Gay Rights are not Equatable to Racial Segregation

This entertaining video was really popular last year. Although seemingly clever, it draws on a problematic comparison between same-sex marriage discrimination in the present day and racial segregation laws that were firmly in place in the USA until the civil rights movement in the 1960s (as well as in South Africa, Australia and around the world). This comparison between gay marriage and racial segregation has become increasingly common amongst well-meaning activists, including in litigation cases before the USA courts.

The link between racial segregation and gay marriage has also been evoked elsewhere, such as in the UK, with activists and academics arguing that not allowing gay marriage is similar to racist policies of the 1960s. This race-sexual discrimination argument is usually made by White activists who aim to illuminate the similar struggles of inequality faced by all minority groups.

Racial segregation and gay marriage might be similarly categorised within the rubric of human rights issues that everyone should be invested in protecting. The problem with drawing a direct link between both issues is that this ignores the distinct historical relations that different minority groups have faced over time, and it also obliterates the legal intricacies of racial, sexual and gender discriminations. Equating racial segregation to gay marriage also ignores the complex interconnections of discrimination as they are lived by different subgroups.

Segregation can be imposed by governments through formal policies and institutional practices or it can be the outcome of of informal processes. Formal segregation is enshrined in exclusionary laws that force some groups to be socially and economically separate from the majority. It is also enforced by powerful socio-economic agents, such as banks that won’t give loans or credit to racial minorities or workplaces that exclusively hire people from dominant groups. Segregation can occur through everyday “unconscious” choices, such as by having close friendships with people from the same group at school and at work, or by living in neighbourhoods with people who are from the same socio-economic background. Racial segregation is one of the most pervasive forms of segregation, as its continued effects amongst Black people and other racial minority groups is pervasive.

The legal oppression of LGBTQI limits their legal rights explicitly in the realm of family life and through social processes that reproduce the otherness of LGBTQI people. I’ve written previously that the issue of gay marriage is a violation of human rights, but making an unqualified connection to racial segregation does no cause justice. Nevertheless, this comparison is worth exploring because it is becoming so commonplace.

Racial segregation laws excluded Black Americans from all spheres of public life by physically, economically and legally separating them from White people, including everything from drinking areas, official buildings, pools, and public transport. These laws prevented Blacks from attending certain schools and from holding particular jobs and from fully participating in civil life. In short, racial segregation made it legal to formally discriminate against Black people in every social institution.

The effects of racial segregation continue today. Urban areas where Black people are residentially concentrated are overpopulated, poorly serviced and high taxes are redistributed in socially dysfunctional ways. Social disadvantage impacts on violence experienced by Black Americans in a way that is not the case for White people. In short, state policies that discriminated against Black people have resulted in an underclass that is pervasively disadvantaged economically, socially and residentially. The social effects of racial segregation has resulted in higher welfare dependence by single-parent Black families, poor educational facilities in neighbourhoods with a high proportion of Black people  poor access to quality housing and higher rates of unemployment. Black people who lived through racial segregation face significant health problems.

In Australia, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families, because the State saw that Indigenous women were sexual savages incapable of looking after children. These children were raised in isolated institutions, deprived of their cultural heritage and forced to forget their spirituality and convert to Christianity. Policies enforced racial segregation with the explicit aim of cultural genocide.

Gay marriage is one of the most visible issues that show how LGBTQI communities are excluded from the rest of society. LGBTQI people continue to face hatred, violence and social disadvantages that heterosexual people as a group do not have to worry about. Marriage is constructed as normal, biologically functional and “right” between heterosexual men and women; gay marriage is positioned as a threat to the institution of family and therefore the established social order.

Aren’t all forms of discrimination equally negative? Isn’t it important to draw comparisons in solidarity of minority rights? Yes, of course, but not at the expense of recognising that the effects of different forms of discrimination have different outcomes for different groups.

Racial segregation exemplifies a system of discrimination that legally marked Black Americans as second-class citizens. Exclusionary present-day marriage laws discriminate against LGBTQI by not recognising that non-heterosexual people have the same legal right to fully participate in marriage and family. Nevertheless anti-gay marriage laws do not prevent LGBTQI people from participating in all spheres of public life. discriminating against people because of their sexuality is now against the law. The law does, however, discriminate against LGBTQI people in marriage, adoption. Informal processes of sexual discrimination are pervasive and require social activism and further policy intervention, but the law has not formally enforced gay-only spaces that physically segregates their inclusion in public life. This is an important distinction to understand. There are other important distinctions to understand with the gay rights movement.

The concept of intersectionality is used to highlight how racial, sexual and gender discrimination historically affect minorities in different ways.

The video above is clever in showing the similarities in the discourses used to justify racial and sexual inequalities; that is, how do patterns of speech normalise the balance of power to some groups over others? I see that it the video is even better when considered as a way to explore the concept of intersectionality and social activism.