NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Jealous, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., was among the agency’s leadership that has been actively campaigning for marriage equality.
While many NAACP leaders have long been community allies, the agency took a decisive step toward LGBT rights in May when its board adopted a resolution endorsing marriage equality.
Jealous, 39, said the major impetus for the action was last spring’s success of North Carolina’s Amendment One, a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in the state.
“When One won and coded discrimination into the constitution, we realized we could be facing a tidal wave of similar bills in other states,” Jealous said in an interview with PGN last week. “There were two things at stake: One was the issue of marriage equality itself, which of course is very important, and the other was the century-long tradition of using our constitutions to expand rights and eviscerate discrimination. This trend gave women the right to vote, gave young people the right to vote, but this [constitutional amendment] actually constricted rights, encoded discrimination and reversed that trend.”
The NAACP vote was a landslide, with only two of the board’s 64 members dissenting.
Many media pundits speculated that the move would make huge waves among the heavily Christian African-American community, but Jealous said the backlash wasn’t widespread.
He spent the day after the vote reaching out to black clerical leaders across the nation and said that, by a 2-to-1 margin, his contacts either agreed with the NAACP’s position or said it constituted a “contrast, not a conflict.”
While Jealous said the organization was supported by a vast array of religious leaders, a wealth of media attention was given to one board member who resigned over the issue.
“It was disappointing that some folks sought to make a name on this issue and take what I call the George Wallace road, which history has shown us — and which I wish they would have learned — doesn’t lead anywhere good. People who stand up against other people having the right to love each other live to regret it.”
Jealous said his own interracial parents married illegally and faced pervasive discrimination.
He said he’s met a number of people who at one point supported anti-miscegenation laws but have since seen their folly — the same direction in which he hopes marriage-equality opponents are headed.
“You just hope people are humble enough to learn from history, and this is one issue where you should line up on the right side of the issue or just keep your views to yourself.”
Jealous has been a consistent advocate for Maryland’s Question 6.
His work for NAACP and his status as a Maryland resident are not all that attracted him to the issue; he said he was brought up in a diverse, activist family that includes a brother who identifies as a member of the LGBT community.
“It’s very personal,” he said of Question 6. “I grew up in a community of activists in Northern California that represented people who were active in the anti-war movement, in the civil-rights movement, in the gay-rights movement, in the women’s-rights movement. That’s who was around the table every holiday. We very much believed this is a nation where freedom is the first and most important value, it’s sacred, and should extend to every individual no matter who they are or what they are — black, gay, what have you.”
He said he and his brother were often bullied in their largely white town, and he was also able to get a fresh perspective on LGBT discrimination as an adolescent.
“When I was a child, there was a moment where the bullying shifted from being principally about race to being principally about my brother’s emerging orientation,” he said. “People who stood with us against the bullies when it was about race decided this time to sit it out and told me I should sit it out too and let it be his fight. I said, ‘Hell no. If you pick a fight with my brother, you pick a fight with me.’”
That fight came to a head nationally last Tuesday, as voters in Maryland, Maine and Washington all sanctioned marriage equality, and residents in Minnesota defeated an antigay constitutional amendment.
Even if the initiatives had been unsuccessful, Jealous said the efforts to push those movements forward have forged closer ties among activists of all walks of life.
Shortly after NAACP’s marriage-equality endorsement, Jealous said LGBT leaders in New York City held a press conference at Stonewall Inn during which they called for support of the agency’s upcoming march to end racial profiling.
While NAACP expected a crowd of 25,000, about 70,000 showed up, and Jealous said LGBTs were well-represented.
Jealous said the unity of these movements sheds light that support for one another has been longstanding.
He noted that NAACP has long backed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, was a strong supporter of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Act and has worked at the local level around the nation on LGBT issues.
“That’s the beauty of this movement: People are rediscovering that we’ve been old friends for a long time,” Jealous said. “I think it’s forged conversations for people to recognize that, at the end of the day, there is no such thing as the gay community and the black community. That’s as ridiculous as believing that there’s a white community and a straight community.
“I’d like to hear someone ask Bill O’Reilly, ‘How does the white community feel about the straight community’s position on this issue?’ You’d see his head spin trying to figure out how to divide himself from himself.
“And yet, we allow people to push that ridiculousness on us when in reality, our communities are a continuum that’s interconnected the same way people are. The day we all understand that we all prosper when it’s all for one and one for all, that’s the day we start to put the most pernicious forms of discrimination in our society behind us forever. We’re building this grand coalition that architects of these movements like Bayard Rustin envisioned for us, and it’s paying off.”