Comparing the Struggles of African Americans for Civil Rights with the Struggles of LGBT People

Strange fruit

The word ‘fruit’ has, in the context of this article, three meanings. Billie Holiday’s haunting 1939 rendition of the song “Strange Fruit” gave voice to a nation’s anguish over the lynching of African-Americans. [1]

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

The word “fruit” also refers derogatorily to homosexuals. A little more than a month after the nation was rocked by the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a black transgender woman, Rita Hester, was stabbed to death in her Boston apartment. And on the 4th of July 2000, two teenagers murdered a gay African American man, Arthur “J.R.” Warren. He was kicked and beaten, his skull fractured, then driven over by his captor’s car four times. Hester and Warren violated the boundaries of both race and gender. To claim their deaths were caused by one prejudice, and not the other, would be presumptuous.

The meaning of the word “fruit” has bled into other categories.

Finally, I use the word “fruit” in the biblical sense, “…by their fruits ye shall know them,” from Matthew 7:20. The fruits of oppression in the United States have Christian roots; the same Bible once used to enslave blacks is now used to discriminate against black homosexuals, and white homosexuals.

This essay is not intended to minimize in any way the unique sufferings endured by African-Americans due to racism in this country. The purpose is to show that the full rights enjoyed by white Americans are denied to both blacks and homosexuals; and that the crossover between these groups frustrates efforts to pit them against each other.


An oft-heard chant at gay pride parades is, “Gay, straight, black, white. Same struggle, same fight.” Religious conservatives object to the comparison of the struggle for gay rights to the black civil rights movement.

At BASH-IN, an event sponsored by Yale Political Union’s Queer Caucus and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Cooperative, the floor was given to opponents to express their views on homosexuality. Julian Austin’s thoughts mirror those of many conservative Christians.

When people try to compare black oppression with homosexual oppression, I think there is something wrong. Black people are born the way they are. And you can’t hide the fact that you are black, because that’s what you look like. But with homosexuality, you can hide it if you desire. [2]

And in its online magazine “Ideas and Energy for the Next Generation,” the conservative Christian organization Family Research Council courts the assent of African-American football player/minister Reggie White.

Homosexual activists try to compare their “struggle” to the civil rights struggles that black Americans went through in the ’50s and ’60s. In the minds of true minorities, this argument is dead on arrival. Reggie White is offended by the comparison of struggles of homosexual groups to those of blacks. “Homosexuality is a decision. It’s not a race,” he said. [3]

Family Research Council welcomes Reggie White to speak not on the topic of Christianity, or sports – topics common enough on their web site and on which Mr. White has expertise, but only on the category of race as it relates to homosexuality. [4] That Mr. White’s expert opinion is confined to the issue of homosexuality suggests that the FRC views him as nearer in status to the homosexual than to the Christian. The organization further reveals its implicit racism in conferring on “black Americans” the dubious honor of “true” minority.

Power is granted to the powerful on the basis of privilege. It benefits the powerful to extend, or allow, privilege based upon its own interests. By dividing a group to whom it must concede rights, power limits the damage done to its own power base. Power will concede rights to women, but not lesbian women; or to blacks, but not black homosexuals; to gays, but not to gay transgenders; and so on. Power divides based on its own interests, and these divisions are always suspect.

The perceived division between African-Americans and the lgbt (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) communities is a political construction, based on a foundation of white heterosexuality. This construction assumes several things; that both whiteness and heterosexuality are the norm. It assumes that African-Americans are heterosexual, and that homosexuals are white, and therefore have nothing in common. The carrots of ‘normalcy,’ heterosexuality and whiteness in this case, are dangled before each community as incentive to deny commonality with the other.

But crossover exists. There are African-American lesbians, gay African-American men, African-American bisexuals, and transgender African-American women and men. For these people the issue of gay rights IS an issue of civil rights.

There are also African-American heterosexuals who share in the struggle of the lgbt community for civil rights. Representative John Lewis of Georgia marched beside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the Civil Rights marches of the ’60s. In his speech to Congress in 1996 against legislation of the “Defense of Marriage Act” Representative Lewis said,

I will not turn my back on another American. I will not oppress my fellow human being. I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. [5]

The crossover between the black and lgbt communities blurs the boundary between them. The boundary, such as it is, is a white heterosexual construction benefitting that power structure.


