Gay Rights/African American Rights: A Common Struggle for Social Justice

By Omar Swartz1

In this essay I take the position that civil and human rights for lesbian and gay people are essentially the same as those for African Americans. Both the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements are part of the same movement for human rights and equality that all people deserve and which socialist sentiment in this country has long sought to address. Further, I argue that African Americans and gays are not in competition with each other, as some people suggest: it is wrong to think that civil and human rights is a zero-sum game in which there is only so much social justice to go around and that it must be rationed in some fashion. Consequently, I maintain that African Americans, as well as their allies, should join forces to build on the gains of the Civil Rights movement by extending those gains to include gay and lesbian people while, at the same time, pressing society to tackle the larger issue of economic inequality in the United States. Only by transcending identity politics to form large multicultural coalitions comprising all disenfranchised people can we successfully confront economic injustice.2

The discernible opposition to lesbian and gay rights that exists among a substantial number of African-American people is, in my view, unfortunate, misguided, and counterproductive to the pursuit of social justice that all progressive people seek. It is unfortunate because gays and black people can be strategic allies that share a common history of being treated as worse than second-class citizens, misguided because it plays into the hands of our common enemies on the right who resist any sort of divergence from the status quo and who benefit from our infighting, and counterproductive because it undermines the civil rights of both communities and hurts their allies as well. Simply, we on the left need to work together and not let identity politics keep us from achieving our common goals. As theologian Horace Griffin notes, “When we divide ourselves into camps, nothing is gained. How does one decide which is worse, being denied their right to vote or being disowned by a parent? Ultimately, we must come to the realization that one group’s attempt to establish itself as the most oppressed is irrelevant.”3

Too often we need to be reminded of activist and poet Audre Lorde’s astute observation that “oppression and the intolerance of difference comes in all shapes and sizes and colors and sexualities; and that among those of us who share the goals of liberation and a workable future for our children, there can be no hierarchies of oppression.”4

In taking this position on the desirability of a gay-black alliance, however, I realize that what may be “common sense” for me is controversial for others and that many African-American people – particularly religious ones – disagree with me, perhaps profoundly. Homosexuality in parts of the African-American community has been called “the greatest taboo.” Moreover, many religious people – no matter their race – who are quite comfortable with embracing racial difference may be less comfortable with integrating gays into their moral community. I also realize that many gay people, intentionally or not, enact a racist or otherwise insensitive or uncaring attitude toward the struggles of African Americans. Be that as it may, my goal is to engage this argument and make the case for greater tolerance of gay people within the African-American community as well as call for an increased anti-racist sensitivity among members of the gay community. I am under no illusion that this will be easy, as conscious and unconscious racism affects many white people, gay or otherwise, who benefit from white privilege. Simply, the change I am requesting must come from both sides in the interest of a larger anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and, ultimately, anti-capitalist future.

In what follows, I begin by discussing the commonality between the struggles against racism and against homophobia, which concerns all of us regardless of race and sexual identity. I then engage and refute the argument that, unlike the civil rights afforded to individuals on the basis of race, rights for lesbian and gay people are “special rights,” undeserved and unfairly demanded. In all, my goal is to chart avenues for possible collaboration and cooperation among these two communities, and to push back against the white conservative community that has attempted shamefully to use this issue to create a wedge between these two groups in order to blunt the movement for a progressive social change benefiting all minority groups and, in particular, poor people.

Anti-Racism and Anti-Homophobia: A Common Struggle

As a group, African Americans have been among the most victimized, oppressed, and debased groups in world history. In terms of sheer numbers of people involved, length of time, and the completeness of their marginalization, African Americans have suffered an unparalleled injustice. In a phenomenon known as Maafa (or Black Holocaust), Africans and their descendants suffered 500 years of horrendous slavery, imperialism, colonialism, invasion, oppression, dehumanization, and exploitation. This involved rape, torture, and mutilation. While exact numbers are difficult to pin down, scholars estimate that tens of millions of individual men, women, and children died at the hands of European, Arab, and American slave traders.5

The awful period of chattel slavery was then followed by a period of de facto wage slavery along with 100 years of political and social disfranchisement in the US in which many thousands were lynched and millions more reduced to abject poverty. Since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which brought important political gains and a change in the national mood for the better, millions of African Americans continue to languish in often extreme poverty, warehoused in prison or otherwise treated as a surplus population.6

African Americans continue to suffer higher infant-mortality rate, lower life-expectancy rate, and lower educational levels than white people. Whereas formal equality has more or less been achieved, African Americans suffer from substantive inequality on nearly every measure. The income gap between the two groups is growing.8 In many parts of the United States, white people and African Americans are as segregated as ever, with African Americans often living in pockets of Third World poverty amidst a sea of white prosperity. By many standards, the Civil Rights movement was incomplete and African Americans and their allies need to continue the work that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguably the high point of the movement. Clearly, this history weighs heavily on the minds of African Americans today, as it should weigh on all Americans.9 Nothing I write regarding lesbian and gay rights and the struggle for equality diminishes the importance of making life better for African-Americans. My point, simply, is that formal declarations of equality are not enough to create a democratic society, a point that gay Americans need to consider as they increasingly gain their rights. What we need are changes in attitudes toward our fellow citizens of all identities, a task to which this essay is attempting to contribute.

As we move forward in our quest for multicultural social justice, we need to look at the assumptions we make about other groups and the sense of group identity that we feel. This is important because, as oppressed groups slowly throw off their shackles (as both gays and African Americans are working hard to do), there sometimes surfaces a tendency to reenact the mindset of the oppressor. This phenomenon was observed and critiqued by Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire, writing during the post-World War II period of decolonization. Freire condemned “an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.”10 The oppressors dehumanize themselves by dehumanizing the oppressed. The oppressed have the opportunity to restore the humanity of both the oppressor and oppressed, which we saw illustrated beautifully during the movement for civil rights. However, Freire notes, sometimes (perhaps often) the oppressed themselves become oppressors, having internalized the models and methods of their opponents.

