I had no idea that John Lewis, the great black civil rights pioneer who just died, was also a passionate fighter for gay rights, going back to the 90s.
Lewis spoke out against the shameful Defense Of Marriage Act, in 1996. DOMA defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. It was overwhelmingly supported by both Republicans and Democrats and President Clinton. The House of Representatives, where Lewis spent his long career, voted 342 yes and 67 no. Lewis was one of only two Georgia legislators to vote against DOMA.
It took courage for Lewis, a black man representing a Southern state, to stand against the homophobia of DOMA. Lewis spoke movingly against this sanctimonious attack on gay rights.
This was the time of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The gay community had few allies in Washington, even among Democrats. Cathy Woolard, the first openly gay elected official in Georgia, says that Lewis was different.
“We could always count on him to be there without having to ask,” she said. “He said things that needed to be said at a time when no one wanted to say them. And he said it with a compassion and an eloquence that made people listen, even if they didn’t want to.”
Lewis equated the gay rights struggle with the struggle of civil rights for black people, and that divided him from other civil rights leaders, who felt the issues were fundamentally different. In 2004, 76 percent of Georgians voted to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. A month after the banning, civil rights leaders organized a march in Atlanta IN SUPPORT of the amendment, AGAINST gay rights.
But Congressman John Lewis never wavered. When Matthew Shephard was murdered in 1998, Lewis spoke at a memorial service for him on the steps of the Capitol.
When 49 gay people were murdered in 2016 at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, Lewis spoke at the memorial (photo right) and participated in a sit-in in Congress to protest the lack of gun-control laws in this country.
Atlanta HIV activist Anthony Antoine spoke movingly of how John Lewis’ courageous support of gay rights affected him: “Having such a prominent activist leader so supportive of not just my gay life but my Black gay life…mattered so much.”
Antoine organized several LGBTQ marches, including one protesting the 2004 anti-gay marriage march. Lewis’ early support and continuing presence gave him confidence. Antoine said, “What can’t we change? Why wouldn’t we be able to have some impact? Because John Lewis was right off to the side…showing us support.”
Thank you, John Lewis. Your courage is contagious. Your compassion for me and other LGBTQ people heals me.
Thanks to the Associated Press & the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for helping me write this.
For more blogs by Terry Baum, visit http://terrybaum.blogspot.com/