Discrimination and prejudice still adversely affect African Americans. Racial profiling by police is an acknowledged problem in the United States. African American youths are arrested at a disproportionate rate, are detained and institutionalized more often, and are more likely to be tried as an adult. [6] African-Americans are overrepresented on death row. [7] Because of these disparities in our justice system, any law that adversely affects lgbt peoples will disproportionately affect African Americans – further qualifying it as a racist law.

Lesbians and gays have been adversely affected by the law for most of American history. Police have commonly raided bars and organizations they’ve frequented, denying the right to lawful assembly. And lesbians and gays have been denied police and medical assistance, as evidenced by the death of Tyra Hunter, a black transgender woman, [8] due to criminal neglect by police and medical officials. Hunter’s mother was awarded $1.75 million in a wrongful death suit brought against the District of Columbia.


Another key way that those in power oppress others is by controlling their sexuality. There was a time in the United States when blacks were not legally allowed to marry. At one time they lacked the legal right to define their families, and were under constant threat of having their children taken from them.

These injustices were condoned by many Christian churches at the time.

Even after slavery was abolished African-American marriage continued to be restricted. African-Americans were not allowed to marry “outside of their race,” or more specifically they were denied marriage to white people. During his presidential campaign George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University, an institution that only last year (March 2000) dropped its ban on interracial dating. [9] And only last year (Nov 7, 2000) did Alabama finally strike from its constitution a law banning marriage between African-Americans and whites, though the decision is being appealed. [10]

During slavery blacks created their own rituals to recognize and honor marriage and family, one borrowed from the African tradition of “jumping the broom.” Still today many African-Americans are legally denied marriage to the man or woman that they love; if they happen to be homosexual.

So is it homophobic, or racist, for the state to deny marriage to an African-American lesbian or gay man? The history of “marriage definition” in the US is full of brutality, hate, and shame, and its racist roots are not erased because it is now being extended to cover a broader target of oppression.

Now, as then, these injustices are condoned by many Christian churches.


Let’s return to Julian Austin’s quote at the beginning of this article. Mr. Austin said,

Black people are born the way they are. And you can’t hide the fact that you are black, because that’s what you look like. But with homosexuality, you can hide it if you desire.

While Mr. Austin’s may be a common sense assessment of both race and gender preference, his statements are not supported by reality.

In truth there are no definitive biological markers for race. The “black” race is constructed from a crude set of physical characteristics implicitly agreed upon by white society. [11] White people who share in these “black” characteristics, in essence abdicating their whiteness, may likewise be discriminated against, or dismissed by white society as “white trash,” “whiggers,” “n*gg*r lovers,” or as Senator Robert Byrd explained last year, “white n*gg*rs.” [12]

Similarly, there are no definitive biological markers that identify one as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or for that matter heterosexual. Laws that criminalize homosexual activity reinforce existing fears and prejudices, and these are played out on the bodies of those assumed to be homosexual whether they are or not. Sissies, tom-boys, butches, fairies, and often simply studious, intelligent, athletic, weak, or sensitive children and adults, suffer from discrimination and sometimes violence directed towards homosexuals. Contrary to Mr. Austin’s view, it’s not that easy to hide from another person’s misconceptions.

And finally, Mr. Austin’s statement suggests he believes black people are tolerated only because they cannot help being black. If the situation were to change, and black people were able to become white, they would be expected to do so.


Just as homosexuality pivots at an acute angle within the black community threatening to form its own tangential category of black homosexual; transgender people create a similar pivot within the homosexual community – often discriminated against, and despised, or ignored by those homosexuals who have managed to pass, or assimilate successfully into mainstream society. And this almost makes sense, in a hothouse sort of way. A friend of mine once said that gays have as much in common with each other as cigarette smokers do. Most of us seek an identity not bounded or defined by race, gender, gender preference, or class. But a step outside the hothouse of one’s personal milieu may still reduce the individual to a crude stereotype, exposing one to danger. As someone once said, “Assimilation is just a bigger closet.”

While some within the black and lgbt communities are granted an identity “off the rack,” the same rack used by whites and heterosexuals; the couture identity formed within the constraints of otherness will always be stronger and more long-lasting than an identity that is conceded. An identity forged in the face of constraints based on prejudice better weathers the changing fashions of normalcy.


The relation of black rights to lgbt rights raises the question of what either group really shares with whites in terms of rights. Viewed from this vantage comparisons between the groups seem to be nothing more than a deflection of the real issue; that the full rights of whites, additionally qualified as heterosexual, are denied to both groups.