I raise this issue here in connection with the widespread perception – whether justified or not – that the contemporary African-American community is more homophobic than other communities. For instance, public policy scholar Gregory B. Lewis notes that while there is some truth to African Americans being more homophobic than other groups, this may have more to do with relative poverty and lack of education, both of which correlate with religiosity. The more education (and more wealth) and the less religion among African Americans, the less they discriminate against homosexuals.11 In addition, one finds an “exaggerated” masculinity in popular strands of Black Nationalism and in the rhetoric of Black Pride.12 Others, like journalist Susan Donaldson James, attribute discrimination against gays to the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop culture, the massive incarceration of young black men, and the unconscionable health disparities between black and white men. She reports the conclusion of the National Black Justice Coalition that blacks “are more likely than other groups to believe that homosexuality is wrong, that sexual orientation is a choice and that sexual orientation can be changed.”13 This is particularly ironic given the nexus between racism and homophobia. As reported in Jet Magazine, an influential African-American publication, among white males, racial prejudice and homophobia are linked.14

Beyond this irony, this question is important because, in defending their homophobia, some within the African-American community argue that gays and lesbians are taking advantage of the very real tragedy of African-American history and unjustifiably “misappropriate” the Civil Rights movement. They maintain that the purpose of the Civil Rights movement was to rectify a true harm – the unjust oppression of African Americans – but that it was not to help promote the unjust claims of lesbians and gays for inclusion in our society. Consider a few of the outspoken proponents of this view. The first is African-American Minister Voddie Baucham from the Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas. He argues that “homosexuals have effectively co-opted blackness … to where now, we actually believe gay is the new black and we actually believe homosexual marriage is a civil rights issue.” Moreover, said Baucham, “I’m insulted that people equate not just a sinful behavior but a behavior that’s a special category of sin called abomination with the level of melanin in my skin.”15 Likewise, Reverend William Owens, founder and leader of the Coalition of African-American Pastors (CAAP) in Tennessee, said in response to President Barack Obama’s May 2012 endorsement of same-sex marriage, “The homosexual community has taken the Civil Rights movement and hijacked it stating that it is the same thing. I was in the Civil Rights movement and I can tell you I did not march one inch, one foot, one yard, one mile for same-sex marriage.”16 Perhaps not, as that may not have been the right time or place. People may not have been ready for it; but, why not now? The answer comes in the form of a CAAP press release which declared:

The hijacking of the civil rights movement by homosexuals, bisexuals and gender-confused people is unacceptable. There is no legitimate comparison between skin color and sexual behavior. In addition, the high cost of achieving racial parity by ours and previous generations demands that we speak out against President Obama’s support for this destructive agenda. Our God requires it, our nation needs it and our people deserve it.17

This rich and suggestive quote reveals much about the worldview of people like Baucham. They legitimately claim that discrimination by skin color is illegitimate. For reasons that are only implied and attributed to God, however, they view discrimination against gay people for not being heterosexual as legitimate. This reasoning sounds to me like the phenomena identified by Paulo Freire. Examples of this sentiment can be found from outside the church as well. Paul M. Weyrich, one of the founders of the Christian Right along with Jerry Falwell, here speaking for the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, a right-wing advocacy group, writes:

There should be a social stigma attached to homosexuality. The idea that homosexuality should be a protected civil right is an outrage. I have told black and Hispanic audiences that no one should be more enraged by this concept than they. What these deviants are suggesting is that somehow their immoral behavior is on a par with being black or on a par with being Hispanic. Now, if I were black or Hispanic, I would be incensed by this because there is something which is an act of God, namely, what race I was born into, being equated with a choice for deviant behavior.18

Here we have a man, not a member of a racial minority group (nor, I suspect, a supporter of the Civil Rights movement) working to stir up resentment against gays by using the Civil Rights movement as a weapon. By focusing on what he hopes to be a shared hatred – gays are “deviants” – and by appealing to Black and Hispanic pride, Weyrich is effectively playing to the weakness of his audience, driving a wedge between minorities and progressive politics.

Unfortunately, it is not just right-wing ideologies that resist comparisons between gay rights and the struggles for racial equality. General Colin Powell, the highest-ranking African American in the US armed forces at the time, testified before Congress in 1992 opposing allowing gays to serve in the military. “I think it would be prejudicial to good order and discipline to try to integrate gays and lesbians in the current military structure,” he told Congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Representative Schroeder had quoted a 1942 government report and claimed that the same arguments used then against racial integration in the military were being used against gays today. Powell sharply disagreed: “Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic,” he told her; “Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.”19 In reflecting on this event, Powell recalls how the linking of gay rights and the Civil Rights movement got a mixed reaction in the African-American community: “The Congressional Black Caucus favored removing the ban on homosexuals in the armed services. But other leaders were telling me that they resented having the civil rights crusade hijacked by the gay community for its ends.”20

Once again, we see the word “hijacked.” Why the negative framing? Why not see the comparison to the Civil Rights movement as an expansion, a continuation, an inspiration of that hallowed phenomenon? Why not be honored by the analogy? We do not, for example, say that Martin Luther King, Jr., “hijacked” his theory of non-violent social change from Gandhi’s effort to free India of British rule. Rather, we correctly say that King was inspired by Gandhi. Had Gandhi been alive in the 1960s, I suspect that he would have been proud of what King and others had accomplished, not resentful that they somehow stole something of his. So why do some African Americans get so upset, rather than feel pride, when other groups such as gays, draw inspiration from their work? This seems to me to be clear evidence of an anti-gay animus rather than a principled defense of a philosophically justifiable position.

One high-profile and consequential place where we saw this tension play out was in the US general elections of 2008. Here, the charismatic African-American presidential candidate Barack Obama electrified both the black and Hispanic communities like no other candidate in recent history, and their record turnout as voters played a key role in his victory.21 Large numbers of both communities lived in California, where the same racial and ethnic factors also were instrumental in the passage of the controversial Proposition 8, a ballot measure that declared marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and stripped from gay people the fundamental right to marry that they achieved as a matter of state constitutional law.22 Interviews with some of these voters revealed how hostile they were to gay rights: “We shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the future of our family and our children,” said one religious leader with the Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles, which joined a thousand other black and Hispanic congregations with about 3 million followers in public support of Proposition 8.23 Likewise, in North Carolina, African Americans overwhelmingly supported Proposition 1 (defining marriage in the state constitution as between a man and a woman), which was spurred on by congregational attacks on gay people within the black church.24

Critics of the view that the Gay Rights movement is similar to the struggle for African Americans have it backwards. The “melanin” of a person’s skin is as morally irrelevant as the behavior they imagine to be an “abomination.” Neither is an inherently moral issue, and by making moral issues out of them we do people great harm. Part of the persuasive power of the civil rights effort was in its deconstruction of the divisive tool of racial hierarchy. In both cases, the “insult” is the discrimination – the misapplication of moral judgment to things that should not be moralized. To moralize along racial lines leads inexorably to the type of horrible behaviors that characterized slavery and Jim Crow. To march for civil rights but to exclude gay and lesbian people is to practice the moral equivalent of internalizing the enemy’s hatred (in Paulo Freire’s sense) and working against the interests of the larger inclusive community. Under this view, Blacks are to become accepted within the national community at the expense of gay men and women. While this might count as “progress” given the history of oppression suffered by African Americans, it is not justice as far as lesbians and gays are concerned.

The irony here is difficult to swallow. I, for one, would not want to secure my civil rights by standing on the neck of another. Without any apparent appreciation for the irony of their actions, African-American critics of gay rights are engaging in the same rhetorical strategies as white critics of the Civil Rights movement.25 Likewise, advocates of gay rights should check for their own limited thinking. If they see their cause as only about gays finding space in the straight world – one that is implicitly racist and hostile to poor people – rather than transforming that world so that social justice can exist for all people, which often means African Americans and other minorities, then gay activists cannot expect to find support among these other groups or their allies. They also betray the spirit of their own historical struggles, which were far more radical than those of today.

At least one prominent court during the heyday of the Gay Rights movement recognized the similarities between anti-gay and anti-black discrimination. In a decision holding that the phone company – a state-protected monopoly – could not discriminate against gay people, the California Supreme Court stated in 1979 that

the struggle of the homosexual community for equal rights, particularly in the field of employment, must be recognized as a political activity. Indeed the subject of the rights of homosexuals incites heated political debate today, and the “gay liberation movement” encourages its homosexual members to attempt to convince other members of society that homosexuals should be accorded the same fundamental rights as heterosexuals. The aims of the struggle for homosexual rights, and the tactics employed, bear a close analogy to the continuing struggle for civil rights waged by blacks, women, and other minorities.26

Of course, not everyone in the African-American civil rights community feels negatively toward gay rights. African-American leaders or public officials who believe that important parallels exist between the struggle for civil rights for blacks and for gays include, among others, President Barack Obama. As he noted, “If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community. We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them.”27 More recently, as President Obama argued, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”28

Other leaders from the black community have called for constructive connections between blacks and gays, arguing that they have a common interest in overcoming hatred. Coretta Scott King, for example, came out for gay rights in a 1998 speech honoring the 25th anniversary of the Lambda Defense and Education Fund, a gay civil rights organization.29 She argued that “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood.” She added that this “sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group.”30 Elsewhere, she argued that African Americans and gay people are in a “common struggle” for equality:

I say “common struggle” because I believe very strongly that all forms of bigotry and discrimination are equally wrong and should be opposed by right-thinking Americans everywhere. Freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation is surely a fundamental human right in any great democracy, as much as freedom from racial, religious, gender, or ethnic discrimination.31

Key to King’s argument here is the observation that politicians manipulate religious biases among black people for political gain. She reminds us, as her husband did, that the cause of justice is not a Republican or a Democratic Party cause, but a human cause.

Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who helped lead the struggle against South African apartheid, argues that we should “end the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation, which is every bit as unjust as that crime against humanity, apartheid.” He calls this “a matter of ordinary justice,” adding, “I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups…. For me this struggle is a seamless robe. Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.” Moreover, “We struggled against apartheid because we were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about – our very skin. It is the same with homosexuality. The orientation is a given, not a matter of choice.”32

Author bell hooks speaks to this issue of a united front against all forms of oppression:

Black liberation struggle and gay liberation struggle are both undermined when these divisions are promoted and encouraged. Both gay and straight black people must work to resist the politics of domination as expressed in sexism and racism that lead people to think that supporting one liberation struggle diminishes one’s support for another or stands one in opposition to another.33

Moreover, hooks argues:

Individual members of certain churches in black communities should protest when worship services become a platform for teaching anti-gay sentiments. Often individuals sit and listen to preachers raging against gay people and think the views expressed are amusing and outmoded, and dismiss them without challenge. But if homophobia is to be eradicated in black communities, such attitudes must be challenged.34

Personally, I find no meaningful distinction between racism and homophobia; I stand steadfastly against both. With King, Tutu, and hooks, I believe that to oppose one means to oppose the other. To stand for civil rights for black people and to not stand for civil rights for gay and lesbian people is a serious misreading of the importance of the Civil Rights movement. It is also self-serving. Rather than affirmatively reject discrimination, it merely asserts that discrimination against me is wrong. It is as if to say “society is wrong in its treatment of me, but is right in its treatment of you. I belong in, you don’t.” It is to take pride in being African-American, as in “I may be black but at least I’m not gay.” This is a false pride, a sad pride, one that poor white people used to have when they looked at their lowly condition and said to themselves, “I may be poor, but at least I’m not a nigger.”

Many Holocausts/Many Tragedies

It goes without saying that the oppression of African Americans was horrible, wrong, and atrocious. But a similar thing can be said for the oppression of all groups who suffered discrimination and horrific violence, for example, Native Americans who were ruthlessly enslaved, tortured, and exterminated by the Spanish and later by the North American colonists. In the case of the Spanish, much of this terror was sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Acknowledging these atrocities perpetrated against other groups does not belittle the suffering of African Americans, just as recognizing that the many holocausts or genocides that occurred around the world (for example, in Armenia, Cambodia, and Rwanda in the 20th century) does not reduce the suffering of the Jewish people.

In writing this, I think about my own ethnic upbringing. I was not born Jewish, as ethnic and religious identifications are not hereditary – although centuries of segregation throughout Europe produced a genealogy among Jews that mimics hereditary effects. Rather, I had my Jewish identity constructed for me (or foisted on me) through exposure to horrible historical narratives and holocaust films, as well as stories of oppression in Eastern Europe. To be Jewish was to have survived and to commit to memory the tragedy and suffering of the Jewish people. Unfortunately, this narrative of victimization became elevated to the level of metaphysics – it became the defining attribute of something called the “Jewish character.” The funny thing is that these historical narratives filled with suffering, death, sacrifice, and persecution had nothing to do with my experiences growing up in West Los Angeles in the 1970s and ‘80s. My “people,” I noticed, were not suffering; while I grew up poor and resentful of my poverty (my mother was a single parent with only a high school education), the Jews that I interacted with daily (almost exclusively) were upper middle class or rich. They suffered not from anti-Semitism but from the softness and nagging sense of entitlement that an over-abundance of privilege provides.

Not surprisingly, I rebelled (the irony and hypocrisy were sickening to me). I knew, for example, that Jews were not the only victims of the Holocaust. Were the Jews more valuable or important than the Romani, homosexuals, communists or other Nazi victims? Moreover, I was cognizant of the fact that China lost 25 million people during World War II at the hands of fascist Japan. Where was the outrage and commemoration of that slaughter? Or the 22 million Soviet citizens who also perished resisting the Nazis? Why was there no righteous indignation about those victims?

I was also bewildered by the carnage that the US had brought upon the people of Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, not to mention the havoc and suffering we have inflicted on the Middle East since 2001. Thinking of all the above and more, I objected to the limitations my community was placing on my moral imagination and I tried to draw connections between and among the different tragedies and the people responsible for them. The more I did so, the more I saw that the lines drawn about them were political and biased. My efforts to think more globally and systematically about these issues were met with distain by my elders: I must not do that. I must learn that there is a difference, something essential to being a Jew and to Jewish history and suffering! As I got older, I was told the same thing about my country: we citizens of the United States are a benevolent force, worthy of our privileges, and we are unjustly victims of other people’s aggressions.

In other words, I was expected to consider myself and my life more valuable than that of these other peoples, something I was not prepared to do, just as I am not prepared to accept the life of an Israeli as being more valuable than that of a Palestinian, or an American more worthy than an Iraqi or Afghani. Similarly with the Native Americans who were exterminated by the European settlers and whose lands we now occupy without reflection or remorse. I feel nothing but contempt for our double standard. All of these tragedies outrage me, but go largely unnoticed by society, which self-righteously proclaims its beneficence. Our suffering, we like to believe, is somehow different from the suffering of others. In contrast, I am arguing that analogies between the sufferings of different groups help us to see the larger point that all such practices are wrong. Analogies help us to see how we are all interconnected and how by hurting others we hurt ourselves. This type of thinking led me, early in my life, toward socialism as a cultural and political ideal, grounded as it is in a profound humanism and commitment to solidarity among all human beings.

On Racism within the Gay Community

Much of the homophobia found in the black community is simply at the level that exists in any community. The fact that the community is African-American adds a racist salience when white people use it to attack other groups. This is further reason we need to band together. There is also, unquestionably, racism and gross insensitivity to African Americans within the gay community (“racism has always been alive and well in the gay world”35), and that needs to be addressed as well.

Evidence of racism or callous indifference toward African Americans can be seen from the very beginning of efforts by gays to create a sense of community in San Francisco. As journalist and historian Frances Fitzgerald observes, the gays who migrated to the Castro to create a gay oasis were mostly youthful white males with professional credentials and economic clout:

In practice they were taking professional and managerial jobs, or they were staffing the numerous new service industries, or they were starting businesses of their own. In many ways they were proving a boon to the city…. But in settling the poor neighborhoods, they were pushing up real-estate prices and pushing out black and Hispanic families.36

Moreover, the Castro became normatively white in its outlook and images, and in its welcoming practices. For example, shops and social organizations catered to gay white people and, at times, actively discouraged gay people of color from being among their clientele.37

Further, and more damaging, is the general disregard among many gays for the struggles of the African-American community. As queer civil rights attorneys/activists Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Kay Whitlock note, while the gay civil rights movement has been quick to appropriate the idea of equality from the black civil rights movement, they have not actively challenged the “law and order” and “get tough on crime” rhetoric that, as Michelle Alexander notes, disproportionately (or overwhelmingly) marginalizes and disenfranchises African Americans.38 In effect, the gay rights movement has been about assimilation and the privileging of white wealthy gay men, with little concern for the challenges and injustices that African Americans continue to face. Specifically, as the gay rights movement has become institutionalized, “visions of queer liberation have been tamed into a narrow rhetoric of equality within existing systems rather than challenges to the systemic violence and oppression they produce.”39 Moreover, as Executive Director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Kate Kendell notes:

I suspect that, had there been a greater visibility of queers of color in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered movement, or had there been a sense that we as white queers understood the intersectionality of oppressions or been more outspoken regarding injustice based on race or class, these appropriations and historical references would have been met perhaps with amusement or, at worst, chagrin. But, given that our movement exists, with our collusion, in the popular consciousness as largely white and economically privileged, the response among many progressive African Americans in this country was irritation at a minimum. Among far right and conservative blacks the reaction was outright hostility and anger.40

