Earlier this week, the Human Rights Campaign obtained copies of the National Organization for Marriage’s confidential strategy documents, which disclosed the organization’s plan to use dark race-baiting tactics in fighting marriage equality across the country.
Specifically, NOM planned to drive a wedge between gays and blacks by convincing them to fight over the “civil rights” frame and manipulate Hispanics by making “support for marriage” (for everyone but same-sex couples, I suppose) an important symbol of the Latino identity.
But what NOM fails to understand is that all of these communities — black, Latino, LGBT — understand what it is like to fight discrimination, and actually draw on each others’ experiences as inspiration for their own struggles. While NOM might have dreamed of pitting them against one another, and exploiting often exaggerated divisions, this leak might have inadvertently highlighted the collaboration that already exists between these communities, and garnered them even more support from those in our society who are against bigotry, prejudice and inequity.
The Civil Rights Frame
The NOM document focuses on the civil rights frame that is often used to describe the fight for marriage equality. The strategy outlines the need to “find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots.”
To be clear, the use of the civil rights frame has been challenged by some in the black community. Calling other rights struggles by that name, according to these individuals, disparages the struggles of black people for their civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. But what’s interesting about this debate is that it is most often the black leaders, who are veterans of the civil rights movement themselves, who see the connection between race discrimination and marriage equality — namely, the ability of the state to decide when rights may be denied to entire groups of people.
Take U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who was one of the original speakers at the 1963 March on Washington: “It is time to say forthrightly that the government’s exclusion of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters from civil marriage officially degrades them and their families…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.”
Or Dr. Sylvia Rhue, Director of Religious Affairs at the National Black Justice Coalition: “I stood with King in the 60s and he would stand with us now because challenging homophobia is a part of the unfinished business of Civil Rights Movement…Those who stand for LGBT equality understand the importance of our work when we hear the words of Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Shaping the Latino Identity
NOM’s strategy to drive a wedge between gays and Latinos was a bit different—instead of trying to convince Latinos that gays were co-opting a frame that the community held close to their hearts, the organization thought that it could appeal to the community’s desire to resist assimilation by painting marriage equality as a particularly “Anglo” value. Leaving aside the irony of a conservative organization trying to coach an immigrant community on resisting assimilation (an issue to be tackled another time), and the wild misreading of this community’s desire to do so, the strategy again underestimates the commonalities that leaders from both communities have effectively highlighted.
For one, the immigration movement has drawn similar inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, and coincidentally received similar support from civil rights veterans who draw connections between the civil rights struggles of the past and recent immigration protests—leaders who see the latter as the natural progression of their movement from the 1960s and use specific moments from the CRM, such as the iconic march from Selma to Montgomery, to highlight the injustice of anti-immigrant laws. Again, not reductively equating the movements, but instead seeing the fight for civil rights as an ongoing, unfinished movement towards equality.
But the LGBT and immigrant communities also share the somewhat similar experience of being made to feel invisible in our society. The Latino Equality Alliance, for instance, argues that the parallels that both gays and undocumented individuals experience have generated the common use of the “coming out” frame—when individuals share their sexual orientation or immigration status, despite fearing the repercussions they might face.
And polling analysis also debunks the myth that there is higher opposition to the freedom to marry among the Latino population, seriously deflating NOM’s strategy to tap into this exaggerated opposition. Specifically, Hispanics are shown to back gay marriage at the same rate as whites.
Leaders in the Latino community have also come out in support of the movement for gay rights. Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa, a longtime supporter of immigration reform and a veteran of building diverse coalitions to fight for common interests, has made his support for marriage equality clear: “If we truly believe in family values, we should value all families. I have supported marriage equality since 1994, opposed and fought Proposition 8, am proud to serve as a co-chair of Mayors for the Freedom to Marry.”
We must stay united
Divide and conquer is not a new strategy. Historically it has been used by those in power who fear that the marginalized will unite behind common grievances, revolt against oppression, and overthrow the ruling forces. In that sense, NOM’s race-baiting tactics are nothing more than derivative attempts to resurrect the energy behind a dwindling campaign.
Fortunately there are strong voices from the black, Latino and gay communities that make clear that they are not competing in the Oppression Olympics. One community’s struggle does not necessarily equate with another’s, but it can derive inspiration and learn important lessons from prior movements.
Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst with the Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress.