a seven-member committee designed to stay on top of justice issues within the gay community.

But it seems as if these activities may have been merely preludes to the upcoming One Nation Working Together march. Led by the NAACP, the Oct. 2 event will find President Jealous and his colleagues stepping out with more than two dozen LGBT partner organizations, an unprecedented showing of public support for gay-rights activists of every stripe.

A Schism in the Black Community

For people like Newsweek columnist Jeninne Lee-St. John, who once argued that the fight for black civil rights and the fight for gay rights are "strikingly similar," the NAACP's newfound LGBT partnership isn't just sensible, it's long overdue. So what took so long?

"To be honest with you, our African-American community is in a schism," says Donna Payne, associate director of diversity for the HRC. "[Some African-American leaders] smile at you and don't want to say anything bad, but they won't include you in anything. That's the reality."

In October of last year, nearly 65 percent of African Americans believed homosexuality to be "morally wrong," according to the Pew Research Center, while only 48 percent of whites felt the same way. In a nation in which the black community is vastly more religious than the country as a whole, African Americans have a tendency to take cues about morality from their religious leaders, many of whom -- like embroiled Bishop Eddie Long -- speak openly and fervently against homosexuality. The result is the perplexing schism of which Payne speaks: a black community that overwhelmingly supports progressive Democratic politicians while simultaneously not tolerating gays.

According to Payne, the NAACP's attempt to walk that fine line of propriety for years saw it adopt an unofficial "Don't ask, don't tell" culture like the one currently flagging in the American armed forces. "It's like we know you're there, but don't talk about it," she says.

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