More forcefully, gay activist and scholar Allan Bérubé is critical of the hegemony of gay white men who poach from the civil rights movement while remaining unmoved by its commitments to a wider sense of social justice. In their attempt to mirror the whiteness of powerful men in order to gain acceptance, gay white men exclude people of color from gay institutions, and they sell gay as white for commercial gain while “daily wearing the pale protective coloring that camouflages the unquestioned assumptions and unearned privileges of gay whiteness.”41

Bérubé argues, correctly I believe, that such behaviors undermine the potential for alliances between gays and African Americans. Such tactics use the power of privileged whiteness to reinforce or normalize a gay identity. This behavior is self-serving, and does nothing to fight the racism that African Americans face daily. In short, as viewed by Bérubé, the gay rights movement has all but abandoned the cause of African Americans. In his chapter describing his disappointment with the transformational potential of a radical gay praxis, Bérubé laments how his own activist peer group mirrored and reproduced the larger social reality of racial separation. This occurred on two levels. First, he and his friends were exclusively white and the work involved white gays. But, more importantly, this segregation was evident in the larger ideological work of gay liberation which became, in his words, “narrowed from fighting for liberation, freedom, and social justice to expressing personal pride, achieving visibility, and lobbying for individual equality within existing institutions.”42 With keen insight (if not hindsight), Bérubé observes that what

emerged was too often an exclusively gay rights agenda isolated from supposedly nongay issues, such as homelessness, unemployment, welfare, universal healthcare, union organizing, affirmative action, and abortion rights. To gain recognition and credibility, some gay organizations and media began to aggressively promote the so-called positive image of a generic gay community that is an upscale, mostly male, and mostly white consumer market with mainstream, even traditional, values. Such a strategy derives its power from an unexamined investment in whiteness and middle-class identification. As a result, its practitioners seemed not to take seriously or even notice how their gay visibility successes at times exploited and reinforced a racialized class divide….43

Bérubé’s appraisal should be taken as a harsh but valid warning – in achieving their freedom, gay women and men must not lose sight of the vision of social justice that animated the gay rights movement at its most radical stages. Specifically, Bérubé challenges us to ask the difficult questions that the gay community must ask if it is to be concerned with how the African-American community thinks of it:

What would the gay movement look like if gay white men who use the race analogy took it more seriously?… What if we aspired to achieve the great vision, leadership qualities, grass-roots organizing skills, and union-solidarity of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., together with his opposition to war and his dedication to fighting with the poor and disenfranchised against the deepening race and class divisions in America and the world?44

Thus, we should acknowledge that part of the reason for African-American resentment is the lack of foresight by the gay community, which understandably was preoccupied by questions of survival in its early years. While historical exigency might have dictated a limited focus then, it does not justify one now. And while there is a nexus between religiosity and homophobia, and while both communities have hurts and pains that may cause them to be less sensitive to the hurts and pains of others, we should strive to reduce the hurts and pains of everyone.45 If gay people have achieved a sense of “breathing space” in their long fight for social inclusion, which I think they have, perhaps they can ponder Bérubé’s questions as we reassess our strategies for activism in the future. Such activism, I would argue, should be directed toward the next stage of progressive consciousness, one that leads to the goal of socialism (broadly construed) and into struggles for economic justice and, as the Occupy movement highlighted, a rejection of elitism.

Human Rights are Not “Special Rights”

Opponents of gay rights typically assert that rights for gays and lesbians are “special rights,” an exception that we make for people who may not be worthy.46 The “special rights” argument boils down to this: lesbian and gay people are being unreasonable in asking for something that no one else has (what that “something” consists of is never articulated). The assumption is that the rest of us have to play by the rules of society and no one is granted any privilege based upon their demographics. Such privileges, the argument goes, are undemocratic. Upon closer inspection, however, the “special rights” argument is faulty.

According to public affairs researcher Richard K. Herrell, “special rights” rhetoric has at least three meanings in the context of the anti-gay and lesbian movement. First, gays and lesbians do not deserve rights or protections since they are not oppressed – their ability to “stay in the closet” and appear heterosexual protects them and it is their fault, not that of society, if they flaunt their sexuality and raise other people’s condemnation. Unlike African Americans (supposedly), the identity of gay people is not readily apparent. If gays would just keep to themselves there would be no problem. This sentiment is exemplified by Ronald S. Goodwin, a professor at Liberty University, the institution founded by religious extremist Jerry Falwell, who complained that over

the last two decades, Americans have become increasingly tolerant of homosexuals and “homosexual practices.” What consenting adults did in private was of no real concern at all to many of the last several generations. Now it turns out that homosexuals and their practices can threaten our lives, our families, our children, can influence whether or not we have elective surgery, eat in certain restaurants, visit a given city or take a certain profession or career – all because a tiny minority flaunts its lifestyle and demands that an entire nation tolerate its diseases and grant it status as a privileged minority.47

Second, these rights that gay people want are rights that others do not get – for example, the right to practice a “deviant” and “immoral” lifestyle. Bank robbers do not get the right to practice their trade and men do not have the right to have three wives at the same time. Society does condemn and punish certain activity against the wishes of people who engage in it. Thus, conservative political activist Ralph Reed argued that “No one should have special rights or privileges, or minority status because of their sexual behavior. We don’t have it for people who are polygamists; we don’t have it for people who have affairs on their wives or husbands.”48

Third, gay rights come at the expense of the general good as well as other people.49 A classic example of this argument is from anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, who led the successful “Save Our Children” (1977-78) campaign in Florida to repeal a local anti-discrimination law, sparking an outpouring of anti-gay activity nationally. Such civil rights protections, she claimed, discriminated against “me as a citizen and a mother to teach my children and set examples and to point to others as examples of God’s moral code as stated in the Holy Scriptures. Also, you would be discriminating against my children’s right to grow up in a healthy decent community.”50

