The NAACP is celebrating its 100th year as the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely recognized civil rights organization, and it was expected that some LGBT-related issues would be addressed, specifically marriage equality and HIV/AIDS prevention, would come up during its national conference (July 11-16) and in discussions with the MSM as the org marks its centennial in New York.

Looking over the 96-page program, there is no session specifically addressing the issue of LGBT rights, though Barney Frank shows up for a session on “Advancing Big Dreams, Securing Bold Victories: Advocating the NAACP’s Federal Legislative and National Public Policy Agenda to Congress.” There is also a panel today on “The Great Silence: The Impact of HIV/AIDS on African American Women,” clearly providing an opening to discuss homosexuality, bisexuality, and denial and lack of safer sex practices in the community that has caused infections to skyrocket. One can only hope that some honest discussion will take place. BTW, one of the artists to serenade the conventioneers during the Gospel extravaganza is the evangelical, anti-gay recording duo Mary Mary (more on them here). President Obama will speak to the group on Thursday.

Often seen as irrelevant by the younger generation of black activists, the NAACP selected Benjamin Todd Jealous to serve as its 17th president and CEO, the youngest person to hold the position in the organization.

Ben Jealous has has a strong background on social justice issues; his efforts have been forward-thinking in many respects, including outreach to the blogosphere. I met Mr. Jealous last year as he was starting on the job at the NAACP, and I asked him specifically about the organization and its public stance on marriage and LGBT rights. At the time he was quite firm in saying that there is strong support for marriage equality in some individual chapters (they are autonomous) and in leadership in the NAACP(board member Julian Bond is also a strong ally as well).

But it’s clear, based on this interview with T.J. Holmes of CNN the other day, that he’s getting the message loud and clear from membership that this it’s a third rail issue they don’t want to touch. Jealous says now that “We don’t take a position on that nationally.”  (CNN, the full transcript is below the fold), here is a snippet.

HOLMES: What do you think when you hear people – I know you heard this comparison, heard out in California plenty of times, where people would compare the gay-marriage debate and struggle with the civil-rights struggle?

What do you think when you hear that? Is that a fair comparison?

JEALOUS: When people say, you know, this is – this is deeply personal for me. I have a young man who I grew up with, the only two black boys our age in the town where we were born. Our moms were best friends. We became blood brothers when were 4. I call him my brother; he calls me his brother. He’s transgender; he’s gay.

I’ve seen the homophobia he’s been subjected to in the black community. I’ve seen the racism that he’s been subjected to in the gay community. And I know that one of those identities he can – he can and has hid when he’s had to. And nobody should have to hide their identity, nobody.

But when people say gay-straight, black-white, same struggle, same fight. Not exactly. Not exactly.

At the same time – now, the – you know, I have been personally very supportive and encouraging of people who are fighting the battle for gay marriage.

Huh? How is marriage itself not a social justice issue? It’s clearly an issue in the black community, given how many out-of-wedlock babies are being born into poverty-stricken situations to single mothers without a father present? Would it not behoove the NAACP national to support marriage equality so that more children can be raised and supported in any loving two-parent homes, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity? There are ways to frame this in better terms for the community without rendering black LGBTs in particular, invisible yet again.

I am glad Ben Jealous spoke out in personal, human terms (though he’s clearly not down with terminology; it’s unclear if his friend is transgender and gay, or he’s conflating something, and refers to our relationships and status as “lifestyle decisions”)

All of this, including the issue of hostility towards LGBTs of color in the white LGBT community which Jealous also raises here, needs to be aired out before the people at that conference. The debate and discussion needs to happen in the context of all the other social justice issues of concern to the black community that affects all of the community, not just straight ones (and the ones pretending in the closet).


T.J. HOLMES: Yes, gay marriage, a topic that the – the oldest civil- rights group in the country has been dealing with. Well, I asked the new NAACP president, still fairly new, President Ben Jealous, why his civil-rights organization doesn’t yet have a policy officially on gay marriage.

Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOLMES: Does the NAACP believe that gay marriage should be legal across the land?

JEALOUS: We don’t take a position on that nationally.

We have been steadfast advocates for the basic civil rights of gay people, making sure that, for instance, hate-crimes protection is extended to gay people. We understand that when four black young people were killed not far from here in Newark, on a playground last year, that all four of them were gay.

There’s a lot made in the press because the guys who shot them were in Latino, is this black and Latino tension? But we’re in the community. So we got the story not just from the national news, but from our local folks. But (INAUDIBLE) those four kids from Delaware State (ph) (INAUDIBLE) – many of them were gay. And that appeared to be a dynamic on the playground.

And so we want to make sure that – that our children and our family members who are gay is – basic civil rights and human rights are protected.

HOLMES: Is that not considered then, in you all’s estimation, a civil rights? Some would call it that kind of civil right, a – a issue of equality, a gay person being able to marry who they want to marry?

JEALOUS: That’s a very tense debate inside our association. You know, and there have been branches and state conferences – like, for instance, in California and San Francisco, come out very clearly on the issue.

There are others, some of our national board members for instance, from the Midwest, who have taken an entirely opposite position.

We’re a democratic, small ‘d,’ organization, where issues are debated until a consensus is reached. And that one is very much still under debate amongst the membership of the association.

HOLMES: So you will foresee a time when, once that debate is complete, that the NAACP could come out on a national level and have an official position on gay marriage?

JEALOUS: I think having an official position on gay marriage is certainly a possibility. When it will happen – you know, we – we work on issues for decades. So we – we’re quick to point out to younger organizations in the civil-rights community that something you think is a sprint may turn out to be a marathon.

HOLMES: What do you think when you hear people – I know you heard this comparison, heard out in California plenty of times, where people would compare the gay-marriage debate and struggle with the civil-rights struggle?

What do you think when you hear that? Is that a fair comparison?

JEALOUS: When people say, you know, this is – this is deeply personal for me. I have a young man who I grew up with, the only two black boys our age in the town where we were born. Our moms were best friends. We became blood brothers when were 4. I call him my brother; he calls me his brother. He’s transgender; he’s gay.

I’ve seen the homophobia he’s been subjected to in the black community. I’ve seen the racism that he’s been subjected to in the gay community. And I know that one of those identities he can – he can and has hid when he’s had to. And nobody should have to hide their identity, nobody.

But when people say gay-straight, black-white, same struggle, same fight. Not exactly. Not exactly.

At the same time – now, the – you know, I have been personally very supportive and encouraging of people who are fighting the battle for gay marriage. I was born in a family where my parent’s marriage was illegal. They had to get married in Washington, D.C. Their wedding caravan back to the party in Baltimore was mistaken for a funeral procession. People got off the side and did the sign of the cross and pulled – Catholic state of Maryland.

And so I’m very concerned about the children who are treated hostily (ph) in school grounds because people feel license to sort of through hatred at their parents based on their lifestyle decisions that they make.

But the NAACP is like any other democratic organization, and we’re going to debate this fully internally. I, as the head of it, can’t say that we have any position nationally. But I can tell you that it’s a deeply held, tense debate. And we – because we’ve seen the way it’s torn about other institutions – I’m an Episcopalian, for instance; my church has been torn apart on this issue – are committed to keeping our body together. Because there’s a whole bunch of issues, including a whole bunch of issues that are very relevant to gay people, that we have to be together on if we’re going to win, whether it’s bullying, whether it’s hate crimes, for instance.

So – so they count on us to stay together, too.