The leader of the most venerable civil rights organization in the United States has opened a national gathering of gay and lesbian activists with a call for unity among progressives.
A record 3,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists have gathered in Baltimore for the 24th annual Creating Change conference organized by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The event comes as gay-friendly President Barack Obama fights for a second term in the White House in elections this November, and as more US states debate the legalization of same-sex marriages and civil unions.
In a keynote address, Benjamin Jealous, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), appealed to progressives to lock arms regardless of race, ethnicity and gender.
"The best antidote to hatred is unity," said Jealous, 39, who recalled the discrimination he and his gay adopted brother had to endure while growing up in small-town California.
But he warned: "A threat to our own success is often our own failure to come to together on issues of our own common interest," such as access to education, economic opportunities and the political process.
Since taking office in September 2008, Jealous has sought to strengthen ties between the NAACP and the LGBT community, despite skepticism among older NAACP members over whether civil rights should encompass gay rights.
Jealous voiced deep concern over voter-identification initiatives in several US states, calling them a thinly-veiled attempt to cull the number of eligible voters ahead of the November 6 elections.
"Our nation is in the midst of the greatest wave of voter suppression legislation," he said, since the founding of the Baltimore-based NAACP -- initially to promote the interests of African Americans -- in 1909.
"Those who are trying to block the vote," he added, "are responding to the increasing diversity of the American electorate.... In this moment, we have to stand together."
Billed as the biggest gathering of its kind, the Creating Change conference will find participants sharpening their activist skills at dozens of workshops on a host of economic, social and gender issues.
On the heels of a meeting Thursday of a "queer Muslim working group," several workshops planned for Friday will tackle ways to engage Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, who often hold hostile views of homosexuality.
"There's a pressing need to expand our conversations of LGBT issues with faith communities," Sue Hyde, chief organizer of Creating Change, told AFP.
This year is seeing the potential for big gains in the push for same-sex marriage and civil union rights -- activists prefer to say "marriage equality" -- which are already recognized in seven states and the District of Columbia.
On Monday, the state of Washington looked set to become the seventh to allow gay marriage, after a legislator wielding a decisive vote came out in favor despite what she called her "very strong Christian beliefs."
"This issue isn't about just what I believe. It's about respecting others, including people who may believe differently than I," said the legislator, Mary Margaret Haugen.
Same-sex marriage is also on the legislative agenda this year in Maryland and New Jersey -- while proposed constitutional bans of gays and lesbians tying the knot are being put to a vote in North Carolina and Minnesota.
Source: AFP American Edition