We find further evidence of this reasoning in a statement by commentator Jeff Jacoby that as “important a virtue as nondiscrimination is, the preservation of individual freedom is more important.”51 By this he means freedom to hate gay and lesbians and to back up that hate with discriminatory actions, like firing them, denying them housing and the like. Such discrimination, he admits, is “ugly and wrong” but it is not the government’s job to prohibit. In other words, there is “bigotry” against gays which is socially inevitable, but not “oppression” that can be addressed through government intervention.52 Others argue similarly: for instance, legal scholar Nicholas Bamforth writes that laws affording protection to same-sex relations involve “coercion” of those who are hostile to gay people, such as employers and landlords.53

I cannot honestly comprehend any of the above as a valid objection to gays and lesbians; it is like saying that laws protecting the civil rights of black people are coercive of the interests of racists and are, therefore, unjust. Perhaps, in a superficial sense this is correct as the law is stipulating that certain beliefs are unacceptable, but the larger point is that the law leads when it sets society on the path of greater inclusion. What might seem coercive to one generation or at one period of time may in a few years, even within the lifetimes of the people involved, turn into something much more positive. Few people will argue today that African Americans do not deserve civil rights. Even people who for decades resisted civil rights find it convenient now to accept it and use the issue as a way to attack gay people. Consider, for example, Jerry Falwell, who had preached to his congregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision the “injustice” of that decision: “If Chief Justice Warren and his associates had known God’s word and had desired to do the Lord’s will, I am quite confident that the 1954 decision would never have been made.”54 To his credit, Falwell later rejected this racist position but amassed significant political clout by attacking gay people: “I do not believe the homosexual community deserves minority status.55 One’s misbehavior does not qualify him or her for minority status. Blacks, Hispanics, women, etc., are God-ordained minorities who do indeed deserve minority status.” Or consider the argument of Sandy Rios, a white woman and president of “Concerned Women for America,” a conservative Christian public policy group, arguing in 2002:

To compare rich, privileged homosexual lobby groups allied with transsexuals and sadomasochists to brave civil rights crusaders – who risked their lives to advance freedom – insults every black American who overcame real injustice and poverty … It’s time for the homosexual lobby to stop co-opting the black civil rights struggle. The [National Gay and Lesbian] Task Force’s agenda of promoting perversion – including public homosexual sex, sadomasochism and bisexuality – would offend the vast majority of African-Americans who understand the difference between God-designed racial distinctions and changeable, immoral behavior.56

Or, we see Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minnesota) argue that if her same-sex marriage-ban amendment failed to pass in 2004, the following harm would befall the nation:

It isn’t that some gay will get some rights. It’s that everyone else in our state will lose rights. For instance, parents will lose the right to protect and direct the upbringing of their children. Because in our K-12 public school system … they will be required to learn that homosexuality is normal, equal and perhaps you should try it. And that will occur immediately, that all schools will begin teaching homosexuality.57

That is the argument. But do even conservative black people and black leadership want to be associated with these people, arch-conservative whites, who fought against civil rights for as long as it was possible and, having lost the fight, turn their hatred against gay people for political gain?58 Is it a good political strategy, not to mention moral positioning, to argue for difference when that same argument has been used to keep you down for centuries? Coretta Scott King understands this point:

In addition to this fundamental moral principle, there is a very practical reason why people involved in human rights should support each other and work together. And that reason is that the whole of us united makes us stronger than the sum of our parts. This principle of synergy is eloquently summed up in the equation “One plus one equals three.” In other words, there are things we achieve together that we can’t achieve separately.59

The myth of “special rights” got a boost in 1995 when Republican Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader, published a letter in the Washington Times in which he argued that allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military would be providing them with “special rights,” and warned against “special protection” under federal law. His concern was bolstered by the conservative judge Robert Bork, who wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that “most Americans do not want to create special rights for homosexuals or to consider their behavior morally neutral.”60 The 1993 film, Gay Rights, Special Rights produced by Jeremiah Films was dedicated to advancing this proposition. The first half of the film basically co-opts the image of Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech and contrasts him with outrageous pictures of protesting gays and lesbians. African-American and Hispanic spokespeople then testify to how offensive gay rights are to minority rights.

The rhetoric of “special rights” was central to two highly publicized and well-watched state initiatives intended to disenfranchise gays and lesbians from the political process altogether. In 1992, Colorado Amendment 2 passed with 54% of the vote. The amendment, motivated by Denver and Boulder’s effort to provide city-wide protection for gays, stripped municipalities of this power. The amendment read:

Neither the State of Colorado… nor any of its agencies, political subdivisions, municipalities, or school districts, shall enact, adopt, or enforce any statute, regulation, ordinance, or policy whereby homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of or entitle any person or class of persons to have or claim any minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.61

Later, the US Supreme Court rejected the argument behind Amendment 2 that gay people were the beneficiaries of special rights and that the purpose of the amendment was to restore the status quo which distinguished between the needs of bona fide minorities and groups that were claiming a pseudo minority status. Rather, the Court recognized the amendment for what it was: an effort to disenfranchise wholesale a group of people:

We cannot accept the view that Amendment 2’s prohibition on specific legal protections does no more than deprive homosexuals of special rights. To the contrary, the amendment imposes a special disability on those persons alone. Homosexuals are forbidden the safeguards that others enjoy or may seek without constraint.62

It was not that long ago that the Court, begrudgingly, acted similarly on behalf of black people who were routinely disenfranchised as a matter of law. A worse proposal, defeated, was Oregon’s Ballot Measure 9 in 1992, which would have required that the state actively promote the idea that homosexuality was immoral and that it was similar to pedophilia, sadism, and masochism. The language of the failed amendment read:

All governments in Oregon may not use their monies or properties to promote, encourage or facilitate homosexuality, pedophilia, sadomasochism. All levels of government, including public education systems, must assist in setting a standard for Oregon’s youth which recognizes that these behaviors are abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse and they are to be discouraged and avoided.63

A more recent affair occurred in Rhea County, Tennessee, site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, in which a high school teacher was tried and convicted for the crime of teaching evolution in a public school. On March 16, 2004, Rhea County commissioner J.C. Fugate proposed a ban on homosexuals in the county, authorizing the police to arrest and charge gays and lesbians with “crimes against nature.” The measure passed 8-0. “We need to keep them out of here,” Fugate declared. The motion read, in part, “those kind of people cannot live in Rhea County, or abide in Rhea County; if caught, they should be tried for crimes against nature.” The resolution was withdrawn on March 18 after national and international outcries embarrassed the town.64 As the world noticed, this effort was no different from the practices of segregated towns and racial covenants or even vagrancy laws designed to keep away “undesirable” people.