For one able to repudiate white privilege and its concessions, identity is based not on the “norm,” but on individual interests, in community, and the diversity in which she or he finds embrace. Boundaries remain fluid, ever changing. Rather than exhausting and straining a tightly moored identity, the traitor to race, gender, and other social constructs, sails on a bracing sea of difference.


1) According to Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, CafĂ© Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights by David Margolick, “Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher best known for adopting the children of convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the the couple was executed in 1953.

“Between 1880 and 1930 there were at least 2,018 separate incidents of lynching, in which some 2,362 African-American men, women, and children were murdered. These lynchings often became ritualistic affairs, where victims were mutilated and burned at the stake in a carnival-like atmosphere.” Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994, by Deborah Gray White.

“Most of the lynchings were by hanging or shooting, or both. However, many were of a more hideous nature – burning at the stake, maiming, dismemberment, castration, and other brutal methods of physical torture. Lynching therefore was a cruel combination of racism and sadism, which was utilized primarily to sustain the caste system in the South.” The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1980-1950, by Robert A. Gibson, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.

James Allen has collected vintage photographs of lynchings in America. Many of these images were originally distributed as souvenirs, and postcards. Though his motives have been questioned, his compilation Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms, February 2000), is an important archive chronicling America’s treatment of blacks.

2) Bash-In, an event sponsored by Yale Political Union’s Queer Caucus and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Cooperative.

3) Ideas and Energy for the Next Generation, published by Family Research Council.

4) If you type the word “football” into the search engine at the Family Research Council web site, your first result will be a link to Reggie White’s speech in which he claims “.. .the modern homosexual rights push can’t be equated to the civil rights movements of the ’60s that advanced racial equality.” At the time of this writing (2.01) Reggie White’s name is not associated with any of FRC’s other articles on student-led prayer at football games, the problems of sports and gambling, or the drug testing of student athletes; areas of Christian, but not necessarily African American, concern.

5) The Defense of Marriage Act, House Resolution 3396, by the Honorable Congressman, John Lewis. [Congressional Record: July 11, 1996 (House)] [Page H7441-H7449] I highly recommend reading the entire speech which is very moving.

6) Race, Crime And Punishment, by William Raspberry, Washington Post – Friday, May 14, 1999.

7) Racial Disparities in Federal Death Penalty Prosecutions 1988-1994 Staff Report by the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights Committee on the Judiciary, One Hundred Third Congress, Second Session, March 1994, prepared with the assistance of the Death Penalty Information Center.

8) Tyra Hunter Lawsuit Settled in D.C., DataLounge, Friday, 11 August 2000. Tyra Hunter was seriously injured in an automobile accident on August 7, 1995. When paramedic Adrian Williams discovered that Ms. Hunter was a biological male he joked with the crowd saying “that ain’t no bitch,” and withheld treatment. Ms. Hunter died later at the hospital where an emergency room doctor also withheld treatment. Hunter’s mother received a $1.75 million settlement from the city for wrongful death. The paramedic and doctor who failed to treat Hunter are still employed in their respective positions.

9) Bob Jones University Drops Interracial Dating Ban Fundamentalist school finds itself thrust into Republican presidential debate. Christianity Today

10) “Voters strike ban on interracial marriage. Solid majority favors Amendment Two in preliminary returns.” By Jeff Amy, 11/08/00, Mobile Register

11) Race Traitor “The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them.”

Implicit Association Test from the University of Washington and Yale University. “[The Black-White] IAT requires the ability to distinguish faces of European and African origin and basic fluency in English. The Black-White IAT may be our most distressing test because it indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for White over Black.”

12) Free to be Me, Race Traitor 1994. “Several female students at North Newton Junior-Senior High School near Morocco, Indiana, who call themselves the ‘Free to Be Me’ group, recently started braiding their hair in dreadlocks and wearing baggy jeans and combat boots, a style identified with Hip-Hop culture… Whites in the town accuse the group of ‘acting black,’ and male students have reacted by calling them names, spitting at them, punching and pushing them into lockers, and threatening them with further violence.”

“Whigger,” a joining of the words “white” and “n*gg*r,” is used by white supremacist and Christian Identity groups to indicate white people who do not comply with the conventions of their race. That white people are perceived as being able to choose, or reject, their race further supports the fact that race, at least for whites, is a social construct.