Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Connecting Civil Rights to Gay Rights in the Heart of Dixie

by Stephen Blevins

[Ed Note: This article was written and published in our print edition before President Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, causing many in the media to compare the statements to landmarks in the Civil Rights movement. Interracial marriage was legalized in 1964.]

Our country’s best and brightest tend to want to live in places that are tolerant. It is well documented that Alabama suffered financially as a direct result of its past race problems. For those who haven’t followed the history, this is the reason Atlanta has an international airport and Birmingham doesn’t. Atlanta’s mayor, Kasim Reed, recently reminded us of this when he was interviewed for an Atlanta Journal Constitution piece that dealt with the history and progress of southern cities. According to that article, “Reed compared the situation in the early 1960s when Birmingham was the Southern leader in commerce, but lost that title to Atlanta because of its attitude on civil rights.” Reed also stated the obvious fact that Birmingham still hasn’t caught up from that major blow.

Alabama’s conservative politicians and the citizens who support them seem to be making the same mistakes all over again with regard to gay rights.

When the Birmingham Free Press asked her about the state’s progress on gay rights, Representative Patricia Todd, the state’s only openly gay legislator, responded, “Equality Alabama is working to pass a non-discrimination bill, amendments to the hate crimes law and also working on making sure LGBT is covered in the student harassment law. We are moving forth on marriage rights. That, unfortunately is a lost cause in Alabama.”

Six years ago, the Alabama Legislature passed the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment, which banned civil unions and marriages for gay couples. The bill, among other things, lists marriage as “a sacred covenant, solemnized between a man and a woman, which, when the legal capacity and consent of both parties is present, establishes their relationship as husband and wife, and which is recognized by the state as a civil contract.” Phrases like “sacred covenant” reek of a disregard for the Constitutionally-mandated separation of church and state.

Many of the law’s defenders like to quote Leviticus 18:22, which says “Homosexual acts are an abomination to God.” Leviticus 25:44-46 reads, however “You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance.”

Um, I wonder what time in Alabama’s long and not always pleasant history this quote was used.

The UAB university and health system, as the largest employer in the state, has been one of the few bright spots in our local economy. Apparently, though, economic survival means little in this state. In 2009, UAB and a few other universities in the state began offering same sex couples health insurance plans similar to those offered to married heterosexual couples. The hysteria was sad and predictable. Representative Duwayne Bridges, (R-Valley) and others in the state immediately began pushing to ban UAB and other state-supported institutions from offering benefits to gay couples. Despite what Representative Bridges might think, it can only help the state to encourage the best doctors, researchers, and professors from around the county to make Alabama home for their work, not to mention the grants and capital it would bring to the state. But, hey. Who cares about money, bankruptcy, and all that kind of stuff when you’ve got the best football team three years in row! Take that financially solvent, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and a lot of other states.

Much like the Civil Rights era, the general acceptance of gay culture in Atlanta is a far cry from what we find in Birmingham. It’s well known that Atlanta has one of the highest concentrations of GLBT in the nation (third highest in fact at over 12%). It’s hosted a gay rights parade for over thirty years and there are plans in the works for an even larger GLBT community center. How Atlanta treats its gay population should be of concern to Alabamians because Georgia’s capitol is home to economic engines like Emory and Georgia Tech, which directly compete with UAB in the medicine/general science research fields. Emory alone contributed over 775 million to the Georgia economy. With universities like Vanderbilt, Nashville is also a direct competitor with Birmingham and is also generally more tolerant of the GLBT community. Last year, The Music City passed a municipal law specifically banning discrimination based on a person’s sexuality. In contrast, Larry Langford, the now infamous and imprisoned former mayor of Birmingham, was sued in 2008 by gay rights activists for not allowing city workers to hang signs for a pride parade.

It took the power of the federal government to turn off the fire houses and quiet the dogs, but the ghosts still remain. It the end, maybe it’s the federal government to the rescue again. Proposition 8, a ballot measure that outlawed same sex marriage in California was recently overturned by an appellate court, and the legality of gay rights across the Alabama and the nation will inevitably be settled behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court. Until then, as a state that likes to view itself as gung-ho outsiders who buck the trend of a decadent America while standing up for morality perhaps a quote by Clint Eastwood, the famous Republican and iconic tough guy, will us overcome the sickness of homosexuality in the twenty first century: “They go on and on with all this bulls--- about ‘sanctity’ — don’t give me that sanctity crap! Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.”

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