About six years ago, I was teaching my undergraduate-level diversity and law course when one of my students told me the following story. He was having lunch with a middle-aged African-American man who had recently lost his job. After a beer or two, the man started to get angry. He raised his voice and said, “It must have been because I am black. I need to enforce my civil rights. It is great that we have them, although gays and lesbians should not have them.” Again, we are quick to claim for ourselves rights and dignity that we deny others, and this is a habit of thinking that we must work hard to overcome.


It saddens me that many in the African-American community resist the analogy between their movement and the gay rights movement and feel somehow that acknowledging this belittles the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. Such feelings, while perhaps heartfelt, are misplaced. The two movements are very much intertwined. They are also part of a larger human struggle that all of us – gay or straight, black or white, Jew or gentile – need to appreciate. If we do not make common cause for justice, our opponents will be successful in perpetuating injustice. According to bell hooks, it is a false notion that any one of us

must choose between solidarity with one’s ethnic group and those who share sexual preferences, irrespective of class and ethnic differences in political perspective. Black liberation and gay liberation are both undermined when these divisions are promoted and encouraged. Both gay and straight must work to resist the politics as experienced in sexism and racism that lead people to think that supporting one liberation struggle diminishes one’s support for another or stands one in opposition to another.65

I have argued that the struggles against racism and against homophobia go together and that both movements benefit from a critique of our economic system which encourages a divide-and-rule ethos that has in the past hindered the quest for social justice (recall, for example, how racism was used to hinder the labor movement). This is not to say that there are no differences between the struggles of African Americans and of gay people. Of course there are, just as there are among the historical experiences of many other groups; my point is only that, seen from the standard of human rights more generally, the differences are much less important than the similarities, both philosophically and politically.

Readers may object that because I am neither African American nor gay I do not have a “dog in this fight,” but that would be untrue. I am an ally of both communities and an opponent of identity politics. I am also a socialist and a believer in working-class solidarity to strengthen the position of the 99% of us that are manipulated and hurt by the 1%. We have to work together against a conservative mindset that sees anything different as “bad” and manipulates perceived differences to hold on to power. When we buy into this mindset, we perpetuate our own weakness as individuals, no matter to which demographic group we belong.


