They call themselves the odd couple, though there is nothing odd about their fight for equality.

After their arrest in Cleveland 10 years ago for civil disobedience, Gil Caldwell, a retired United Methodist clergyman and civil rights leader, met Marilyn Alexander, a Helena-based gay and lesbian activist.

It was the beginning of a friendship that has kindled something of a social movement, one that looks to shine a single light upon their very different histories and struggles.

“We’re looking at the black civil rights movement, the gay civil rights movement, where there can be similarities, and where there are very different histories,” Alexander said.

“There should be no assumptions made by the gay and lesbian communities to say these are the same struggles,” she added. “We’re just hoping to bring all that out into an open discussion.”

Their common fight is a push to realize the full potential of the U.S. Constitution. It’s a document, they agree, that grants equality to all people regardless of race and sexual preference.

Yet more than 210 years after the founding fathers penned the document, the rights it guarantees have yet to be fully granted to all citizens. If injustice anywhere is truly a threat to justice everywhere, then Caldwell believes constitutional supporters must speak out for equality.

“There’s something built into the fabric of our founding document that makes equality necessary,” Caldwell said. “The fight for civil rights, and acknowledging equal rights, is always the same story.

“Maybe there can be a conversation between them,” Caldwell added. “Maybe our project will help diffuse some of the tensions and bring people together.”

To make that happen, Caldwell and Alexander have together launched a national project dubbed Truth in Progress, which aims to link gay rights and civil rights through a common interactive platform.

Launched in Helena last week, the project is off to a fast start, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Rhodes and Leona Carpenter Foundation and the Montana Human Rights Network.

At the project’s core, Caldwell and Alexander have also teamed up with Helena filmmaker Tonya Easby to produce a series of interviews with activists and community leaders working in places significant to the black civil rights and gay rights movements.

The goal is to bring the two movements closer together by noting their differences and building upon their similarities.

Caldwell knows firsthand the struggles of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He first heard Martin Luther King Jr. at a prayer pilgrimage in 1957 in Washington, D.C. He later marched on the nation’s capital in 1963, fought for civil rights in the Mississippi Freedom Movement in 1964, and marched alongside King from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

“I think there has been some misunderstanding in terms of the parallels between racism and heterosexism,” Caldwell said. “We started our conversation on this about 10 years ago, and we’ve had a marvelous time recognizing the differences, but also the similarities.”

The differences are easily distinguished. Caldwell notes the obvious — the long struggle blacks faced in terms of slavery and segregation.

But instead of focusing on the differences, he and Alexander turn to the parallels. Negative stereotypes are a good place to start, they agree. Fear — of the unknown and of those who are “different” — is another.

“Negative stereotypes impact the gay community as well as the black community,” Caldwell said. “There’s also the fear, the assumption that ‘different’ won’t be compatible. Some are afraid that if they embrace the ‘different,’ then what we have will somehow be lost.”

This self-described odd couple pares the debate down to the Constitution. If you support the founding document, they argue, then you must also support giving equal rights to all U.S. citizens.

To withhold selected rights from gays or lesbians, they believe, contradicts the very principles on which the nation was founded and the qualities it holds dear.

“That’s how racial segregation was justified,” Caldwell said. “It’s not a violation for you to be separate, but separate is not equal.

“It’s the dominant society that determines who’s separated and I think that’s what’s happening here,” he adds. “It’s the dominant society that’s attempting to control marriage equality.”

 Martin Kidston: 447-4086 or mkidston@helenair.com

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