By Erica Shekell
The 1961 Freedom Rides serve as a model and inspiration for other social justice movements. The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement is one of these.
It was a few years ago when I first heard the phrase “gay is the new black.” It expresses the idea that both blacks and LGBT individuals have been discriminated against legally and socially and that some have been beaten or even killed because of their identity. It also expresses the idea that black people have more legal rights and greater social acceptance than LGBT people do at this time – that most of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved – and that LGBT rights are the “next frontier.” It implies that the LGBT community is the next marginalized social group that has yet to receive rights that other citizens enjoy, and whose civil rights will likely be addressed next.
While there are many parallels between both communities, I take the middle route. The statement “gay is the new black” is compelling, but I feel that it is neither accurate nor constructive.
Some individuals are offended by the phrase and object to this comparison; they argue that LGBT people have not had to endure deeply systemic discrimination. While there were “colored” and “white” drinking fountains, there have never been “gay” or “straight” drinking fountains. Segregation such as this was deeply ingrained into many aspects of law and everyday life – and most laws do not regulate the everyday lives of LGBT people in the same ways they regulated the lives of black individuals in the Jim Crow South.
Some individuals may argue that discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals is inconsequential compared to the incredible amount of violence endured by slaves and blacks living under Jim Crow. Some may counter that LGBT people would endure the same extreme violence if LGBT was a physical characteristic like skin color, and the absence of this is why they have not endured such violence en masse and only in isolated incidents. Other individuals may argue that while the black community faced violence, they at least had support and comfort from their families – something that many LGBT people lack.
As is apparent, the danger with the phrase “gay is the new black” is that it sets the two communities up for competition, each competing to be the “most” marginalized and therefore most legitimate. I believe that both are legitimate and that it is not necessary for them to compete.
Both groups strive for equality and the right to live freely. There are many other parallels between the Freedom Rides and the LGBT rights movement – many of the Freedom Riders did not tell their parents about their participation, and of those who did, many did not receive blessings from their parents and were even discouraged from participating. Fathers were angry. Mothers cried. This is often the reaction that parents have when their children come out as LGBT. Both groups are familiar with rejection and disappointment from parents.
Another parallel is that “allies,” as supporters of the LGBT community are called, are incredibly important to furthering social acceptance and legal rights of the community – just as white Freedom Riders were integral to the success of the movement. White riders such as Joan Mulholland and Jim Zwerg were respected and celebrated because they cared deeply enough about their country to do something about it and showed that civil rights weren’t just a “black” issue. They gave a face to the thousands of whites who supported the movement. Similarly, members of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) receive enthusiastic applause and cheers at LGBT events and marches. It is sometimes difficult for LGBT people to receive strong support, particularly from family members, so those parents, family and friends who are supportive are all the more appreciated.
The success of both movements hinges on the idea that equality and fairness are not values just for “them,” but for all of us – with that idea being represented by the faces of all people.