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What the LGBT movement learned from civil rights: Yoruba Richen at TED2014

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Yoruba Richens. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

November 4, 2008, the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, was a monumental victory for the American civil rights movement. For documentary filmmaker Yoruba Richen, who should have been over the moon, the night tore her apart. Nearly 150 years after the end of slavery in America, as Obama was being declared winner, California’s ban on gay marriage, known popularly as Prop. 8, was being passed.

Richen, who is gay and African-American, was frustrated and angered by the ensuing media coverage that suggested black Americans were to blame for the law. The media cited “pervasive black homophobia” and a report (later shown to be false) that said around 70 percent of African-Americans who voted, voted for Prop. 8.

So Richen set out to make a documentary, The New Black, to explore the tension between these two movements. They have seemingly similar goals: basic human rights and equality. She highlights three key strategies the two shared throughout history:

1. The “I’m tired of your foot on my neck” strategy

In 1955 Rosa Parks and the ensuing Montgomery bus boycotts  demonstrated this strategy; similarly, in 1969 the Stonewall riots sparked the modern gay rights movement when LGBT patrons at New York’s Stonewall Inn fought police brutality and instigated three days of rioting.

2. The “We are visible and many in numbers” strategy

This strategy was most famously illustrated by the 1963 March on Washington, during which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech. Says Richen, a little-known fact is that the march was organized by Bayard Rustin, a vocal gay activist. Subsequently, the first of the National Marches on Washington for gay and lesbian rights occurred in 1979. By the third march, in 1993, nearly a million people attended.

3. The “Loving” strategy

The pivotal 1967 Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia banned all laws that prohibited interracial marriage; likewise, in 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor. Indeed, marriage equality has become the de facto issue for the gay rights movement.

The civil and gay rights movements are not, as Richen illustrates, in conflict; indeed, the latter stood on the shoulders of the former. The two are interconnected, and they must learn from and interact from one another; because, Richen says, quoting Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”