John Lewis saw in gay rights a movement like civil rights

John Lewis’s fight for racial equality made him an icon in the 1960s, but the Atlanta Democratic congressman also stood at the forefront of another civil rights movement decades later.

Lewis supported same-sex marriage in the early 2000s, years before many fellow African Americans and Democrats embraced the issue, and more than a decade prior to the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing the unions.

Lewis compared the struggle for the equal treatment of LGBTQ people to his work on the front lines of the civil rights movement in an October 2003 Boston Globe editorial.

“I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry,” he wrote.

“I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

A few weeks later, after a state Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages.

Lewis was an ally of the gay rights movement long before that, said Cathy Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president. She became the first openly gay elected official in Georgia when she was elected in 1997.

In the early and mid-1990s, Woolard lobbied for the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign. It was the era of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, when the gay community had few allies in Washington, even among Democrats. But Lewis, she said, 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.”

In his 1998 memoir “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis said his connection with the gay community sprang from his experience of being treated unequally a Black “simply because you are different from the long-entrenched white Anglo-Saxon Protestant standard that defined and controlled our society for its first two hundred years.”

Lewis’ endorsement of gay marriage came at a time when the public and most religious and elected officials were not supportive or were openly opposed.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed a bill defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman, after it sailed through both chambers of Congress with the support of Republicans and most Democrats. All Georgia lawmakers but two, Lewis and Democrat Cynthia McKinney, voted in favor.

In 2004, more than 76% of Georgians voted to adopt a state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis greets the crowd at the Atlanta Pride parade in 2017. AJC/Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

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Credit: Greg Bluestein

The issue divided Lewis from some of his civil rights peers. Lewis had equated the two movements, and leaders such as Coretta Scott King and NAACP Chairman Julian Bond had voiced support for LGBTQ rights. Others said that the struggle for gay rights was not the same as the fight for racial equality.

A month after Georgians adopted the constitutional amendment, the late Bishop Eddie Long, senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, led thousands of Atlantans on a march through Sweet Auburn in opposition to gay rights. Walking arm-in-arm with Long was the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King himself never openly spoke about gay rights in the 1950s and 1960s, but Lewis cited his mentor’s stance on interracial marriage – “Races don’t fall in love and get married. Individuals fall in love and get married” – as his principle for supporting same-sex marriage.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision in 2015, Bernice King, who had been appointed the CEO of the King Center, issued a statement wishing for the ruling to encourage “the global community to respect and embrace all LGBT global citizens with dignity and love.”

Lewis’ support meant a lot to members of Atlanta’s gay community in the 1990s and 2000s, especially when it was hard to find support even among one’s own relatives, said Anthony Antoine, an HIV activist.

“Having such a prominent activist leader so supportive of not just my gay life but my Black gay life… mattered so much,” said Antoine, who organized several LGBTQ marches in the early 2000s, including one protesting the Long-King march.

Lewis’ early support and continuing presence at some LBGTQ events, including the annual October parade Atlanta Pride, gave the movement confidence that it could accomplish the difficult tasks ahead, Antoine said.

It felt like, “what can’t we change?” he said. “Why wouldn’t we be able to have some impact? Because John Lewis was right off to the side…showing us support.”