02/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Civil Rights Progress: Taking Stock Before the Inauguration

Leading up to the inauguration there is a lot of posturing about civil rights in America. What does the election of a Black man as President mean about the state of the civil rights struggle?

Some gay rights activists have suggested that civil rights still have a long way to go in this country, what with the whole legal distinction between straight and gay citizens still hanging around. But the division between civil rights and gay rights persists.

This has been reinforced. Recently, the younger Prince of England suffered some negative press for a video of comments made during a night out with his fellow servicemen. Much hubbub was made regarding his racist language and barely a mention was made of his homophobic remarks caught on the same tape.

The Coalition of African American Pastors says that gays and lesbians have highjacked the civil rights movement for their homosexual agenda. Jesse Jackson made the point in a speech at Harvard last year that Black people, unlike gay people, never had the ability to hide or "pass" as white.

But, in this time of struggle for many LGBT Americans, I can't help wondering why those who are passionate about some civil rights aren't interested in all civil rights.

True, the term has historical meaning in the United States; I grew up with stories about the civil rights movement and they all centered on the struggle for racial equality. But the definition of a civil right is still: "the non-political rights of a citizen; especially: the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to United States citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution by acts of Congress."

Equal marriage rights rooted in the equal protection clause (as many state courts have done) fall squarely in that category.

True, it may be easier for some gay people to "pass" as straight than some Black people. We don't need to split hairs about the well documented cases of "passing" in the racial struggle in the U.S. (many of us have read or seen Showboat, at least). We do need to dispel the myth that gay people can choose when and where to express their "gayness."

If acting in a stereotypically "homosexual" way was easy to do, many children, boys especially, would have quickly curbed their effeminate affectations to avoid the brutal bullying and ostracization that leads one in three gay teens in the U.S. to attempt suicide. The same is true of short-haired women who don't respond to a boss's advances. Whether one is actually gay or perceived to be gay, the homophobia exists. There are those in our community and outside of it, like those in the Black community, who cannot pretend to be straight, no matter how hard they try.

Finally, it should not matter whether Black people had it worse than gays. The civil rights struggle is alive and well for both communities. We need to look no further than last week's police shooting of a Black teenager in his own driveway in front of his own car in a mostly white Houston neighborhood. We need to look no further than the gang rape of a lesbian earlier this month by four men spewing homophobic remarks.

For those members of the LGBT community who think the Black civil rights movement is over, it is your obligation to work harder to resolve the deep racial inequality in this country. For those members of the Black community who are not assisting with the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples, you are not betraying your race, you are betraying your commitment to equality -- the same kind of commitment you ask for in others -- that requires legal parity for all Americans.

Whether you like it or not, there are gay Americans, many of them gay Black Americans, and they are being denied their civil rights, everyday.