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Historian Kevin Mumford talks gay rights, civil rights
by Craig Chamberlain, Univ. of illinois at Urbana-Champaign
2013-08-21

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Note: The U.S. Supreme Court handed down two decisions at the end of June favoring gay marriage. One ruling struck down federal restrictions in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996, the other cleared the way for gay marriages in California.

With the rapid recent progress of the gay-rights movement, including changes in public attitudes, some see parallels with the earlier African-American civil-rights movement. Is the comparison valid? What's different this time? Illinois history professor Kevin Mumford specializes in the history of both movements, and is working on a book about Black gay history. He spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Craig Chamberlain: You say that some gay rights advocates want to characterize recent events as the normal business of America doing civil rights—to see continuity with the Black civil-rights movement. But what's flawed in that comparison?

Kevin Mumford: First, it is easy to forget the context and duration of the civil rights movement. After the Civil War, African-Americans had full citizenship, elected local and federal representatives, and then, through violence and fraud, were stripped of voting rights. Modern civil rights activists struggled for 30 years to regain this lost world of citizenship. By contrast, advocates of gay marriage had much more legal and institutional resources at their disposal.

Second, the level of violence opposing Black civil rights was unprecedented. In the 1950s, white southerners attacked, tortured and murdered civil rights activists and the federal government failed to intervene. A new prize-winning book, "At the Dark End of the Street," by Danielle McGuire, documents extensive sexual violence against Black women, and new research in the FBI files documents physical abuse by police to coerce confessions and intimidate activists. When demonstrators and leaders demanded more protection from President Kennedy in the early 1960s, he often reneged on his promises. So, I would agree that gay marriage became a grassroots movement, but the level of resistance to change and the role of the executive branch were strikingly different.

CC: In the history of Black civil rights, there also was a famous marriage case, the Loving case of 1967, in which the Supreme Court struck down all state laws against interracial marriage. This case, however, did not come early in the process, but instead after the movement's key years (1954-65) and the key pieces of civil rights legislation. Why?

KM: Early on civil rights attorneys advised against litigating on the marriage question because of its controversial nature. The NAACP even worried when their lead attorney, Thurgood Marshall, married an Asian-American woman. Southern opponents often held up the specter of intermarriage to provoke racial animosities—claiming that what advocates of desegregation really desired was to marry white women.

Given this volatility, it is not too surprising that the Loving case was relatively late. At the same time, looking around campus or Chicago almost 50 years later, I don't think people really even notice interracial couples any longer. The taboo has fallen—perhaps this will happen with gay and lesbian relations.

CC: The Supreme Court's Brown decision in 1954, which called for the desegregation of schools, is often credited with being a catalyst for the civil rights movement that followed. Do you think these recent decisions could play a similar role for gay rights?

KM: There is a debate on the importance of the Brown decision—some historians question its significance, point to its failure as policy, or feel that it narrowed the scope of Black activism. I don't entirely agree. Recent scholarship shows that into the 1960s all kinds of local groups, and Black youth in particular, were inspired to demand further integration of amusement parks, swimming pools, ice rinks, etc. Brown was historic in the way that the Windsor case striking down DOMA is historic. The symbolism of the case—along with Justice (Anthony) Kennedy's impassioned denouncement of harm and humiliation—will inspire further mobilization and legitimate sexual equality.

CC: You note that only a few years ago gay marriage was not a popular cause among many gay advocates and intellectuals. Why? And has that since changed?

I think some academics and activists viewed the marriage movement as elitist and as assimilationist. It seemed to prioritize the concerns of the middle-class—reforming rules for inheritance, for example—and to privilege straight or mainstream values. Activists worried that the litigation on marriage had sidetracked other long-standing causes: to stop street violence, defamation, bullying and discrimination in employment, for example.

Yet I feel that when the opponents of gay marriage questioned the morality of same-sex relationships and parenting they also revealed their prejudice against being gay. So, in the end, in ways that few would have predicted a decade ago, taking up the issue of marriage equality has helped to confer a broader social legitimacy. I think we'll see more respect for gays and lesbians both within our communities and in society at large.


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