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.
A New Attitude, and a Personal Stake
Enter Ben Jealous. Though Jealous told The Root that he "doesn't want to take too much credit" for the NAACP's hard pivot toward full acceptance of gay rights as civil rights, Payne, who's been with the HRC for more than a decade, says the change has been "100 percent" about Jealous' leadership. "Before Jealous, there was a lot of talk and no movement," she says.
Jealous, who began his tenure in 2008 at the age of 35, is the youngest NAACP president in the organization's history, making him part of a generation of people who favor homosexual rights markedly more than their elders. What is less well-known than Jealous' northern-California roots, however, is that he has a gay brother (whom he did not name), whom he calls "the person closest to me in the world."
This relationship has given Jealous a glimpse into the very comparable struggles of gays and African Americans, as well as the way the two classifications can augment each other when paired. "When [my brother] has been beaten up by the cops," says Jealous, "it's been very clear that it's both because he's black and gay."
Though black leaders like Julian Bond — the chairman of the NAACP, until this year — have in the past made a strong case for African-American support for gay rights, none have used the tremendous power and gravitas of the NAACP as well as Jealous, whose youth and personal experiences make him uniquely prepared to usher the NAACP into an America that's increasingly tolerant of homosexuality.
Jealous is certainly also aware that it makes tactical sense for racial-justice advocates to partner with gay-rights groups. According to a new study (pdf) from the Applied Research Center, people of color, especially LGBT ones, are significantly hurt when blacks and gays don't work together:
LGBT people of color are harmed by the perceived split between communities of color and LGBT communities. Dozens of young, local organizations serving LGBT people of color do exist, but they are virtually invisible, poorly supported and often too busy providing critical health and human services to engage deeply in education and organizing for policy change.
To that end, Jealous is clear that One Nation Working Together will find him marching for the empowerment of all people, black, white or gay. "The person who stands in my position needs to be prepared to stand up for the civil rights of everybody," says Jealous. "And it's now my job to make sure there are no second-class citizens in this economy."
One Nation Working Together has the pursuit of jobs and economic stability at its core, two issues that might finally bridge the divide between African-American groups and gay-rights groups, once and for all. Although the plight of black workers in a discriminatory job market has existed for centuries, relatively recent developments like the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, and conservative pushback against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) — proposed legislation that would protect LGBT individuals from workplace discrimination — have called into question the job security of gays more than ever before. Luckily for Jealous and his colleagues, if there's one issue that will rally disparate groups in the currently lackluster economy, it's money.
Stacey Long, the federal legislative director at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, says that her group jumped at the opportunity to work with the NAACP to promote job growth, specifically because, in so many minority communities, one hardship cascades into many more. "One of the things that we do when we're working on legislation or policy matters is we fit it through the lens of racial and social justice," she says.
"For instance, if we're talking about the impact that ENDA will have once it's passed, we're thinking about the countless numbers of [people of color] who will be able to maintain their jobs because they won't be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And those are individuals who are sometimes supporting their families. And in some instances, they'll be taking care of their extended-family members, as well. These are entire minority families that we're helping keep out of poverty."
Jealous says that Saturday's march will be a success if it "lifts up the need for our entire country to focus intently on job creation and ensure every child has access to an excellent education." Whether that will happen remains to be seen. But the coalition building that's already taken place between the NAACP and the LGBT community seems built to last.
Payne says that she has already discussed with NAACP representatives how best to reach out to the black community about the AIDS epidemic, and Long says that internal meetings have made her optimistic about future dealings with the NAACP. "[The NAACP] has made it very clear that the table is open and it's diverse and it's wide and all are welcome," she says. "And they're going to make sure that we stay of one accord."
An NAACP insider speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the topic says that, as of now, the organization has no plans to come out in full support of gay marriage. But sometimes change takes time, and Jealous hopes that One Nation Working Together will be a big step forward. "Marches are important because … people make new friendships," he says. "They find common ground and make a commitment to work together."
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.