DOMA and Voting Rights Don’t Compare

The immediate reaction following last week's decisions ignored the history of blacks and gays.

Gay-rights activists (Kevork Djansezian/Getty); Eric Holder after the SCOTUS Voting Rights Act decision (Mark Wilson/Getty)
Gay-rights activists (Kevork Djansezian/Getty); Eric Holder after the SCOTUS Voting Rights Act decision (Mark Wilson/Getty)

(The Root) — Who is the most privileged among the least privileged? That’s the question many are asking as Americans discuss how the Supreme Court treated race-centered cases over the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action versus cases over same-sex marriage. Are African Americans and other people of color, who are the most likely to face voter suppression, winners of the dubious prize of “most oppressed,” now that the court has struck down a key provision of one of the most important aspects of the civil rights struggle? And how does that compare to the court’s treatment of gays and lesbians, which has seen a progressive sea change over the past 10 years?

Just follow last week’s headlines about the court’s decisions: “Why the Supreme Court Said ‘No to Blacks and Yes to Gays,’ ” blared an analysis by progressive Rabbi Michael Lerner. “Gay Is the New Black,” stated the overblown headline atop a nuanced New York Times article by Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler. At every turn, there seemed to be a blunt-force reaction to the court’s landmark decisions, setting up the civil rights of gays and blacks as if it were a battle of winners versus losers.

But such headlines ignore the nuances within each group’s civil rights struggle. Indeed, Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, author of the new book The Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream, calls comparing the court’s decisions not just apples and oranges but “apples and steak” — that is, possible to compare but highly differentiated. 

America was founded with a national framework of racial segregation and exploitation. “All men are created equal” did not include black Americans, male or female. For better or worse, the concept of gay rights (or even gay existence) was not baked into our national framework. Indeed, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights struggle has been based upon the groundbreaking work of racial civil rights movements.

For sure, the fight for gay rights has its own unique history: Their battles are much more recent, and the legal strategies for LGBT rights have moved toward a more state-by-state framework that interacts with federal judicial decisions, versus the civil rights movement’s reliance on the federal government to protect rights that states would not. For the moment, with the current Supreme Court, that strategy seems to be working more quickly than a federal action-based rights strategy.

Indeed, the knee-jerk analysis missed all of the texture of each group’s history, as well as the intersecting identities of those who are black and gay. Pam Spaulding, editor of the award-winning blog Pam’s House Blend, is a black woman legally married to her wife. After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, at the same time that the anti-same-sex-marriage Proposition 8 passed in California, Spaulding recalls, “Vitriol was hurled at blacks that evening, and I recall on the Blend being on the receiving end of angry commenters — as if I had burned my ‘gay card,’ as my blackness, which clearly was not invisible to them before, was now a threat.”

I interviewed a Los Angeles-based black lesbian activist, Jasmyne Cannick, right after election 2008. She said, “The reason why I wasn’t inspired to work on Prop 8 was because that glass ceiling that the white gays are bumping their head up against is to a room that as a black person, I haven’t even got a foot in the door of. I’m just trying to put food on the table.”