1. I would like to thank Joe Cahn, Michael Monsour, Candice Nunag-Hicks, Jeff Schweinfest, Phillip K. Thompkins, and the editors of Socialism and Democracy for their comments and suggestions.
2. See “In Search of Political Transcendence,” chapter 14 of my In Defense of Partisan Criticism: Communication Studies, Law, & Social Analysis (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 245-259.
3. “Their Own Received Them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches,” in Delroy Constantine-Simms (ed.), The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities (Los Angeles: Alyson Books, 2000), 112. The phenomenon of which Griffin speaks is known as the “oppression Olympics,” the self-defeating idea that different groups are more or less “worthy” or “authentic” based upon how we judge the “worth” of their suffering. This habit of thinking prevents or disrupts discussion of one type of oppression by undermining its legitimacy, downplaying its importance, or even dismissing its concerns. People involved in social justice work frequently encounter the “oppression Olympics” and it is a major source of frustration.
4. “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppressions,” Homophobia and Education: Interracial Books for Children Bulletin, 14 (3/4) (1983).
5. See S.E. Anderson and Vanessa Holley, The Black Holocaust for Beginners (New York: Writers & Readers, 1995).
6. For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
7. Shondra Loggins and Flavia Cristina Drumond Andrade, “Despite an Overall Decline in US Infant Mortality Rates, the Black/White Disparity Persists: Recent Trends and Future Projections,” Journal of Community Health 39(1) (2014), 118-123.
8. Thomas Shapiro, Tatjana Meschede, and Sam Osoro, “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide,” Brandeis University: Institute on Assets and Social Policy (2013).
9. In recent years, the Act has come under attack; see Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013).
10. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1993), 44.
11. “Black-White Differences in Attitudes toward Homosexuality and Gay Rights,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 67(1) (2003), 59-78.
12. Elijah G. Ward, “Homophobia, Hypermasculinity and the US Black Church,” Culture, Health & Sexuality, 7 (2005), 493-504. On the Black Power movement’s approach to sexual politics, see Cheryl Clarke, “The Failure to Transform: Homophobia in the Black Community,” in Eric Brandt (ed.), Dangerous Liaisons: Blacks, Gays, and the Struggle for Equality (New York: The New Press, 1999), 31-44.
13. Susan Donaldson James, “Prop 8 Sparks Gay-Black Divide,” ABC News (November 19, 2008), The sentiment is also changing among the Latino population. See Fernanda Santos, “Same-Sex Marriage Support Has Grown Among Latinos, Survey Finds,” New York Times (October 18, 2012).
14. “Homophobia, Racism Likely Companions, Study Shows,” Jet Magazine (January 10, 1994). =content;col1.
15. Cited in Katherine T. Phan, “Christian Broadcasters Urged to Fight ‘Gay is the New Black’ Agenda,” The Christian Post (February 27 2011),
16. Cited in Alex Coleman, “Black Pastors Say Gay Marriage Hijacks Civil Rights Movement,” Channel 3 News [Memphis] (May 17, 2012),
17. “Coalition of African American Pastors Coalesces Key Civil Rights Leaders for Marriage” (May 15, 2012),
18. “Sex and God in American Politics: What Conservatives Really Think,” Policy Review, 29 (1984) (Washington, D.C.), 24.
19. My American Journey (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), 533.
20. Ibid. To his credit, Powell later changed his mind on this issue. See Karen DeYoung, “Colin Powell Now Says Gays Should Be Able to Serve Openly in Military,” Washington Post (February 4, 2010).
21. See Dan Walters, “Surge for Obama Sealed Prop. 8’s Victory,” Sacramento Bee (November 11, 2008),; Karl Vick and Ashley Surdin, “Most of California’s Black Voters Backed Gay Marriage Ban,” Washington Post (November 7, 2008).
22. Shelby Grad, “70% of African Americans Backed Prop. 8, Exit Poll Finds,” Los Angeles Times (November 5, 2008). See also Zoltan L. Hajnal, Elisabeth R. Gerber, and Hugh Louch, “Minorities and Direct Legislation: Evidence from California Ballot Proposition Elections,” Journal of Politics, 64(1) (2002), 154-177.
23. Susan Ferriss and Phillip Reese, “Black Voters Helped Prop. 8 Passage,” Sacramento Bee (November 7, 2008),
24. David Kaufman, “Tensions Between Black and Gay Groups Rise Anew in Advance of Anti-Gay Marriage Vote in N.C.,” The Atlantic (May 4, 2012),
25. I realize that, given the history of repression of gay women and men, it simply might not have been conceivable that the liberal coalition that backed civil rights could have included a pro-gay agenda. That, however, was then, and it is difficult to see that it is relevant today, that somehow helping gay people detracts from the civil rights cause of African Americans.
26. Gay Law Students v. Pacific Telephone, 24 Cal. 3d 458 (1979), 488.
27. Words on a Journey: The Great Speeches of Barack Obama (Rockville, MD: Arc Manor, 2008), 11.
28. “Second Inaugural Address” (2013),
29. The Lambda Fund’s founding in the early 1970s was itself the subject of litigation when they were denied a charter on the grounds that gay people did not warrant legal protection. The denial was overturned on appeal. In re Thom, 301 N.E.2d 542 (N.Y. 1973).
30. “Those Who Lived the Struggle to End Segregation Now Speak Out for Same-Gender Marriage Equality,” Soulforce (1998),
31. Remarks by Coretta Scott King at “Creating Change” (2000),
32. God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 54.
33. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End Press. 1989), 125.
34. Ibid.
35. Martin Duberman, Stonewall (New York: Dutton, 1993), 183.
36. Frances Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill: A Journey through Contemporary American Cultures (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 59-60.
37. Chong-suk Han, “They Don’t Want to Cruise Your Type: Gay Men of Color and the Racial Politics of Exclusion,” Social Identities, 13 (1), 2007, 51-67.
38. Joey L. Mogul et al., Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), xvii; Alexander, The New Jim Crow.
39. Queer (In)justice, 145.
40. “Race, Same-Sex Marriage, and White Privilege: The Problem with Civil Rights Analogies,” Yale Law Journal & Feminism 17 (2005), 135. More generally, see Charles I. Nero, “Why Are the Gay Ghettoes White?” in E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (eds.), Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 228-248.
41. “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White it Stays,” in Privilege: A Reader, Michael S. Kimmel and Abby L. Ferber, (eds.) (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003), 265.
42. Ibid., 254.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., 265.
45. I owe this observation to Clarence Ezra Brown III, Racism in the Gay Community and Homophobia in the Black Community: Negotiating the Gay Black Male Experience, MS Thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 2008.
46. See Peter J. Rubin, “Equal Rights, Special Rights, and the Nature of Antidiscrimination Law,” Michigan Law Review, 97 (1998), 564-598.
47. Ronald S. Goodwin, “AIDS: A Moral and Political Time Bomb,” reprinted in Douglas A. Feldman, Julia Wang Miller (eds.), The AIDS Crisis: A Documentary History (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), 24-25.
48. Cited in the film, Gay Rights/Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda (Anaheim, CA: Jeremiah Films, 1993), an anti-gay propaganda film arguing that gay rights movement “hijacked” the civil rights movement.
49. Richard K. Herrell, “Sin, Sickness, Crime: Queer Desire and the American State,” Identities, 2(3) (1996), 282.
50. Cited in Thomas C. Caramagno, Irreconcilable Differences?: Intellectual Stalemate in the Gay Rights Debate (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002 ), 190.
51. “Should Discrimination Against Homosexuals Be Illegal?” Boston Globe (October 26, 1995), italics added,
52. Ibid.
53. “Same-Sex Partnerships and Arguments of Justice,” in Robert Wintemute and Mads Andenaes (eds.), Legal Recognition of Same-Sex Partnerships (New York: Oxford, 2001), 31-54.
54. Cited in Max Blumenthal, “Agent of Intolerance,” The Nation (May 28, 2007),
55. USA Today, quoted from The Religious Freedom Coalition, “The Two Faces of Jerry Falwell,”
56. Cited in William G. Naphy, The Protestant Revolution: From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King Jr. (London: BBC Books, 2007), 238. Italics added.
57. Rep. Bachmann, on radio program “Prophetic Views Behind The News,” hosted by Jan Markell, KKMS 980-AM, March 6, 2004,
58. See Rubin, “Equal Rights, Special Rights, and the Nature of Antidiscrimination Law” (note 46).
59. King, “Creating Change,”
60. “Stop Courts from Imposing Gay Marriage,” Wall Street Journal (August 7, 2001),
61. Cited in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996), 625.
62. Ibid., 631.
63. This language was taken from Baker v. Keisling, 822 P.2d 1162 (1991), a case challenging the ballot measure.
64. See Ellen Barry, “County Rescinds Vote to Ban Gay Residents,” Los Angeles Times (March 19, 2004).
65. “Homophobia in Black Communities,” in Delroy Constantine-Simms, (ed.), The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities (NY: Alyson Books, 2000), 72.

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